Phi Sigma Sigma Through the Years

Read the following to see how Phi Sigma Sigma has changed through the years


            I am one of your founding sisters, one of the daring women who looked for a place for myself and my friends in 1913 at Hunter College 90 years ago. A lifetime separates me from the sisters who have joined Phi Sigma Sigma in 2003. To them, the word “Titanic” means Leonardo DiCaprio. To me, it is current events – the “unsinkable ship” that sunk in 1912. 

             Let me try to put the founding of our unprecedented sorority into perspective for you. We were ten young women who wanted to join the same sorority but couldn’t, because we didn’t share the same religion. Undaunted, we formed our own sorority over lunch so that we could be together. On November 26, 1913, we very quietly started this sisterhood that has grown to over 100 chapters – we had no idea! Indeed, we didn’t think we’d expand at all. But imagine starting a non-sectarian sorority, with ritual that was not based on scripture. I remember Fay, Gwen, and Estelle locking themselves in a room to write it! It was revolutionary. We were way ahead of our time, actually.

            We spent a lot of time choosing our symbols. The American Beauty Rose was probably the easiest to pick because it was the flower of the day. Since it was first introduced at a Washington DC nursery in 1885, it was the premier flower in society and at $2 a stem, it was no common rose! Shirley suggested we use the sphinx as a symbol because it had mythological significance to women. It represented, and I suppose still does, mystery and secrecy.

            To think, that in 1913 women couldn’t even vote. It was 1913 when the Congressional Union was formed to work toward the adoption of an amendment that would give us the right to vote. As you know from history, the amendment passed in 1919 and was signed into law a year later.

            In 1917, the U.S. entered World War I and became the deciding factor in winning the war in 1918. We were now an official world power. Well, Phi Sig was a bit behind that, but in 1918 we did expand. A friend of Rose Scher’s at Tufts talked to her about Phi Sigma Sigma and we installed the Beta Chapter. The Gamma Chapter soon followed. We had our first National Convention that year and elected our first Supreme Council. Some of you may think that Fay was our first Grand Archon, but it was actually Ethel Gordon Kraus. Did you know that Shirley was elected national tribune and so her house became our first central office? My, but we’ve come a long way! We also ratified the Phi Sigma Sigma Constitution in 1918. We were busy women!

            In 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment, beginning prohibition and leading us into the Roaring Twenties.



            Ah, the roaring twenties. Jazz music was the latest thing and the flapper style was all the rage. Our heroes were Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. The good times were highlighted by bootlegged liquor to keep things lively during prohibition – although I would never partake in such things, of course.

            The 1920s were a time of incredible growth and change, especially for Phi Sigma Sigma. We installed sixteen chapters, becoming a truly national sorority in 1921 when we founded the Zeta Chapter at the University of California Los Angeles. Soon after, we made our presence known in the midwest when we installed the Eta Chapter at the University of Michigan and the Theta Chapter at the University of Illinois. While we became a national sorority, our great country became more of an international presence. President Woodrow Wilson helped establish the League of Nations and Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

            In 1922, we introduced our sorority’s magazine, The Sphinx. We also developed a regional administration system to support our growing and far-flung sisterhood. These were our first divisions led by division presidents who reported to a national director of undergraduates. We held mini-conventions in each division in the years in which we did not have a conclave. Our first Fraternity song, “The Hymn,” was written in 1921 by Pearl Lippman and her husband Arthur.

            Unfortunately the wealth and success of the ‘20s were doomed. Many of our country’s industries, like automobile and steel, were in recessions. In retrospect, it should have been a warning for what was to come. After hitting an all time high in September of ’29, the stock market crashed in October and the world was devastated.



            When you think of the 1930s, you undoubtedly think of the Great Depression: joblessness, “Hoovervilles,” and economic salvation through FDR. Sorority life certainly wasn’t the same anymore. Many of my friends had to leave school and take any job they could find to help their families. 

