Sigma Phi Omega
Sigma Phi Omega was founded at the University of Southern California in 1949, and is the oldest Asian American sorority at USC and the third oldest in the United States.
Sigma Phi Omega was founded at the University of Southern California in 1949, and is the oldest Asian American sorority at USC and the third oldest in the United States. It was originally established as a social organization for Japanese and Japanese-American women at USC. There was much anti-Asian sentiment left behind by World War II, which had ended in 1945. As one alumna said, "At that time it was understood that Asian women could not become members of a sorority. It has since changed. Thank goodness."
In its early beginnings, the founding mothers of Sigma Phi Omega were invited by Chi Alpha Delta, an Asian-American sorority from UCLA, to become one of their chapters (Chi Alpha Delta had been chartered in 1928 at UCLA, but was rendered inactive between 1942 and 1945 because the majority of its members were unable to attend UCLA due to World War II. After the end of the war, the sorority was reorganized in 1946).
However, our founding mothers decided to start their own organization. The Greek letters were chosen at random and were not used by any other existing fraternities or sororities at that time. Although we did not originate as a sorority, one could speculate that the choosing of Greek letters was a public way of voicing dissatisfaction about treatment of Asian Americans, specifically Japanese Americans, by the campus and Greek organizations. Membership was primarily those of Japanese descent in the beginning, although it was open in membership.
Our Founding Mothers
Joyce Ishibashi Tawa
Ida Kado Watanabe
Kazuko Kay Matsumoto
Helen Morita Matsunaga
Akiko Sato Miyamoto
Helen Taniguchi Wakamatsu
Grace Wada Iino*
Chiyoe Yata Oki
(* indicates the passing of the individual)
TO EACH OF OUR FOUNDING MOTHERS, WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR COURAGE AND FORESIGHT, AND FOR CREATING AN ORGANIZATION WHICH STOOD AGAINST THE PREJUDICES OF YOUR TIME. YOU MAY NOT HAVE IMAGINED THAT YOUR IDEA WOULD BLOSSOM INTO THE ORGANIZATION THAT WE HAVE TODAY, YET WE HOPE THAT WE WILL CONTINUE YOUR LEGACY BY CONTINUING TO CREATE A GREATER WOMANHOOD FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS TO COME.
A look into the past: The Sigma Phi Omega History Research Project
The Sigma Phi Omega History Research Project was initiated in 1998 by Kathy Lee, a USC Alumni (Pledge Class 1993). At that point in time, little was known about the early beginnings of the sorority, including information about the founding mothers. Many actives asked, "Who are our founding mothers, and why were we founded?" The only fact that was known at the time was, "Sigma Phi Omega was founded in 1949 at the University of Southern California." After many years of not keeping a recorded history of our sorority, many members felt that it was necessary find the answers to the questions we were asking and not to let any more time pass without trying to research the information. Uncovering the mystery of the entire historical timeline of our sorority would prove to be a long process.
Research that was done during the course of a term paper about Asian Greeks for a sociology class proved to be a good start for Ms. Lee. The history of Asian Greek sororities and fraternities were collected and provided a better historical viewpoint around the time in which our sorority was founded.
With the help of Analiza Salamat, names were compiled into a list from old El Rodeo's, the USC yearbook. Typically, a formal picture of the sorority would appear in the yearbook, along with the names of the members. Unfortunately, Sigma Phi Omega was not listed in the yearbook from 1949 until 1956. We knew that the sorority had been founded at the University in 1949, but the lack of acknowledgment of our sorority in the El Rodeo proved to be disheartening as it was a major stumbling block in our search for our founding mothers.
However, the names from 1956 El Rodeo's to the present, were recorded and a database was started. These names were organized alphabetically within each chronological year. Once this was completed, information including the year in which each person pledged and when they graduated, was determined through the process of elimination. However, because of the inaccuracy of the elimination process due to unseen factors such as names that may have been not listed in any given year, it has had to be continually updated through the years as more and more correspondence has occurred with USC alumni.
A new and more complete roster was organized between 1998-2000, and many alumni were contacted, via phone or by letter, in order to make appropriate updates to the information that had been collected. Small articles were published in USC's monthly Trojan Magazine and the Pacific Citizen newspaper in Los Angeles. The efforts led to correspondences with alumni from the 1950's and 1970's that we previously did not have contact with, including Joy Fujimoto, Kay Ono Yamane, Beverly Narumi, and Jeanne Kobata Tsuijomoto. They provided a lot of helpful information, however, even with the help of these alumni, we still didn't know who our founding mothers.
It was not until the spring 2002, five years after the History Research Project had begun, when out of the blue, a letter was received from Gayle Kawahara (Pledge Class 1985). Ms. Kawahara had received the Alumni list from a dentist whose wife was one of the founding mother's (Akiko Miyamoto). Interestingly, her mother's cousin, Kazuko Matsumoto, had mentioned that she was an original member. At Convention 2002 Banquet in Dallas, the names of the founding members were announced and were received ecstatically by the members that were present.
Although not yet complete, the History Research Project has been a priceless experience for those who have been a part of it. As we slowly piece the puzzle together, we realize how closely we are intertwined with the history of Asian-Americans in Southern California. We hope to collect more personal memoirs from our alumni about their experiences as Japanese-Americans before, during, and after World War II: many experienced being moved to internment camps during World War II, and married veterans.
It is important to realize and appreciate the true-life experiences that our founding mothers experienced. Furthermore, it is our collective responsibility as Asian-Americans to remember the injustices that occurred only 65 years ago so that history does not repeat itself.