The Woman’s Column: Tracking Women’s Education in a Pro-Suffrage Publication

Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Woman’s Journal and Woman’s Column

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education will be showcasing content from March issues of The Woman’s Column, a very exciting recent acquisition of Bryn Mawr Special Collections. Published between 1887 and 1905 and edited by Alice Stone Blackwell, The Woman’s Column was a weekly newsletter focused on developments in suffrage and other related women’s rights issues. Its better-known sister publication, The Woman’s Journal (1870 – 1931), is more widely available, but thus far we have been unable to locate a print collection of the Column that is as complete and well-preserved as the one we have acquired. We are currently taking steps to have the entire collection digitized and made available for free on Internet Archive.

The original purpose of the Column was to serve newspapers with a regular source of copy on women’s suffrage, but private subscribers soon became numerous as well: at only 25 cents per year, it was an easy and relatively inexpensive way to keep a finger on the pulse of the women’s rights movement. A quick glance through its collected pages shows that it kept its readers apprised of a wide variety of happenings: in addition to regular updates on the various regional, national, and international legislative battles over women’s rights, the Column also published concise rebuttals to common anti-suffrage arguments, profiles of influential women and career success stories, and opinion articles regarding women’s role in society.

Content about the availability of education to women, especially higher education, was a regular feature of The Woman’s Column. Articles appeared nearly weekly detailing developments in the policies of specific schools, changes in legislation, updates on women’s education in specific regions or abroad, and profiles of notable college women. Occasionally the magazine would publish a piece collecting tidbits from many different institutions, such as the one featured here.

Click on the image above to view the article “In Schools and Colleges”–transcription attached

This article serves as a very broad account of the happenings of various American institutions, ranging from fund-raising updates and a notification of new fellowships to be offered by Bryn Mawr, to the lighter recounting of the Women’s Medical College of Chicago’s first celebration of “University Day” since becoming a department of Northwestern University. The Column describes the festivities as lively indeed, “characterized by college songs, college yells, college pranks and college jollity,” but also assures the mindful reader that “as it was conducted on the co-educational plan, nothing discreditable occurred.”

What does this article tell us about the publication, about the way women’s education was approached in the late 19th century, and about the culture of the women’s rights movement? It is notable that the article does not contain any direct mentions or links to suffrage, which was seen as the key motivating issue of the publication. The frequency and scope of the education-related content in this issue and others speaks to the degree to which women’s higher education was considered to be germane to the women’s rights movement, since education-related content did not need to directly reference suffrage to be considered worthy of inclusion in the pages of The Woman’s Column. Both suffrage and education were important sites of leverage for increasing women’s role in the public sphere, and for giving them greater capacity to shape their own lives.  It also suggests that the readers of the magazine, and women interested in suffrage in general, would be invested in the cause of women’s education perhaps because they were largely college graduates themselves. If The Woman’s Column audience did not have a personal background that included college culture, it seems doubtful that the items focused less on legislation and more on social events, such as the account of the “University Day” celebrations, would have been featured.

We will be featuring a different excerpt from The Woman’s Column every week throughout March to celebrate this important new acquisition and to mark Women’s History Month. For further reading on the history of the publication, or on Alice Stone Blackwell and her mother, Lucy Stone’s influential role in shaping the voice of the women’s rights movement, the following sources are recommended:

Women’s Periodicals in the United States: Social and Political Issues, edited by Kathleen L. Endres, Therese L. Lueck

Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights, by Alice Stone Blackwell

Registration Continues for the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference

Registration continues for the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference, March 22nd -23rd 2013.

The conference brings together scholars, archivists, technologists, librarians, graduate students and those involved in the arts, heritage and cultural sectors to discuss their work on women’s history in the new realm of the digital world of research and teaching. Our keynote speaker on March 22rd, Professor Laura Mandell is Director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture and Professor of English at Texas A&M University. She will speak on ‘Feminist Critique vs. Feminist Production in Digital Humanities’ at 5.30pm in Wyndham and will be followed by a reception, also at Wyndham. Consecutive panels and a roundtable, featuring over 50 speakers, will happen on Saturday March 23rd.

We have developed a separate conference website where you can find directions to the campus, the registration form and the full conference schedule. This site also acts as a repository for conference related materials after the event, so if you can’t make it be sure to check back for copies of the presentations you missed. Registration is completed online, with the $30 registration fee to be forwarded separately via check.

For access to the official conference website go to

Please email if you have any questions.

We look forward to seeing you!



