Berea and Bryn Mawr College: Virtual collaboration in the History of Women’s Education

Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

We here at The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College are delighted to let you know about a new collaborative initiative between us and students at Berea College. As you know from our Mission Statement we are dedicated to creating resources, discussion and teaching across the wide spectrum of interesting narratives in the history of women’s education and the connection with Berea college is our first foray into connecting with other universities and institutions interested in exploring their own stories of women’s educational experiences in the past.

Former CLIR (Council on Libraries and Information Resources) fellow and editor of the wonderful history of Bryn Mawr College, Offerings to Athena, Dr. Anne Bruder, is now a professor at Berea College in Kentucky. She has been introducing her students to digital methods in historical research and as part of her class students worked on producing an Omeka based exhibit which we will proudly feature on our site. The site is due to go live in a beta version later in June and this exhibit, ‘At School, at Work, at Play: Gender Complexities at the First Southern Coeducational College’, will be among our first (but not of course our last) experiments into building collaborative relationships with those working on the history of women’s education. This fits with the aim of the Digital Center to reach out beyond the walls of Bryn Mawr and to encourage and facilitate links with other institutions that have interesting histories to share about women’s education in the past.

Berea College's first class. Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

Berea College was founded on religious principles that stressed equality between people and advocated for the right for all to be educated. It recognized that not all students would have the economic means to obtain higher education, and thus it provided labor opportunities to help students pay for their education but also to gain valuable work experience (for more on the history and the mission of the college see Berea’s website). The students’ exhibit details the gender dynamics in its student population, academic program and behavioral expectations. As the exhibit details, from the inauguration of the school in 1855, there was a distinct definition of gender roles envisaged for its staff and student population. For while Berea provided educational opportunities for both men and women there are many examples of Berea encouraging and even enforcing specific gender roles on its students. Men were directed to pursue vocational education that would equip them to earn a living while women were encouraged to purse courses of study that would enhance their abilities within the home or traditionally female careers. Berea also provided opportunities for students to pay their way through college with work, and the same gender divisions again emerged in the college’s labor program. Its positions for men and women were decidedly different, re-enforcing the woman’s role as mother and the man’s role as provider.

Courtesy of Berea College Special Collections and Archives

As detailed in the exhibit, while Berea was known for racial equality, it still upheld traditional gendered expectations of men and women undertaking higher education. This is in contrast to the emphasis within Bryn Mawr College on female students attaining the highest academic standards comparable to the Ivy League colleges for men, with a diminished emphasis (in comparison to other women’s colleges) on domestic science. Although many students from Bryn Mawr College did marry (some before finishing their degrees) M. Carey Thomas was particularly concerned that Bryn Mawr be perceived as a serious site of academic study for women. Students here did not make their beds or attend to other domestic duties in the early decades of the college, relying on maids and porters for assistance in the dorms.

We are thankful to Dr. Bruder, her students, and the staff of Berea College Special Collections and Archives for their help in putting together this exhibition. Keep checking this blog for details of when the exhibit is made live!