The American fraternity system is the outgrowth of the human desire to band together. The fraternity system has worked in conjunction with higher education for more than two hundred years and is uniquely American.
Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary as a social and literary society, was the first college fraternity. Thirty years later, during the Anti-Mason movement, it was forced to reveal its ritual and became a scholastic honorary. The objectives and philosophy of purpose of Phi Beta Kappa became the model for future fraternities. Other characteristics adopted by fraternities and sororities were a degree of secrecy, an initiation ceremony, oath of allegiance, a motto, a badge, a seal, passwords, a tradition of high idealism and strong bonds of friendship. Since the founding of the first Greek-letter organization, the American college fraternity system has proven to be one of the most durable institutions in association with higher education.
Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, was the first college in New England to admit women on an equal basis with men students. During this period of change for women, they were insulted, boycotted and denied a share of the more prized college rights. But they were courageous and determined to make a place for women in the collegiate world. This feeling inspired the formation of sororities on the basis of scholarship, friendship, mutual interests and ideals.
Mary Caffrey Low was the first woman to be admitted to Colby in 1871.She remained the only female student until 1873, when four more young women from Maine, Elizabeth Gorham Hoag, Ida Fuller, Frances Mann and Louise Helen Coburn joined her. The five young women frequently found themselves together. During the school year of 1873-74, they decided to form a literary and social society. College administrators informed them that they needed to present a constitution and bylaws with a petition requesting permission to form Sigma Kappa Sorority. They began work during that year with an eager glow of enthusiasm. Their purpose at the outset was that the sorority should become what it is now, a national organization of college women. On Nov. 9, 1874, the five young women received a letter from the faculty approving their petition. Thus, this date has since been considered our Founders' Day.
In the first constitution, chapter membership was limited to 25. The original group was known as Alpha Chapter, and as the sorority grew, Beta Chapter and Gamma Chapter were also established at Colby College. Early records indicate that the groups met together; but in 1893, the Sigma Kappa members decided intramural expansion was not desirable. They voted to fill Alpha Chapter to the limit of 25 and to initiate no more into Beta and Gamma chapters. Eventually, the second and third chapters would vanish from Colby’s campus. Finally, the Sigma Kappas realized if the organization was going to continue to grow, it had to expand beyond the walls of Colby College.
In 1904, Delta Chapter was installed at Boston University. Elydia Foss of Alpha Chapter transferred to Boston and met a group of women who refused to join any of the other groups on campus. When asked if Sigma Kappa was a national organization, Elydia replied, "No, but it is founded on a national basis." Elydia then took the necessary steps to make Sigma Kappa a national sorority. It was incorporated in the state of Maine on April 19, 1904. The new status as a national sorority made Sigma Kappa eligible to join what was then called the Interfraternity Conference, now known as the National Panhellenic Conference.