“Why are some National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) groups women’s fraternities and some are sororities?” is a question I am often asked. It’s a tough one because the 26 NPC organizations are typically referred to as sororities in everyday conversation (i.e. sorority recruitment, office of fraternity and sorority life, etc.).
Credit for this dilemma is given to one man, Dr. Frank Smalley, a professor at Syracuse University. Gamma Phi Beta was founded at Syracuse in 1874. Eight years later, Gamma Phi Beta’s second chapter was founded at the University of Michigan. After the chapter was installed and the two delegates returned to Syracuse, an announcement about the new chapter appeared in the newspaper. On the following day, Smalley made his now-famous comment, “I presume that you young women are now members of a sorority,” thereby coining the word and bringing it into modern usage.*
In the October 1912 Crescent of Gamma Phi Beta, Smalley explained his use of the word, “It appears to me that the use of the word ‘sorority’ to indicate a college Greek-letter society of young women needs no defense. It is to some extent a question of taste. The word ‘fraternity’ when used of such a society seems a little forced, although the comprehensive use of masculine terms to include women, sometimes justifies it. However, when we have a Latin form sororities, which is specific and exact, why should not the English form ‘sorority’ be used with the same exactness as we observe in the ordinary use of the pronouns he and she?” The roots of the word “fraternity” are in “phratia,” the Greek word meaning people who hold a common interest as well as the Latin word “fraternitas.”
On October 13, 1884, Smalley’s sister, Honta Smalley (Bredin), became a member of the Beta chapter; in 1888, she helped found its Epsilon chapter at Northwestern University and served as Gamma Phi’s first national president. Smalley’s daughter, Carrie Elizabeth, Syracuse University class of 1903, was a member of Gamma Phi Beta Sorority’s Alpha chapter.
Of the 26 NPC organizations, more than half are officially a women’s fraternity or a fraternity for women. Those officially a sorority are: Alpha Delta Pi; Alpha Epsilon Phi; Alpha Sigma Alpha; Alpha Sigma Tau; Delta Phi Epsilon; Delta Zeta; Gamma Phi Beta; Kappa Delta; Sigma Delta Tau; Sigma Kappa; and Sigma Sigma Sigma.
*Sir Thomas More (Saint Thomas More to Catholics) used the word “sorority” in the early 16th century, it is not known whether Smalley knew of More’s usage of this word.
(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2013. All Rights Reserved.