147 Years Today … Happy Founders’ Day!

frances holt and two founders
Ada and Libbie with Frances Holt around the time Pi Beta Phi was founded.

This post is courtesy of Historian Fran Becque as part of her continuing series on Pi Phi heritage.

Can any of us who are Pi Phis today even imagine what life was like in 1867? No electricity, no indoor plumbing, no telephones, no cars — so many of the things we take for granted in our lives today had yet to be invented. In addition, the college curriculum was very different than it is today. Recitation was a large part of college classes. There were no football teams or organized collegiate sporting events in Monmouth in 1867. Intercollegiate rivalries had to do with oratory and debating.

On that Sunday afternoon in April 1867, the women who wanted to form an organization like the men’s fraternities then at Monmouth named it I.C. Sorosis. Its secret motto was Pi Beta Phi. Nancy Black is credited with picking the Greek letters. In researching Greek-letter organizations, I have found some people who think that I.C. Sorosis and Pi Beta Phi are two separate organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth. By the 1880s, some chapters were using the Greek letters. The Arrow made its debut in 1885. Kansas Alpha at the University of Kansas took charge of the project. The first page of volume 1 of The Arrow states “an organ of Pi Beta Phi.”

There was never any discussion as to what the Greek letters would be when the chapters decided they wanted to use Greek letters, which is proof that they are the same organization. There is no evidence that any other letters were ever suggested. The three Greek letters that were with the organization since those first meetings in the southwest second floor bedroom of Major Holt’s house in Monmouth, Illinois, are the three letters every chapter used when they took on Greek letters. Some chapters started using those Greek letters long before the change became official. When the vote was finally taken at the 1888 Convention, the question was whether to change the official name from I.C. Sorosis to Pi Beta Phi, not what the new name would be.

I have also come across references that I.C. Sorosis was a literary society and not a women’s fraternity. I supply the June 18, 1867 issue of the Monmouth College Courier to discount such a statement. There is a column for the goings-on of the four literary societies. There is another column for “Greek Fraternities” and I.C. is included in this listing.

Yes, it would have been better had the founders used the Greek letters for the organization’s name. It was their intention from the start to have a fraternity for women. The word sorority had yet to be coined. That would not happen for another 15 years. It was Syracuse Latin professor Frank Smalley who used the word upon hearing that the Gamma Phi’s had chartered a second chapter at the University of Michigan. “I presume that you young women are now members of a sorority,” he explained.

“Sorosis” is the word the Monmouth College women chose. They used that word before twelve women in New York City formed Sorosis, the first professional women’s club in the United States. That club was organized in March of 1868. The women who founded I.C. Sorosis in Monmouth, Illinois, were in no way connected with the women who founded Sorosis in New York City nearly a year later.

Those twelve young women were indeed pioneers. The organization they created in that small bedroom took shape and grew, first in the Midwest, then spread from coast to coast. It grew despite the loss of the Alpha chapter at Monmouth, when the college authorities forced the fraternities, both men’s and women’s, to close.

That we are here celebrating 147 years later is incredible. The world is so different that it was in 1867. However, one thing has not changed, the need to share sincere friendship, become women of intellect and integrity and to cultivate leadership potential and enrich lives through community service. How lucky we are to be wearers of the golden arrow!

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