Maids, Porters and the Hidden World of Work at Bryn Mawr College: Celebrating Stories for Black History Month

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

We have previously referred to the maids and porters who worked at Bryn Mawr College in other posts and here we reflect more on their presence and significance at the college as part of our celebrations of Black History Month at Bryn Mawr College. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out the Tri-Co Chapter of the NAACP on Facebook and on Tumblr for details of their events throughout the month of February. We have been working with them to assist in their research and their exciting program should not be missed.

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

We are interested in the campus as a space, one that housed different groups across the years and one that is often remembered due to its distinctive architecture and beautifully kept grounds. In thinking more about campus communities and space, it seemed appropriate to examine what evidence we had on those who were integral to maintaining it: maids and porters, the majority of whom historically were African American.

One finding we have made from the research we have conducted at The Albert M. Greenfield Center for the History of Women’s Education on maids and porters at the college is that despite the fact that they were often incredibly close to the students, they rarely feature in the memorializing students did of their lives here. Why is this? Were they so fundamental to the experience of living in the dorms that it was almost too obvious to acknowledge their presence in their reminiscences? Were many maids and porters shy about getting their photos taken? How would they describe their experiences if we could speak with them today? Although we have many questions, we do know, however, through scrapbook evidence, that the maids and porters produced a theatrical show every year and the College Archives contain some photographs of the ways in which students and maids and porters interacted in the dorms.

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

We also know that there was a night school, a Sunday School and a Maid’s Club which offered classes to interested maids. The Maid’s Club kept a library in their club room and it was reported in the College News of November 15, 1922 that the maids were ‘particularly enthusiastic about singing’ and often sewed while they met (see Offerings to Athena page 103 for more on maids at Bryn Mawr).

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives








From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives



Jen Rajchel’s exhibit on our site examines dorm cultures at Bryn Mawr and Jessy Brody’s work on scrapbooks has revealed their virtual absence from the photograph albums and scrapbooks she reviewed – over one hundred in total – that span the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is despite the fact that students and the staff who looked after their domestic needs in dorms across campus had multiple daily interactions, either in person or through the transmission of goods or services. Seeking out their experiences has required a little more detective work and a stronger reliance on source material from oral histories, memoirs and personal letters, rather than traditional documentary sources that can be used in the construction of ‘important’ historical figures, or those who maintained personal archives.

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

One such example is a wonderful interview with Fleta Blocker, which you can listen to in its entirety here. Blocker began at the college as a bell maid, a position that revolved around answering the telephone in dormitories, but she progressed in her roles at the college, ending her four-decade career as a Hall Manager, a role previously only held by white women. Her life was rich and full: active in her church, she traveled the world, inspired by the Bryn Mawr environment to see places such as Oxford and Africa. We included a link to this interview in the new exhibition Taking Her Place at the Rare Book Room Gallery in Canaday Library (on view until June 2nd 2013) in the Broadening the World of Bryn Mawr section, as there was a connection between maids at the college and the women who attended the Summer School for Women Workers. (A digital exhibit on the latter group is coming to the site soon!) The women at the Summer School, many of whom worked in poor conditions in factories across America, were moved to complain about the living conditions they saw the maids had, living in the attics of dorms without proper ventilation in the heat of summer. This was an issue that resurfaced again and the ‘living in’ arrangement was eventually phased out.

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

We also learned from an interview with alum Jane Drucker (whose interview, along with many others, will be available later this year on the Tri-Co digital repository Triptych), that it was a student rather than a member of the staff who headed the Maids and Porters Association for their dorm. This was not a staff association as such, and Drucker recalls her main responsibility as being to organize end of year gifts for the staff who looked after her dorm. It was not, therefore, despite its name, an association to advocate for staff. Looking back, Drucker thought this was odd, but at the time it was the norm that women students would fulfill such a role.

From the Bryn Mawr College Archives

Photographs of the work that maids and porters did, however, are a feature of the college archive collections and many personal scrapbooks and photograph albums. The immaculately kept dorm rooms appear regularly in scrapbooks, catalogs and what appear to be college commissioned photographs so their importance in the life of the college cannot be underestimated. Many of the photographs show elaborately decorated rooms that imitate parlors in houses where ladies would sit; it is obvious that much effort has been put into creating environments that are comfortable and appropriate for college women. It’s worth considering, therefore, the people who worked to maintain such homely environments.

