Alpha Epsilon Phi

Title

Alpha Epsilon Phi

Description

Guest post! Thrilled to welcome @shiram19 to tell us about the suffrage roots of an early Jewish sorority. Read on..

On October 24, 1909, Helen Phillips invited 6 friends into her dorm room at Barnard College in NYC. While her friends commuted, she lived on campus & “wanted something to keep her in closer contact with her friends.” That evening, the Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi) sorority was born.

Alpha Epsilon was technically not the first Jewish sorority. In 1903, Iota Alpha Pi began at Hunter College. Their purpose was similar to that of AEPhi – to provide camaraderie for young Jewish female collegians, who were few & far between at the turn of the 20th century!

Because there’s no easy “I” sound in English to begin an acronym, the IAPi sorority women called themselves “the JAPs,” no relation to either the derogatory term Jewish American Princess or the slur used against Japanese people.

AEPhi, like the other Jewish sororities that formed over the course of the 1910s, rose out of a need for Jewish female collegians to gain social and emotional support on college campuses that were often fraught with antisemitism, from the admissions processes to the social scene.

Historically Protestant fraternities and sororities that closed their doors to Jewish women were the dominant campus social outlets on colleges across the country. Black and white Catholic women encountered similar exclusion and formed their own sororities during this time too.

But back to AEPhi: apparently, Helen and her friends were quite busy because the evening immediately following the formation of AEPhi, the girls served as ushers for a big event happening in midtown – an appearance by UK suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst to discuss women’s equality.

Reminiscing about AEPhi’s early years in 1963, founder Tina Hess Solomon brought up what suffrage meant to them: “We were young & full of college spirit…we had serious discussion groups concerned with the events of the day. The most important one was ‘Women’s Suffrage.’”

It is slightly ironic that @BarnardCollege served as the site of AEPhi’s founding and as the institution that gave these young Jewish women the inspiration for furthering their interest in suffrage by their participation in the Pankhurst rally.

As @DailySuffragist has previously reported, the founder of Barnard, Annie Meyer Nathan, was a notorious anti-suffragist, though her older sister Maud Nathan warmly embraced the cause and was a visible figure within it, as Melissa Klapper has shown.

For the founders of AEPhi, women should not only be granted the right to vote, but needed to be informed voters. Shortly after NY finally adopted suffrage in 1917, the @AEPhi Quarterly magazine urged its readership to take voting seriously & become educated on political affairs.

In 1918, the Quarterly wrote that in suffrage, “an all-important power has been given to us...the right to vote…Care must be taken to prove the fallacy of the anti-suffrage argument that women voters will only double the number of unintelligent ballots.”

Furthermore, AEPhi believed that its membership offered unique knowledge and services to female voters and their civic education due to their higher education and knowledge of “governmental affairs.”

Later in 1918, prior to the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment, AEPhi’s Quarterly reminded members that “it is incumbent upon every woman to avail herself of the right of franchise bestowed upon her. It is not only her privilege to vote, but it is also a duty.”

By 1918, AEPhi had one of their very own members running for New York office. Attorney Myra Marks was on the Democratic ticket for Member of Assembly in the 15th District. She lost by only 93 votes.

AEPhi launched as a Jewish group for women with an investment in political issues & for the next century, the sorority engaged w/ all of the major social and political movements America witnessed, from assisting refugees fleeing Nazism to postwar anticommunism and civil rights.

For more on AEPhi and the other historically Jewish sororities, see work by Shira Kohn or Marianne Sanua’s book on Jewish fraternities. For more on Jewish women and suffrage, see Melissa Klapper’s Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace. Cited material courtesy of AEPhi Archives

Creator

Daily Suffragist and Dr. Shira Kohn

Date

11/07/2020

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Citation

Daily Suffragist and Dr. Shira Kohn, “Alpha Epsilon Phi,” Daily Suffragist, accessed October 25, 2021, https://dailysuffragist.omeka.net/items/show/444.

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