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Phi Sigma Omega is a Greek honor society or fraternity.  The description of honor societies as fraternities is perhaps a little unfair in a gender conscious environment, but the alternative of describing an honor society which admits both men and women as Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Sigma Omega do, would be to call the co-fraternal enterprise a sorority and that has not won any acceptance.

 Sororities, clubs of women often but not always drawing their support from colleges and universities and using Greek letters for identification and in their ceremonies, trace their origins to the establishment of Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary College in Virginia in 1776. This and other early fraternities were exclusively male, and drew much of their ritual from Freemasonry -- to which some of their members belonged. In the nineteenth century, sororities were founded to provide similar experiences to those offered by the male fraternities. The so-called social Greeks and honorary Greeks eventually went their separate ways. The social Greeks, student-led, emphasized residential facilities and became part of American folklore with their initiation highjinks. The honorary Greeks, retaining high levels of faculty participation, recognized scholarly qualifications.

 As the numbers of women students increased, pressures grew to admit them to organizations that male students took for granted. One of the first woman members of Phi Beta Kappa was Emily Francis Fairchild of the Oberlin Class of 1844, but she was only elected into the Oberlin chapter in 1907! The University of Vermont chapter elected Ellen Hamilton and Lida Mason in 1875, evidently the first women anywhere to be selected. Wesleyan admitted women in 1876 and Cornell in 1882, although a Cornell male member complained that "It seems to me in the first place absurd to admit women to a Fraternity, and, secondly, that the whole tradition and character of the concern make it exclusively a male affair." Vassar was the first women's college to have its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter, in 1899. The National Panhellenic Conference for the heads of sororities was founded in 1902, seven years before the male National Interfraternity Conference. Problems associated with fraternities, such as hazing and substance abuse, have generally not existed with sororities.


Bibliography: Richard Nelson Current, Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years (1990); Jack L. Anson and Robert F. Merchesani Jr.,  Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (1991); Paul Rich and Guillermo De Los Reyes, "The Origins of Phi Beta Delta",  Phi Beta Delta International Review (1996).