From IWU Magazine, Winter 2008-09
Story by MARIANNE WOLF-ASTRAUSKAS '76
It was listing number 320277033796 on eBay, under the heading “Kappa Kappa Gamma,
Historical Memorabilia, Jewelry.” The little golden Kappa key was available on auction
for $349 and engraved with the name of a sister, Eleanor Ann Jones, initiated into
the Illinois Wesleyan Epsilon chapter on March 9, 1940.
I sat, stunned by the image on my computer screen, overcome with memories of my own
college days — the pledges, ceremonies and the meaning behind several generations
of sisterhood. Most of all, I recalled the overwhelming pride I felt as my own shining
Kappa key was pinned on my sweater, its significance almost impossible to forget.
Like thousands of women before and after me, I’d pledged that day, among other things,
to protect my badge.
Chosen to signify “unlocking the hidden mysteries in Science, Literature and Art,”
the Kappa golden-key pin is the first and oldest sign of Kappa membership. In fact,
the six founding members announced the formation of their new group at Monmouth College
in Illinois on Oct. 13, 1870, by marching into required chapel service wearing keys
in their hair adorned with the letters KKG so the student body would learn of the
new women’s fraternity.
Because of its symbolic importance, keys can be worn only by Kappa members and may
not be lent or given away except to fellow members. Like many national Greek letter
organizations, Kappas are asked to make their wishes for their badges known to their
families. Considered Kappa for a lifetime, a sister may have her badge buried with
her, or left to a female family member who becomes a Kappa. The key may also be returned
to a sister’s chapter house or Kappa’s national headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where
the Heritage Museum — which “acquires, preserves and presents Kappa memorabilia” —
With all this in mind, I wondered, how in the world did a key end up for sale on eBay?
My curiosity set in motion a series of e-mails and phone calls to learn who Eleanor
Ann Jones was and to find out how to get her key safely returned to the Epsilon chapter.
The effort brought into focus my own Kappa experience as well as the larger context
of the history of the Illinois Wesleyan Epsilon chapter, which celebrates its 135th
anniversary this year.
Early members of the KKG Epsilon chapter, pictured in this 1886 photo, built a community
of friendship and support.
In the 35 years since my initiation into KKG, I had not given much thought to my chapter’s
history. No one has ever asked me to explain the bonds of sisterhood or why, as the
oldest chapter continually in existence, the Epsilon KKG remains such a vital institution.
But now I find myself reflecting on all the women who have made Kappa, with 134 collegiate
chapters and almost 300 alumnae associations, what it is today.
In 1851, the first-ever collegiate society for women, now known as Alpha Delta Pi,
was established at Wesleyan College. In 1867, 12 women at Monmouth College founded
Alpha Delta, the first female fraternity in the Midwest and the first to use the men’s
fraternity as its model. That model was also adapted by the Monmouth women who founded
Kappa Kappa Gamma in 1870 — the same year that Illinois Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees
allowed women to enroll for the first time. And the first woman admitted to IWU was
none other than Kate B. Ross, who founded the Epsilon chapter of KKG in 1873, along
with her classmates Kate Graves and Millie Clark.
In the basement of the KKG house on Graham Street is a battered, wooden carriage wheel
bearing a small plaque: “On a dark night in 1873,” it reads, Kate Ross drove home
to Bloomington from Monmouth College, carrying the news of the founding of a women’s
fraternity at that school and the inspiration to provide the same opportunity to the
women of Wesleyan. According to Kappa lore, she later saved one of the wheels from
her carriage as a memento of the journey.
“It may be more legend than fact,” admits Aislinn Lowry ’10, current vice-president
of standards for the Epsilon chapter, but the wheel is still a potent symbol of the
literal and metaphorical journeys that KKG’s early founders took. Aislinn herself
understands the power of history: pinned to her blouse, beside her own KKG key, is
a fleur-de-lis pin originally worn by an ancestor during the late 1800s.
Current chapter president Kristen Hranicka '10 displays a collection of memorabilia
from 135 years of KKG history.
Pioneering college women like Kate Ross likely chose to form such fraternities (the
word “sororities” didn’t come into use until the 1880s) for many reasons. Consider
the fact that, in the 1870s, male college students outnumbered women five to one on
U.S. campuses. Combine that with the commonly held attitude, even among many college
professors, that the pursuit of higher education was “unwomanly,” and it’s not surprising
that the women of that time would want to establish a place of their own for friendship
To me, these young women who formed fraternities such as KKG were feminists long before
the term became popular. At Illinois Wesleyan, the first Epsilon sisters focused their
studies on literary works, concentrating on orations and debates, and giving great
care to their presentations. These women were all about self-improvement and aspired
to the highest ideals for social development as “new women enjoying the privileges”
of fraternal life. You can hear that clearly in the oration given by Kate Ross at
IWU’s 1874 commencement. “Neither today, nor ever, can we forget to be grateful that
four years ago the Wesleyan University invited to equal privileges sons and daughters.
