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Prytanean alumnae pose with Spring 2021 Prytanean initiates. Prytanean alumnae with Spring 2021 Prytanean initiates. / Courtesy of Tina Cheung
Alumni Chapters

The First Women’s Honor Organization Pays It Forward

The Prytanean Alumnae Chapter, the first women's honor organization in the United States, continues their efforts to support women and establish intergenerational connections.

March 1, 2023
by Jackie Krentzman

Buoyed by a generous endowment established by Mary Wiley Stecker ’38, the Prytanean Alumnae Chapter supports promising undergraduate women in underrepresented fields through the Cal Alumni Association’s The Leadership Award program.

Chancellor Christ and Faculty Award winner Professor Grace X. Gu posing with Prytanean alumnae and Honor Society members.
Chancellor Christ and Faculty Award winner Professor Grace X. Gu with Prytanean alumnae and Honor Society members. / Courtesy of Tina Cheung

When Michelle Nie ’16 was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, she wanted to join a campus organization that supported service, scholarship, and leadership for women. Her research led her to the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society, the first women’s honor organization in the United States, founded on the Berkeley campus in 1901. 

Today, the Cal Alumni Association’s Prytanean Alumnae Chapter, supported by a generous endowment fund established in 2010, annually bestows awards and prizes to undergraduates in underrepresented fields who embody the ideals of the organization. 

Nie, currently the Alumni Chapter’s Student Award Chair and Scholarship Chair for The Leadership Award, says part of her impetus to join the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society as an undergraduate, and then the Alumni Chapter, was the Society’s storied history. Past members include author Ursula Le Guin as well as some of the university’s most illustrious alumni, such as writer Joan Didion ’56 and film critic Pauline Kael ’40. 

“It was important for me as a student and now as a young alum to connect to multiple generations of Cal female alums. It has been wonderful to meet these women who accomplished such amazing things in their careers and learn about their campus activism.”

Michelle Nie ’16

Nie was also attracted by its mission to connect women across generations. “It was important for me as a student and now as a young alum to connect to multiple generations of Cal female alums,” Nie says. “It has been wonderful to meet these women who accomplished such amazing things in their careers and learn about their campus activism. I don’t have many opportunities to establish intergenerational connections in other places.  It is such an honor to be included among these women who have been such changemakers.”

One of the Alumni Chapter’s priorities is supporting rising women scholars and leaders in fields traditionally underrepresented by women, with $2,000 Leadership Awards. The Cal Alumni Association began administering three such awards in 2010 (in math and science, engineering, and Letters and Science) when the estate of Prytanean member Mary Wiley Stecker ’38 bequeathed $152,000 to establish an endowment in her name for female undergraduates. In 2016, a fourth Leadership Award was added from the surplus funds to support women in architecture and technology.

In addition to the Mary Wiley Stecker and Prytanean Women awards, the Alumni Chapter bestows another award, The Rowena Hamilton Award, selected by the Cal Women’s Athletic Department. It is given to a female student athlete who stands out for her athletic ability, community service, and academic performance.

Prytanean alumnae and Honor Society members with Chancellor Christ at the fall Faculty Award Reception.
Prytanean alumnae and Honor Society members with Chancellor Christ at the fall Faculty Award Reception. / Courtesy of Tina Cheung

The Prytanean Alumnae Chapter also awards a $25,000 unrestricted grant to an untenured faculty member every year, honoring them for their scholarship, teaching, and conduct as a role model.  This year’s Faculty Enrichment Award recipient was Professor Anna Livia Brand from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design. Past awardees include Professor Carolyn Bertozzi (Prytanean Faculty Award recipient, 1998), who was a recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Bestowing these awards is just one of the many activities of the 2,500 person-strong Alumni Chapter. It holds events throughout the year for current honor society and Prytanean Alumnae members. These include a Summer Welcome Party for new students, the faculty award reception every fall, a faculty lecture featuring a previous Faculty Enrichment Award recipient, and an annual spring meeting as well as community service fundraisers and events throughout the year, sometimes in collaboration with the student chapter. The Alumni Chapter is currently focusing on food security and sustainability. Members recently volunteered at the Berkeley Food Network. Past projects include establishing Cowell Hospital (now the Tang Center) and creating a loan and scholarship fund to support student housing.

UC Berkeley students and Prytanean alumnae pose together at the 2022 Summer Welcome Party.
Incoming UC Berkeley students and Prytanean alumnae pose together at the 2022 Summer Welcome Party. / Courtesy of Tina Cheung

In addition, the Alumni Chapter is working to expand its impact by sponsoring career events for student members, such as career panels in health care, law, business, and technology with Prytanean Alumnae.

“This work, along with the continuity of Prytanean scholarships is important because it brings women leaders of today into a sisterhood of women leaders going back to multiple generations of champions of women’s rights,” says Nie. “Through our endowment fund, it also provides financial and community support for emerging leaders to take on ambitious projects and continue leadership in their respective communities. I am so proud to be a Prytanean.”


Alumni: To learn more about getting involved with the Prytanean Honor Society, check out their website and join their LinkedIn or Facebook group.

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