By upholding a standard of scholarship and culture that is difficult and not easy to attain, she will inevitably lose many students, but she will not regret the loss. Bryn Mawr has faith to believe that as long as her grey towers stand there will never be wanting youthful enthusiasm and youthful love of learning to inhabit them. Future generations will turn to her for inspiration. Be it her part never to betray her trust—Alumnae Magazine, 1908.
Here are the voices of the women who followed, responding to the promise of meaningful education implicit in the feminist founding of Bryn Mawr:
I think that men's institutions are different from women's in that men's are constantly trying to build up their students; at Bryn Mawr I feel as though I'm being beaten down all the time. My mind is viewed as some kind of input-output mechanism; as though I'm being trained to perform well and be a good scholar so that I can come back and teach here. Bryn Mawr capitalizes on women's oppression by trying to give women the Truth.—Student, Class of 1970
The only thing that has made my last year at Bryn Mawr bearable has been women's liberation. Now I feel like I have something in common with other girls here, and that we have something that we are fighting for together. We are a community and I feel like I have real friends; I know that my problems are not only mine, and I want to work with other women, instead of competing against them, to solve those problems. Until women's lib, I thought of Bryn Mawr as a cloistered retreat from anything real. — Student, Class of 1972
The most outstanding part of my »Bryn Mawr experience« was Haverford  — to get a Haverford boy friend whom I could be an extension of and whose achievements and respect and friends I could acquire by association, and to be »known« at Haverford. My reputation at Haverford was of primary importance and fundamentally shaped my self-image. - Class of 1968
Everyone admitted to Bryn Mawr felt automatically that she was »superior«, »exceptional«, »chosen«, »elite.« I felt especially exceptional because I was superior not only to all the poor girls who »Weren't accepted« or had merely B or C ratings, but also to most of the other Bryn Mawr students. The way I was superior to the superiors was by not even taking the place seriously. I was really above it all. I was (or pretended to be) casual instead of conscientious about studying and generally detached from the academic rat race (looking down on my classmates who would compare grades) except when I was successful, when I would make special efforts to find out who had done worse than I had and who was smarter than I was. But I was mostly »above it all« in my relationship to the school structure and traditions. Having grown up in an academic community, I was not intimidated by deans or even by having an interview with Miss McBride. Having been to summer camp, I was scornful of the »traditional« activities such as Lantern Night and maypole dances and Hell Week. ... In general, I think, I shared the attitude of Haverford students toward Bryn Mawr activities (on purpose, just as I had been »one of the guys« in high school by claiming to be disinterested in going to high school proms or graduation exercises of the Senior Class Day or the all-night party). I boasted that I slept through the strawberries-and-cream May Day breakfast, and that I didn't bother to memorize the words to the Lantern Night song. Thus, I disdainfully put down all my classmates who had become involved in such frivolity and silliness. My detached superiority and judgmental sarcasm must have made the girls who really enjoyed singing Greek songs and spinning May Day hoops very uncomfortable. (My Haverford boy friends, also social rebels, appreciated my superiority much as they appreciated my comparatively liberal sexual standards.) — Class of 1967.
I don't know why they had all those traditional activities at Bryn Mawr. During Freshman Orientation Week I think the song-singing bit was a form of babysitting: they wanted organized but relaxing activities to keep us from getting bored, homesick, lonely, discouraged, or (worst of all) in trouble (especially with boys). I think it was insulting to treat us like kids at summer camp for early adolescents, although as I write this I find myself thinking »maybe it was necessary for some of the girls who didn't make friends easily.« Bullshit. It definitely was insulting. Just as the mixers and song-sings and pole dancings were degrading and insulting and objectifying, just as sign-outs and lantern men and class attendance and gym class were absurd and insulting and passe and treating us like children, just as »Self-Gov« was a total hoax and a lie and implicitly considered us idiots who couldn't see how phony all the rhetoric about »make your own decisions and rules, girls« really was: Class of 1966
