Barnard Fraternity Ban of 1913

Ever wondered why you have to slog over to Columbia in your micro-mini and pearls to find a suitable sorority to rush? In 1916, Barnard banned sororities (then called fraternities) for good.  The issue of fraternities was first raised in 1910 due to growing dissent among non-fraternity members who thought that the organizations promoted snobbishness and exclusivity.  At the time, Columbia University was in talks over whether or not to abolish their orders as well.  In 1910, the rush process was restricted to non-first years only.  In 1913, the Faculty Committee on Student Organizations invited four alumnae and four undergraduates to join the board to hear testimonials from both sides of the debate and make a decision about the continued existence of fraternities at Barnard.  After a three year suspension of fraternal activities in 1913, students at Barnard voted by 244 to 30 to abolish fraternities on campus.

During the six year period of debate, students, faculty, and alumni wrote in to both the college paper and alumni magazine to voice their opinions on the matter.  Telegraph wires were ablaze with messages to and from Sorority sisters and alumni attempting to save the place of their beloved sisterhoods.  Some fraternities tried to change the bylaws of their organizations to sidestep complaints–in 1912, Chi Omega re-released a mission statement that put new focus on “sincere scholarship,” keeping girls active in at least two other realms of the college, and having rich members do more service work to “connect with the disadvantaged.”

Those in favor of fraternities held that the organizations helped undergraduates make friends, created a close-knit and welcoming social environment, and allowed younger members to be mentored by alumni.  Those against fraternities claimed that they fostered snobbishness, established race lines, created “artificial barriers against natural intercourse,” caused emotional distress to those not invited to rush, and distracted members from academic achievement.  Among the dissenters was then-Dean Gildersleeve, even though she had been a part of a fraternity during her undergraduate years.

Fraternities had existed at Barnard since the school was first founded.  The Alpha Omicron Pi society was started by two Barnard students, Jessie Wallaces Hughan and Stella George Stern Perry.  Defying the popular notion that girls involved in fraternities were less academically able than their peers, the two went on to become relatively well-known public intellectuals–Hughan ran for a seat in the US Senate and founded the War Resisters League in 1898, and Perry became a well known art historian.

What did Barnard lose and gain by disbanding fraternities?  We did, perhaps, do good in supposedly placing “intellectual pursuits over social polarization” and regaining focus on academia.  (Margaret Mead, popularizer of anthropology and Barnard alumnus, was once turned down during a rush event for membership of Kappa Kappa Gamma at DePauw University for being “too frumpy.”)  But in 1915, Dean Gildersleeve admitted in a New York Times article that the social world dearly missed the fraternities, and that she was scrambling to introduce new social organizations/environments for Barnard girls to flourish in.  I do think we can still feel the effects of the ban today, when we realize that Barnard women wishing to pledge sororities go over to Columbia, and that the social life of these students becomes less centered around Barnard as their time spent across Broadway lengthens.

Written by Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

Five members from the Barnard classes of 1889 and 1890. Virginia C. Gildersleeve is second from the left while still in her fraternity days. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives.

A sketch of the gold pins that members of the Delta Delta Delta Society were required to display on their blouses at all times. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.