On the University of Michigan’s 200th Anniversary, the Beginnings of Its Sorority System

Women’s fraternities provided the early college woman with a support system. There were several campuses where, by 1902, there were or had been chapters of each of the seven founding NPC members. The University of Michigan is one of these campuses.*

The University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was founded on August 26, 1817.  Coeducation was a topic that had been discussed for many years.  In the late 1850s, the Board of Regents was notified that 12 women would apply for the fall 1858 class.  A few followed through on the application.  A committee was formed and several college presidents were consulted about the question of coeducation:

President Hopkins of Williams College was in favor of trying the experiment.  Dr. Nott, of Union College, was undecided, and, though he would not wish to make such an innovation on his own responsibility, was yet evidently willing that some institution should be compelled by public opinion to undertake it.  President Walker, of Harvard, and President Woolsey, of Yale, were decidedly opposed to co-education.  Horace Mann, President of Antioch College, and C. G. Finney, President of Oberlin College, were both in favor of the joint education of the sexes, but under such restrictions and surveillance as could not possibly be practiced in Ann Arbor.  President Tappan and the entire faculty of the University of Michigan were opposed to it.  (Farrand, 1885, p. 188)

Ultimately it was decided to reject the applications that the women had put forth and coeducation remained an unfulfilled idea on the Michigan campus.  The faculty were, by and large, against the idea as were many of the male students.  The main objection was that the buildings were overcrowded and there was not room for the women.  Moreover, the university was operating in a deficit and the funds to make the campus suitable for women were not available.

In 1867, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Michigan legislature recommended that women be admitted into the institution (Peckham, 1994).  Erastus O. Haven, who was then the President of the University, along with the Board of Regents, vetoed the idea of women attending the university.  There is evidence, however, that Haven may have been agreeable to the women having their own separate college (Bordin, 1999).

Erastus Otis Haven, father of Gamma Phi Beta founder Frances Haven Moss. (For more about him see http://wp.me/p20I1i-e5)

Madelon Stockwell, a student from Kalamazoo, was the first woman admitted to the University of Michigan.  Her admittance to the university took much maneuvering on the part of her mentors, the Stones, a husband and wife who were Stockwell’s teachers at Kalamazoo College.  The Stones researched the laws governing the University of Michigan and appealed to an Episcopal bishop who was also a member of the Board of Regents.  Haven left Michigan in 1869 for a similar position at Northwestern University and Henry Simmons Frieze became the president pro tem of the university.  The Board of Regents at a meeting in early 1870 voted that the university would be open to any person possessing the required literary and moral qualifications.  After passing an entrance examination, one reportedly more difficult than the exam given the male applicants, Stockwell began her studies in the spring of 1870 (Bordin, 1999).

By the fall of 1870, there were 34 women studying at the University of Michigan.  The first woman to receive a degree was Amanda Sanford who obtained a M.D. in 1871 (Farrand, 1885).  With perhaps a bit of prejudice, Sagendorph (1948) labeled these pioneering female students as “Souls with a Purpose:”

“It was said the women tended toward the ‘medical missionary’ sort.  Class pictures show us the most awesome collection of stony-faced females ever seen outside an old maids’ home.  Probably they didn’t intend to look like that, but in spite of the stiff styles of the period those co-eds must have been sour by nature.  Perhaps that’s why coeducation at Michigan was not popular until after the turn of the century. . . . They encountered a prejudice against nice girls being at college at all, and reacted to it by becoming overserious and so prim that even in class pictures they seem to have come straight from a Salvation Army meeting.” (pp. 111-112)

Kappa Alpha Theta was the first women’s fraternity to appear on the University of Michigan campus.  In October, 1879, the members of the Kappa Alpha Theta chapter at Indiana Asbury College (now DePauw University) asked that a member contact one of five Michigan students who had written asking about the fraternity.  On December 10, 1879, a member of the Alpha chapter arrived in Ann Arbor and initiated six Michigan students into Kappa Alpha Theta (Wilson, 1956).  The campus publications, all run by men, lampooned the establishment of the first women’s fraternity chapter (Sangendorph, 1948).