At The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education we are interested in representing the diversity of experiences in education and illuminating the world of women at Bryn Mawr and other colleges in the past. Examining the lives of those who helped them to focus more intently on the ‘life of the mind’ rather than domestic concerns is another angle of vision on past worlds. As we uncover more information through our research activities, we will be adding it so keep watching the site. In the meantime, this great timeline about the “Invisible Women” in domestic service in US history created by Mother Jones is well worth visiting.

Finally, if you have memories you would like to share or any comments, make sure to add them below!

New Exhibition: Taking Her Place

Opening January 28 until June 2nd 2013

Class of 1912 Rare Book Room,
Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College

Exhibition hours daily 11 am – 4:30 pm

Open Wednesdays until 7.30pm during term time


Taking Her Place is an exhibition dedicated to showcasing the history of women’s education through the treasures of Bryn Mawr’s collections of rare books, manuscript material, photographs, textiles, oral histories and art and artifacts. It opens on January 28th 2013 with a talk by renowned historian and biographer of M. Carey Thomas, Professor Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Professor Emerita at Smith College and a member of our Advisory Board. Her talk will be on ‘Reading, Writing, Arithmetic … and Power: Education as Entry to the World”. This will take place in Carpenter Library B21 at 5.30pm and all are welcome to attend. A reception at the Rare Book Room Gallery will follow.

Taking Her Place illuminates the story of women’s access to the public world of employment and civic engagement through education, the key way in which women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expanded their sphere beyond the confines of their homes. We trace the early origins of educational debates, feature the histories of famous alums, and show how Bryn Mawr grew into the diverse environment for women’s education that it is today. This is an interactive exhibition and you will be able to link to further content online using smart phones or tablets.

There will be other events throughout the time the exhibition is showing, including a talk by Professor Elaine Showalter, Bryn Mawr College class of ’62 and Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita, Princeton University, on Thursday April 18th 2013 at 5.30pm, also in Carpenter Library B21.

We are offering three guided tours by the co-curators as part of Alumnae Reunion Weekend where we will tell you more about our choice of objects, the themes of the exhibition, and can answer any questions you have. Please see the official calendar of events for further details. Further updates will also be provided on our site.

Purchasing Privilege

Pembroke Hall Interior

Money has played a vital role in women’s higher education from the earliest days of its establishment, both as the means for change and as a lubricant for societal acceptance of that change. It is tempting to view women’s path into higher education as a narrative about dismantling privilege across the board, which in many ways it has been. However, privilege is multi-faceted, and exists in many overlapping and entangled forms. Like many histories of rights and access, this complex entanglement has resulted in a slow and graduated pattern of progress rather than a straight upward trajectory, partially because of the participation of many agents with varied approaches and priorities: some of the institutions that fought the oppression of women early on did so from a foundation of financial and racial privilege, while others took more radical approaches to economic and racial diversity without directly addressing gender.[1] M. Carey Thomas firmly believed that women’s intellectual capacity matched that of men, but her approach to securing gender equality (as embodied by Bryn Mawr) was based on appropriating, rather than dismantling, the elite status associated with the liberal arts education.[2] In the process of carving out their own stake in education, women have often used money to reify the elite status of the educated rather than changing the tone of the debate to include a broader view of equality. However, though the disparities and contradictions of early progress in educational access may not be consistent with the interpretation of “equality” that we attempt to hold ourselves to today, they should not be considered failures. Rather, they are indicative of the complexity and length of time that it takes to apply holistic change to society.

The strong association between liberal arts education and elite status is deeply rooted[3] and self-reinforcing: not only does it require access to a source, such as books or tutors, but traditional education also demands time and space in which to study—both of which are derived directly from wealth. Virginia Woolf asserted that the material prerequisites of education were not to be romantically discounted, famously declaring that intellectual productivity demands not only “a room of one’s own”, but also the rather significant income of at least five hundred pounds per year.[4]

Our recent look back at nineteenth-century college entrance exams makes these requirements feel tangible: would the passage of any of these exams been conceivable for an applicant that did not have the financial means to acquire tutors and study materials, find well-lit and heated spaces for study, and apply the ample amount of time that the work requires? The actual tuition of attending a school like Bryn Mawr, hardly insignificant, is only the crowning expense atop a pyramid of socioeconomic privilege that made attendance an imaginable possibility. Nor was it the final expense: Jen Rajchel, in her exhibit “Residing in the Past, has also discussed the ways in which the exposure of economic privilege was woven into the fabric of daily life once the student arrived at school.

