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Beta Iota

Beta Iota Chapter was founded at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania on June 3, 1893. The chapter closed on May 12, 1934 after the college abolished all women's fraternities.

Founding Date: Jun 3rd, 1893

Closed Date: Jan 1st, 1934

Status: Inactive



District: Beta

The Early Years

On June 3, 1893, Beta Iota Chapter was installed at Swarthmore College. Officiating were Grand President, Emily Bright Burnham, Boston; Grand Treasurer, Jennie Angell (Mengel) Cornell; and members of the Pennyslania Chapter. The seven charter members had waited a year and a half for their charter. In 1892, the unnamed group had been refused a charter since Swarthmore, a college established in 1864 under the auspices of the Society of Friends, was considered too small. This group turned down an offer from Pi Beta Phi in order to petition Kappa Kappa Gamma a second time. Lydia Biddle was the first chapter President of Beta Iota.

The Fraternity archives contain notebooks dating from 1893 through 1909. These small writing tablets are filled with the “Round Robin” letters passed among the members during the summer. There are reports of sailing, partying, dressmaking, and the concocting of jelly. There was competition as to who would bring back the best jelly in the fall to whet the appetites of the Phi Kappa Psi gentlemen on campus, who incidentally, had been instrumental in helping these Swarthmore girls decide on Kappa Kappa Gamma as their goal.

Beta Iotas, ladies from the start, decided that nicknames were unladylike, and agreed to abolish “swaps,” (an exchange of compliments), because this showed vanity. One of them inadvertently wrote something nice to Lydia Biddle, and thereupon apologized. Their interest in expanding the chapter was evident in these letters. They looked forward to initiating incoming freshmen, one of whom was Lucretia Blankenburg (Malcolm), whose father was later mayor of Philadelphia. As these early chapter members became alumnae, their interest in Beta Iota never waned, and they became enthusiastic members of the Beta Iota Alumnae Association, formed in 1900. At first, dues were 25 cents. At one time, the treasurer reported a balance of $2.79. In 1906, the balance showed $14.34, and it was voted to send $5 to the California Kappas to help them after “the disaster,” the San Francisco earthquake.

In the summer of 1894, Beta Iota held its first house party, in Roslyn, Long Island, following a “coeducational cottage party” at Point Pleasant, New Jersey. One house guest was Lucy Evelyn Wight Allan, St. Lawrence, former Grand President. Later house parties were held in Ocean City, New Jersey.

Founders Day was first celebrated by this chapter in 1895, when everyone went to the theatre to see “Rob Roy.” Later such occasions were observed by a dinner or luncheon at Whitman’s in Philadelphia.

Highlights of the 1920s

During World War I, Lydia Biddle, Victoria Lesley (Steigelman) and Elizabeth Sellers served overseas with the Red Cross. After the war, Beta Iota shared in a project under the aegis of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Ohio State, whose daughter, Sally, was later to become a Beta Iota. It was called “Bellevue Babies,” and its purpose was to send money and clothing to the people of Meudon, France. After 1921, when such help was no longer needed, the association turned to another philanthropy that was the seed of the “Kappa Sewing” project. As of 1975, Beta Iotas were still meeting and making layettes, which were distributed by the American Friends Committee where the need is greatest in the world. During World War II, Beta Iotas made 60 layettes for the Nora Waln project.

During the 1920s, it was customary for an active Beta Iota to attend alumnae meetings and report on scholarship and the needs of the active chapter. Scholarship was high. Of the six women’s fraternities, Beta Iota was never below second place and was often first. The alumnae helped considerably by providing money to finance a number of active Beta Iotas. Records show how faithfully the money was repaid with deep appreciation. For many years, graduating Kappas were invited to a spring luncheon at the Strathaven Inn in Swarthmore, and welcomed into the alumnae association.

Beta Iotas had many happy memories of Kappa May Queens and maids of honor, sports and dramatic stars, members busy in women’s student government and other college activities. Many Beta Iotas were elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board. The Efficiency Cup was awarded to Beta Iota in 1928. Several members received the Lucretia Mott Fellowship, and seven were president of the Somerville, a literary society of importance in Swarthmore College history.

In those days when Beta Iota lived as an active chapter, one dressed for dinner and sat at a table equipped with napery and fraternity men. The Kappas were popular with all the men’s fraternities, but from the beginning it was Phi Kappa Psi that seems to have adopted them at Swarthmore. The gavel used at all alumnae meetings was given by members of Phi Psi. After dinner, “fussing” was the custom. This meant meeting in the two parlors in Parrish Hall with the gentleman of one’s choice until 9 o’clock.

Highlights of the 1930s

On January 9, 1934, the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College received a recommendation from the female students that women’s fraternities be abolished from that campus. National representatives, in a joint meeting in Philadelphia, recognizing the fact that the policy of National Panhellenic Congress fraternities had always been one of cooperation with college administrations, unanimously, but with regret, accepted this decision.

Several years after the closing of the chapter, Beta Iota alumnae set up a Kappa Kappa Gamma scholarship fund at Swarthmore College, so that the chapter, which had developed such an excellent reputation on this beautiful campus would not be forgotten. The fund increased constantly by gifts in memory of deceased Beta Iotas. In the administration of the fund, the relative of a Kappa receives first consideration. Thus, Beta Iotas, no longer young and with their chapter roll dwindling, remember their chapter, their college and their own descendents.