ARKANSAS A-Z: Chi Omega — the country’s largest women’s fraternity

Chi Omega members from the class of 1897 at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville are pictured. (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)
Chi Omega members from the class of 1897 at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville are pictured. (Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System)


Chi Omega was founded at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville on April 5, 1895, and has since grown into the largest women's fraternal organization in the United States. (Contrary to popular usage, Chi Omega has always referred to itself as a fraternity rather than a sorority.)

By 2022, more than 400,000 women had been initiated into Chi Omega. In addition to UA, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Arkansas State University (ASU) have Chi Omega chapters, and there are multiple alumnae chapters in Arkansas.

The first members, referred to as the Five Founders, included Ina May Boles, Jobelle Holcombe, Alice Simonds, Jean Vincenheller, and Dr. Charles Richardson, a Fayetteville dentist and a member of Kappa Sigma. Richardson was the first adviser and helped write the constitution. He also made the first badge, using dental gold.

Early on, members of the mother chapter assumed leadership of the national organization. Vincenheller was the first national president, and Ida Pace Purdue, another Arkansas member, occupied that position from 1904 to 1910. Purdue was the first editor of the fraternity's journal, Eleusis.

The national organization has maintained strong ties to the mother chapter in Fayetteville. The first major gift from any sorority to a university was an outdoor theater built on the Fayetteville campus in 1930 with a gift of $31,225 from the national Chi Omega organization. Inspired by the theater of Dionysus in Athens, Greece, it features a colonnade of 14 columns. Into the curved entablature above are carved five words: Knowledge, Integrity, Courage, Culture, and Intelligence. Five large stones worked into the foundation bear the names of the Five Founders. The Chi Omega Greek Theater has been used for commencement exercises and other ceremonial occasions, as well as for concerts, pep rallies, and other informal student activities. For nearly half a century, the lower level of the stage area served as a practice firing range. In 1980, the theater was renovated and rededicated on the 50th anniversary of its completion.

The ethos of the fraternity is embodied in a document known as the Chi Omega Symphony, composed in 1904 by Ethel Switzer Howard of the Xi Chapter at Northwestern University. It reads as follows: "To live constantly above snobbery of word or deed; to place scholarship before social obligations and character before appearances; to be, in the best sense, democratic rather than 'exclusive,' and lovable rather than 'popular'; to work earnestly, to speak kindly, to act sincerely, to choose thoughtfully that course which occasion and conscience demand; to be womanly always; to be discouraged never; in a word, to be loyal under any and all circumstances to my Fraternity and her highest teachings and to have her welfare ever at heart that she may be a symphony of high purpose and helpfulness in which there is no discordant note."

Chi Omega declares six purposes: friendship, high standards of personnel, sincere learning and creditable scholarship, participation in campus activities, career development and community service.

Arkansans Ellen Gilchrist and Blanche Lincoln are both alumnae of Chi Omega, along with actresses Joanne Woodward and Shelly Long, former governor of Kentucky Martha Layne Collins, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder.

The national headquarters are in Memphis. Chi Omega has chapters in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Ethel C. Simpson

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at encyclopediaofarkansas.net.