Mortar Board Society, The Makio, 1920
The first college charted from its inception as a full college for women was Wesleyan College, which opened in 1836 in Macon, Georgia. Subsequently, the first secret society for women was founded at Wesleyan in 1851. It was the Adelphean Society, which later changed its name to Alpha Delta Phi in 1905. Beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, it became traditional for women to wear white dresses for graduation from both high school and college, as well as for initiation ceremonies into honor societies and women’s fraternities. The reason for wearing white is best described by Spellman College, who established a policy for wearing white at graduation in 1900. “This tradition established a uniformed appearance among those present and denoted the significance of the occasion or event.” A uniform appearance is achieved by having women all wear simple white dresses. This promotes a sense of democratic equality among participants and places the focus of the occasion on the event itself, rather than the people present.
Four examples of white dresses worn for ceremonial occasions are featured in this exhibit. First, is a dress worn by Vera Lee Conley for graduation from Antioch College in 1911. It is a white cotton lingerie dress, a style which was popular not only for graduation ceremonies, but was also prominently worn by suffragists and women’s rights advocates in the early 20th century. Two dresses from 1922-4 and 1927 have histories of being worn for graduations. It’s very likely that Ruth Ella Moore wore her high school graduation dress for initiation into her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, as there is precedent for that. Margaret Jacob wore hers for graduation from OSU in 1927. Anne Foltz wore her white dress for initiation into Mortar Board Society in 1954.
The procession of women for graduation or demonstration was referred to as a “parade.” The tradition of parading in white dresses can be seen throughout Ohio State University history, perhaps most prominently with the tradition of Mortar Board Society. Mortar Board Society was originally an honor society which recognized senior college women for their scholarship and service. It was founded at OSU in 1915 and expanded to other colleges in 1918. Rising Juniors would parade in white dresses across campus, led by Seniors wearing caps and gowns. While originally meant for women, it was expanded to include male members in 1975 as a result of Title IX legislation.