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A Century Of Independent Women

 

Dee Ann Rexroat '82

 
Undated archives photo of the Aonian Literary Society

A century ago, 40 women met to form Cornell’s Aonian Literary Society. Their purpose: to present plays, to debate current issues, and to read, write, and discuss contemporary literature in an era when such things were not often included in the classroom.

Cornell’s fourth women’s society is the only one that remains in some form today. By whatever name—Aonian, Alpha Sigma Pi, or the Arrows—its members have long been known as independent women.

“The Arrows were not prissy. They were not boopsies or bimbos. They were natural, carefree, fun-loving, independent women,” says former Arrow president Lu Ann White ’78, an attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, and member of Cornell’s Alumni Board of Directors. “They were nonconforming, creative, fun, arty, avant garde, and on the wild side.”

White’s shorthand for an Arrow, or someone with Arrow material: a woman with zest for life.

Entrepreneur Melissa Wood ’82 initially pledged another social group, then switched affiliation to the Arrows because its members were “independent women, earthy, spirited, safely rebellious, great-looking while not consumed with their appearance, both intelligent and athletic, and had a fabulous sense of humor.”

Many Arrow alumnae have kept in touch and some still meet to celebrate their “wild side.” Five ’80s Arrows (Deb Logan Priester ’88, Rita Ann Merrick-Lyness ’88, Susan Burdick Perry ’88, Jennifer Thiessen Dumbaugh ’88, and Susan Penn Stoveall ’88) flew to Las Vegas a few years ago (with Merrick-Lyness’ husband as pilot) for four days of fun. Donna Dvorak ’63, along with four Arrow and four Theta classmates, celebrated their 50th birthdays in Chicago. Arrows Priscilla Toppen Wimpress ’50, Mary Sheley Gunn ’50, and Betty Cain Boysen ’50 exchange e-mail regularly and meet annually. “Looking back, I see there is a belief in education, strong marriages, faith, and steadfast friendships,” Wimpress says.

Aonian/Amphictyon Hall in College (then Main) Hall

A close-knit group of ’70s alumnae have met over the years for weddings, homecomings, and funerals. “My observation is that Arrow women are universally open-minded, involved, independent, irreverent, and passionate about their beliefs and values,” says Denver consultant/attorney Randi J. Lewis ’78.

Arrows are expected to celebrate their 100th with aplomb at Homecoming, during dinners on Oct. 20 and 21 and at the annual Arrow Tea at halftime of the football game. The tea will be held in Merner Lounge, since 1978 the location of the group’s Monday night meetings.

After its Dec. 4, 1901, founding, the Aonian Literary Society shared a well-appointed room with the Amphictyon Literary Society in the northeast corner of the third floor of College (then Main) Hall. The Amphictyon men met Friday nights, the Aonian women Saturday nights. The Arrows’ brother group, the Milts, is the only other current organization descended from a literary society.

A 1909 Aonian program

In its original constitution, the Aonian’s objective was to “secure to its members intellectual and social culture and a knowledge of Parliamentary usages.” Among its officers were two “critics” who critiqued the group’s productions and its literary and social exercises. Its membership includes Cornell’s two most esteemed literary authors, Marjorie Holmes ’31 and Nancy Price ’46.

The group’s motto, “Borne Aloft Among the Muses,” remains to this day. Its members were first pictured in the 1903 Royal Purple, which included the legend of its founding (and inspiration for its future name) in the typically idealistic prose of the period:

Till “aloft among the Muses,”
Touched by inspiration’s fire,
With the silver shafts they give us
We will wing each arrow higher
Than the one that’s gone before it;
And our every thought shall rise
Like the lark at break of morning,
Singing upward to the skies.


After trustees forbade college affiliation with national fraternities or sororities, the literary societies began to spawn secret groups with Greek names whose illegal existence the administration ignored. To gain jurisdiction over them, the administration officially recognized them in the 1920s and they in turn agreed to abide by college rules. Most kept their Greek letter names, but this disturbed the trustees so groups adopted nicknames such as Owls, Panthers, and Arrows. It was a tumultuous time for the societies. The 1928 yearbook lists 34 Aonion members but the following year, as Alpha Sigma Pi, there are just 14 members. Membership dropped to 10 in 1930 when the group was listed as The Arrows. There are currently 22 members.

Arrows at a 1998 reunion.

“What I get out of the group,” says senior Brandi Viter, “is that we’re a mix of all different types of women—from different places and different backgrounds—who came together because they truly enjoy each other’s company. We just really communicate. You can talk to anyone in the group and she’ll really listen.”

Leslie Vaskey ’99 credits the organization with giving her the strength to “never be ashamed to be a strong, powerful woman.”

The 40 young women who founded Aonian 100 years ago would be pleased.

 

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