In addition to the material aspects of education, money can purchase immaterial advantages. A physical setting for the school could have been acquired without indulging the sumptuous details boasted by the Bryn Mawr College campus, but the institution in any lesser form would not have embodied the future of women’s education as envisioned by M. Carey Thomas. The campus’s deliberate mimicry of the magisterial style of its predecessors was an intangible but crucial component of the political statement that Thomas was making about the educability of women, and it would have been diluted or lost had the school been a different (less expensive) physical environment.

The achievement of higher education for women simply cannot be imagined without the role of financial privilege in the narrative: the sum of the tangible and intangible things afforded by money is that wealth grants a public space in which to pioneer change: at Bryn Mawr[5] and Johns Hopkins[6], dissenting voices were only overcome and outweighed by the Garrett family fortune. Women’s right to education may have been fought for heroically in the cultural battleground of public opinion, but it was also purchased. This fact, though not always flattering, is an important part of our history and must inform any discussion of our institutional identity.

Research assistance by Jessy Brody.



Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.


[1] Often, different forms of privilege were in dialogue with one another during the formation of institutional identity. In her biography of M. Carey Thomas, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz reports that Harvard president Charles W. Eliot cautioned against coeducation while advising the Thomas family on school policy for Johns Hopkins University: as paraphrased by Mary Thomas, mother of M. Carey Thomas, “coeducation does very well in communities where persons are more on an equality, but in a large city where persons of all classes are thrown together it works badly, unpleasant associations are formed, and disastrous marriages are often the result.” (Horowitz, p. 48)

[2] Several of the resources on this site, which are part of an effort to process our own history, have explicitly acknowledged that in most cases the documented use of the word “women” is a recognized stand-in for “white, middle- or upper-class women”. For example, see Jessy Brody’s exhibit, “Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, 1885-1929

[3]In ancient Rome, the liberal arts were the near-exclusive property of men of the ruling class; to be educated was to be elite, and only the elite were educated, as William V. Harris describes in Ancient Literacy. The Renaissance and Enlightenment saw the revaluation of the classical canon and its integration into early modern education, influencing the elite who led the American Revolution. Liberal education remained essentially a classical education throughout the 19th century. Even today, remnants of the philosophy of ancient education remain in the idea that the liberal arts prepare one to be a good citizen, able to lead and succeed in high-status, male-dominated occupations such as politics and business, even without conferring profession-specific qualifications. The liberal arts, albeit in changed form, remain a mark of social status. For more information about the development of the liberal arts in the United States, see Classica Americana, Reinhold, The Culture of Classicism, Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900, The American College in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Roger Geiger, The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, A History of American Higher Education, Thelin, American Higher Education, A History, Lucas.

[4] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.

[5] As early as 1883 Carey Thomas had a desire to install herself as president of Bryn Mawr College. However, her path to the presidency was to be long and drawn out. Upon the resignation, due to failing health, of the College’s first president, the trustees responded to the subject of her potential appointment with the admission that they were “terrified at the thought of putting a woman in sole power.” Thomas’s eventual installation as president was effected through an exchanged in which Garrett offered the school $10,000 per year, or more than 10% of the annual budget, on the condition that Thomas be given the presidency. (Horowitz, p. 257)

[6] Though M. Carey Thomas had originally enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Medical School (which was part of the university that several male members of her family had helped to found), her frustrating first year resulted in her subsequent departure for Leipzig. Though she was allowed to sit for exams and consult with professors, she was not permitted to attend classes. (Horowitz, p. 98) Coeducation remained a subject of conversation, but was strongly opposed by a large percentage of the board. When the medical school needed money, Mary Garrett took advantage of their desperation and offered to raise the needed sum on the condition that the school begin admitting women on equal terms with men. It was only by applying pressure during a moment of financial need, and the contribution of a humongous sum, that Garrett was able to secure coeducation despite its unpopularity with the administrators. (Ibid, pp. 233-35)

Call for papers: Women’s History in the Digital World, the first conference of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education

Call for Papers: Women’s History in the Digital World

Keynote Speaker: Professor Laura Mandell

Director, Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture
Professor, Department of English, Texas A&M

Bryn Mawr College

March 22nd and March 23rd 2013

The first conference held by The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education will be held on Bryn Mawr College campus and will bring together experts and novices to share insights, lessons, and information on the landscape of women’s history in the world of twenty-first century technology.

