Sharing Student Writings Across the Seven Sisters: History of Women’s Education Open Access Portal Project


As we announced last week, we recently learned that our grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities has been successfully funded. For interested and curious members of the community, here are more details of the project:

The one-year planning grant we received is for an endeavor spearheaded by The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education to lead a collaboration between the schools once known as the Seven Sisters, which include Bryn Mawr College, Barnard College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, and the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. We have proposed to develop a shared approach to cataloging and providing access to digital versions of letters, diaries, and scrapbooks of the first generations of students of all seven schools.

The Seven Sisters schools were at the forefront of advanced education for women in the United States, educating many of the most ambitious, socially conscious, and intellectually committed women in the country. Going to college in the early years was not only an intellectually and socially awakening experience for these women, but it also provided an occasion for most of them to engage in extensive letter writing to family and friends, and to keep diaries and scrapbooks that preserved their impressions, ambitions, and memories of these first years of independence from home. Large numbers of these student writings are now preserved but siloed in the libraries of the seven schools, where they constitute an unparalleled and only partially tapped resource for the study of a wide range of women’s history issues over the last century and a half. The collections include discussions of race and class, political reform and women’s rights, sexuality and body image, the experience of being Jewish at predominantly Protestant institutions, interactions with students from Europe and Asia, and the experience of living through wars, the pandemic of 1918-1919, and the Depression.  This funding will allow us to make our collections more widely accessible to researchers and the general public through the development of a common search portal featuring digitized and transcribed facsimiles and an agreed-upon set of metadata and shared thematic vocabulary standards.

Currently, public use of the collections is impeded by their dispersal across the seven campuses and by the limited status of digitization of the items. The research value of these materials would be greatly increased by the ability to consider them as a whole body, rather than as associated fragments. The goal of this project, therefore, is to offer access to the papers through a single portal focusing on the experiences of students at women’s colleges. Since the value of a shared portal depends upon an agreed-upon set of standards for cataloging, taxonomy, transcription and digitization, a major part of the project’s work will be devoted to developing these standards.

The grant will fund one year of extensive planning between the schools, at the end of which we hope to embark on a program of digitization and transcription of student writings to be made accessible through the new portal. A longer-term goal is to implement a structure capable of accommodating digitized contributions from a wider group of institutions, further expanding the scope and utility of the aggregated collection.

Though the original visionary of the project, Jennifer Redmond, has since moved on, we look forward to working with Monica Mercado when she arrives in July to direct the Greenfield Digital Center in this next exciting phase of our work!

“The Seed of the World that is to Be”: the Activism of Emily Greene Balch

Balch, n.d. Soon after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946

On November 14, 1946, Emily Greene Balch became the third woman to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.1 In commemoration of that event, The Albert M. Greenfield Center for the History of Women’s Education has compiled the following biographical overview of Balch’s remarkable life and achievements.

“Differences as well as likenesses are inevitable, essential, and desirable. An unchallenged belief or idea is on the way to death and meaninglessness.”
–Emily Greene Balch, Nobel Lecture


One of Bryn Mawr College’s most distinguished alumnae is Emily Greene Balch, who, in 1889, became a member of the the school’s first graduating class. In an era in which bachelor’s degrees for women were still a novelty and post-college careers were even more rare, Balch set herself apart by effecting real change on both the local and global scale. Her history stands in direct opposition to the dissenting voices of her time that asserted that women were not worth educating, and her achievements appear no less remarkable today.

Balch at 10 years old

Born in 1867, Balch grew up in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston. Though she would later convert to Quakerism in 1921, she was heavily influenced by her Unitarian upbringing. Late in her life she would recall a sermon by Unitarian minister Charles Fletcher Dole that inspired her to dedicate herself to the “service of goodness whatever its cost” when she was just ten years old. “In accepting this pledge,” she wrote, “I never abandoned in any degree my desire to live up to it.” 2

Balch was also a dedicated student: her excellent academic performance at Bryn Mawr, where she took her degree in Greek and Latin, culminated in her being awarded the prestigious European Fellowship to fund a year of further study abroad. After a year studying sociology in the US, she applied the funds from her fellowship to a year at the Sorbonne to study poverty alleviation policies, and returned to Boston determined to apply her education to the task of realizing her moral convictions. Her most notable achievement during her first years out of school was the 1892 founding of the Denison House College Settlement, an initiative to bring “social and educational services into a poor immigrant neighborhood” by integrating educated women and the urban poor in a living environment.3 From early in her career she acted on the belief that the most effective way to create change was by erasing divisions between groups of people, fostering contact and mutual understanding.

Balch at Bryn Mawr

Driven by a desire to instill her own compassion in others, she decided to become a teacher and joined the faculty of Wellesley College after several more years of preparatory study. Though she was successful as a professor, Balch continually prioritized hands-on work and research, taking leave (both paid and unpaid) to conduct research on Slavic immigrants. This effort produced the highly acclaimed work Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (1910). In 1913 she became the chair of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Wellesley.

Balch advocated unequivocally for peace in the years leading up to and during the First World War. Her active involvement in international politics began while she was still teaching at Wellesley: in 1915 she joined the International Congress of Women at The Hague, an organization that took the stance of promoting mediation rather than military action in response to the conflict in Europe. However, her outspoken avowal of peace during the war was controversial, eventually leading to her dismissal from Wellesley College.

U.S. delegation to the International Conference of Women for a Permanent Peace, held at The Hague, The Netherlands, 1915

After departing from Wellesley in 1918, Balch continued to champion peace both in her editorial work with The Nation and in her co-founding (with Jane Addams) of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1946, she became the third woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Balch’s life is notable not just for her international advocacy, but also for the way in which she wove together her global vision with her ability to foster connections between disciplines, groups, and individuals. She lived this vision fully as a student, an academic, a poet, a Quaker, and as a public voice for change. In her acceptance speech for the American Unitarian Association Award in 1955, she used words of connection, unity, and growth that were consistent with her lifelong commitment to global community: “The time has come to break down the dikes and let the healing waters flow over us. I see in us, young and old, the seed of the world that is to be.”4


Further reading on Emily Greene Balch:
Nobel Lecture
Emily Greene Balch: the Long Road to Internationalism  (2010)
Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch, Nobel Peace Laureate, 1946 (1964)
Emily Greene Balch of New England: citizen of the world

1. The first was Bertha von Suttner in 1905; the second was Jane Addams (close friend and colleague of Emily Green Balch) in 1931.
2. Miller, Heather. “Emily Greene Balch: Nobel Peace Laureate 1967-1961.” Harvard Square Library. Web. 11 November. 2012. <>
3. Buehrens, John A. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011. p. 130
4. Benjamin, Michelle; and Mooney, Maggie. Nobel’s Women of Peace. Toronto: Second Story Press, 2008. p. 35