Beta Epsilon Chapter was founded at Barnard College in New York, New York on January 16, 1891. The chapter closed on June 28, 1917 after the college no longer recognized Greek-letter fraternities.
140 total initiates
The year 1889–1890 was an exciting one in the history of higher education for women. The University of Pennsylvania had “declared for co-education” (See Beta Alpha); three women had had remarkable success at Cambridge, Pairs, and “our own Harvard University.” Barnard college in New York City, “the Columbia Annex” (which it was not, as The Key correspondent had to explain), had opened with 14 women as regular students. There were no “specials” (Barnard was perhaps the only college in the country that could make this claim) and every applicant had to take the whole examination, including Latin and Greek.
On June 14, 1893, Barnard College graduated its first class, and every member of the class was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Eight graduates were the chapter’s charter members; the ninth, Jeannette Clenen, was its first pledge.
“The Barnard girls,” according to the New York Tribune (1891), “are an enterprising set … . The object of the college is not to attract students from other institutions … but for New York girls who appreciate (its) advantages … . The courses of study are identical with those of Columbia, and Columbia College professors do the teaching … .”
Jessica B. Garretson (Finch, Cosgrave) entered Barnard in its first year and in her junior year a Boston acquaintance wrote to her asking about organizing a Kappa chapter at the new college. The class decided that a fraternity would be welcome if the class could all be members, and if, in turn, the whole next class could be initiated also.
Mary Kingsbury (Simkhovitch), Boston, was a guest at the Garretson home at the time of Barnard’s installation and Lucy Evelyn Wight (Allen), St. Lawrence, Grand President, officiated at the January 16, 1891 ceremonies, assisted by Lucia Heaton (a charter member of St. Lawrence), then a medical student in New York.
A sophomore pledge day and the careful issuing of invitations to women whose scholarship, personalities and abilities were well known, accounted for this unvarying affirmative. The Fraternity was well aware of Barnard’s superiority. Kappa’s emphasis on high scholarship, positive action and alumna progress was received by Barnard members as if scholarship, action and progress were the most natural demands in the world.
In its 25-years of life, with a total chapter roll of 137, Beta Epsilon had seen 32 members taken into Phi Beta Kappa, and its catalogue contained card after card naming brilliant women active in professions and the arts. Many years after the chapter’s dissolution, May Whiting Westermann, Nebraska, Fraternity Historian at the time said, “We should not let younger members grow up in ignorance of that splendid chapter … . There is no chapter which has so large a proportion of unusual and distinguished women.”
The long list included Alice Duer Miller, prolific and successful writer; Elsie Clews Parsons, Ph.D., anthropologist; Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who received the first scholarship (1910) given to an American women under the exact forms of competition by which Rhodes scholars were chosen; Elizabeth Fox (DeCou), early dean of women at the University of Oregon; Katherine Gay, ceramist-sculptor; Natalie Henderson Swan, trustee, Teachers’ College, Columbia, and organizer of the Board of Trustees of Bennington College; Katharine Swift Doty, Kappa Historian and assistant to the dean, Barnard.
Jessica Garretson Finch (Cosgrave), founder and head of Finch Junior College, NY, received an Alumnae Achievement Award in 1948. The formal presentation of this award marked the first Kappa event ever televised. Artist Josephine Paddock received the same award the following year. The most distinguished of all Barnard members, Virginia C. Gildersleeve, Ph.D., received an Alumnae Achievement Award in 1946. She is also the best known of all Barnard alumnae: Dean of Barnard 1911–1947; one of the founders of the International Federation of University Women and its president, 1924–26 and 1936–39; only woman delegate from the United States to the 1945 conference to draft the United Nations Charter; first American woman to receive an honorary LL.D., from Princeton, “sound scholar, able administrator, lifelong student of international affairs, and militant advocate of world peace.” Her name has been kept alive throughout the world in the Virginia Gildersleeve Fund for University Women, Inc., a project supported by foundations and individuals.
In the fall of 1897, Barnard moved from Madison Avenue to Morningside Heights and goodbye was said to the “small room,” the “modest little snuggery.” A room with a view was assigned to it in a spacious college building with “twice the respectability and half the independence.” In 1901, the college needed the space and an apartment was acquired. It was given up in 1905 when a dormitory for girls was built. A house-party tradition started in 1901 and became a most significant part of chapter life, for the city headquarters, was always changing.
The chapter, as a service to the Fraternity, edited a new song book, published in 1897, and as a service to the women of Barnard, presented an annual play, which from the first to the last (1893–1902) “went with considerable ‘go’” as the main feature of an entertainment, complete with programs, favors, dancing and refreshments.
Achievements and pleasant times continued but a “deepening gloom” was settling on Barnard fraternities. The rushing policy was abolished in 1909, and Panhellenic rules were found destructive in 1911.
At a faculty meeting May 26, 1913, a resolution was made stating that for the three-year term starting October 1913, no society at Barnard of which the organization, the emblems and the rites were in any way secret, and which had national affiliations, should be allowed to elect new members.
Anti-fraternity feeling caused the chapter to abandon the idea of becoming a local group. In the spring of 1914 Barnard’s fraternities proposed certain reforms within their groups but the petition was refused by the faculty.
On April 25, 1916, the Barnard chapter announced that, although it was convinced of the advantages of fraternities, “we do not wish to reorganize … under the system in force three-years ago,” and on May 29 a committee recommended the adoption of a resolution against reorganization. This was the end of Greek social groups at Barnard. The Fraternity mourned, “As a chapter she had always borne the Kappa standards high, and in all matters … served faithfully.” In a list of charges and conclusions put together by the student-faculty committee, the first mentioned was that “fraternities cause snobbishness by overemphasizing lines of social cleavage, especially race lines” with the conclusion “That there is considerable truth in this and it is important.”
The poisonous presence of anti-Semitism and the fact that some Greek letter fraternities were indeed discriminatory was openly acknowledged. A suggestion made by West Virginia at the 1914 Convention that “Jewesses be excluded from membership” was not approved by the Fraternity Council. Kappa was not, in theory, discriminatory, and in practice Beta Epsilon was not. Their members were judged for “individual fitness” and the chapter was proud to be able to say that “Kappa has no constitutional rulings against Jewesses and Beta Epsilon boasts several among its present members.”
The proudest day in the life of Beta Epsilon, with its many proud days and its many reasons for pride, was the day that Dean Gildersleeve was installed. In her acceptance speech she said “…If I fail to render such service … as at this moment my gratitude and affection for Barnard make me long to give, it will be because my own powers are inadequate not , not because … of any lack of noble inspiration in the traditions that Barnard … has already created … ”
Beta Epsilon maintained its strength for more than 25-years, and it was not with a thought of the weakening of her own chapter that Dean Gildersleeve helped bring about the decisions that were finally made. Nor did the Fraternity, true to its policy of non-interference between chapters and the institutions to which they owed their existence, ever suggest that Beta Epsilon was anything less than exemplary. The Fraternity had lived through the birth and birth of chapters before.
On November 27, 1896, when “Miss Gildersleeve” was one of six initiates the chapter correspondent to The Key wrote, “What is Kappa Kappa Gamma to be to them . . . ? Is it to be a small room with some good times? . . . We ask for them that (they) may feel themselves part of a larger world than the chapter they are just beginning to know.”
Virginia Gildersleeve, the Dean of Barnard, had become “part of a larger world.”
The previous information was excerpted from The History of Kappa Kappa Gamma Fraternity, 1870-1976.