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FRIDAYS WITH FRED: ‘It’s for the Uplifting of Women’

April 21, 2011
By Fred Burwell '86


When Beloit College became coeducational in the fall of 1895, 33 women took seats in classrooms alongside the men, able to fully partake in academic life. Extracurricular activities were another story. Beloit’s men were not eager to allow women to join their popular literary and debating societies, music clubs or social clubs, and only grudgingly permitted women minor posts in student government and on the Round Table staff. 

theta cartoonTo large extent, women had to make do with their own organizations. In 1896, they also formed a secret society, as reported by the Round Table: “The appearance of seven very tastily designed Greek letter pins upon as many of our co-eds ushers in the first society of its kind among the young ladies of the college. Theta Pi Gamma is the euphonious name of this new club…” A cartoon found in an early Theta Pi Gamma record book depicts seven seated women in caps and gowns facing President Edward Dwight Eaton, with the caption, “It’s for the Uplifting of Woman.”

Fraternities had existed among the students since 1860. However, the college administration and faculty discouraged social organizations outside their supervision and were adamant about keeping an even more watchful parental eye on Beloit’s young women, leading to a faculty discussion about “the forming of a Greek letter society by some of the young women of the Freshman Class without permission of the Faculty.”  By the summer of 1896, faculty minutes reveal a decision designed to both placate the women and squelch any further plans to expand the sorority:  

theta 1899“The following action was taken by the Faculty in regard to the secret society formed by some of the young women of the Freshman Class. The Society, although organized in disregard of the regulations of the College, will be permitted by the Faculty to continue its existence on the following express condition to be definitely accepted by the Society.

1.      That it is to undertake literary work after the example of women’s clubs.
2.      That it is to have no affiliation with any society outside Beloit College; the Faculty not approving of the forming of Sororities in Beloit.
3.      That it do not pledge or admit any members, beyond the seven original members, until the Faculty shall have given formal consent to do so, when in our judgment the Society shall have given evidence of its value to the life of the young women of the College.”

Their consent was not forthcoming and records remain silent until the fall of 1898, when women petitioned the faculty for recognition of the national Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. The faculty Committee on Social Life, led by Beloit’s first Dean of Women, L. May Pitkin, recommended that the faculty reject the petition. The committee believed that the women could attain their goals more properly through open societies not connected with the “secret society systems of other institutions.” They feared the “distracting influences [on] scholarly life” and the harmful effect of such societies on non-affiliated students: “We believe that the formation of such a secret society among the young women of the College, so many of whom live together in Emerson Hall, might bring a disadvantageous element of bitterness into the lives of those women not included in the membership and would naturally cultivate among the members a spirit of exclusiveness not the most wholesome.”

Three years later, women students tried again, now armed with a persuasive letter signed by alumnae. The faculty voted against passage. Students tried again in 1902 with the same result.

By 1904, the Board of Trustees joined the fray, with a special committee corresponding with several distant colleges, including Radcliffe, Mt. Holyoke, Knox, and Carleton. Eight of nine institutions spoke against sororities, including those that had them. Only Smith offered “no opinion.” 

The Round Table caught wind of this latest stumbling block toward official sanction: “The girls are very much disappointed and feel that there should be further consideration of the matter in its relation to Beloit in particular.”

Meanwhile, Theta Pi Gamma had continued to operate sub rosa. In 1906, they tried a different tactic, meeting with Dean George Collie and sending each “sister” in the sorority to speak to individual faculty members before submitting yet another petition for recognition.  The issue stalled for another year. Theta retained its line of communication with Dean Collie, reporting in their minutes on September 26, 1907: “Sister Thornton then gave a report of her talk with Dean Collie, in regard to wearing our pins, that until we are recognized it is best not to antagonize any more those of the faculty who are already unfavorable and it was also emphasized that if we were not to wear the pins, we should all conform to our resolution.” A month later, the faculty took up the debate once again. By this time, however, diehard sorority opponents were losing their sway. An amendment “that the evils of sororities are such that we should proceed as a Faculty to eradicate them,” lost. Instead, the faculty decided to ask their Committee on Rules, along with the Administration Committee, to formulate a set of regulations formally allowing local sororities at Beloit College.

FwF certificateThe faculty approved and adopted regulations for sororities “upon their recognition by the faculty of the college,” insisting that chapters remain local and forbidding the “singing of fraternity songs, giving of ‘calls,’ or the holding of formal meetings” inside dorms.

1908 dawned with Theta Pi Gamma and Chi Epsilon agreeing to reorganize their chapters after signing the new regulations.  On January 8th, sorority officers presented their constitutions and formal petitions for recognition to the faculty, which then allowed the formerly “secret societies” to achieve official status at last.  After twelve years, and after remarkable patience and persistence, Beloit women had achieved one more step toward parity with the men.  They retrieved their hidden sorority pins and wore them proudly.  Going “national” would be their next battle.