- Hell Week was Something Else. Hell Week was Having It Both Ways. Hell Week had all the vicious sadism and cattiness and competitiveness and backbiting and popularity contests and class hierarchies and all the worst stereotypes of bitchy women and sororities, but then at the last moment was the surprise twist and after everyone had wallowed in the bitchiness and cattiness and competitiveness and sadism, and after the freshman victims had felt all the pain and guilt and fear and degradation of being made to be slaves to the upperclassmen and have intimate secrets about boy friends revealed and be picked on and teased according to their popularity, then everything was supposed to be magically forgiven and whitewashed by a bunch of crappy flowers. How trite can you get! How transparent can a double-bind message be? But no one seemed to question it. ... I wonder at our naivete, at our stupidity ... we were totally brainwashed by that place to have this incredibly gullible self-image as part of a tradition which gave its alumnae competitiveness in the name of high standards, self-hate in the name of critical analysis, cocktail-partyese in the name of well-rounded education, elitist snobbery in the name of talent and creative ability!—Class of 1968
- Who were our models? Professors. The successful and popular and well-liked and intellectually respected professors. And except for a few token women (mostly eccentrics from another age) these professors were men. There were a few wonderful women, but most were faculty emeriti (over sixty) or low-level instructors (like in Baby Languages) but the really inspiring professors were known to be men, or at Haverford. Class of 1965
- We were taught that we were the select few to begin with and that we were then being given an exceptional education so that we could rise head and shoulders above our peers ... we were to be the best, after all. Bryn Mawr statistics were constantly available, comparing Bryn Mawr with the other Seven Sisters worth competing and comparing with. . . . Bryn Mawr had (percentage-wise) the most Ph.D's, the most advanced degrees, the highest percentage going on to graduate study, etc., etc., etc. So there we were, intended to go on and achieve and be at the top. There was no room for deviation. There were different paths one could take to excellence (as opposed to enlightenment) but only one direction to go. J. was brilliant but couldn't take the pressure to excel and did poorly on her written exams. She hated herself until she found another acceptable goal—to become a doctor (and if she had had trouble getting through Med school she would have hated herself more) ...Class of 1967
- Bryn Mawr helped its students live out the dreams of their middle-class and aspiring middle-class and upper-middle-class and nouveau riche parents for them ...
Social pressure. Friday and Saturday nights were miserable without a date. I had lots of dates, and I pretended to be »above« all that pressure, and most of the time I was having a passionate love affair by mail anyway, but I do not remember a single Friday or Saturday night when I didn't have a date which I enjoyed at all. It was much better to go out with any creep than to be alone in the dorm on a weekend. It was much better to have a date with a guy than to go out with one or a bunch of girls. If I didn't have a date I'd be really jealous of all the girls who did, and I'd go and read the sign-out book to see who went where with whom for how long.
One year some enterprising Princeton guys put out a Guide to Women's Eastern Colleges in which all the schools were stereotyped. I bet every girl at Bryn Mawr saw the guide with its cartoon of a long-legged, stooped, long-haired, bookwormish, bespectacled Bryn Mawr »type« and its tone of awe in describing the intellect of the »Bryn Mawr girl.« Another double bind. You had to live up to that intellectual image and live down the negative aspects of the image. In other words, you must be clever and bright, but not intellectually aggressive or dully bookwormish; you must be knowledgeable, but not studious; you must be serious, but attractive, seductive, etc. Class of 1964
- Not only was the school classified into a »type« but each dorm housed a »type.« Rock girls were crazy and wild, Radnor girls were quite and studious, (and sometimes suicidal), Denbigh girls were wholesome and enthusiastic and WASPy, Rhoads girls were sophisticated and New Yorky (and artsy, I think). This typing was important for roommates and for cliques getting »control« of certain corridors and lots of competition in dorm applications and assignments and getting the good people and avoiding the despicable ones. But it was also important for the mixers, ... since the occupants of each dorm wrote the invitations to the mixers, different types of men would come to each dorm's annual mixer: if you wanted to meet a quiet, shy, unsophisticated chemist you'd go to the Radnor mixer, etc. Most Princeton guys were at the Rhoads mixer.
At mixers the man was totally in control. He would ask you to dance, ask you your class and major during the dance, and then disappear the instant the dance was over. You'd see him half an hour later in an animated conversation with your roommate—or worse—with a girl you'd always admired for her poise or wit and you'd hate her (of course, you'd never hate him, the real monster). He can come and choose, pick over the »cheese« (as friends of mine at Yale called it) and leave when he's had enough.