‘Women’s History in the Digital World’ will bring together scholars, archivists, digital humanists, students, and all those interested in the development of women’s history in the new era of digital humanities research. The conference will begin with a keynote address by renowned digital humanist, Professor Laura Mandell on Friday March 22nd, followed by a reception. Panels will be held all day on Saturday March 23rd.

The Center seeks scholars working on women’s history projects with a digital component, investigating the complexities of creating, managing, researching and teaching with digital resources. We will explore the exciting vistas of scholarship in women’s histories and welcome contributors from across the globe.  Key issues, new projects, theoretical approaches and new challenges in the digital realm of historical and cultural research on women. All thematic areas and time periods are included: this is a chance to share knowledge, network and promote stimulating conversations in women’s history in the context of digital humanities initiatives today.

We invite individual papers or panels on new projects, theoretical approaches, teaching, research and new challenges in the digital realm of historical and cultural research on women.

Please email abstracts (200 words max) and a bio (100 words max) to by December 14th 2012.

Check the website for further updates or follow us on Twitter @GreenfieldHWE

Early Entrance Exams: Could you get into Bryn Mawr in the nineteenth century?

As we welcome the new class of Bryn Mawr College students and greet the many established Mawrters we have already met, I began to ponder an aspect of our research that might be relevant to all those who have recently completed the admissions process…. examinations!

As part of our collaboration with Temple University students last year (see the blog post by Lisa MacMurray on her time as part of the National History Day Cultural Collaboration project) we examined entrance examinations from the past at Bryn Mawr College and the other Seven Sisters. Lisa and her colleague Sam Perry also sourced some examinations from Ivy League colleges in an attempt to compare the different types of exams across the male and female colleges at the end of the nineteenth century. What we found amazed us: most of us would never be able to get into these colleges if those exams were used today! Why so? Knowledge (with a capital ‘K’), or what is deemed sufficient knowledge to obtain and exhibit in order to describe oneself as educated at a higher level, is both culturally and time specific.

Many of the early entrance examinations for the Seven Sisters colleges had an emphasis on religious, bible-based history and candidates were expected to be familiar with the Old and New Testaments. While this may appear odd in today’s more secular educational cultures, it must be remembered that many colleges – both men’s and women’s – were founded on religious principles and were meant to cater specifically for students of particular denominations. Bryn Mawr College and Haverford were, as you will be familiar, founded by Quakers to be places where younger members of the Society of Friends could study within a religious atmosphere accordant to principles consistent with their beliefs.

Courtesy of the Wellesley College Archives

Others were founded on the same principles, and their examinations demonstrate their expectation that students entering their institutions be familiar with religious histories. Take this extract from the entrance exam for Wellesley College, generously supplied to us by their Archives department (click on the image to view an enlarged version) from June 1888

As you will see, the questions ask the students to analyze and give opinions on episodes from Biblical history, for example: ‘Outline the career of Noah’ or ‘Give in detail the covenant with Abraham and under what circumstances it was made’. I would venture to guess that given the diverse nature of students today and the diminished emphasis in the school system on learning religious histories as part of examinable courses, many students would struggle to answer such questions.

Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives

The exam paper on the left is from Columbia College c.1890s and was kindly given to us to display by Barnard College Archives. The topics of ancient geography and ancient history were ones expected by that institution to be familiar to students wishing to enter. Perhaps you specialized in these topics as part of your high school education, but I would certainly have found it difficult to answer ‘Give an account of the legislation of Solon, and the form of government of Athens to the time of Philip I’ (granted, I did my education in Ireland which focused on different kinds of topics for senior high school history, but even still, the nature of these questions seem both specific and difficult).

What about Bryn Mawr College? The first college program (which is available online as part of Bryn Mawr College Archives collection on Internet Archive) specified the entrance requirements as the following:  a candidate must be at least sixteen years of age, and give ‘satisfactory testimonials of personal character’. In addition, they would be examined in the following:

  • English: spelling, grammar and composition
  • Modern geography
  • Mathematics
  • Latin
  • Greek or French or German
  • If omitting Greek, candidates had to be examined in one of the following: the elements of physics; the elements of chemistry; the elements of physiology

So this is what you needed to be considered to enter the college …. what about the entrance examinations themselves? Again, Latin and Greek appear as important subjects and exams were conducted for both; in addition, mathematics, English, History, French and German and Natural science.

Bryn Mawr College Arithmetic Examination 1890

As you can see from the exam from Bryn Mawr College, students wishing to enter had to display a broad spectrum of knowledge in the examinations, from arithmetic to Greek, English to Geography, a particularly challenging array of subjects given that many girls did not go to formal secondary schools in the nineteenth century but were educated at home, either by tutors, governesses or themselves (or a combination of all three if they were lucky to have the resources).



