A page out of campus women’s history
Prytanean Society’s century-old legacy is alive and well today

By Nancy Bronstein, Public Affairs


gym class

Shortly after its creation in 1901, the Prytanean Society helped establish a women’s physical education program on campus. Above, women in 1920 exercise in the hall of Phoebe Apperson Hearst’s home, which once stood on the site of today’s Hearst Gymnasium.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

27 February 2002 | Draped on the well-worn couches and chairs of a second floor-lounge in Cesar Chavez Student Center, 24 undergraduate women spend a rainy Wednesday evening planning a food drive and toy drive, a tutoring service and a program for siblings of children with cancer.

This is a meeting of the Prytanean Society — established 100 years ago as the first honor society for women in the nation — which today carries on traditions of stellar academic achievement and an activist agenda of service to the campus and beyond.

With a pledge of “faith, service and loyalty to the University of California,” Prytaneans are initiated with solemn ritual and ceremony. Long white dresses, worn by Prytaneans up until the 1960s, have been replaced by jeans and sweatshirts at the annual ceremony. But today’s initiates still take the society’s oath; sing its hymn (vintage 1910) and sign their names into an historic log begun in 1901.

“The organization has an amazing capacity to evolve, but its purpose stays true,” said Trish Hawthorne, class of ’65, a former president of the active Prytanean alumnae organization. “We have a mandate of service for the university and recognition of women’s leadership.”

Established in 1901 by two undergraduate women with the help of physician and adviser Mary Bennett Ritter, the Prytanean Society was born nearly two decades before U.S. women won the right to vote. Back then, Berkeley was home to some 2,000 students — 40 percent of them women — and Benjamin Ide Wheeler was president. When Agnes Frisius ’01 and Adele Lewis Grant ’02 suggested forming an honor society to address pressing campus issues, Wheeler, a classics scholar, took to the visionary idea and offered the Greek name Prytanean (pryt-an-EE-an), meaning “council of the chosen ones,” those who watch over the community and are concerned for its welfare.

Early on, the group identified key issues — student health care and housing, and later, women’s athletics — issues that would define Prytanean for decades.

In its first year, the young Prytaneans launched a campaign to raise $5,000 to establish a student infirmary, which later became Cowell Memorial Hospital and evolved into today’s Tang Center.

Prytanean helped launch a women’s physical education de-partment. In 1937, it opened and operated Ritter Hall, a women’s cooperative dorm, to help meet housing needs of women students.

In the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, Prytanean’s alumnae group annually gave seed money to students for campus and community projects helping fund diverse and lasting projects, from Cal in the Capitol to Clinica de la Raza in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, a still-thriving clinic serving low-income families. More recently it provided funding for the Tang Center, where a room is named for Prytanean.

In 1972 — in acknowledgement of a long tradition of service to the campus — the society was awarded the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor.

Prytanean Alumnae today has more than 2,500 members, ages 21 to 91. An active multi-generational group with assets of more than $500,000 in endowment, the group offers achievement awards and scholarships to students.

In 1986, it initiated a Faculty Enrichment Award, a $10,000 prize to help women assistant professors on their road to earning tenure. Its first recipient, chemistry professor Angelica Stacy, used the funds, in part, to support research positions for undergraduate women in her labs. Stacy today is the campus’s associate vice provost for faculty equity, a post that further supports women in academia.

A decade later, the award went to nuclear engineering professor Jasmina Vujic, at a time when she was expanding her research into the relatively new field of biomedical engineering.

“When you are struggling to prove yourself to others, (an award like this) gives you a boost to go on and continue what you are trying to do,” said Vujic. “This type of support is just what is needed.”

“This award means a lot at a critical point in the faculty member’s career,” said past president Marcia Gibney, ’60. “We choose women who are engaged in outstanding research and considered role models for young women. There’s still a huge need for gender equity for faculty and students, and Prytanean can help.”


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