In 1909, seven female students at the University of Washington in Seattle entered the college’s new journalism program, the second of its kind in the country.
One of the students, Georgina MacDougall came up with the idea suddenly for a women’s journalism society, and she talked about it into the night with fellow student Helen Ross. The next day, the pair enlisted the remaining female students, Blanche Brace, Rachel Marshall, Olive Mauermann, Helen Graves and Irene Somerville to create Theta Sigma Phi. Encouraged by their journalism professor, the women united their talents in creating the first women’s edition of the university newspaper, The Pacific Daily Wave.
By 1915, there were Theta Sigma chapters at the universities of Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Ohio State University. Officers from the Washington chapter still doubled as national officers, and the organization began publishing The Matrix, a Magazine for Women Journalists.
In 1918, Theta Sigma Phi held its first convention at the University of Kansas. A year later, women in Kansas City founded the first alumnae chapters (now known as professional chapters), followed by women in Des Moines and Indianapolis.
World War I brought more women into newspaper jobs as their male colleagues went to battle. Theta Sigma Phi member Alice Rohe was a United Press reporter in Rome; Bessy Beatty of the San Francisco Bulletin and Sigrid Schulz of the Chicago Tribune reported from Germany as the war ended. But in the postwar economic slump, hostility against “women in men’s jobs” ran high. Many editors relegated women to society pages instead of “hard news.”
Although women gained the right to vote in 1920, support lagged for other reforms. Ruby Black, who was national president, editor of The Matrix and the first manager of an employment bureau for members, noted in 1931 that female journalists couldn’t get reporting jobs at the same pay as similarly qualified men.
Theta Sigma Phi strengthened as a national network during the 1930s. The association hired a professional director and founded a national office in 1934. It inaugurated the Headliner Awards in 1939 to honor members who had made outstanding contributions to the field. The group gave Eleanor Roosevelt honorary membership for her efforts to aid female communicators. The first lady’s most notable action was to close her news conferences to male reporters. Mrs. Roosevelt contributed several articles to The Matrix.
By 1940, Theta Sigma Phi had 39 chapters, and World War II was expanding opportunities for women. But inequality persisted, and women were regarded as temporary or less-serious workers. At the Theta Sigma Phi convention in 1946, delegates required all chapters to eliminate any race restrictions from their by-laws.
By 1950, the group had grown to 47 campus chapters and 29 alumnae groups as more women began to work.
In 1964, Theta Sigma Phi established its headquarters in Austin, Texas. Jo Caldwell Meyer retired after serving as executive secretary for 24 years, leaving a legacy of leadership and personal attention to members’ needs.