Bryn Mawr College Latin Examination 1890


The Latin examination illustrates the importance put on classical languages in the college’s early years, with every entrant expected to have a base knowledge in order to progress in their studies. In this examination candidates were asked to translate selected passages from English into Latin, and others from Latin into English. The difficulty of completing all the requirements is indicated in the fact that an instruction appears at the end that candidates who ‘found the paper too long’ were advised to focus on the first three questions and divide the rest of their time in answering other parts. Are there any readers who would find the task easy? If so, provide us with translations in the comment box below …

Candidates for entrance to the college were also expected to have a knowledge of physical geography and be able to competently describe, for example, the leading physical features of both North and South America as in the example below (as with the other images, click on the exam image to see it appear larger in another window).

Bryn Mawr College Physical Geography Examination 1890

Looking at exams brings us also to analyze the nature of that kind of learning, or what is more commonly referred to as strategic rather than deep learning; in other words, ‘cramming’. This is not a contemporary observation, indeed a writer in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Quarterly (Vol. VI January, 1913, No. 4, available online here).

“But there are other reasons why students entering the course are unequally prepared. You will say, ‘all the students have to stand the same entrance test.’ This is true, and that brings me to the third cause for the bad composition of our classes. We have evidently not the right test: our entrance examinations are not of the right sort. The students can ‘cram,’ which means they can make a show when really they know very little” (187).

Studying for exams is an essential part of college life, and for many one of its most challenging aspects. Next time, however, you think of how difficult you are finding your test questions to answer, remember that this was an experience shared by students in the past as well as your peers now, and do your best to keep calm and Mawrter on!

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.

Winner of the inaugural student essay prize, Kai Wang ’15 on why single sex education matters today.

Kai Wang, winner of the undergraduate essay prize 2012

As we welcome new students to Bryn Mawr College this week, we thought we would feature the work of a current student. This post is brought to you by Kai Wang ’15, a current Bryn Mawr College undergraduate student and winner of the inaugural Essay Competition of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. Kai won a $500 cash prize, sponsored by the Friends of the Library at Bryn Mawr College, and the opportunity to publish her essay here. Kai was also honored in the annual prize giving ceremony. The judging panel was comprised of the Director of the Center, Dr. Jennifer Redmond, Ms. Jen Rajchel ’11, at that time Digital Initiatives Intern, Mae Carlson ’12, representing the Student Government Association, and Professor Sharon Ullman of the History Department. We all thought Kai’s essay connected the past with the present landscape of women’s education in interesting ways. Well done Kai! If you are new to Bryn Mawr College, keep an eye out for the posters this semester announcing the second competition.

Kai spent this past summer doing an exciting short self-initiated extern at the Beijing Cancer Hospital in the Department of Hepatic, Biliary and Pancreatic Cancer. At the hospital she could closely observe and learn more about the doctors’ jobs from a more authoritative perspective, in addition to familiarizing herself with the procedures in a hospital setting, interacting with patients and building more experience for a potential career in the medical field. After this, she returned to Canada to spend the rest of the summer break helping with her small family-operated plant nursery, soaking up the Summer sun, and cracking a  few books in preparation for another beautiful semester back home at Bryn Mawr.


Kai Wang: Why Single Sex Education Matters Today

With the hot debate on the significance of single-sex education, dominating public opinion questions the necessity of continuing this rigid and even antiquated tradition. Thus the persisting query is: Why should single-sex education matter today?

Globally, problems of gender bias have always existed, including in earlier Western society (this is especially evident in former education systems, though it is much overlooked these days due to the supplantation of single-sex education by co-education). Thus, the importance of single-sex education cannot be so easily dismissed as great gender inequality still exists in many regions of the world such as in impoverished and rural areas of India and China. This inequality between male-female education remains a stark reality especially for women, who are most often the victims of social discrimination. Yet through its focus on the importance of learning for each and both genders, single-sex education demands equality between sexes and thus contests the culturally embedded notions of gender discrimination. Through teaching women, for instance, single-sex education discourages gender stereotypes through paralleling females’ proficiency to that of their male ‘superiors’. Hence, the development of single-sex education (again, chiefly for women) in this area is very much a means of liberation from gender inequality. Single-sex education, then, is indisputably a crucial element in bringing about recognition for education and equality between genders; it allows for the autonomy of individuals entrapped in cultural bias to reach out towards a change and a future against the flawed perceptions of gender prejudice.