The double bind. You had to be intellectually assertive (in class) and play dumb (with men). You had to be ambitious and self-advancing but also supportive and submissive. You had to know when to speak up and when to shut up and never get mixed up (the penalties for misjudging situations were severe: if you shut up in class you'd get a lousy grade and if you spoke up on a date he'd never ask you out again ... both major failures). You had to be a good student and a good date and the standards for the two were usually directly opposed to each other. Class of 1969
- Another contradiction: the trend was toward being liberal in politics, especially on the civil rights issues currently popular, but daily life at Bryn Mawr was like being part of the master's family on a southern plantation. The maids and porters were superb »house niggers« whose role was rarely questioned by the students. The lantern men, who were entrusted with the girls' virginity and the propriety of their hours and good-night kisses and other moral details were white: the maids and porters (black) were baggage-carriers, floor-sweepers, kitchen-helpers, telephone-answerers, and did other unnoticed shitwork. Widespread («traditional«) jokes circulated about how stupid one maid was because she could never write out a telephone message legibly, or how dumb another one was because she always rang the wrong buzzer. A few times, I would be ready to go through a door at the same time as a maid, and I would open the door to hold it open for her to walk through, but she would quietly refuse to walk through the doorway before me. . . . There was absolutely no way out; many of them had had their jobs for decades and they had been doing shitwork for »their girls« for years and they always held the door open for you ...
The amazing thing to me is that we did manage to have some really good, honest, trusting relationships among us. Pitted together in that den of ruthless competitiveness (constantly, academically and socially), thriving on jealousy and cattiness and cliques, incessantly being wounded by feelings of failure and rejection and misery and self-hate, we actually managed, on occasion, to be friends, to dare to reach out to help each other and to trust each other, and to learn to accept ourselves. The best part of Bryn Mawr for me, in retrospect, was not Harverford, was not inspiring professors and stimulating courses, was not an academic tradition, was not going away from home but being supported by my father, was not the parties and getting high and the concert series and the Ivy League weekends and the dating scene, but the most rewarding part of Bryn Mawr was learning to love and trust a few women friends who, in spite of all the shit that turned us against each other all the time, were able to get together and support each other through all the bad times and share some of the happiness and growing of the good times.
Class of 1967
- I feel insecure about myself here and I have for four years. I don't understand why Bryn Mawr has been so bad for me; it was supposed to be what I was working for for twelve years in school. I feel like the administration and faculty think that being a woman is something you are supposed to overcome. The expectations that they've placed on me are totally unrealistic. . . . They've told me that the world is my oyster and yet I feel unhappy being in the dorm and not being with a man. The conversations at dinner are so deadening and stupid, my classes are so boring. They tell me I'm supposed to go on to graduate school, but I feel like I'm being prepared to be a good conversationalist or make some man a good wife. The only good thing about Bryn Mawr is Haverford. In my Haver-ford classes professors keep on asking questions and I feel like some intellectual responsibility is being demanded of me. Class of 1966
- At first, in the abstract, it seemed like a fantastic prize to have won; soon after, in the reality of the situation, I became aware of how much I hated to be around only other women. It wasn't that I thought that they weren't interesting or exciting; for the most part they were the most interesting group of women that I had ever known. The most important thing was being desirable enough to get a boy friend, and/or doing brilliantly, both of which made all of us terribly competitive with each other. There was an obsession that prevailed each time I got involved with a new man; he was the Savior who would take me out of my all-girl cloister and save my mind and soul. I don't think that I ever felt capable of having a full, creative life on my own, without having something accrue to me vicariously through a man. The obsession with getting a boy friend began to disturb me more and more, if only because it seemed like something that I couldn't control as long as I was at Bryn Mawr. Moreover, I couldn't understand the reasons for my feeling this way except in the most personal, psychological terms, which indicated that my life would be a total failure. And then there was the intellectual atmosphere. I had been one of the smartest girls in my high school class. Suddenly I was only one of a myriad of very bright women, all of whom seemed infinitely brighter than I, all of whom seemed capable of doing better work that I was. There was an academic standard that I felt I could never meet. Classes were very boring and I never wanted to work, but what I did was to go through all the motions of working very hard, without being able to concentrate at all and learning almost nothing. I felt as though I were devoid of any interesting intellectual ideas, as though I had no mind or anything worthwhile to say. The only thing that I found interesting at all was sociology but even that seemed empty because it existed in a vacuum. The professor was very supportive, and he and a few others always had a coterie of the most political, active girls at Bryn Mawr around them. But all the good professors would always justify their feelings of depression and uselessness by the fact that they had to teach at a girls' school and that was a sad fate for any serious intellectual. True, they would criticize the passivity of women in their classes, and show special interest in those who showed signs of aggressiveness or imagination, but my American Social Structure course never once mentioned women as a subgroup, class, etc. In all my four years at Bryn Mawr I don't think the topic of women ever came up in a course. There were a few little discussion groups on »The Problems of Career and Marriage« which the Curriculum Committee led from time to time but they were few and far between and never related the issues of why we were all so miserable there to the problems and needs of an all-woman college. Class of 1968
