Which Sorority Was Actually the First?

Nadine Jolie Courtney
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From Town & Country

Our recent story about the most prestigious sororities in America incited a serious debate on Facebook - and surprisingly, it had nothing to do with being named the most prestigious. Sisters from various houses (Kappa Alpha Theta, Alpha Delta Pi, and Gamma Phi Beta among them) jostled instead for the coveted title of being called the "first sorority."

It’s understandable why the honor is so hotly contested - there are several sororities who can claim to be first, and they aren't technically wrong. Some sororities were founded before the word sorority even existed, for instance, while others were established for years before adopting the use of traditional Greek letters. A few historic sororities never joined the National Panhellenic Conference, or are only at one college. Whatever the distinctions, one thing’s for certain: each of these historic sisterhoods is full of justifiable pride.

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From the first sorority to use the term "sorority," to the first to use Greek letters, we take a look back at various pioneering groups of women.

The First To Be Called “Sorority”: Gamma Phi Beta

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Founded at Syracuse University in 1874, Gamma Phi Beta was the first women’s organization to be called a sorority. The term was coined for the group by a male Latin professor, Dr. Frank Smalley, who said to the women at a party, “I presume that you young women feel very elated over being members of a sorority.” The society reportedly loved the term - meaning sisterhood - and became the first Greek-letter organization to call themselves “sorority.” Today, the group has 140 collegiate chapters across the United States and Canada, and has more than 200,000 collegiate and alumnae members worldwide.

First African-American Women’s Fraternity: Alpha Kappa Alpha

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The oldest sorority of the Divine Nine - the historically black sororities and fraternities that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council - Alpha Kappa Alpha was born in 1908 at Howard University as the first Greek letter sorority founded by African-American college-educated women. Alpha Kappa Alpha is now a global sisterhood with more than 290,000 members worldwide, including famous sisters such as Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott-King, Rosa Parks, and Senator Kamala Harris.

The First Literary Society for Women: Soronian

Photo credit: Soronian website

Seven members assembled on October 14th, 1847 at Michigan’s Olivet College to establish Soronian, the first literary society for women. An 1882 fire that destroyed records shrouds Soronian’s early history in confusion, but the book A History of Olivet College - published in 1901 - devotes several pages to the society’s founding. Reportedly, the literary society foundered for a time before being revived as The Eurodelphian Society. In 1865, the group took the name The Soronian Society, and according to the sorority’s website, they adopted the Greek letters Iota Kappa Omicron in 1868. While the sorority is not a member of the National Panhellenic Conference, the sorority today is still known as Soronian and remains exclusively at Olivet College.

First Secret Society for Women Within the National Panhellenic Conference: Alpha Delta Pi

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The Adelphean Society at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia was founded on May 15th, 1851 as the country’s first secret society for women. (It changed its name to Alpha Delta Phi in 1905.) That year, it expanded to Salem College, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the sorority has now grown to include 155 active chapters in the US and Canada. In 1909, the sorority joined the National Panhellenic Conference, and in 1913, the society changed its name to the current usage, Alpha Delta Pi.

The First Women’s Fraternity to Expand to Different Chapters: Pi Beta Phi

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Founded at Monmouth College in 1867 as I. C. Sorosis, the group - which is currently celebrating their 150th anniversary - was the first to launch a second chapter, when it expanded to Iowa Wesleyan College in 1868. While the sorority’s initial motto was Pi Beta Phi, in 1888, it adopted the Greek letters as its actual name. In 1902, the group became one of the seven founding members of the National Panhellenic Conference, and the eagle in the Pi Beta Phi coat of arms now holds an IC in one talon and a Pi Beta Phi badge in the other.

The First Greek Letter Women’s Fraternity: Kappa Alpha Theta

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On January 27, 1870, Kappa Alpha Theta became the first Greek-letter fraternity for women. (Kappa Kappa Gamma was also founded in 1870, in October of that year.) Theta, which was founded at Indiana Asbury (now DePauw University), additionally holds the distinction of being the first US women’s fraternity to expand internationally, chartering a chapter at The University of Toronto in 1887. Today, Kappa Alpha Theta has more than 145 chapters in the US and Canada, with nearly 220,000 initiates - including famous sisters such as Tory Burch, Sheryl Crow, Laura Bush, Melinda Gates, Dylan Lauren, and Cindy McCain.

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