Kappa Alpha Theta and the First Phi Beta Kappa Women

Kappa Alpha Theta was founded at Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University) in Greencastle, Indiana. The force behind the founding was one of the first women admitted to the college.

The Indiana Asbury graduating class of 1871 included the first four women graduates - Alice Allen, Laura Beswick, Bettie McReynolds Locke, and Mary Euphemia Simmons - in the center of the class composite.

The Indiana Asbury graduating class of 1871 included the first four women graduates – Alice Allen, Laura Beswick, Bettie McReynolds Locke, and Mary Euphemia Simmons (courtesy of DePauw University).

Her name was Bettie Locke. On January 27, 1870, Bettie Locke (Hamilton) stood before a mirror and repeated the words of the Kappa Alpha Theta initiation vow she had written. She then initiated Alice Allen (Brant), Bettie Tipton (Lindsey), and Hannah Fitch (Shaw).


The first two women admitted to Phi Beta Kappa were also members of Kappa Alpha Theta. One hundred years ago, the story of these two women Lida Mason (Hodge) and Ellen Eliza Hamilton (Woodruff) appeared in the Kappa Alpha Theta:

Conservative Vermont took the lead in granting Phi Beta Kappa to women, and Lambda numbers among her alumnae Mrs. Lida Mason Hodge ’75 and Mrs. Ellen Hamilton Woodruff ’75, the first two women to win keys at Vermont. And the story of the winning of the keys is a most interesting one.

The story begins as long ago as 1791, when the charter of the University of Vermont was granted. In 1800 the first class entered, and in 1804 the first commencement took place, when four young men were graduated. In 1848 Vermont became the eleventh college to organize a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Through the efforts of President John Wheeler, who had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa by Dartmouth, the charter was granted and a constitution was adopted. The next event that attracts our attention took place August 1, 1871, when the trustees of the University of Vermont voted to admit women to all courses in the academic and scientific departments.


The next year, 1872, two women entered Vermont from other colleges. Miss Lida Mason entered the freshman class at the beginning of the winter term, and for the remainder of that year was the only woman in the college. She was regarded by the conservative friends of the college and by the townspeople as somewhat of a monstrosity. Even the young men in her class confessed to having imagined she would be a very large, bold person, and were surprised when she proved to be a rather slight, entirely self-possessed and modest young woman. For some time she was conscious, whenever in a public place, of awed whisperings around her: “There’s the girl who is going to college here.” That fall, Miss Ellen E. Hamilton entered the sophomore class, and the two girls completed their course together.

Lida Mason (courtesy of UVM)

Lida Mason (courtesy of UVM)

It was the custom, at that time, to grant Phi Beta Kappa to one-third of the graduating class. There were twelve ready to graduate in 1875, including Miss Mason and Miss Hamilton, who both stood high in their studies. Two of the men, Mr. Frank E. Woodruff, who later married Miss Hamilton, and Mr. Taggart, also ranked high, while the remaining two-thirds of the class stood on a noticeably lower level in regard to scholarship. At the Phi Beta Kappa meeting that year Professor Peabody ‘exploded a bomb’ by moving that persons eligible on the grounds of scholarship be received as members without regard to sex. Such a thing had never been thought of before. Indeed, there had never been any occasion for thinking of it, but now, here were two women graduating with honors! It is reported that there was an ‘animated discussion.’

Ellen Eliza Hamilton (courtesy of UVM)

Ellen Eliza Hamilton (courtesy of UVM)

We who have attended coeducational institutions can imagine rather vividly the probable nature of that animated discussion. In the end the motion was laid on the table, and another motion, to vote for the two highest men in the class, was carried. Again the matter was brought up, but all that was accomplished was the passing of a resolution directing the secretary to communicate with the other chapters of the order in regard to the eligibility of women. The two men were initiated without delay, although they demurred somewhat, believing that the women should be equally honored. Some of the members of the worthy fraternity must have done as much thinking as sleeping that night, for we find that the next day Professor Peabody’s proposition was again considered, and the admission of women was authorized! The two girls were initiated that same day, thus becoming the first women to wear Phi Beta Kappa keys.

The next year after Miss Mason and Miss Hamilton entered college six more young women enrolled. After a few weeks all the girls in college banded themselves together to form a Greek-letter fraternity. A committee was chosen to select a name. They were instructed ‘first, to find two Greek letters that would sound well together; second, to find some Greek words that the letters could stand for; and third, to make the words into a motto that would be suitable for the fraternity.’ Alpha Rho was the name decided upon that seemed to possess all these virtues. In 1881, Alpha Rho was given a charter by Kappa Alpha Theta. and became Lambda chapter of that fraternity. In June, 1882, Mrs. Hodge was initiated into Kappa Alpha Theta. In November, 1899, Mrs. Woodruff came back to Vermont on Mrs. Hodge’s invitation, and was initiated into Kappa Alpha Theta at the same time that Mrs. Hodge’s daughter. Hatta, was received.

Hodges’ daughter Helen was initiated into the Kappa Alpha Theta chapter at the University of Vermont in 1898. The Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Vermont also has the distinction of having elected and initiated George Washington Henderson, class of 1877, the first African American  Phi Beta Kappa member.

© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2016. All Rights Reserved. If  you enjoyedthis post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/

This entry was posted in DePauw University, Fran Favorite, Kappa Alpha Theta, Phi Beta Kappa, University of Vermont and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.