- At an elite school like Harvard students can count on making contacts that will be useful to them in their later life. At Bryn Mawr we knew that we liked each other, but we never made plans for future activities. At men's colleges it is common for students to go out together to eat, to the movies, to do things, but at Bryn Mawr we felt that going places together was an inferior substitute for a date. Most of us would accept a date with anyone rather than stay in the dorm on a weekend night. I spent just about all my time studying in my boy friend's room at Haverford. Haverford was a more interesting place to be for several reasons. First of all men had more freedom, so we could come and go as we pleased there until we had to be back at two o'clock (if we were out with other women we had to be back at midnight). We could cook, smoke, drink, and make love in the guys' rooms but not in our own. There was always more action: loud music, frisbee games, water fights, interesting discussions, people coming and going. Bryn Mawr was always silent and still. (On a test that all freshmen had to pass before being admitted to the Self-Government honor system, most women said that they did not think we should be allowed to drink in our rooms because we would quickly become loud, rude and violently destructive.) Finally, Haverford was a better place to be because we would be with men and escape the oppressiveness of an all-female environment... Class of 1968
- The alienation that we felt from each other was inextricably bound with the alienation we felt from our education. We had heavy academic loads; four courses, all with long papers and exams. We sat in lecture classes, taking notes on the professors' wisdom. Rarely did we venture a differing opinion, fearing to be found wrong. We only felt confident in our ability to read extensively, digest the various facts and ideas, and organize them into lengthy, well-documented essays. The outstanding memory that remains from my philosophy course, an introductory survey required of everyone, is not any set of ideas, nor even a concept of what philosophy as a discipline is, but rather of the girl in front of me drawing an elaborate T.G.I.F. during every Friday lecture. We all commented on the recklessness of Haverford students who boldly challenged their professors whenever they disagreed or didn't understand. They seemed to feel that they had every right to an opinion and some even felt that they had to have an opinion to satisfy their egos. We accepted the authority of professors and books much too easily, but we didn't have the confidence to trust ourselves. We continued to be passive recipients just as we had been raised to be. Class of 1963
The official rhetoric of Byrn Mawr College, an elite Seven Sisters school, reflects a firm commitment to feminism. Yet Bryn Mawr women, like their sisters in other female institutions, are discovering more and more that this rhetoric lacks substance, and they feel betrayed. The discrepancy between the official intellectual credo and the neurotic, hypersensitive, self-absorbed seriousness that pervades the college's atmosphere poses a problem. Its elitist rhetoric pretends that Bryn Mawr women are special, that their intellectual and class privilege and mobility transcend the political reality of their situation as women. Its emphasis on individual status and achievement denies that there is any collective problem for women in this society. Bryn Mawr women's supposed intellectual superiority places them above ordinary women. Its academic emphasis is accompanied by an intellectual rejection of all that is traditionally feminine—displays of emotion, signs of insecurity or fear, concern with practical good works or human suffering—and a snobbish attitude toward traditionally feminine professions such as teaching or social work, despite the existence of the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work. These attitudes are rarely made explicit but they are subtle and pervasive, and women at Bryn Mawr, if they do not already share them, soon internalize them in much the same way that women with working-class or regional accents learn to speak in a mellow, sophisticated style and voice.
Byrn Mawr's excellent academic reputation, which its founders fought so hard to establish in order to prove that women could take on the same intellectual work as men, now makes for an atmosphere of what is essentially pseu-dointellectualism, one in which scholarship is parroted, rather than realized. For the Bryn Mawr student finds herself primarily a study in twentieth-century female problems, and Bryn Mawr, founded as a feminist institution, does not permit feminism to exist as an issue. Bryn Mawr's nineteenth-century illusions of uniqueness and intellectual superiority make it unable to see the peculiar turn that its »special« situation as a woman's college has taken. In selecting a woman's college, students at Bryn Mawr may have been asking the school to relate to their needs and problems as women. However, trapped in the circularity of the »lets not admit that we're special, because then we'll be seen as inferior« problem that pervaded the black movement for so long, Bryn Mawr, in its cultural myopia, has become, if anything, antifeminist.
