Near the turn of the twentieth century, a women’s college in Upper Manhattan was developing a reputation as a space for female education and inclusion. Founded in 1889 by Deaf educator and former President of Columbia College Frederick A.P. Barnard, Barnard College would play host to notable students including Zora Neale Huston, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Twyla Tharp. Four students bound by friendship, however, left their mark on the college and Greek life in general by founding a sorority based on friendship and inclusion in 1897: Alpha Omicron Pi.

The four founders — Stella George Stern Perry, Jessie Wallace Hughan, Helen St. Clair Mullan, and Elizabeth Heywood Wyman — met at this budding center for education in 1896 and decided their friendship should last forever. Taking matters into their own hands, the bold women gathered at Mullan’s house to plan the sorority and initiated their first member in the same year. Today, Alpha Omicron Pi has more than 170 collegiate chapters and 320 alumnae chapters across the country.

Barnard College vintage image near the founding of Alpha Omicron Pi
Barnard College exterior near the turn of the century. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Though creating a sisterhood with shared values of character and dignity, scholarship, and college loyalty bound the friends together, the motivation to create a new sisterhood at Barnard College stemmed from incidents of exclusion. At the time the women attended Barnard, the college had other fraternal organizations; though, many of these organizations refused to allow Jewish students to join their families. Perry was one of these students. Acting like the Barnard leader she was becoming, Perry did not let their exclusion stop her from joining a sisterhood. Instead, she instilled the value of inclusion in the sorority she and her best friends founded.

“We wanted a society that should continue our companionship through life, and extend the like joys to others, usefully, unselfishly and without pettiness,” Perry wrote. “We wanted to enshrine, sublimate, and perpetuate our love and our unity through service worthy of these blessings, deserving to persist. We wanted a fraternity that should carry on the delightful fellowships and cooperations of college days into the workaday years magnanimously, both in school and afterwards.”

Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house at Tulane
The Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house at Tulane Univesity shortly after the chapter’s founding. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Following the creation of Alpha Omicron Pi’s Alpha chapter at Barnard College, other chapters quickly popped up around the country. Less than a year after the young women gathered to plan the sorority’s details, new sisters at Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, which is now known as Tulane University, founded the sorority’s Pi Chapter.

When the sorority moved south, other chapters quickly arose at larger universities including the University of Tennessee and the University of Nebraska. By 1905, the sorority would join the Inter-Sorority Conference, which aimed to “improve the methods of rushing and pledging,” according to the Alpha Omicron Pi historical archives. This group would later become the National Panhellenic Conference, which is an umbrella organization that supports 26 active sororities across the United States.

By Alpha Omicron Pi’s 25th anniversary in 1922, the sorority had more than 25 chapters strewn across the country who believed in the organization’s message: “to encourage a spirit of Fraternity and love among its members; to stand at all times for character, dignity, scholarship, and college loyalty; to strive for and support the best interests of the colleges and universities in which chapters are installed, and in no way to disregard, injure, or sacrifice those interests for the sake of prestige or advancement of the Fraternity or any of its chapters.”

However, the sorority’s founders would soon be gone, meaning the sisterhood they created would need to carry on the friendship they cherished. Luckily, Alpha Omicron Pi chapters across the country hold an annual rush, or formal recruitment, for potential new members of the sorority to find their “forever home.” This phenomenon, which has recently captured the fascination of social media users who use the hashtag #RushTok, among others to record their reactions, still occurs today. Throughout the recruitment process, current members speak with potential members to share the sorority’s values and determine if the young woman would be a good fit for the sisterhood.

Sororities today do not exist without a scrutinized history. Movements to #AbolishGreekLife arose in the summer of 2020 after many deemed sororities and fraternities across the country as organizations with a racist past. It cannot be ignored that Alpha Omicron Pi was a segregated sorority until 1956 despite its early efforts to accept Jewish women, yet another group historically excluded from sororities. Yet some universities, including the University of Alabama, did not formally desegregate Greek Life until the 21st century.

Barnard College today.

While we look back at this dark past, it is important to look at the values these organizations were founded on to determine if the organizations are following them in good faith. The bold Alpha Omicron Pi women at Barnard College of Columbia University believe in the values of “simplicity, integrity, tolerance, generosity, personal dignity, and love.” For now, it is in the hands of these sisters and their sisters across the country to continue the legacy of Perry, Hughan, Mullan, and Wyman.

According to the sorority, Perry once wrote, “that which makes our bond is promise certain of success. Let us follow our ensign devotedly, utterly and bravely. For our purpose cannot fail.”