Iota Alpha

Robert Morris University

National History

On Oct. 15, 1898, nine young friends at Virginia State Female Normal School formalized their friendship by forming Zeta Tau Alpha.


ZTA’s future Founders all attended Virginia State Female Normal School to pursue an education in teaching. Away from home for the first time, these 15- and 16-year-old women longed for the companionship of close friends. Drawn together by similar beliefs and backgrounds, they were a lively group of fun yet earnest students. Fearing the unique quality of their friendship would fade without a formal bond to sustain it, the women contemplated their future.

Maud Jones wrote: “For a whole year before our sorority was established, the need of such an organization was strongly felt. There were six or seven of us who used to frequently meet together and talk over and try to devise some way by which we could unite into a helpful and congenial band. We knew we sadly needed something, but we had no idea just how that something was to be found. The beginning of session 1898-1899 found our little crowd again at the Normal and just as eager as before, if not more, to find something to satisfy our desires.”

Spurred by the appearance of Kappa Delta and Sigma Sigma Sigma on their campus, and Alice Coleman’s invitation to join another women’s fraternity, the women decided to form their own.

To guide them in the process, they turned to the brothers of two members. Maud Jones’ brother, Plummer Jones, was a member of Kappa Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa at the College of William and Mary. Frances Yancey Smith’s brother, Giles Mebane Smith, was a member of Phi Theta Psi and Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary. Both were familiar with the fraternity system and had great knowledge of Greek lore.

Smith suggested the name Zeta Tau Alpha, from the initial letters of the Greek motto upon which the organization is built. He also helped in selecting the badge, the motto, and the patron goddess, Themis. Plummer Jones revised the constitution, the original having been written by his sister. He also developed the ritual, including the initiation ceremony, the oath and the opening and closing of meetings.

In an attempt to maintain anonymity, the women began formal meetings in secret. But even candlelight nighttime rendezvous in the ladies’ room could not camouflage their existence. Finally, they planned an Oyster Stew Announcement Party inspired by some oysters sent by Ethel and Alice Coleman’s father. Their group, however, did not have a name.

A temporary name—three question marks—was inspired by a member of one of the other groups on campus. As the girls crossed paths one day, she raised her eyebrows and formed a question mark with her fingers. “Who are you?” she asked. In unison the girls responded, “Yes, Who? Who? Who?” So before Zeta Tau Alpha became Zeta Tau Alpha, it was known as “???.”

The first minute book of regular Fraternity meetings states Zeta Tau Alpha was organized Oct. 15, 1898, at the State Female Normal School. It also states the colors, flower and motto, which was written in Greek then translated. Maud Jones was the first elected President after the group was officially named Zeta Tau Alpha. She was the acknowledged leader of the group and was also President during the ??? period