Madeline Albright. Halle Berry. Loretta Lynch. Ellen DeGeneres. Nikki Haley. Hillary Clinton.
You probably recognize many, if not all, of these names. All of these names have something in common; they were the first. The first woman to become the US Secretary of State; the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress; the first black woman to become US Attorney General; the first person to star as an openly gay character on Prime time TV; the first Indian-American woman to be elected governor; the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for President. The picture I selected to go along with this piece is one of my favorite firsts – Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to ever register for and complete the Boston Marathon.
These women took risks that have turned into critical moments in our nation’s history. They opened opportunities for women that did not previously exist. We know them because they are important and whether we recognize it now or not, they have set wheels in motion that will fundamentally shape who we are as a society for years to come.
But what about these names? Ethel Hedgeman. Eugenia Tucker. Eve Bracero. What about these names makes them important?
Ethel Hedgeman was the visionary and principal founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. It was her leadership that led to the founding of the nation’s first black sorority. Eugenia Tucker, at the age of sixteen, formed a society that focused on the mental, moral, social, and domestic improvement of its members, now known as Alpha Delta Pi. Eve Bracero worked with four other women to found an organization that united all women from all different nationalities. This organization, Mu Sigma Upsilon, is recognized as the first multicultural sorority in the nation.
Our sororities, regardless of council affiliation, exist and thrive today because of the passion, leadership, and dedication of these women. Because of them, we now have organizations that serve to develop us, not only as women, but as leaders, activists, scholars, and philanthropists. These women took great risks when founding our organizations. In 1851 when Alpha Delta Pi was founded, women who were admitted into co-ed higher education institutions were certainly not welcomed with open arms, a feeling that would persist well into the late 1900s. The founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1908 faced intense opposition and hostility as the Civil Rights Act would not occur until decades later, many of those challenges still very much prevalent today. As institutions of higher education saw increases in students who identified as Asian American, Hispanic, Latino-American, they also found that these students were not able to identify with the existing traditionally white or black organizations. Thus began the creation of numerous culturally based sororities.
The words of every sorority’s ritual may be different, but at the end of the day, our organizations were all created for the same reason – to serve as a support network and place where women felt a sense of inclusiveness and belonging. Where members knew that despite all of the other challenges they faced, that they could return to their sisters who welcomed them and believed in their same ideals and values.
I challenge every sorority woman reading this to sit for just a moment and think back to the founding of your own organization. Those women were fighters; activists; trailblazers. They believed in the power of women coming together for a common cause. They served as catalysts for societal change and social justice movements that have opened doors for millions of others world-wide. What they did was important and because of them, my life is changed. I urge our sorority members to sit with these thoughts for just a moment, and then ask yourselves, “Is what you are doing important?” Are we creating inclusive spaces that allow our members to feel that they are valued and that they belong? Are we utilizing our privilege to fight against the injustice of others? Are we engaging in actions and behaviors that empower and uplift women?
The power of women coming together and supporting each other is undeniable and our organizations serve as living reminders of that. As Women’s History Month comes to an end, I urge us to think about the future. What are we doing right now that will help shape the future for thousands of sorority members to come? What will they see when they look back at this moment in time during future Women’s History Months?
Unbuntu is an ideology held by many in Southern Africa that loosely translates into the phrase, “I am because we are.” I am who I am because of all of the women that came before me and helped to shape my path. All of us together now are what the women that follow us will become. Let’s make sure to set them up for success just as our founders did for us.