The darkness of the past has rolled away,” she declared. “Liberty is dawning.”
Ross would go on to become a professor of elocution and English at Hedding and Chaddock
colleges. Her portrait above the fireplace at the Kappa Kappa Gamma house on Graham
Street continues to watch over young women who find in that house lifelong “bonds
of friendship, mutual support, opportunities for self-growth, respect for intellectual
development, and an understanding of and an allegiance to positive ethical principles,”
as the KKG mission statement avows.
When I reflect on this history, I come to the conclusion that the motivations for
being part of Kappa’s Epsilon chapter 135 years ago are not all that different than
the ones I had when I joined in the 1970s, and I suspect they are the same reasons
that a new group of young women will join the chapter next fall. Being a Kappa makes
one’s college experiences that much better — more purposeful, exciting and personal.
Kappa Kappa Gamma members Carol (Bennison) Nyweide '73, Susan (Luthy) Marini '75,
Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas '76, Hanie Yee '73 and Debra (Fansher) Roeschley '76 show
off Eleanor Jones’ Kappa key at the chapter’s 135th anniversary celebration, held
during Homecoming this year.
Continuing my quest to retrieve Eleanor Ann Jones’s Kappa key, I learned through the
national headquarters and Illinois Wesleyan’s Alumni Office that Miss Jones had become
Mrs. Brokaw and had been affiliated with the class of 1943. Further queries to Eleanor’s
family revealed that she now resides in an assisted-living facility.
The national office also provided me with contact information for Mary Silzel. A loyal
and determined alumna from the Gamma Gamma chapter at Whitman College, Mary volunteers
for the Golden Key Association. Also known as the “Keepers of the Key,” this group
of 40-some sisters throughout the country is united in its efforts to assure that
cherished badges remain symbols of membership rather than jewelry and collector pieces.
Toward that end, they will bargain, outbid and do whatever is necessary to return
the keys to their rightful owners, to those owners’ chapter or to the Heritage Museum.
So far, 230 badges have been rescued — many of them found on eBay, in antique stores
or in pawnshops. Often, they are sold by family members who do not know the significance
of the pretty golden key.
As anyone familiar with an eBay auction knows, time is the enemy. I needed to get
in touch with Mary Silzel quickly. Without hesitation, she responded to my e-mail
and launched a flurry of communications with Kappas coast to coast. Within hours,
contact had been made with the current owner and seller of Eleanor Jones Brokaw’s
Mary explained that the Keepers of the Key contribute whatever they can to make up
the difference if it’s determined the original owner can’t manage the cost of buying
back her pin. I contributed to bring this wandering pin back to our Epsilon family
and began discussions with Kristen Hranicka, a junior at IWU and the current Epsilon
president, for its safeguarding.
The KKG house at Wesleyan is full of memorabilia. Old photographs and awards hang
on the walls of the stately parlors, and current members can flip through scrapbooks
of bid cards, graduation programs and newspaper articles dating back to 1881. I wanted
Eleanor’s key to have a place among these solemn artifacts, where new Kappas can see
it and understand that they aren’t just members of an organization: they are part
of a continuum, a sisterhood that extends into the past and future.
With the pin safely in my possession, Eleanor’s key came home to Epsilon in time for
the 135th anniversary celebration held during Homecoming and will be used annually
as a loyalty award badge given in Eleanor’s name.
I realize this story, on its face, may seem trivial to some. What’s all the fuss about
a little key? But what I knew instinctively and was affirmed in my short study of
Kappa history is that symbols are only as important as the ideals they continue to
represent in the lives of the people those ideals have touched.
This year’s 135th anniversary of Illinois Wesleyan’s Epsilon chapter of Kappa Kappa
Gamma is not just about Kappa. It’s about the women’s movement begun in 1870 as Kappa’s
founders placed those golden keys in their hair and walked out into the world with
a renewed sense of purpose: to listen to their inner voices, to make their own choices,
and to discover
the strength to pursue their own ambitions. This is what Kappas do, what our alumnae
sisters have always done, and what the next generation to wear the key will do in
the future, each of us supporting the efforts of the other.
Click here to read about one KKG sister's surprising talent.