Jane Marie Bancroft Robinson, Alpha Phi, Active in Deaconess Work

In the fall of 1886, when Jane Marie Bancroft Robinson enrolled at Syracuse University, she had senior standing. Born in 1847, she graduated from the Emma Willard School in Troy, NY in 1871. She then entered  the New York State Normal School (now the New York State College for Teachers) and graduated as class valedictorian in 1872. She taught for several years. After she entered Syracuse University, she became a member of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Phi and graduated with a Ph.B. degree in 1877.

Bancroft moved to Evanston, Illinois where she replaced Frances Willard, an honorary initiate of the Alpha Phi’s Alpha Chapter, as dean of women at Northwestern University. She also taught French; while pursuing her interest in old French law, she wrote a monograph on the subject. While at Northwestern, she helped found the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which later became a part of the American Association of University Women. Upon the advice of several historians, including Andrew D. White, she went abroad and  studied at the University of Zurich in 1886-87. In 1887, she became the first woman to be admitted to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Jane Bancroft Robinson

For nine years the Alpha chapter at Syracuse stood alone until “she sought out as Beta chapter, seven girls at Northwestern, who had cemented already, their friendship. . . by wearing uniform rings” ( McElroy, 1913, p. 141).   The motto “Toujours Fidele” was inscribed on their rings.  Minnie Moulding, Claire Lattin, and Adele Maltbie were the core group.  Upon their return to campus as sophomores, they sought an organization similar to the men’s fraternities then at Northwestern.  The three consulted Dean Bancroft. She encouraged them to enlarge their circle and they asked four other female students to wear their rings, seniors Emma Meserve and Jennie Marshall, and sophomores Lizzie Hill and Eva Lane.  Three members of the Syracuse chapter visited Evanston upon Bancroft’s invitation and before the three left Evanston, the Beta chapter of Alpha Phi had been installed.  The installation took place on June 6, 1881, at Meserve’s home on the corner of Orrington Avenue and Clark Street across from Willard Hall.  The following fall saw the initiation of three additional members.

Dean Bancroft was followed by Dean Rena Michaels, an Alpha Phi founder.  Although there were not many Alpha Phi alumnae in Evanston, the few who were there, most notably Willard, were important to the chapter.  Willard inspired the chapter “by her own noble life and giving them memorable intimate talks on her occasional visits to the Alpha Phi hall” (Alpha Phi Fraternity, 1931, p. 152).  In addition, “her famous ‘den’ was open to the Alpha Phis one afternoon a week – a rare privilege, for the room contained gifts and souvenirs from all over the world” (Thomson, 1943, p. 50).  Willard’s pew at the First Methodist Episcopal church was at the chapter’s disposal and the Northwestern University chapter members were asked to her receptions.

Bancroft was the author of two books, Deaconesses in Europe and Their Lessons for America and The Early History of Deaconess Work in American Methodism. On May 7, 1891, she married George Orville Robinson. He founded the National Training School in 1900. In 1908, she was elected president of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Bancroft Robinson spent her life engaged in work for the church. She died in 1932.

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Citations are from Coeducation and the History of Women’s Fraternities, 1867-1902, by Frances DeSimone Becque, 2002. All rights reserved.

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