The reasons are complex and make Bryn Mawr an instructive microcosm of the plight of educated women in sexist society. Obviously, the college itself cannot appreciably change the society for which it is educating its women. The education of women—no matter how rigorous or inspiring—cannot overcome the wholesale prejudice of a society entrenched in its belief that women are inferior and properly excluded from the positions a first-class education might prepare them for. Once it is made clear— and it is eminently clear in present-day America—that women will not be accorded positions of responsibility, their education begins to develop all the attributes of irrelevance: it becomes sterile, unspontaneous, academic, and ornamental rather than useful. The students themselves are acutely aware that their expensive educations will be of marginal use to society, and their already considerable feelings of uselessness (coexisting with traditional feminine desires for self-validation through altruism) are compounded by this apparent squandering of resources in pursuit of egotistical self-improvement. These feelings of guilt lead to further self-denigration and self-abnegation and produce strong conflicts with the competitiveness required for academic success. Thus, while creative and imaginative work is not unusual at Bryn Mawr and academic achievement quite common, the fact is that the Bryn Mawr woman who genuinely feels that her intellectual work is meaningful, or ultimately important, is rare.
In reality, a great deal of the Bryn Mawr woman's actual attention is focused on her emotional life, as well as on men and the need to find a husband. The atmosphere is charged with »sensitivity« and emotionalism. And yet the women learn to hate this—their emotions, their insecurities, their fears, their helpless concentration on all of it— because the college perpetuates the very functional myth that emotionalism is a sign of individual weakness. Thus, the Bryn Mawr woman finds herself in the classic female bind. Intellectualism is a constant—and unreached—goal, and therefore a cause for self-hatred. It functions to advance the pretense that »achievement means equality« (the line that the administration supports), while at the same time it deepens self-doubt and anxiety since intellectual pursuits never seem as satisfying as they should. The statement »Our failures only marry« (once made by M. Carey Thomas, the first president of the college) has long been distorted to »Only our failures marry«; this distortion reflects the real pressure the college exerts to deny such solely marital desires as do in fact exist. Most Bryn Mawr women are trapped in a fundamental ambivalence: do they want to be the doctor or the doctor's wife? In this confusion they are not different from most American women. But Bryn Mawr has only deepened the contradictions and failed to provide an environment in which these questions can be openly asked (or one in which it can be admitted that the question is even there).
Now, for the Brst time, Bryn Mawr has chosen a man as president, claiming that no »qualified« woman was able to free herself from her family commitments to take the job. Alumnae wrote in opposition, angry that the college had admitted failure on its own terms since it had not produced one woman graduate capable of serving as its president. Similarly, three women »who have lived with famous husbands« addressed the class of 1970 on Class Day. Thus, it is clear that the true condition of American women is now at Bryn Mawr's doorstep; the college's failure is only a grotesque expression of its time.
Bryn Mawr's early feminism has failed, but the real question is why? Bryn Mawr was founded to provide equal education for women; its first president was actively involved in the woman's suffrage movement and was known as the leading feminist educator of her time. The failure of feminism at Bryn Mawr is an illustration of the natural degeneration of nineteenth-century feminism; the history of Bryn Mawr's feminism provides a clear example of the class-bound contradictions and limited perspectives that resulted in the demise of nineteenth-century feminism. The inability to come to grips with the fundamental economic and social issues of marriage and the family and woman's position in those institutions, to analyze the institutional and psychological oppression of women, and to construct radical alternatives for socialized life—these were the vital failures, and they arose from the fundamental limitations of Bryn Mawr's early feminism.
Bryn Mawr's failure to maintain its position as a feminist institution is deeply connected to the failure of the larger feminist movement to transcend the suffrage issue with a more radical analysis of the structural causes of women's oppression. More basic, however, to the school's feminist confusions is the elite role which the founders of the college saw for it. The fundamental motivation for Bryn Mawr's founding was the demand for education made by wealthy, leisured women who felt that their lack of a higher education was the barrier to the realization of their human potential. The men who first organized the college acted out of the Quaker belief that »women must be sensible and able; they should be equal to taking part in the thought and discussion of the vital things with which Friends were constantly occupied.« Bryn Mawr was to be Ma truly great experiment in American education, the proving of how far women's minds could go, once the limits of opportunity were removed«, but it was, nonetheless, »a college for the advanced education and care of young women and girls of the higher and more refined classes of society.«
M. Carey Thomas, the person most involved in the direction of Bryn Mawr College, was remarkable for the power of her vision and the strength of her commitment to the »advancement of women.« Even as a child, she was enraged by the inferior position in which women were placed. »I can remember weeping over the account of Adam and Eve because it seemed to me that the curse pronounced on Eve might imperil girls' going to college. ... I read Milton with rage and indignation; even as a child I knew him for the woman-hater he was.« If she wrote »boys and girls« in her diary, she quickly crossed it out and substituted »girls and boys.« Her anger reached a fevered pitch when a friend of her father walked home with her from a meeting talking about »the sacred shrine of womanhood.«
He said that »no matter what splendid talents a woman might have she couldn't use them better than by being a wife and mother« and then went off in some high-faluting stuff about the strength of women's devotion, completely forgetting that all women ain't wives and mothers, and they, I suppose, are told to fold their hands and be idle waiting for an eligible offer. Stuff] Nonsense!