            The 1930s were also a time of exploration and growth. The Empire State Building opened, becoming the world’s tallest skyscraper. Phi Sigma Sigma also built to its walls, adding six new chapters and making us an international sorority in 1930, with the installation of our Upsilon Chapter, at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

            You might also think about the great Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which depicted the nomadic lifestyle of truly destitute families during the Great Depression. You could draw a certain parallel to Phi Sigma Sigma’s nomadic Central Office. In the 1930s alone, we moved from New York City to Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois and to York, Pennsylvania. We also changed its name in 1936, from Central Office to Executive Office, a name that remained until 1943.

            One of our sisters did something very exciting! Irna Phillips, a founder of our Theta Chapter, created a wonderful radio drama called, “The Guiding Light,” maybe you’ve heard of it? It premiered in January, 1937. I wonder if it’s still around...

            As a nation, we began to feel more hopeful when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. His New Deal platform focused on jobs and government works. Congress passed the Social Security Act; and FDR made history when he appointed the first woman to a cabinet position.



       In response to the depressed economy, the government continued to look for ways to raise money as well as provide investment opportunities for its citizens. In 1940, the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, invited none other than our sister, Sylvia Porter, to Washington to discuss his plan of issuing government bonds similar to the Liberty Bonds issued during World War I. Sylvia had graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College in 1932. In 1934, she had a weekly column in American Banker, and by 1936 was financial editor of The New York Post. So, it was no wonder that the secretary of the treasury wanted her input! But Sylvia didn’t like his idea because her parents had lost a lot of money due to fluctuations in those Liberty Bonds. Instead, they came up with the idea for the U.S. Savings Bond that is still in use today.

Phi Sig continued its national expansion when we installed the Beta Beta Chapter at the University of Washington in Seattle. That seemed so far away to the majority of our sisters! Imagine how much further Hawaii seemed when on December 7th, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. We thought we’d have to get involved in the war eventually, but we didn’t see that coming.

            Supporting our boys at war became a national cause. The campus seemed so quiet when the boys went to war. The roles of women were redefined as we were needed to work in traditionally male jobs while the men were fighting overseas. The image of Rosie the Riveter was born. In addition, in 1942, it was declared that women could serve in all branches of the armed services, with the exception of the Marine Corps. Think of how much things had changed, and Phi Sig had only been around for 30 years - from no vote and long skirts to working in factories and serving in the military!

            As my sister said earlier, we moved our Executive Office around a lot and were back in New York City in 1943 when we hired our first executive secretary, Esther Malter, and changed the name back to Central Office. Esther graduated from the Psi Chapter at Sophie Newcomb College in 1934.

Well the war couldn’t last forever, thank goodness. The European conflict came to an end shortly after the Allied Forces invaded Normandy on June 6, 1945. Unfortunately, it took far greater measures to end the war in the Pacific Theatre. The U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 to bring about peace. That was the beginning of the atomic age, and the Cold War was soon to follow.

            Phi Sigma Sigma installed nine new chapters over the course of the decade, including several in the south that are unfortunately no longer active. We also became an associate member of the National Panhellenic Conference in 1947.



            Poodle skirts and James Dean...there’s more to the 1950s than that, of course. Phi Sigma Sigma started off the decade at our 25th Convention in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. We adopted a new, slightly different design for our badge – the first change we’d ever made to it. In 1951 we became a full member of NPC and Clarisse Harrison Markowitz was our first delegate. Clarisse was actually our delegate from 1947 to 1985. Talk about perpetuity!

            The “Red Scare” was gripping our nation in the early ‘50s and many people were blacklisted as communists, thanks to Senator Joe McCarthy. This was especially felt in the world of entertainment, but thankfully it didn’t affect our Irna Phillips. Her radio show, “The Guiding Light” premiered on television on June 30, 1952! It’s the longest running drama on the air – way to aim high, Irna!

            The 1950s brought a lot of new things: McDonald’s, the beginning of the space race, and civil rights. It’s amazing to think that 50 years ago people of different races and religions were separated. Did you know that Greek rush was divided on college campuses? It probably doesn’t surprise you to know that the white and black sororities were kept separate.

We only installed five chapters during this decade and unfortunately, four of them are currently closed. Phi Sig was growing in other ways though. With a grant of $20,000 presented to Yeshiva University Medical School in New York City, we established the Phi Sigma Sigma Cardiology Laboratory in 1957. Our first traveling secretary (I think you call them chapter consultants these days) was hired in 1958. Meriam Lipkind from Beta Gamma Chapter, Boston University, traveled from chapter to chapter.



