“What is a Patroness?” is a question that is usually asked of me after someone has looked through an old yearbook or chapter scrapbook.
An 1898 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi included a report about the chapter at Boston University, “During the summer our girls have carried with them the memory of the delightful afternoon that we enjoyed with Mrs. Tyndale, our Pi Phi patroness, before college closed. One afternoon, Mr. Tyndale escorted us in a private car to their beautiful home in Weymouth. We spent the time roaming about their fine estate and returned to the house to find a banquet spread there for us. We left our host and hostess with a parting Pi Phi yell and it is easy to imagine how twenty girls made that car resound with our fraternity songs. About a week later, Mr. and Mrs. Tyndale came to college to take us from there to the studio of one of Boston’s most famous artists, a personal friend of theirs. Here we were delightfully entertained by looking at pictures and listening to interesting anecdotes.”
I’ve found mention of the Sigma Nu chapter at the University of Illinois having Patronesses in the early 1900s, just after the chapter was founded, “In the fall (1902) we entertained twice at informal affairs at the house, the first being in the form of a card party and the second in the form of an ‘at home’ for our patronesses and their husbands. Just before the holidays Mrs. Busey, one of our patronesses, entertained the chapter and its lady friends delightfully at an informal party in her beautiful and spacious home. On February 6th, we gave our first annual party, which was considered by everyone a success. Last month Mrs. Baker, another of our patronesses, entertained us at an informal dance.” Mrs. Baker was the wife of the dean of the engineering department and the mother of Cecil and Webb, two of the chapter’s charter members.
In a 1913 Arrow, the Pi Beta Phi chapter at Simpson College reported that it was “especially glad to introduce Miss Hildegard Jend, Delta Gamma, professor of German, as our new Patroness.” That same year, the Pi Phi chapter at the University of Texas entertained with a tea in honor of their mothers and patronesses. Also invited was L. Pearle Green, Grand Secretary of Kappa Alpha Theta, who was visiting the Theta chapter. The Pi Phi chapter at Stetson University, in the chapter’s letter in the same Arrow, mentioned a married couple serving as the chapter’s patron and patroness.
The best explanation I’ve found, albeit a very general one was in the January 1902 issue of Kappa Alpha Theta:
Many questions have been asked from time to time in regard to Eta’s custom of having fraternity patronesses. This custom of asking faculty women or other women of prominence to identify themselves with a certain fraternity has been a common one at the University of Michigan for many years. Just when and how it originated, I am not able to say. In regard to Eta chapter when re-established in 1893, there was only one married Theta living in Ann Arbor. She was the wife of a prominent faculty member. The girls felt the need of having more women of influence connected with them so they asked Mrs. Walker, an enthusiastic college woman with whom some of the girls had been identified in League work, to give them the benefit of her name. This constituted a precedent which has been followed whenever we have met a woman who especially appealed to us as being congenial and altogether fine – until now we have six patronesses.
We make a distinction between a patroness and a Theta who is married and living in the town. The latter we call a resident member but speak of them both together and with pride as ‘our ladies.’ Naturally the fraternities of Ann Arbor consider this custom advantageous or it would not have become so popular a one I will point out some of these advantages as they appear to me.
One of the aims of a fraternity girl is to broaden her horizon as much as possible. These women chosen from the most charming and influential women in the college town are non-fraternity women. They have the view point of an outsider and yet have at heart the interests of the fraternity. Hence, their counsel is of double value.
We do not initiate our patronesses, therefore we do not consult with them on purely fraternity questions. We go to them for advice in regard to social affairs or for personal sympathy.
A girl away from home for the first time and indeed always misses the family life. This is especially true if the girl in question lives in rooms and boards out as is often the case with those girls who do not live in the fraternity house. To her a tea, a cozy afternoon chat or a morning in the nursery with one of our ladies and her children is a treat indeed. It is like a glimpse of the home life which one must long for sometimes in spite of the attractions of college.
Our ladies do not rush for us. We are agreed that it is not dignified. However, they do many things indirectly which help our rushing. There are usually one or two of them present at our little affairs in order that they may approve or disapprove of the girls whom we are entertaining.
They often loan us dishes, linen or silver to help out our own meagre supply, and have even taken the whole responsibility for an entertainment off our shoulders during an especially busy time.
During the year although we always have our house chaperon to help us entertain, we often ask one or two of our ladies to chaperone our informal evenings at the house. And at our annual party we are disappointed indeed if we fail to have the whole number to help us receive.
But there is another side that is by far the most important. The average college girl of the present day is young. And the fact that a number of wise womanly women are interested in her personally, even though their interest springs from the fact of her being a member of the fraternity with which they are identified, is of inestimable benefit to her. She unconsciously lives up to their standards.