Carey Thomas' commitment and single-minded devotion to building Bryn Mawr resulted from her own struggle to get an education. Her adolescent obsession with going to college was undoubtedly heightened by her fear that there might be some truth to the prevailing belief that women were made to be wives and mothers.
At twenty-seven she was determined to become president of Bryn Mawr. Her father and uncle were on the college's Board of Trustees; the three of them convinced the board to appoint her professor of English and dean, with the understanding that she would eventually become president. Her motive in applying for the presidency, in fact her whole purpose in life, is summed up by an entry in her diary when she was ill as a child:
If I ever live and grow up my one aim and concentrated purpose shall be and is to show that women can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature and science and conjecture; that a woman can be a woman and a true one without having all her time engrossed by dress and society.
Bryn Mawr became Carey Thomas' vehicle for realizing her aim. She was determined to make its curriculum »just as stiff as Harvard's«, »to show that women could compete with Harvard men.« Her requirement that all faculty have Ph.D.'s (except Woodrow Wilson) was mocked by Harvard's president, who claimed that »there was an intuitive something in ladies of birth and position which enabled them to do without college training, and make on the whole better professors for women college students than if they themselves had been to college.« She even devised an entrance exam every bit as rigorous as Harvard's, much to the horror of other women's colleges.
Other features distinguished the early Bryn Mawr from other women's colleges. Carey Thomas devised a self-government system and also added a graduate school whose students were to be integrated with undergraduate students. Both the self-government system and the graduate school were intended to prove that education did not turn women into invalids.
Basically, however, Carey Thomas shared the belief of the men who helped to plan the college that the recipients of this education should be »young women of the upper classes.« She established only one undergraduate scholarship, preferring, out of her own experience, to endow a fellowship for one member of each graduating class to study abroad. She believed that:
- The intellectual atmosphere of the college clearly must be such to set a standard; but the physical aspect and the social life too should have a certain graciousness and ceremony. Students should be shown as well as told of those things which are beautiful and desirable. From the smallest to the largest circumstance there should be as little as possible to mislead their intellectual or aesthetic perceptions for they must be accustomed to the best, so that in the future they would recognize and demand and work for it.
To this end, Thomas spent generously on the design and furnishings of each college building as it was added, and had copies of European treasures, cloisters, and statues made for the college.
Carey Thomas always perceived the need for good education as the most important problem of women, but after the college was successfully established, she turned her attention to other aspects of the women's movement. Her interests followed from her elitist perspective, but then many activists shared her aristocratic attitude toward women's rights. At the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Baltimore in 1906, she became an active participant in the movement. In one of her speeches she noted perceptively that the only true objection to woman's suffrage is that women's enfranchisement »is the symbol of a stupendous social revolution and we are frightened before it.« In 1910 she actively participated in the liberal bloc at the NAWSA convention; in 1912 she sympathized with the Progressive party and wrote sadly to Jane Addams that, although she had spoken to the Bryn Mawr students in favor of Theodore Roosevelt, they had voted in their dummy presidential election »two to one for Wilson ... and Roosevelt only won over Taft by four votes.«
Her support of the suffrage movement was not entirely disinterested; she saw it as a chance to enhance her own prestige, to enhance Bryn Mawr's name, and to awaken her students to new interests. Her interest in suffrage as an issue was pragmatic; it had none of the **virtuous woman« aura that suffused the rhetoric of other suffragists. Her involvement in the woman's movement led her to initiate three new projects at the college that reflect the contradic-toriness of her conception of the woman's movement: the founding of the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work, the establishment of the Phoebe Anna Thorne Open Air School, and the creation of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Industrial Workers.
