Women students at Gallaudet College during its early years faced a number of challenges and obstacles. When they first arrived in 1887, they encountered tremendous resistance from male students, faculty, and college president Edward Miner Gallaudet. Male students hazed their female colleagues and barred them from participation in extracurricular activities. For women to participate in the meetings and events hosted by extracurricular organizations, they had to be invited and accompanied by a chaperone. In 1889, Edward Miner Gallaudet decreed that women students were no longer at the college on a trial basis and were welcome on a permanent basis. Upon this news, the women students started a discussion about organizing their own club where they could participate freely, without invitations or chaperones, and engage in intellectual and leisure pursuits. In January of 1892, thirteen women students gathered and formally established the O.W.L.S. They named Agatha Mary Agnes Tiegel, Class of 1893, to be the first president in the chair. These thirteen women included three valedictorians and the first women to graduate with a B.Phil and a B.A. respectively. Alto Lowman, B.Phil, 1892. Agatha Tiegel, B.A., 1893. The three valedictorians were: Agatha Tiegel, 1893; Lily Bicksler, 1894; and May Martin, 1895. The thirteen women who were part of the original O.W.L.S. were Lily Bicksler, Bertha Block, Laura Frederick, Mary Agnes Gorman, Lulu Herdman, Augusta Kruse, Alto Lowman, Margaret Magill, May Martin, Hannah Schankweiler, Agatha Tiegel, Christina Thompson, and Bertha Whitelock.
In 1910, a debate ensued in the Silent Worker over the establishment of a nationwide deaf women’s organization as an auxiliary to the National Association of the Deaf, which would serve the needs of the Deaf community in areas that were traditionally believed to be women’s domain such as a National Home for the Deaf. One proposal was to form a National O.W.L.S. organization to perform this function. O.W.L.S. alumnae, while flattered, disagreed, stating that the O.W.L.S. was unique to Gallaudet College and should remain so. However, they were intrigued by the idea of having an alumnae organization where they could gather and reminiscence upon their days at Gallaudet and rekindle old friendships. Thus, at the 1910 N.A.D. convention in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the alumnae came together and formally established the National O.W.L.S.
In 1954, the National O.W.L.S., with Adele Krug as its venerable president, gathered and voted to modernize by changing the name of the O.W.L.S. to Phi Kappa Zeta. Accompanying the name change was a change in colors. Brown and gold was replaced with navy Blue and white.
Phi Kappa Zeta and its alumnae have a long tradition of giving back to Gallaudet and the Deaf Community. Their contributions are countless but include financial contributions to the Edward M. Gallaudet statue on Kendall Green, scholarships, funding for the new Student Academic Center, and most recently, the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services’ A Place of Their Own transitory housing for abused women and children in Seattle, Washington.
The Sorority counts more than 1,700 members worldwide since its inception 124 years ago. We look forward to preserving our proud traditions and continuing our legacy of giving back to the Deaf community.