Aside from the fraternity aspect of the question it is a privilege for any young woman to know intimately such women as the fraternity patronesses should be if chosen wisely.
Alpha Sigma Tau’s first Patronesses – Ada A. Norton, Effie P. Lyman, Abigail Pearce (Photo courtesy of Alpha Sigma Tau)
In 1913, the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) undertook a survey about Patronesses. The results were summed up by Louese Monning, Phi Mu. Here are some of the replies in edited form. (Remember, these are the answers of more than 100 years ago and they might no longer be true.)
Alpha Chi Omega – Patronesses are women of social positions, perhaps professors’ wives, who will take an interest in the activities of the girls, chaperone their parties, and give them a certain local backing.
Alpha Delta Pi – Has patronesses now where it is the custom of the institution. Where Patronesses are older women their influence takes the place of older alumnae with a younger chapter.
Alpha Gamma Delta – Patronesses are chosen for social position. Patronesses give chapters strength both socially and morally.
Alpha Omicron Pi – Each chapter is privileged to use its own judgment in selecting own. Undergraduate students derive much pleasure and benefit from contact with older women. Moreover, many of these women are college professors or in some way associated with the college world, and their connection with the sororities forms the bond between the students and the college which is so necessary to their correct attitude to each other.
Alpha Phi – Unless there are few of the older Alpha Phi alumnae in the locality, Patronesses are not selected. When selected, Patronesses are valuable because of their educational and cultural influences on the chapter.
Alpha Xi Delta – Endorses system of Patronesses because it gives the girls the advice of older women and a glimpse of home life when away at school.
Chi Omega – Has Patronesses; use is determined by local conditions.
Delta Gamma – Practice is not in general use and is discouraged except where local conditions seem to make it necessary, for the life and growth of the chapter. Policy of not to generally encourage the practice of having Patronesses. In some cases they may be helpful but they cannot have the same interest in the fraternity that the active members have.
Delta Delta Delta – Patronesses must be women of culture and refinement chosen from among the faculty members or town. Patronesses among faculty and faculty wives have a standard value: the value of Patronesses among town women depend upon the age of the chapter, upon relation of town and gown, general living conditions and the social life of the college. Many chapters find these women of great value, other chapters have never felt the need for them.
Delta Zeta – Each chapter chooses its own Patronesses. We have felt that the faculty women who have acted as Patronesses have helped our girls greatly in many ways mainly as advisers and social helpers.
Gamma Phi Beta – Officially does not have Patronesses.
Kappa Alpha Theta – Does not officially recognize Patronesses. Two chapters alone having Patronesses at the present time. There is no objection to a group of Patronesses if a chapter desires them.
Kappa Delta – Each chapter is privileged to have as many Patronesses or none as desired. They give advice in selecting new material, give prestige with faculty, and add dignity and social prestige to the sorority outside of college, as well as being a steadying influence to the girls.
Kappa Kappa Gamma – Has no national provision for Patronesses hence customs vary for different chapters. Chapters choose their own at their own discretion from prominent town or faculty women. On the whole the custom of having these older women attached to the chapter in an advisory or social capacity is favored, several instances being cited where their usefulness and advice have been of inestimable value to the chapters concerned.
Phi Mu – Chapters have Patronesses where local conditions seem to make it advisable. Must be women of culture and refinement who are faculty members or town residents, who will be helpful to the active chapter in a social or advocatory way. The system of patronesses – if by this is meant the selecting of refined and cultured women who will act in the capacity of social helpers and moral advisers to the active chapter but who are not initiated – is in a general way endorsed, though there is no national provision for them, and the matter therefore largely rests in the hands of the chapters. There is always the possibility of a chapter’s making an unwise choice, and in that case where the purposes of the fraternity are not likely to be appreciated, the wisdom of the system might be questioned; but as this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, it is the belief of the fraternity that the benefits gained outweigh the probable disadvantages.
Pi Beta Phi – Has patronesses at the present time who are women of prominence in the town where the chapter is located. Influence of refined women who may or may not be college women, is beneficial for the younger girls on the active chapters.
Zeta Tau Alpha – Has Patronesses selected by each chapter.
Elizabeth Allen Clarke Helmick, as the wife of a Military Science faculty member, was a Patroness of the Hillsdale College chapter of Pi Beta Phi. The January 1895 Arrow announced that she, along with another faculty wife, had become a Patroness. The chapter encouraged “all chapters who have not done so, to secure patronesses.” She later enrolled at Hillsdale and was initiated into the chapter. She went on to serve Pi Beta Phi in several capacities, including Historian. She is the author of the 1915 History of Pi Beta Phi.
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