In 1915 Carey Thomas founded the School of Social Work to professionalize a field that many women were entering. She felt that professionalization would lend more prestige and respect to women and would also make the work they did more effective and scientific. The same motivation of professionalization led to the founding of the Phoebe Anna Thorne School as a »laboratory experiment in modern methods of teaching.« She wanted to give both dignity and skill to women who entered the field of teaching (the field that most early women college graduates entered) and felt that practical teaching experience would be an effective part of the college curriculum. She appeared not to question whether »professionalization« would fundamentally change the nature of »woman's work.«
At the same time, the working woman was becoming a matter of concern to those interested in women's rights. Women were being organized into unions; there was agitation over the working conditions of women and children in factories; women were fighting for equal pay. Carey Thomas, feeling that the most important thing she could do for women workers was to give them a smattering of a liberal arts education, translated this concern into the establishment of the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Industrial Workers. However, she felt no real sense of identity with working-class women, blind to the relationship between her own difficulties in getting an education and their problems in earning a decent wage, between her aversion to marriage and their difficulties in raising a family while they worked. Her lack of identification with working-class women is revealed in an excerpt from one of her speeches:
- Rejoicing that British women had just been enfranchised and American women would soon be politically free, and wondering what would be the next great social advance . . . suddenly as in a vision, I saw that out of the hideous world war might come, as a glorious aftermath, international industrial justice and international peace, if your generation only had the courage to work for them as my generation worked for woman suffrage. I also saw as part of my vision that the coming of equal opportunity for the manual workers might be hastened by utilizing the deep sex sympathy that women now feel for each other before it had time to grow less, . . . then with a glow of delight as radiant as the desert sunset I remembered the passionate interest of the Bryn Mawr College students in fairness and justice and the intense sympathy with girls less fortunate than themselves and I realized that the first steps on the path to the sunrise might well be taken by the college women who, themselves just emerging from the wilderness, know best of all women living under fortunate conditions what it means to be denied things of the intellect and the spirit.
The Summer School was »to offer young women of character and ability a further education, in order that they might widen their influence in the industrial world, help in the coming social reconstruction and increase the happiness and usefulness of their own lives.« Economics and English were required, as well as art, hygiene, music, and science. The students were to be women workers, not supervisors, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. The Summer School was run by a committee of labor representatives and educators; it attempted to maintain an »objective neutrality« with regard to such gut issues as strikes and higher pay. From 1928 to 1939 it was highly successful in educating women workers in those fields that the school had deemed important; it seems unlikely that it raised the consciousness of women workers themselves as to the political implications of their situation. At the same time, however, it represented a serious attempt on the part of educated women to express their commitment to improving the situation of women of other classes and was a pioneer experiment, if not the only one of its kind.
Carey Thomas' view of feminism was complicated. Her concern for the situation of women, regardless of class, was real, but her understanding of the political responsibility of a college like Bryn Mawr, had been founded on principles of feminism, and was, like the understanding of most nineteenth-century feminists, confused. She did not understand the basis of woman's degradation in her position in the family and underestimated the strength of sexual conservatism in action throughout the society. This limited her perspective on the college's function with regard to its students. She could not see that Bryn Mawr existed in a vacuum, that the deeper truths of woman's condition in society remained untouched, unaddressed, unchanged. Her basic drive was to prove that women are intellectually equal to men; Bryn Mawr was the vehicle she used to prove it. Her belief in the intellectual capacities of women was radical at the time the college was founded, and she was instrumental in changing the then widely held position that women were biologically and naturally unsuited to a life of the intellect. She was an unusual woman, for she let no one stand in the way of her goals. In order to get women admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, she raised $500,000 and contributed it to the school when they promised to take women students.
She did not, however, have a radical view of education. Bryn Mawr was designed to reinforce the symbols of education, the »good student« syndrome—«diligence, obedience, and complete faith in the school and its teachings.« Scholasticism was the rule at Bryn Mawr, but then again it may be true that »pedantry is not to be despised in an oppressed class as it indicates the first struggle of intellect with its restraints and is therefore a hopeful symptom.« Carey Thomas »never understood that she and her sister educators, at the same time that they made it possible for women to secure a first-class education, had helped establish a ceiling above which few women could rise. Carey Thomas' own accomplishments were born of rebellion; at Bryn Mawr there was no room for rebels.« It was exactly that »quality« education for which Miss Thomas had striven so hard that kept women down.
Furthermore, she did not see women's colleges as a permanent necessity; her real aim was—and always had been—integration. Bryn Mawr had been founded to meet an immediate crucial need, but Thomas did not think that women's colleges represented a long-range solution to the problems of education for women:
- The very first step (that university women should now take) seems to me to be the demand for unqualified, true, out-and-out coeducation. Only by having the schools and universities coeducational can we ensure the girls of the world receiving a thoroughly good education. There is not enough money in the world to duplicate schools and universities for women, and if we could duplicate them they would soon become less good. It requires endless vigilance to keep women's universities as good as coeducational universities. It would be tragic if now, after coeducation has been tried on a tremendous scale, we university women should accept separate universities for women.