The significance of single-sex education for women in particular has a deep rooted aspect of representation. Since academies for women’s higher education have opened on a socially accepted level, the continued existence and flourishing of all-females institutions attest to the decisive successes against past struggles for the recognition of intellectual equality and freedom from social inferiority. Through my own experiences at Bryn Mawr College, I am continually inspired by my peers’ dedication to their work as well as their confidence and vivacity in interaction. For those of us attending all women’s academic institutions, we bear witness to the legacy of spirit, independence, and dignity of women that these academies uphold.

While the popularity of co-ed systems seems to have rendered single-sex education obsolete, there is no doubt that it is still an important component of educational success. Often, criticism directed at single-sex education argues that it offers a false impression of the world in that its very selectivity of gender and sheltered learning environment does not reflect the real-world challenges as does, for example, the way a co-ed environment imitates a microcosm of society. Consequently, single-sex education is not realistic in preparing students for ‘real’ life and the facilitation into society with its frustrations, some of which are not introduced to students within their educational experience. Yet this argument fails to consider the rebuttal; in a single-gendered setting, there is undeniably greater freedom permitted to the student in terms of release of self expression, a cause contributed to by the elimination of societal pressures for restraint and conformity.

With the focus on single-sex education, students at these institutes are encouraged to explore greater fields of academia, thus propelling the development of single-sex communities to extend in all areas of learning. Many reports evaluating the performances of student in single-sex institutions in comparison with co-ed institutions confirm a significant rise not only in learning efficiency but also in interest of subjects: in a single-sex environment, more women tend towards science courses than in co-ed institutions, showing that what has traditionally been seen as the academic territory of one gender can be managed as adeptly by the other. This support for diverse learning thus mirrors the world within a single gendered space and serves as an outlet for self discovery and expansion of potential. The experiences acquired from a single-sex environment allow its’ students to pursue new and budding interests, thereby contributing to the odyssey of self-realization. The onslaught of new responsibilities and social activities that come with this period of college life also marks a great transitional stage into adulthood whereby one defines individuality and manages independence within the sphere of a single gendered community, and later, in the greater societal world. Thus, not only do these experiences gained through the single-sex environment offer insight and practice in handling future challenges –just as in a co-ed setting- they also invalidate the argument against single-sex education about false-preparation for integration into society.  

Yet why must we only measure the value of single-sex education in comparison to co-ed systems in order to appreciate its importance? The significance of single-sex education lies not in its point-to-point advantages or disadvantages over co-ed settings but rather, in the unique experience it provides its’ students. It is this experience that determines value. Experiencing education in a single-sex community is only a short fragment of time in one’s life, yet it creates unique memories of exploration, self-discovery, and lasting friendships in the distinct context of a single-sex setting. In society, there will always be chances for interactions with members of the other sex, though, with time, there will likely be fewer chances to experience single-sex education because of the dwindling number of single-sex educational institutions throughout the nation.

A spring of exploration, boldness and vision, single-sex education realizes within each single gendered community greater potential for growth, liberation from stereotypical constructs, and development of distinct individuals that other modes of education could never mimic. In the end, there will always be skeptics and critics of this approach, but it is time for single-sex education to take a decisive stand for its existence and its merit. What is needed on our part is an adamant persistence and belief in the values of single-sex education against the overwhelming odds of societal demands for conformity. The question should be: Why shouldn’t single-sex education matter today?


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Process, memory and form: exploring the spoken and the written word in the Bryn Mawr College collections

This post is brought to you by Amanda Fernandez (’14) who has been working as a project assistant in Special Collections throughout the summer, specializing in digitizing material for The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. Here she reflects on the difference between digitizing and transcribing oral and written records, both of which illuminate the lives of alums in the past, finding frustrations and fascinations again in comparing epistolary and oral practices in recording memory and interpreting impressions from the past ….


