Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mount Holyoke's Not-So-Secret Societies

Chi Delta Theta invitation card
Some students at Mount Holyoke question why we don't have sororities, while others compare the college to one big sorority. But few people know that Mount Holyoke once did have sororities, known as Greek letter secret societies. They were called secret because society members weren't supposed to talk about them, but in fact, everyone at the college was aware of their existence. The five societies started around when Mount Holyoke transitioned from a seminary to a college, and lasted for about twenty years: Sigma Theta Chi (founded 1887), Psi Omega (1897), Gamma Kappa (1898), Xi Phi Delta (1896), Chi Delta Theta (1902).

Gamma Kappa wooden insignia
Each society invited a select group of first year students to join its ranks. Once the incoming members had gone through an initiation ritual, they  had access to the perks of being in a society: a separate room for each society which only they could use and special connections to the society's alumnae. Societies also held their own banquets, wrote and sang their own songs, and kept news bulletins and address books.
Sigma Theta Chi Initiation Booklet

President Mary E. Woolley did not approve of the societies, feeling that "a college life in which we are trying to give equal opportunities to all girls who enter, is not the place for any exclusive organization" (Woolley, 1904). By 1908, a few non-society students wrote in to the Mount Holyoke Monthly to critique the societies, and suddenly the whole college was talking about them! Several different conferences and committees with faculty, student, and alumnae representatives met on the issue throughout 1910. The arguments against societies were that girls who were not rushed felt left out, and that the societies divided the social life of the college. Students were also concerned about fairness because President Woolley was not allowing for the formation of new societies, but allowed the old ones to continue to exist.
Sigma Theta Chi members on a bridge, 1900

By November 27, 1910, President Woolley announced the ban on secret societies, after a majority of students and faculty voted to disband them.

In the aftermath, the Social Club was formed, which put on weekly dances and plays in the Student-Alumnae Hall (today Chapin Auditorium), a gathering place for all students to replace the exclusive society rooms. It was also decided that there would be a room for each class color in Student-Alumnae Hall, and that new traditions should be created to facilitate inter-class bonding.

Although we no longer have sororities at Mount Holyoke, some of our best traditions - our class colors and inter-class traditions like Elfing - emerged from their ban!

Xi Phi Delta Reunion Luncheon, 1954

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