A Deep But Unilateral Intimacy: Reading the Life of Another Mawrtyr

While the broader goal of the Greenfield Center is to create a space for dialogue on the history of women’s higher education, one area of focus has been to use our collections to highlight the lives and stories of specific individuals who have shaped that history.1 Some have been notable for their influence here at Bryn Mawr, while others are distinguished by accomplishments that reach far beyond the school. A rich grasp of the history of the rise of women in higher education must grow out of an intimate knowledge of the extraordinary individuals who appear as characters in that broader narrative.

Margaret Bailey Speer

For my first project as a member of the Greenfield team, I was introduced to the Speer Family Papers: an extensive collection of materials from the family of Margaret Bailey Speer, Bryn Mawr class of 1922. Since July I have been immersed in her letters and photographs, selecting items to feature and attempting to shape a narrative that will authentically illuminate her distinctive life and voice. This has been my first engagement with Bryn Mawr history and culture since I graduated in 2010, and it has been invigorating to jump back into a place in which I have a heavy personal investment with such a fascinating project.

Yearbook photo clipping with comment quoted from President Thomas

During her time at Bryn Mawr, Margaret Bailey Speer (or “MBS”, as she chose to be referred to in text) was a distinguished student and leader. In addition to serving as junior class president in 1920-21, much of her extracurricular activity on campus was focused around the Christian Association. Her religion had been deeply instilled in her throughout her childhood, as her father was one of the key figures in the Protestant missionary movement. Thus, she established involvement with the CA early on and rose to the post of president by the time she was a senior, when she graduated from Bryn Mawr with honors. However, the bulk of my work so far has been on MBS’s life after Bryn Mawr, which is characterized by the same aptitude for leadership that she had demonstrated during her student days: when she was only twenty-five, MBS left the US to teach English literature at a missionary-established women’s college in China, where she would (unsurprisingly) make her way to the deanship. After the Second World War she returned to the States and took an appointment as headmistress of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, PA, where she remained until her retirement. The value of the Speer collection lies not only in the record of her accomplishments, but also in the portrait that it forms of a fascinating woman of integrity and wit. Through her letters one watches her develop an amazing ability to foster community and connections between disparate groups, and become a strong advocate for minority voices. These letters are an excellent read.

Archival work can be a thoroughly immersive undertaking: it is a strange thing, to cultivate a deep but uni-lateral intimacy with another person’s life and character. My first foray into this type of work came in my junior year as an undergraduate, when I took Elliott Shore’s class on the history of Bryn Mawr College2 and worked on the letters of Nathalie Gookin, BMC class of ’20, from her freshman year in 1916. As a Bryn Mawr student I was primarily reading Nathalie’s letters for similarities and differences between her life and my own, trying to grasp what it meant to be a Mawrtyr across the century-and-a-quarter that such a thing had existed. Though I was learning the story of Nathalie’s life, I was also turning my gaze inwards as I sought fragments of myself and my own experiences among hers.

Newspaper clipping on the visit of Madame Kai-shek to Yenching. MBS fourth from left in back

In contrast, I have found that the Speer papers continually refracts my gaze outwards. Because of the sheer volume of the Gookin letters (Nathalie wrote to her parents with astonishing frequency; often multiple times a day), I was completely absorbed in the quotidian details of her daily existence but only had time to cover a relatively brief period of her life. The Speer letters are far less dense in frequency, due in part to the month of lag-time in postal correspondence between China and the US, but cover a much greater span of time and space: we have nearly three decades of regular letters from MBS to her parents, as well as several audio interviews from the 1980s and various other photographs, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings. Together these materials tell a story that extends far beyond Bryn Mawr College and open up avenues into individual and collective histories that are personal, political, religious, and international. While the Gookin collection indulged my need to reflect on my own identity and experience as a Mawrtyr and a young woman, I find that the Speer collection continually sprouts connecting tendrils into other stories, challenging me to locate the place of the individual in a global history and thus to shape broader and more comprehensive narratives out of the words she left us.

The first phase of my work on MBS has been the construction of a digital exhibit that showcases many of the letters and photographs from her collection. This resource is meant to serve as an entry-point into the history of MBS for the researcher or casual browser, giving an overview of her life and career as well as establishing the personal characteristics that stand out in her letters. Next, I hope to publish a series of blog posts that tease out some of the topics that her letters bring to light, including relations between women’s colleges in different nations and the role of missionaries in education.

This work has been the start of what I know will be an exciting year, and I can’t wait to see what the archives will next present as I continue to work on the Greenfield Center.

1. This blog has published several posts in this vein, including several on M.Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett and one on Lucy Martin Donnelly. See “M. Carey Thomas, a Ouija Board, and a Moment of Reflection”, “Ever Wondered what M. Carey Thomas Sounded Like? If so, listen Up!”, “M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett – Lives in Letters”, and ” ‘“Don’t Put Up My Thread and Needle’: a few thoughts on archives, unbinding, and digital books“.
2. My reflections on the experience I had in that class were published in the 2009 issue of the library newsletter, Mirabile Dictu.

3 thoughts on “A Deep But Unilateral Intimacy: Reading the Life of Another Mawrtyr

  1. Evan McGonagill: Have you seen LIKE GOOD STEEL, Margaret Bailey Speer”s China Letters which I edited when I was Archivist at BMC, published in 1994 ?

    • Hi Caroline,

      I have! When I began my research I used the paper letters exclusively, partially because the letters from her pre-Yenching years are not included in the book and partially so that I could establish my sense of her voice unedited. Lately, however, I’ve been using your book as a reference and have found it to be excellent and very helpful. It will definitely be receiving mention and I plan to add it as a resource for future researchers in the exhibit.


      • Thanks, Evan. Marnie Speer was very much alive when I was working on the book and reviewed it carefully. We sent copies to Yenching and BMC alumnae who knew her, and she had many good letters back. Great that you are gi ving her life digital attention.


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