The 1960s are typically remembered as a turbulent time. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War and all of the civil strife in between, it was in many ways a turning point in the 20th century. The 1960s saw the birth of many great things: the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare. Unfortunately, it also saw the death of great leaders: President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  

            The 1960s were very important in Phi Sigma Sigma’s history as well. 1963 marked our golden anniversary, which was celebrated at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Jeanine Jacobs Goldberg established Leadership Training Schools, similar to this one, in 1966. The Alpha Alpha Chapter was established in 1968 when Hunter College’s two campuses separated, forming the new Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx. And speaking of Alpha Chapter again, our most famous alumna from Alpha, Sylvia Porter, was asked by President Johnson in 1964 to be Secretary of the Treasury.

The Phi Sigma Sigma Foundation was created in 1969 to consolidate Phi Sigma Sigma’s charitable endeavors. Ilene Rosen Olansky, Zeta, 1952 was the first Foundation President. The Foundation was set up with a president, treasurer, secretary (who was the executive secretary), and trustees.

            While we installed nine new chapters during the 1960s, we also lost eight chapters, four of which were single letter chapters. The Greek way of life was changing on campuses everywhere as students focused their energies on protesting the war in Vietnam and working for civil rights. Greek membership was on the decline and would continue to do so into the next decade.



The turbulent 1960s led into the free-loving 1970s. America had suffered through the Vietnam War, the embarrassing Watergate scandal, and the resignation of its vice president and president. Gerald Ford became the first vice president to be appointed under the 25th Amendment after Spiro Agnew resigned because of tax evasion. Ford then became president when President Richard Nixon resigned after Watergate. 1973 brought the energy crisis and once again Sylvia Porter was called upon by her country to impart her financial knowledge. President Ford asked Sylvia to speak at a White House Conference on Inflation in 1974.

While America’s leaders might have been questionable, Phi Sigma Sigmas were phenomenal in the 70s. Phi Sigma Sigma adopted the National Kidney Foundation in 1971 as its official philanthropic cause. At the time, kidney disease was the number one killer of women.

            In 1976, our nation celebrated 200 years of American independence, and Jimmy Carter was elected president. The following year brought us the groundbreaking motion picture Star Wars, and soon disco was sweeping the nation.

            Nineteen chapters were installed during the 1970s taking us well into our third round of the Greek alphabet. Sadly, the downturn of Greek membership in the 1960s carried into the early ‘70s and many of our beloved chapters were closed during this period. This included our oldest chapter, Alpha, in 1976 and our newest chapter Gamma Alpha, installed in 1969 and closed in 1972. In all, 24 chapters were closed in the 1970s.

            On November 4, 1979, Iranians seized the American Embassy in Tehran and took 63 American hostages. It would be a long ordeal before the hostages were finally released in 1981.



            I’m sure that many of you remember at least a part of the 80s. If you don’t, you can watch a show on VH1 to get the specifics. The 1980s were a great time for college students. We had personal computers, new things called CDs for our favorite Madonna and Duran Duran songs, and MTV! And, for sure, Greek life was on the rise again. The ‘80s were totally tubular for Phi Sig specifically. We welcomed 44 new chapters into our pyramid! We also made our mark on the National Panhellenic Conference when we joined the executive committee in 1985; and in 1989, Louise Kier, Zeta 1972 became our first NPC Chairman.

            Other firsts for women included in the 80s Sally Ride who became the first woman to travel in space and Geraldine Ferraro who made history as the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket.

            As our world became more connected through media and technology, public awareness of Greek hazing was on the rise. Phi Sigma Sigma began serious anti-hazing programs in the mid-1980.

            Just as Greeks and even Phi Sigma Sigma had difficult times, so did our nation. President Reagan survived an assassination attempt, we lost six astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, aboard the Challenger space shuttle, AIDS became an epidemic, and the Iran-Contra scandal broke suggesting the U.S. perhaps traded arms to Iran for the release of our hostages in 1981.

