Welcome to summer! We have partnered with the Tri-Co Digital Humanities Initiative this year to sponsor a Greenfield intern to conduct historical research in the college archives for a digital project. Brenna Levitin, class of 2016, is a Gender and Sexuality Studies major and will be spending the summer excavating some of the history of queer individuals and groups on campus at Bryn Mawr. In just over a week in the archives Brenna has covered an immense amount of material and has already uncovered some interesting finds. Here, she shares a poem written by an alumna from the class of 1968 that was published in the 1989 Alumnae Bulletin. Look for more posts from Brenna as the summer continues!
Bryn Mawr is often associated with lesbians by the world’s collective conscious. This association and its accompanying veracity have, however not always been publically acknowledged by the college itself. When looking through the archive, LGBT sentiments most often crop up in student publications. These newspapers, zines, and booklets give passionate voice to the oft-marginalized lesbian[i] students.
In 1989, the Alumnae Bulletin published “The Pluralism Issue,” which gave voice to those alumnae/i who felt marginalized on campus. The editors sent out a call for submissions of writing about the minority experience throughout Bryn Mawr’s 104 year history. Most wrote about the lives of racial and ethnic minorities, but a vocal section described living as lesbians on a campus simultaneously approbative and hostile to homosexuality. Responses came from far—class of 1939 and near—class of 1989, from anonymous submissions with vague graduation dates to those who confidently outed themselves.
One submission was the following poem, written in 1989 by Judith Masur ’68. The poem discusses the experience of a lesbian living within the predominant heterosexual culture of Bryn Mawr. Though awareness of sexual minorities is a fairly recent event, Masur elegantly weaves the tale of lesbianism throughout all of Bryn Mawr’s history, from M. Carey Thomas to the present.
The first reference, to Bryn Mawr’s motto, is repeated twice.
Veritatem dilexi: Lesbian
“Veritatem dilexi” means I delight in the truth. Which truth is left ambiguous, but is implied to be the existence of lesbians at Bryn Mawr. It is easy to see how lesbianism can be an eternal truth of Bryn Mawr: from M. Carey Thomas’s journals, to Applebee’s eponymous column, to the open mic nights of today, literary expressions of lesbianism are threaded through our history like one strand in a complex tapestry.
The second stanza makes blatant reference to M. Carey Thomas and her partners, Mamie Gwinn and Mary Garrett, who lived together with Thomas (at different times) in her on-campus residence, the Deanery.
The President’s ‘friend’
The First Dean’s ‘companion’
Lesbianism as it is now understood did not exist in the 1890s, either as perversion or as fact of life. Gwinn and Garrett were explained as Thomas’s dear friends and companions, words which inadequately summed up their relationships as romantic and likely sexual partners.
M. Carey Thomas is referenced again later:
What was it she said
About marriage and failure?
Maybe we got it right the first time
The anonymous “she” is Thomas, often misquoted as saying that only Bryn Mawr’s failures marry. Most likely, the quote was closer to, “Our failures only marry.” The poem wonders at the common misconception, inquiring whether the mistaken Thomas quote is perhaps the correct one. Written when marriage equality was not even a star on the horizon, the poem implicates heterosexual marriage as failure. Those who married men, failed. Perhaps the ultimate failure is, as a school, to erase the rich history of lesbians at Bryn Mawr.
This post is the first of a series concerning the history of LGBT presence at Bryn Mawr College.
[i] We use lesbian here because we are primarily discussing time periods where other non-heterosexual sexualities were not yet understood. We acknowledge and affirm the existence of bisexual and pansexual students on campus, and we hope that these remarks will be understood as addressing them, and any other woman-lovers, as well as the named lesbians.
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When I read in the November 2014 Alumnae Bulletin about this exhibit and saw the name “We are/ We have always been” I thought immediately of my poem. Could it have found an audience again after all these years? Thank you.
I’d like to correct some of the comments made about it in the exhibit. The Plurality issue of the Alumnae Bulletin came about after I was contacted by the Bulletin (possibly by Skip Shakespeare, who edited it for many years, or by Karen Twombley, who ditto). The editor had seen my poem, The Last Ten Years, solicited by the Bulletin at the time of our class’ 10th anniversary, 1978, and published in the fall of that year. She wanted to reprint a part of the poem for our class’ 20th and asked me for a poem on that occasion. I sent them one, which begins “twenty years out”, for the 1988 fall Bulletin, but I said that my condition was that they should at last publish an issue of the Bulletin focusing on the lesbian alumnae. She said she would ask. The Plurality issue was the result. I sent them Veritatem Dilexi for that issue.
The saying of M. Carey Thomas we used to quote in my day was “Only our failures marry.” The, obviously forced, revisionist variation was “Only our failures ONLY marry.” (Now I ask you -!!!??? what are the chances of so clear a communicator saying something like that?)
When I included the original (apocryphal) quotation in the poem, the editor called me with the news that the Library staff refused to acknowledge its validity, so I settled on “What was it she said about failure and marriage/ Maybe we got it right the first time”. I never dreamed that the original quotation would be forgotten or mis-remembered, as it has evidently been after all this time! Back then I felt I could count on it being still alive and accurate in the student consciousness.
When I was in school the homophobia of the administration was very intense. The incident in the poem really happened my sophomore year. And it took decades before there really was no blank in which to designate a partner on the Alumnae Directory response form. Remember this published record predates the internet by decades and was the official historical document regarding the alumnae body.
Years later at a fall gathering for Alumnae fundraisers and class officers and organizers planning upcoming reunions (in 1991 before our 25th I think), I was able to challenge President MacPherson and others about the college’s defensive stance regarding lesbian presence on campus and in the public eye. I felt that this was a gross disservice to our alumnae and said I felt the College should do no less than the King of Denmark had famously done in World War II. It should proudly say that all of us were lesbians and so – deal with it. From things I’ve read since, there has been great progress, not of course only because of my effort.
By the way, the first I knew of any lesbian organizing on campus was when I met some Mawrters marching in the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and gay rights.
I would be happy to talk with you if you want, or contact me by email, not Facebook. I don’t tweet.
Anassa kata on your exhibit. And thanks again.
Judith Masur ’68
Erratum: I meant Jan Trembley not Karen Twombly, above, former editor of the Bulletin. Forgive this mistake!
Another note: I have always translated Veritatem Dilexi as “I have chosen truth”, though I guess you could also see it as “I [have] delight[ed] in truth,” as you translate it.
cf.: diligo to single out, value, esteem, prize, love
(Show lexicon entry in Lewis & Short Elem. Lewis) (search)
dilexi verb 1st sg perf ind act
Thank you so much for these thoughtful comments. I’m so glad that you found the exhibit, and that you appreciated it. Thank you also for all of your clarifications on the history. I would love to talk to you more about your experiences in school and out, as an alumna. I was especially interested to hear about your experiences of administrative homophobia, as we are still experiencing it (though in different ways), and about how it felt to be a lesbian in such a contradictory environment. You have an incredibly valuable perspective to add to the exhibit.
I’ll send you an email soon to ask about further conversation scheduling!
Only BMC could have a motto with two meaning: I chose the truth / I loved the truth — and have such a multitude of truths v-a-v women loving women.
An alumna of ’89 told me that we used to have graffiti in the sidewalk somewhere which said like “vertatem feminas dilexi” (what she translated as “Here I have loved women and the truth.”