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Story #002: Alpha Phi Amidst World War I

In celebration of Alpha Phi’s 150th Anniversary in 2022, we proudly share stories and moments that have created the legacy of sisterhood originally launched by our ten founders and which we still hold dear today.

This is story 2 of 150.

Alpha Phi Amidst WWI

Coming off years of growth, Alpha Phi, along with the rest of the world, experienced a different season as World War I began in 1914. While this time was fraught with challenge and sacrifice, it also gave Alpha Phi the opportunity to strengthen its bonds and develop its interests so that it emerged in the postwar era stronger.

Canadian Sisters Lead through Service

In 1915, chapters in the United States watched as Xi sisters, the only Canadian Alpha Phis at the time, navigated being part of a nation at war. Edith Grant (Xi-Toronto) shared with her American sisters that “Patriotic concerts, bazaars and war lectures have been chief social functions.” Her sisters joined women across Canada in stocking and preparing Toronto’s base hospital, making compresses, packing surgical supplies and bidding farewell to the male students on campus who were leaving to fight.

American “Preparedness”

Soon after the Convention of 1916 ended, Alpha Phis across America heard the call to take part in similar “preparedness.” In 1916, the question of whether the United States would enter the war had not yet been answered, but the time saw widespread efforts to prepare should the call for war come. Many of the Xi women were already working for the Red Cross or other war-related jobs, like munitions factory work and volunteering. Other chapters began to join them. The Epsilon-Minnesota chapter took part in a campaign to benefit prisoners of war in Europe, and the Zeta-Goucher chapter took part in courses in social service, Red Cross work, bookkeeping, wireless communications, foreign language and agriculture.

Although there were chapters that closed and a couple that opened during the war, Alpha Phi balanced the line of celebrating new sisterhood and a commitment to expansion with the harsher realities of the war that required increased flexibility and perseverance. On April 16, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany. University life, like all other institutions, was impacted by war, and many Alpha Phis found themselves asking what they could do in the crisis.

Alpha Phis Taking Part

As men were called away to fight and the globe shouldered the horrors of war, sorority women were called upon to prove they could meet their own duty, contributing to the fight in their own way. In some cases, women experienced the opportunity to fill roles men had traditionally occupied. Martha Foote Crow had recently published another book and sent autographed copies of her book to American soldiers. Fellow Founder Clara Bradley Burdette was appointed to California’s war advisory board and, later, as field secretary for the California Council of National Defense.

Alice Maude Lawton (Eta-Boston) was a journalist with the New York Evening Sun and ventured to Norway on an ocean liner, commissioned by automaker Henry Ford, as part of a trip designed to try to bring an end to the war. Known as Ford’s Expedition, Alice described the experience as a “peace pilgrimage of unofficial American citizens through the neutral countries of Europe to gather up delegates there and hold an unofficial neutral conference. The conference was not successful in its aim, but Alice and others still felt the attempt had been worthwhile.

Katherine Baker (Zeta-Goucher) as a Red Cross nurse, had been made a corporal in the 137th Regiment in the French Army. She was awarded, along with the rest of her unit, the fourragere, “for gallantry in action.” The only woman to be so honored, Katherine later acted as an interpreter with the American Army in Vosges. After her death, the French government bestowed upon her the Croix de Guerre.

The Beta-Northwestern chapter contributed to the creation of the Northwestern base hospital unit, demonstrated financial restraint and donated generously to the YMCA for relief work in England’s training camps. The Nu chapter at the University of Nebraska adopted a French war orphan, ten-year-old Jeanne Paris. At all campuses, pageants, dances and other social events were cancelled.

Collegians played a role as well, with many serving as nurses and providing aid. Elizabeth Lahies Onorato (Gamma-DePauw) went to France with the Red Cross. Clarissa Spencer (Zeta-Goucher) served as the director of the YWCA in Russia. Dorothy Dunbar Bromley (Beta-Northwestern) worked as a telephone operator in France with the U.S. Army. Harriet Carroll Cress (Theta-Michigan) enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a yeoman second class.

Economic Preservation & Liberty Bonds

“I know that each Alpha Phi is quietly assuming her responsibility,” said International President Alice Roedel (Kappa-Stanford), as she encouraged the coordination of efforts across membership to make a significant impact.

As the world began to “Hooverize,” a term that was coined to describe a wartime commitment to reduce civilian consumption, Alpha Phi took a hard look at whether to host their 1918 Convention. In the Quarterly, members were asked to consider, “whether we are justified in this expense and whether, when we come right down to it, we can really enjoy all the pleasures of Convention while our boys are living on army rations and fighting in the European trenches.” This marked the first time in Alpha Phi history that the Convention was cancelled. As another cost-savings measure, Frances Perkins (Iota-Wisconsin), Quarterly editor, also removed illustrations and reduced the number of pages in each issue of the publication.

The economic focus continued, and every chapter was encouraged to have a $100 bond. All members were asked to support the nation by giving a Liberty Bond to the Alpha Phi endowment fund, and chapters responded enthusiastically. Margaret Mason Whitney (Theta-Michigan) was appointed by the Alpha Phi Board to discover a form of war relief work that might be undertaken by the Fraternity as a whole. She proposed that Alpha Phi collaborate with other National Panhellenic Conference members to purchase an ambulance to send to France. Each participating conference fraternity would contribute $100.


Several chapters objected, believing efforts should be geared more toward reconstruction. Ultimately, the board decided that the Fraternity would support a YWCA Foyer des Alliees in Roanne, France, a town that was home to a large arsenal that employed hundreds of women workers. Alpha Phi supported these women by offering them a “home with reading and reception rooms for the brave, broken, loyal munitions toilers.” In this way, Alpha Phis were helping other women across the world in recognition of the price they were paying for this war. Alpha Phi contributed $6,315.76 to this YWCA foyer – the largest in France during the war, through 1919.

A New Era Ahead

When the war came to an end on November 11, 1918, Alpha Phis rejoiced. In the new era that came following the war, members looked forward to focusing on reconstruction and making progress. It seemed they were aligned with the country in this regard, as in August of 1919 the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, allowing women the right to vote. This new era was one Alpha Phis embraced and one which offered opportunities to seize.

This brochure provides information on the stops of the Alpha Phi special train that took members to the 1916 Convention in Berkeley, California.