by Kerry Soller, Phi Sigma (U of Nebraska at Kearney), AOII Second Alternate NPC Delegate
Over the past year, AOII has been preparing for an important moment in our history. It has been 52 years since the last AOII served as the Chair of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) and this October, Carole Jones, Alpha Delta (U of Alabama) will become the third AOII to serve in this position.
While much time has been spent celebrating our Panhellenic bonds and membership in NPC, it is important to reflect on the role that NPC has played in shaping opportunities for women. The women’s fraternal movement is steeped in a rich history to advance women in higher education and beyond. The current zeitgeist shows us once again how the shared Panhellenic history remains relevant.
This history teaches us that the climate on college and university campuses around the turn of the 20th century was one that was openly hostile to women in higher education. The necessity for women’s fraternities was paramount to their continued persistence and success. Social organizations for women were seen as antagonistic organizations that pushed the traditional boundaries of student groups. They were a bold vehicle with the means to uplift women as they pursued their education. As women’s fraternities continued to pop up across the United States, it became apparent they shared a mutual bond. By banding together, we could raise the level of support for the existence of women’s fraternities and advocate for worthy and honorable outcomes for women in higher education and beyond. In 1891, Kappa Kappa Gamma convened the first meeting of inter-sorority women in Boston by inviting Alpha Phi, Delta Gamma, Delta Delta Delta, Gamma Phi Beta, Kappa Alpha Theta and Pi Beta Phi. The initial meeting focused on establishing common agreements regarding recruitment, but the impact of that first meeting would shape the Panhellenic movement for years to come.
It is easy to dismiss those early meetings that focused on recruitment rules as frivolous considering the challenges being faced by women at that point in history. However, when considering the importance of women agreeing to establish a more formal set of guidelines and rules for membership, recruitment and bid day, while also acknowledging the rights of sorority women through these fraternal organizations, women’s organizations can begin to see how these women drew collective strength from one another to shape their future. Through mutual support and inspiration, these women redefined friendship among sorority women which opened the door to push forth the ideal that highly educated women had more to offer the world and would not be constrained by societal norms or expectations. They accomplished this by establishing College Panhellenics on campuses where two or more sororities existed and by only allowing membership at senior colleges and universities that conveyed bachelor degrees. By disallowing high school women to be recruited in those early days, they helped drive women to pursue a post-secondary education. This paved the way for setting academic standards for members.
As the Inter-Sorority Council (as it was originally called) morphed into the National Panhellenic Conference, its membership exploded. The addition of more women’s fraternities helped to establish policies and practices to help women set out to lead lives with great purpose, focusing on social, educational and health issues. In 1914, the Conference worked to empower women to explore careers outside of teaching. In 1923, the Conference began hosting speakers at its annual meeting on “social hygiene,” which was a precursor to sex education for women. That same year, women’s fraternities, through NPC, accepted an invitation from the League of Women’s Voters to assist in the development and dissemination of educational projects. A Panhellenic House was established in New York City to support both collegiate and alumnae women who were pursuing careers in the city by providing them a safe place to live. NPC continued to lead change for women during World War II when it established the Committee on War and College Women, which sent representatives to the U.S. War Department. This opened the door for NPC to advocate for further inclusion of women to join the armed forces. These movements pushed the envelope by empowering a new generation of leaders.
During the 1960s, the right for women’s organizations to assemble once again came under duress. NPC was instrumental then, as it is today, in promoting the values of the sorority experience and the right for us to assemble in the face of heated debate and political pressure. In 1973, this NPC-led movement pursued the right to preserve the single-sex status for women’s fraternities. Their goal was to ensure that membership in our organizations remained centered on the premise that all-women’s organizations remained a vital component of the higher education landscape when it came to women helping other women succeed. This monumental effort was a precursor to the establishment of Title IX (1974), which formally recognized these protections for women’s organizations. As colleges and universities stepped away from practicing in loco parentis, women’s fraternities stepped up, establishing resolutions that sustained education for members on eating disorders, substance abuse and healthy relationships. In recent years, NPC has continued to champion risk-reduction programs and policies including substance-free housing.
NPC remains at the forefront of advancing the sorority movement through lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, championing anti-hazing legislation, identifying evolving topics impacting our members including campus safety and gender-identity, engaging in efforts to address pay-equity and increasing the number of women in senior leadership roles. Whether through collegiate or alumnae membership, the National Panhellenic Conference continues to promote the sorority experience through the growth of the finest ideals of friendship.
As this historical milestone approaches, AOII is blessed to have Carole Jones leading the Conference. Her forward thinking and collaborative leadership style represents the very best of AOII and NPC. She has built strong relationships with and has earned the respect of other leaders through her passion, hard work, dedication and knowledge. Jones’ tireless work and determination to advance sorority echoes the ideals of those women who gathered, in an underground room, 126 years ago.
It is a time to be proud of AOII’s role over the years in the National Panhellenic Conference. It is also a time to look forward and identify the ways AOII can uphold the legacy of those who have come before us. Today, the world desperately needs women to stand up and lead through service and commitment to higher ideals. The time is now to show AOII’s steadfast support for women’s fraternities and the contributions collegiate and alumnae members make in order to speak with one voice to shape AOII and NPC’s future.
Pictured above: Carole Jones, Alpha Delta (U of Alabama), AOII NPC Delegate; Gayle Fitzpatrick, Alpha Rho (Oregon State U), AOII International President; and Natalie Averette, Sigma Sigma Sigma National President, at AOII’s 2017 International Convention Panhellenic Luncheon.