Gamma Phi Beta was the second women’s fraternity to appear on the Michigan campus.  Frances Haven, one of the fraternity’s founders, was the daughter of the former university president, Erastus O. Haven.  A member of the Alpha chapter at Syracuse University wrote to a friend at Michigan asking if there were women interested in starting a chapter of Gamma Phi Beta.  Two of the Syracuse University Gamma Phi Beta members were sent to Ann Arbor to investigate the conditions.  On June 7, 1882, the Beta Chapter of Gamma Phi Beta was installed (Cook, 1911). This second chapter of Gamma Phi Beta led to the coining of the word “sorority” by Syracuse University professor Frank Smalley.

In 1885, two Delta Gamma sisters from the chapter at Buchtel  College in Akron, Ohio, chapter transferred to the University of Michigan.  It was their intention to establish a Delta Gamma chapter.  A Michigan student who was a friend of the sisters from Akron traveled to the 1885 Madison, Wisconsin, convention and was initiated into Delta Gamma there.  The three went back to Ann Arbor in the fall and were joined by four others who all became charter members of the Delta Gamma chapter (Stevenson, Carvill & Shepard, 1973).

The women who comprised the Kappa Alpha Theta chapter were strong minded and came into conflict with Kappa Alpha Theta policies.  The chapter’s charter was withdrawn due to a convention vote at a specially called meeting of Kappa Alpha Theta, held at Wooster, Ohio, on February 25, 1886.  With the assistance of the Emma Winner Rogers, wife of the Dean of the Law School Henry Wade Rogers, herself an alumna of Kappa Alpha Theta, and the efforts of three former members of Kappa Alpha Theta, the 15 Ex-Thetas became known as Collegiate Sorosis.  The group took on the name of Collegiate Sorosis on May 14, 1886.  It was the only collegiate chapter of the New York Sorosis Club (Robson, 1968; Collegiate Sorosis, 1936).

Charter members of Collegiate Sorosis

Two Pi Beta Phi members from Iowa chapters were attending the University of Michigan and they selected three other women to be charter members of the Michigan Beta chapter.  On April 7, 1888, the Pi Beta Phi chapter was installed (Helmick, 1915).

Kappa Kappa Gamma was installed on October 2, 1890.  Two separate groups of women had petitioned Kappa Kappa Gamma for a charter.  Both groups were equally worthy and the Kappa Kappa Gamma Grand Council chose 9 of the 13 applicants from the two groups to be charter members (Burton-Roth & Whiting-Westermann, 1932).

In 1892, two Alpha Phi alumnae living in Chicago went to the campus and invited women whom they felt were congenial to Alpha Phi to help start a chapter.  Ten women were initiated.  In 1893, the 12 members moved into their first rented chapter house (McElroy, 1913).

Although the former active chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta had become Collegiate Sorosis, a local organization, when the Kappa Alpha Theta charter was revoked, a group of alumnae remained loyal to Kappa Alpha Theta.  These alumnae sought the opportunity to reestablish the chapter.  On June 29, 1893, the Eta chapter was rechartered (Wilson, 1956).  One of its competitors on the Michigan campus continued to be Collegiate Sorosis, the local organization founded by some of the former members of the defunct chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta.

The Delta Delta Delta chapter was installed on November 1, 1894.  Four Michigan students who had a friend belonging to the Delta Delta Delta chapter at Adrian College wrote to the fraternity about the possibility of establishing a chapter.  The chapter did not last long and the charter was returned in 1900 (Haller, 1988).

According to Sagendorf (1948), the fraternity system flourished at the University of Michigan due to “the absence of dormitories, the squalid conditions of some student rooming houses, and the growing spirit of clannishness among student groups as the attendance soared” (p. 160)

*From – Coeducation and the History of Women’s Fraternities 1867-1902, by Frances DeSimone Becque, Dissertation, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2002, pp. 99-104  All rights reserved.


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