The history of fraternities and sororities is often traced back to 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. On December 5 in the Apollo Room of the Old Raleigh Tavern, the first meeting of Phi Beta Kappa was held. This was a five-student society, founded with the mission of pursuing liberal education and intellectualism. The Phi Beta Kappa motto is 'Love of learning is the guide of life.'
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Although other student societies existed before Phi Beta Kappa, it is often cited as the beginning of the modern Greek system because it began many of the traditions that later sororities and fraternities followed. These include a code of laws, initiation practices, a seal, and an exclusive handshake. The secrecy was one way they felt they could support unrestrained intellectual discourse among members. In 1831, Phi Beta Kappa made all of their secrets and bylaws public.
More features of the modern Greek system developed over time. Chapter houses didn't become common until the 1830's because up until then there weren't enough members to financially support them. In 1851, the first secret society for women was founded at Wesleyan Female College. This was the Adelphean Society, later renamed Alpha Delta Pi.
Learn more about the origins of Greek life:
The Phi Beta Kappa Society: A Brief History of Phi Beta Kappa
Appalachian State University: A History of Greek Life
Alpha Delta Pi: History