Chi Omega was founded in 1895, but more than one hundred years prior to our Founding the first recorded American society with a Greek letter name was founded in Williamsburg, Virginia. This organization would go on to lay ground work for the structure of sororities and fraternities in years to come and was even referred to as the “Mother of Fraternities” in a 1912 issue of The Eleusis. Many high achieving and ambitious Chi Omega women have taken membership in the honor society known as Phi Beta Kappa over the years, and some have even been charter chapter members.
During the American Revolution in 1776, five students at the College of William & Mary, not one being over the age of 20, founded Phi Beta Kappa. They believed that a new nation required new institutions – political and cultural – and they were committed to “intellectual fellowship shaped by the values of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor.”
An illustration of The College of William and Mary featured in a 1912 issue of the Eleusis
Phi Beta Kappa’s first meeting took place on December 5, 1776. At a time of political and social turmoil, the organization’s founders envisioned a secret society that would give members the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Ever since, freedom of inquiry and expression have served as hallmarks of Phi Beta Kappa. The initial officer positions included president, clerk, treasurer, and sergeant, which was described as being, “the youngest member residing in college… whose office is to summon the members when a meeting shall be called.” This original chapter of Phi Beta Kappa called meetings every two weeks on Saturday evenings at 7 p.m. in the summer and 6 p.m. in the winter.
In 1831 “A Key to the Phi Beta Kappa,” which was an appendix in the “Key to Freemasonry,” was published. This made all of the organization’s secrets public. Among those secrets told was their Greek motto at the time, “Philosophy is the guide to life.” Today their motto is only slightly different as it reads, “Love of learning is the guide of life.” After 1831 Phi Beta Kappa left behind their ideals for a secret society and became solely an honorary college society instead, in which membership was rewarded for high performing students. Women were later admitted into the organization in 1875, opening the door for our Chi Omega Sisters to join in the years to come.
A listing of Chi Omegas who were Phi Beta Kappas featured in a 1912 issue of The Eleusis
Phi Beta Kappa was referred to as the “Mother of Fraternities” in a 1912 issue of The Eleusis, and when looking deeply at the organization it is clear why. It’s remarkable to think that the founders of Phi Beta Kappa worked with several of the essential features of modern Greek-letter fraternities and sororities back in 1776. They incorporated themselves through laws to influence strong college fraternity traditions. Phi Beta Kappa called itself both a “fraternity” and a “society,” and like modern day Greek organizations it was a social group based on values and morals. Phi Beta Kappa had a constitution, a form of initiation with its “oath of fidelity,” secret signs of salutation and recognition, a secret grip, a cipher, a badge, a seal, and society colors. Students created this organization structure that has withstood the test of time when they were just 20 years old – or less! They held meetings for social, literary, and business purposes, which mirrors meetings Chi Omegas have today by hosting Sisterhoods, study tables or personal development workshops, and chapter meetings.
Phi Beta Kappa members include 17 U.S. Presidents, 40 Supreme Court Justices, and more than 140 Nobel Laureates. As this organization attracts only the most ambitious students to its ranks, our Chi Omega Sisters were inevitably drawn to it as well. Our very own Sisters Jobelle Holcombe and Ida Pace Purdue were charter members of the University of Arkansas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1932, and countless other Sisters have joined the honor society as well.
Charter members of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Arkansas pictured at the 1932 meeting at the Washington Hotel in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Among the first members: Jobelle Holcombe (1st row, 5th from left) and Ida Pace Purdue (not pictured)
Mary Love Collins, circa 1902-12 with Phi Beta Kappa key on a ribbon at her waist. On display in the museum at Chi Omega Executive Headquarters is Mary Love’s Phi Beta Kappa key.
Phi Beta Kappas pictured in a 1915 issue of The Eleusis
Phi Beta Kappas attending the 1964 Convention
Phi Beta Kappa currently has 286 chapters at American colleges and universities and 50 active alumni associations located in all regions of the country. Today, December 5, 2018, Phi Beta Kappa celebrates its 242 anniversary and remains the oldest honorary society in America.