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Bound By a Mighty Vow

Sisterhood and Women's Fraternities, 1870-1920

Diana B. Turk

Publication Year: 2004

Sororities are often thought of as exclusive clubs for socially inclined college students, but Bound by a Mighty Vow, a history of the women's Greek system, demonstrates that these organizations have always served more serious purposes. Diana Turk explores the founding and development of the earliest sororities (then called women's fraternities) and explains how these groups served as support networks to help the first female collegians succeed in the hostile world of nineteenth century higher education.

Turk goes on to look at how and in what ways sororities changed over time. While the first generation focused primarily on schoolwork, later Greek sisters used their fraternity connections to ensure social status, gain access to jobs and job training, and secure financial and emotional support as they negotiated life in turn-of-the-century America. The costs they paid were conformity to certain tightly prescribed beliefs of how "ideal" fraternity women should act and what "ideal" fraternity women should do.

Drawing on primary source documents written and preserved by the fraternity women themselves, as well as on oral history interviews conducted with fraternity officers and alumnae members, Bound by a Mighty Vow uncovers the intricate history of these early women's networks and makes a bold statement about the ties that have bound millions of American women to one another in the name of sisterhood.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii

In the years spent researching and writing this book, I have learned that people are rarely neutral on the subject of Greek-letter fraternities. Some praise these organizations for their positive influences, while others condemn them as shallow, elitist, and unworthy of scholarly attention. The purpose of this book is to explore the meaning of sisterhood for...

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pp. ix-x

I could not have written this book without the support, guidance, and gentle prodding of many people. My deepest gratitude and indebtedness go to Hasia R. Diner, my adviser, mentor, and friend, who saw the value in this study even before I did and who, through her own example and constant support and guidance, pushed me to stick with the project and bring it to...

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Introduction: Fraternities’ Past and Historians’ Present

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pp. 1-11

On May 17, 1875, a student at Asbury College in Greencastle, Indiana, waited alone in a darkened hallway for her initiation ceremony to begin. On the other side of the doorway, the sisters of Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity prepared for the ritual that would transform the young woman from a “barbarian,” or nonfraternity student, into a...

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1 Of Serious Mind and Purpose: The First Generation of Fraternity Women

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pp. 13-42

On January 27, 1870, four women at Asbury College in Greencastle, Indiana, gathered together in a darkened room and initiated themselves into a secret society. Pledging lifelong vows of loyalty to one another and swearing to uphold a set of carefully outlined ideals, these four students conceived of and established Kappa Alpha Theta, the first...

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2 The Most Socially Eligible: “At Home” with the Second Generation of Fraternity Women

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pp. 43-79

The dire predictions regarding the health of women who attended college proved groundless, and in the 1880s, a larger number of schools opened their doors to female students. According to historian of women’s education Mabel Newcomer, whereas roughly 4,600 women had attended coeducational colleges in 1870, by 1890 that number had...

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3 A National Society to Rank with the First in America: Expansion and Exclusion in the Women’s Greek System

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pp. 81-112

Upon taking their oaths of loyalty to Kappa Alpha Theta, Kappa Kappa Gamma, or any of the other leading women’s fraternities, new initiates became part of a nationwide fraternal network and not just of the particular chapter into which they were initiated. The vows required of sisters, that they pledge to “befriend and to comfort, to assist...

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4 In Search of Unity: Fostering “High Ideals” in the Face of Antifraternity Sentiment, 1910–1920

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pp. 113-140

The early years of the twentieth century saw enormous growth in the women’s Greek system. Between 1898 and 1912, the number of women pledged to fraternities skyrocketed, from nearly 12,000 to almost 40,000. Within ten years, the number had expanded still further, to 113,000 by 1923.1 Yet even as they blossomed, the women’s fraternities...

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5 Once a Sister, Always a Sister: Fraternity Membership in the Postcollege Years

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pp. 141-155

By the early 1910s, fraternity alumnae outnumbered their collegiate sisters by as many as seven to one and played vital roles in the governing, training, and general management of their organizations. The leaders of Kappa Alpha Theta, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Alpha Phi, Pi Beta Phi, and other women’s fraternities relied on alumnae members to provide...

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6 Bound by a Mighty Vow: The Costs and Benefits of Fraternity Membership, 1870–1920

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pp. 157-163

From the time of their founding through the first decades of the twentieth century, the women’s Greek-letter fraternities used metaphors such as Theta’s “linked chain” to describe the relationship between their members and the organizations. “Bound together” by a “mighty vow of sisterhood,” each fraternity woman drew strength from...


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pp. 165-221


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pp. 223-232


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pp. 233-243

About the Author

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pp. 245

E-ISBN-13: 9780814784303
E-ISBN-10: 0814784305
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814782750
Print-ISBN-10: 0814782752

Page Count: 255
Publication Year: 2004