            In 1983, we changed the title of our executive secretary to central office executive. Central Office was located in Miami, Florida, as it had been since the late 1960s. Dianne Macey was hired in 1982 and remembers the first computer at Central Office. It was actually a word processor the size of your dinner table (or close to). Then in 1985 we got our first “real” computer and began using a database that was created for us. For you technophiles out there, this was pre-Wang. Central Office moved with Dianne to Boca Raton in 1989.

            Phi Sigma Sigma celebrated 75 years of sisterhood at our 1988 “Tradition of Achievement” conclave where we had programming such as “Getting to Know Your Central Office,” “Executive Boards That Work,” “How to Find, Get to Know, and Use Your Alumnae,” and “Positive Pledge Programming.” Conclave was held in Philadelphia where Mayor Wilson Goode proclaimed a Phi Sigma Sigma Day. Our business that year included adding Foundation President to Supreme Council. Foundation made a substantial gift to the National Kidney Foundation to help fund kidney research in honor of our 75th birthday.



            The ‘90s started with the Gulf War and ended with Y2K. It was the dawn of a new information age as the World Wide Web became available for every home and computers became staples like VCRs and microwaves before them.

            Phi Sigma Sigma started the decade with a bang by installing eleven new chapters in 1990. We added another 46 chapters through 1999 – 56 chapters in one decade, that’s over half of our pyramid! I guess you could say that Phi Sig rocked the ‘90s!

In 1993, we formed the National Housing Corporation. In 1994, we established the Sigma Society to recognize academic achievement. We introduced the Reflections new member program in 1995. Reflections was a revolutionary program for Phi Sigma Sigma. It was the basis of our core values that came to the fore when Vision was later introduced and it shortened our new member program to four weeks. In 1996, Phi Sigma Sigma collegiate and alumnae members began participating in “Make a Difference Day” each October.

            The ‘90s brought us an age of unprecedented economic prosperity. It also brought us the Waco tragedy and the Oklahoma City bombing. We had eight years of Bill Clinton, which was never boring. We also enjoyed popular culture that included the beginning of present-day reality television through MTV’s “The Real World,” and shocking comedy on “South Park.” Interestingly, a Gamma Iota (Wooster Polytechnic Institute) alumna, Nancy Pimental was a staff writer for the show. Nancy went on to co-host “Win Ben Stein’s Money” on Comedy Central, and to write the movie “The Sweetest Thing,” which starred Cameron Diaz.

            It’s hard to believe, but our chapter consultants were still traveling with typewriters on which to complete their reports. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that they began using laptops, which were purchased by the Foundation, and cell phones weren’t provided to consultants until 1999. Phi Sigma Sigma joined the Internet community in 1999 with phisigmasigma.org and The Legacy, a Foundation newsletter, began circulating the same year. We were poised for the 21st century!



            As we’ve seen over the past nine decades, times have changed! We’ve seen the founding of our glorious sisterhood and the expanded role of women in our society.  We’ve seen our country at war and in times of distress; we’ve seen the end of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of AIDS.

            But, nothing could have prepared us for September 11, 2001. This event changed the way we view our place in the world. It changed what we prioritized in our personal lives.

             Phi Sigma Sigma has also helped shape our priorities. Through Vision and Reflections we have found our core values of leadership through service, inclusiveness, and lifelong learning. Vision and Reflections has helped more of our chapters realize their goals and dreams and has provided a foundation for Phi Sigma Sigma’s growth in the 21st century.

            In 2000, Phi Sigma Sigma was awarded for its outstanding Make a Difference Day participation in Florida by its sponsors, USA Weekend and the Points of Light Foundation. Phi Sigma Sigma introduced Chapter Excellence in 2001, which helps sisters and chapters to reach their potential through commitment to self, chapter, Fraternity, campus and community.

            Our solidarity has enabled us to weather storms together. It is our joy and love that have bound us together and encouraged us to always work toward our twin ideals. Together, we are able to see past the hard times to recognize all of the beautiful things we share.



            We are your sisters of the past 90 years. We are you, and you are us. And our strength knows no bounds, for: Once a Phi Sigma Sigma, Always a Phi Sigma Sigma.


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