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Sorority or Fraternity: What’s in a Name?


You may wonder why some National Panhellenic Conference groups are called sororities while others call themselves fraternities. The term “sorority,” meaning sisterhood, was coined for Gamma Phi Beta in 1882 by Dr. Frank Smalley, a professor at Syracuse University. No doubt he chose the Latin word soror meaning sisterhood as the root. Up until this time women’s organizations were known as female fraternities because there was no fitting name for a female organization.    

Today two-thirds of the female groups in the National Panhellenic Conference are still incorporated as fraternities. There are nine, including Kappa Delta, who identify themselves as sororities. Most of the organizations founded before 1882 did not change their designation, Alpha Delta Pi being one exception. 

Using the definitions of the time, some wanted to label Kappa Delta a fraternity, for a sorority insinuated a specifically social organization. But Kappa Delta was never intended to be strictly social nor intended to be an extension of a men’s organization. From the beginning, these women were determined to improve the status of women in boundless ways. Remember, the State Female Normal School, now Longwood University, was the first institution of higher learning in Virginia to admit women for collegiate study.  It attracted bright, superior women, many of them daughters of college professors, lawyers and other professionals. Their goal was to shape the future for women. 

In the first issue of The Angelos of Kappa Delta SororityMay 1904, there is an article on the installation of Zeta Chapter, University of Alabama.  Zeta Chapter was installed by Katharine Lovejoy, Randolph-Macon College. Miss Lovejoy, in speaking of the organization to a Times-Gazette reporter, said Kappa Delta “was not a (dictionary definition of) sorority… . We understand by a sorority (you mean) a sort of annex to a man’s fraternity. This is no kind of annex, but a real fraternity for women.”  In other words, we are not a social extension of a men’s group but a separate “body of women associated by a common purpose or interest.” 

Second, let’s review the initial object of Kappa Delta. Originally, the object was “the formation of good fellowship, friendship and sisterly love amongst its members, the encouragement of literature and education, and the furtherance of benevolent purposes.”  The words “benevolent purposes” should be a sufficient explanation to all who read the object that one intent of the organization was to strive to improve society. By the time that Kappa Delta was incorporated by the state of Virginia, the object was edited to read, “The formation and perpetuation of good fellowship, friendship and sisterly love among its members, the encouragement of literature and education, the promotion of social interest, and the furtherance of charitable and benevolent purposes.” It is part of the daily agenda of our collegiate and alumnae chapters to practice good fellowship, friendship and sisterly love. Through Shamrock events, Golden Circle, KiDs Grants and more we are constantly planning activities and raising funds to use to improve the conditions of all, particularly children and women. 

The desire of the early leaders was to structure an organization that improves the lives of everyone in the communities where chapters were located. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, Pearl S. Buck and other members were carrying this creed beyond the United States to China, the Philippine Islands, Europe and other parts of the world. That continues today. 

Shirley McCann Gee 
Archives Manager