By 1870, the year in which the first woman was admitted to the University, five sororities, which were later to become national in scope, had been established at other institutions of higher learning. The development of sororities at Michigan was an inevitable outgrowth of coeducation. As more and more women enrolled in the University, it was natural for them to form groups with common interests and standards. In 1875 a few women students were asked to establish a chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta at Michigan. Fearing that a secret order might weaken the cause of coeducation, they declined. As the enrollment of women increased, however, this argument was no longer valid, and the Chronicle for November 23, 1878, announced: "There is a report circulating to the effect that the coeds are to have a secret society after the manner of the boys." Eta chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta, the first sorority at Michigan, was established in 1879.
The first organizations were ridiculed and their members accused of attempting to imitate the men. The advent of the sorority was considered a joke by the fraternity men, who had finally, after much antagonism from faculty and townspeople, been accepted themselves. In spite of this the sororities grew in number. Beta chapter of Gamma Phi Beta was chartered in 1882 and Xi chapter of Delta Gamma in 1885.
In the latter year the Michigan members of Kappa Alpha Theta disagreed with the sorority-at-large and surrendered their charter. In 1886 the former members reorganized as a college chapter with no national affiliation. The local group patterned itself after the New York Sorosis (one of America's first women's clubs) and took the name Collegiate Sorosis. Beta chapter of Pi Beta Phi was chartered in 1888 and Delta Gamma chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma in 1890.
The organization of the Women's League in 1890 was the first campuswide development to improve the relationship among the sororities and between "affiliated" and "independent" women. One representative from each sorority and an equal number of "independents" served on the League Executive Committee. The minutes of its early meetings contain an occasional reference to rushing problems and attempts to establish a standard pattern for all sororities to follow in securing new members.
Within the next fifteen years (1891-1905), five more sororities were organized at the University. Theta chapter of Alpha Phi was chartered in 1892 and Iota chapter of Delta Delta Delta in 1894. Kappa Alpha Theta was re-established in 1893. Theta chapter of Alpha Chi Omega was founded at Michigan in 1898 and Eta chapter of Chi Omega in 1905.
With the formation of so many groups, the necessity for unification on both the national and local levels was apparent. The first meeting of representatives of all national sororities was held at Boston in 1891 at the invitation of Kappa Kappa Gamma, and in 1902 the second meeting was called by Alpha Phi in Chicago. From these meetings, the National Inter-Sorority Conference (now National Panhellenic Conference) developed.
With nine sororities vying for new members on the Michigan campus, the need to establish basic group regulations for rushing was an urgent problem. This was first accomplished in 1904, when the following rules were printed:
- 1) The rushing season is defined as the first three weeks of the first semester, Page 1806beginning the Tuesday before the day of matriculation.
- 2) Each sorority shall have the privilege of sending two members and no more to meet a train on which that sorority expects a guest to arrive.
- 3) There shall be no public or formal rushing on Sundays. All exceptions to this rule shall be explained to the association in open meeting.
- 4) Any girls accompanied in the Dean's office by members of one sorority shall not be approached by members of other sororities until she has left the Dean's office.
- 5) Meetings of the association shall be held during the rushing season.
- 6) These rules shall be binding for the college year 1904-1905. (Mich. Alum., 10 [1903-04]: 424.)
The "association" mentioned above was the first united group formed by the local sororities. The Inter-Sorority Association (now the Panhellenic Association) program grew from these meetings held during rushing into a year-round organization where scholarship, philanthropies, women's activities, and other topics of mutual concern were discussed.
Because of the difficult housing situation which the women students encountered in the early years, sorority membership offered a definite advantage. As a compact unit, a group could afford to contract its own facilities on a rental basis in the mid-1880's. The desirability of self-operating living units contributed to their prestige, but the relatively higher cost for better housing, in addition to the need for financial backing, made it impossible for the sororities to solve the problem for all women students. Each sorority admitted more members than its house could accommodate, and new members eagerly awaited the opportunity to live in the chapter house. In 1904 Gamma Phi Beta purchased its own house, and Collegiate Sorosis built a residence in 1906. As the financial situation permitted, other sororities followed suit.
By 1904 all the women on campus were united through the Women's League in the drive for better living conditions; the initial objective was the provision of parlor facilities. With the support of Dean Jordan the sororities attempted to improve the housing situation for all University women by refusing to pledge any girl who lived in a house where she did not have the use of the parlor. Thus, "unco-operative" landladies were in danger of losing the entire freshman trade.
Alpha chapter of Theta Phi Alpha, a sorority for Catholic women, was established at Michigan in 1912. Several other chapters were established during the 1920's. Alpha Epsilon chapter of Alpha Xi Delta was added in 1920. Pi chapter of Alpha Epsilon Phi, Omicron Pi chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi, and Sigma Zeta chapter of Kappa Delta were all chartered in the year 1921. During the next year (1922) Alpha Beta chapter of Alpha Gamma Delta and the Eta chapter of Phi Sigma Sigma were established.
In the mid 1920's, social events sponsored by the Panhellenic Association gained in popularity. The first Panhellenic Ball was held in 1923 as a benefit for the Michigan League Building Fund. Ten of the forty fraternities supposedly threatened to impose heavy fines on any member who went to the Ball; the indignation of the women was great, but to everyone's surprise, the dance was a great success with 275 couples attending. The Panhellenic Ball, held annually since that year, has had as many as 400 couples in attendance. Intersorority banquets and luncheons were part of each year's program. In 1929 Beta Eta chapter of Alpha Delta Pi was chartered at the University.
The period of the 1930's was a time of Page 1807crisis for the sororities. In addition to the general financial difficulties, it was feared that the newly opened women's dormitories would offer such competition that prospective members would lose interest in sorority activity. Living conditions in the sorority houses came into close comparison with those of the new residence halls, but the advantages of living in small, unified groups proved to be a great source of strength to the sorority system. As the financial situation became more acute, several sororities closed their houses and became inactive — Sigma Kappa in 1934, Delta Zeta in 1935, Theta Phi Alpha in 1936, and Phi Sigma Sigma in 1943. Working within strict budgets, the other groups managed to survive.
The uneven distribution of membership among the groups was solved by a 1938 Panhellenic decision which allowed four years for each group to adjust its total active membership to 60. This "chapter limitation" number was constant until 1957, when it was raised to 65. During World War II, with the increased enrollment of women, all housing facilities were crowded to capacity. Over a period of several years, many fraternity houses were converted for a time to women's residences.
In 1944 Chi chapter of Sigma Delta Tau was installed. Alpha Eta chapter of Delta Zeta was rechartered between 1948 and 1952, and Zeta Tau Alpha became inactive in 1951. Delta Eta of Delta Phi Epsilon was installed in 1954; Alpha Mu of Sigma Kappa was reinstated in 1955 and Alpha Gamma chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha in 1956. Delta Xi chapter of Phi Mu was chartered in 1957, bringing the total number of housed sororities to twenty-one.
In addition, there are two national sororities at Michigan which do not house their members. Nu chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, originally chartered in 1921, became inactive in 1930, but was rechartered in 1948. Beta Eta chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha was chartered in 1932.
Sororities at Michigan have made a significant contribution toward the development of housing for women. More than one-fourth of the women enrolled are sorority members. Each group has housed its members for many years at no cost to the University. Excellent living conditions are supplemented by social and philanthropic projects. Much scholarship and financial aid is provided by the individual sororities, and training in the amenities and the development of high personal and scholastic standards have always been emphasized.