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This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
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Kappa Alpha Theta was the first national Greek letter fraternity for women, founded January 27, 1870, at Indiana Asbury (now DePauw) University. When the Alpha Beta Chapter was established at Swarthmore College on September 24, 1891, it was the first women's fraternity on campus. It maintained a steady presence there until the abolishment of women's fraternities on December 12, 1933.
At the time that the Swarthmore Chapter was installed, the fraternity had twenty-one chapters throughout the country. Its establishment at Swarthmore came about as the result of the efforts of two distinct student organizations, working separately. One was a group of mostly senior women which called itself Phi Delta Pi. Its members wore a badge with a representation of a penny cut in half, polished on one side, and engraved with the Greek letters. The other organization was composed of women from the three lower classes. One of this group's customs involved a confessional box. At weekly meetings, each member would place notes detailing their grievances toward other members in the box. Then, these "faults [were] frankly and solemnly discussed for the sake of improvement" of the group. The groups approached the Dean of Women with their desire to establish a women's fraternity at Swarthmore. It was she who suggested that the women unite in application for a Kappa Alpha Theta charter.
Following approval, the chapter initiation was held at the home of Annie (Class of 1892) and Helen (1894) Hillborn, who lived near the College campus, on September 24, 1891. The other charter members were: Hannah Clothier, 1891; Dora Lewis, 1891; M. Ellen Atkinson, 1892; Ellen Pyle, 1892; Anna S. Atkinson, ex-1893; Jane Atkinson, 1893; and Ellen Williams, 1893. Many of them had sisters or cousins in the Iota Chapter of Cornell University, which oversaw the ceremony. A branch of the Theta alumnae organization was established in Philadelphia in 1898 and had 57 members by 1928. The Swarthmore Chapter edited the national Kappa Alpha Theta journal from 1903-1905 and hosted the fraternity's national convention in 1905.
The campus buildings now known simply as Bond Memorial and the Lodges were completed in 1928 with the function of serving as a social annex to the women's dormitory, Worth Hall. Kappa Alpha Theta used the sixth lodge, the one nearest to the Benjamin West house. The other women's fraternities were assigned to the other five lodges in order of their establishment after Kappa Alpha Theta at Swarthmore College, with the most recently installed fraternity in lodge 1: Delta Gamma (#1), Phi Mu (#2), Chi Omega (#3), Pi Beta Phi (#4), and Kappa Gamma (#5). The lodges consisted of living-rooms, kitchenette, and a guest suite and did not serve as regular living quarters for fraternity members. In 1932, there were 41 Thetas on campus. This membership was exceeded in size only by the 42 women of Pi Beta Phi, a sorority established on campus in 1892.
The construction of the Bond Memorial Hall and Women's Lodges was quickly followed, however, by the dissolution of women's fraternities at the College. The role of Greek life on campus had been the subject of debate for years. In 1931 an inquiry was suggested to President Aydelotte by a group of graduates who were members of fraternities and wanted the quality of the social atmosphere on campus to improve. In response, Aydelotte, published a statement in the November 24, 1931, issue of The Phoenix, the College newspaper, outlining his concerns about the centrality of fraternities to social life on campus. It was the second time in ten years that the abolishment of women's fraternities was proposed. The President pointed out that fraternity membership among female students increased sharply from 60% upon his arrival at the College in 1920 to 77% in 1931. He voiced concern that hasty rushing at the beginning of freshman year segmented the student body and undermined the College's sense of community. President Aydelotte was hopeful that Swarthmore's social shortcomings could be resolved by reform of the fraternity system but he made it clear that if such changes were not effected by the fraternities, then they would be laid down. A series of College-wide referenda of the female population resulted in indecision, as various measures for social reform were proposed and sometimes attempted. The issue was finally laid to rest on December 12, 1933, when the majority of women students voted for the abolishment of the fraternities.
Despite its demise in 1933, the Swarthmore Chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta left a legacy which attracted attention from the national press. This was the so-called "Round Robin Letter" which was sent yearly between fourteen Thetas from the classes of 1909-1911 until the death of the final alumna in 1980. It was a way for the former sisters to keep in touch, each of them replacing her letter from the previous year with a new one filled with the latest account of her activities. The correspondents held a reunion in 1950, and by 1954 the Round Robin letter was believed to be the oldest missive of its kind in the world.
This collection contains publications concerning the Kappa Alpha Theta women's fraternity, which had a chapter at Swarthmore College from 1891 to 1933. In addition, it includes a directory of the Swarthmore Chapter's alumnae as of 1985; press clippings regarding the "round robin letter" sent between Kappa Alpha Theta alumnae of the classes of 1909-1911 with a photograph of the surviving correspondents at a 1950 reunion; a Swarthmore Chapter directory compiled in 1970; and photograph album (stored in PA 10) belonging to Alice Roberts Sullivan, Class of 1904, which captures a group of Theta friends and their wider social circle in their activities on and off of the Swarthmore campus.
Organized in three series:
- Other publications
Donor: Elizabeth Bassett, daughter of Ellie Simons Bassett, Class of 1910
Donor: Kay Bassett, Alumni Office
Date: July, 1978
Donor: Eleanor Jenkins Zendt, Class of 1930
Donor: Hannah Clothier Hull
Donor: Barbara Lange Godfrey
Date: October, 1981
Photograph album (1896-1907 & n.d.) belonging to Alice Roberts Sullivan, Class of 1904, transferred to SPA 10, College Photograph Album Collection.
- Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College
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- Access Restrictions
Collection is open for research.
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Copyright has not been assigned to Friends Historical Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in to the Director. Permission for publication is given on behalf Friends Historical Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by reader.