Summer being almost through, most student workers still happily off at their summer destinations, clinging to what remains of sweet summer and denying the soon to come scholastic year, I have stayed and carried on with my letter transcribing here in Special Collections. In addition to this, in order not to find myself enveloped (no pun intended) in a monotonous workflow, which would eventually incite distaste towards the project (as well as M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett), I have taken up another task. The project, which once belonged to Isabella Bartenstein (who is now happily gallivanting about Avignon!), involves listening to and digitizing a collection of interviews of alumna and long retired staff, all in order to compile a digitized collection of the Oral History Project. The project started in 1960 and was an active effort on behalf of the Alumnae Association to collect personal accounts of students’ and staff members’ experiences at Bryn Mawr and how it affected their lives.  In 1981, the OHP became more of a collaborative project when the paper work and cassettes were moved to the archives. Caroline Rittenhouse (BMC class of 1952) conducted many of the later interviews and directed the project when she became the College Archivist in 1987. The transferring of these audio tracks from the ancient medium of cassette tape to mp3 on a digital recorder by means of a tangle of wires that turn my workspace into jungle, can be tedious or thrilling, depending on the entertainment and interest value of the interview as a whole. Some of the most interesting interviews turn out to sound more like conversations which is suggested against in the general interview guidelines but, is almost entirely inevitable considering that the dialogue usually occurs between two alums.

I’ve found that audio recorded interviews relay much more information than the hand-written letter does. Letters, more specifically the letters that I have been transcribing, are not capable of lending me as accurate an insight into M. Carey Thomas as would an interview I think.  In transcribing and reading the letters, I tend to peel out my own conclusions—imposing my assumptions in order to erect the shadows of two people and a dramatic exchange draped over their correspondence. To be honest, I have gone as far as judging M.C.T. for the way she’s dotted her i’s.  In retrospect, something seems obviously askew in that practice—how could I understand enough about the culture of written narrative (which entails so many variables; structure, etiquette and subsequent tone, the relationship between the addressed and the addressee etc.) in that time and setting to  mold detailed personalities? I could also draw illusory conclusions from an audio recorded interview if the interviewee is putting on a ‘persona’—but even then, the intuition developed in perception of sound gives the theatrics away.

In listening to interviews I am depending on the human memory—which does not have a reputation for accuracy or precision, especially with the wear and tear of time. Experiences are subjective and the ‘singed’ memories thereafter are much like the newspaper clippings I find attached to letters; they yellow and tear here and there, the paper thins out and sometimes the words that were once clipped for their current relevancy in that time are now relevant in another upon being re-read—sometimes completely transformed by new perception that has been changed much in the same way as the physical clipping. We know that each person will recreate scenarios and memories according to the way they perceive and process—these interviews are unique in that memories are sewn together—memories most times compared and sometimes even confirmed. The exchange of sound waves seems to solidify the person that in letters appears just as a shadow; we are able to build a more three dimensional personality in our heads, we sense their stories in sound, the tone and expression being audible and creating a clearer picture.

Most of the interviews, if not all, are based on a standardized interview format—meaning that each of the interviewers are asking the same questions. Some interviewers ask the interviewee to expand, or they turn the interview into more of a dialogue where one relates to the other, prompting a more enthusiastically responsive and detailed answer. I guess interviews also depend on commonalities and relationship—what the interviewer can draw from the interviewee depends very much on what they have in common in regards to their experience at Bryn Mawr which would allow for the best and most informative dialogue—this also limits the interview in a situation where there is no familiarity. The most intriguing interviews I’ve heard thus far are those that have evolved into conversation due to the binding induced by commonality—such as one between two alums who were both raised by alums. In this exchange they share not only their own experiences (as one time students at BMC as well as what it was like being raised by BMC alums) but also the BMC memories transmitted to them by their mothers. At certain times throughout the recording, I caught the presence of four, each alum and her mother’s memory.

Through these tapes I have also confirmed my own faith in the long standing reputation of exceptional characters that proceeds Mawrters, women that  exceed expectation and burst out of the restrictions imposed on them by the social codes of their time. This was clear to me in most of the interviews, but particularly in two, the interview of Katharine Fowler Billings (class of 1925) who became an accomplished and renowned Geologist in the 1920’s when it was practically unheard of for a woman to take up such a profession.

An article on her pioneering work appears here on the GeoScience World site.

Isabel Benham

The second was of Isabel Benham who scraped and clawed her way as an independent woman on Wall Street starting in the 1930’s and I could not help but tear up a bit when she remarked, “Bryn Mawr taught you you were the best that there was and you can do anything you want.” Isabel was even dubbed the ‘Mother Superior’ of Wall Street (go to Link to Isabel Benham’s College Yearbook). In both of their interviews, their voices resounded with enthusiasm despite the distance of years from their time at the college and good humor.

Aside from what I have learned from the nature of the medium of audio, I am assured by the content of these interviews that Bryn Mawr women grow to be ‘defy-ers’ of their time.