Women's colleges were to provide women with the intellectual skills to compete with men, yet Carey Thomas realized that there was no such thing as »separate but equal.« Men had the power and their schools would always be better academically. To her the entire question of women's liberation turned on equal education. To her »the political and social aspects of women's struggle for equality commended themselves in particular only as they were allied to the educational side.«
Bryn Mawr was an important institution during the years of the suffrage movement; Carey Thomas saw the school as an integral part of the women's struggle. She assumed, however, that both suffrage and the advent of educational opportunities for women would herald the coming of full freedom for women; in this respect she was representative of the larger feminist movement. She was not concerned with analyzing or changing the structural bases of women's oppression, and it was this failure that fostered the growth of an institution whose vestigial feminism had as its aim the development of a class of privileged women who would find a place in a male-dominated world. Miss Thomas' overinvolvement in academic achievement, her blindness to the political realities of sexism (which would prevent even women with »quality« educations from being equal to men), and her basic commitment to elite education obscured her vision.
Carey Thomas' feminism was unquestionably elitist. For the last forty years Bryn Mawr has maintained her elitism without her feminism. It is true that the women's rights movement was not sustained during these years, and that Bryn Mawr only succumbed to the general cultural atmosphere. Those members of the administration and faculty who retain feminist ideals have received little support or reinforcement from the society at large. Social history since World War II seemed to prove beyond contradiction that American women want nothing more out of life than a cloistered home, motherhood, and the role of loyal supporter of children, husband, and community. And certainly husbands, psychologists, sociologists, and pundits require nothing more for them. The students themselves have strongly internalized the social ideal of woman as supportive, altruistic, and self-sacrificing and thus have tended to view »old-fashioned« feminists as strident and selfish. Nevertheless Bryn Mawr had a distinctly feminist tradition and responsibility which it has subsequently failed to uphold.
Marion Park, Carey Thomas' successor as president of Bryn Mawr, never showed any significant feminist concern; on the contrary, her feminist confusion was painful to behold, a perfect example of the degeneracy of the college's original ideas. She praised Virgina Woolfs A Room of One's Own as a book in which »a woman writes as a woman and presents her sex not in relation to men but in relation to all the other interests in the world, just as men are presented.« At the end of this speech, Miss Pafk urged the students »to give this book to your woman friends and read it yourself. I only advise you not to give it to men because it is very much the sort of book that you can use and fit in delightfully in dinner conversations.« A 1941 speech on the special problems of women's colleges further reveals her extraordinary ambivalence and its limitations with regard to feminism. Miss Park praised the anthropological discovery that the mental capacities of men and women are not fundamentally different and concluded that colleges should not act as though there were two homogeneous groups to be trained. She conceded that the problems of men and women are different; that professional women faced a more difficult time in their careers than men, and that »a woman who marries needs to be prepared to encounter interferences with her unified individual life and must be given intellectual techniques which will allow her to acquire interests readily after she has solved the immediate problems of bringing up a family.« This fully stated recognition that Bryn Mawr's function is to train women to use their leisure time constructively while they assume full and primary responsibility for raising a family implicitly admitted the degeneracy of Bryn Mawr's feminism.
Two articles written by the students over the last fifteen years reflect the same degeneracy, and reveal the extent of the student body's acceptance of this position. Describing a conference in 1951 on »Women in the Defense Decade«, a student writes that »the conference did not mention women's rights (thank god) but only women's responsibilities. It is time for women to stop complaining about lack of opportunity!« Most Bryn Mawr women probably feel this way during college, for they are told that they are »special«, and they believe that their privilege makes feminism irrelevant to them. Another student, writing on »The New Feminism« in a 1963 issue of the Alumnae Magazine, describes her experience at Harvard Medical School:
- The young men worried about us, rushed to protect us. . . . They were young men who believed women should be educated and should take up careers or jobs susceptible of easy termination upon marriage or childbearing, and perhaps easy renewal at age 45 or so. They did not envisage a man's world wanting to make a place for us on feminine terms and so they feared the sacrifice of our femininity to our careers in a man's world.
We were then what I like to call the New Feminists, no longer militant but engaged in a sort of passive resistance movement in a man's world, our personal difficulties compounded by demands not only for professional acceptance ... at least by one man per woman.
Bryn Mawr is ... an ivory tower, an artificial temporary community in which feminine capabilities can be expressed fully without social pressure (and which) allows one to go on even in the face of ordinary pressures and develop into a feminine and attractive person. . . . Because it was taken for granted that I was a person of serious purpose and great ability, I acquired an enriched self-image.
At Bryn Mawr, no one, in class or out of class, ever discusses what femininity means, what are the sources of the problems faced by women, and what would be needed to change the situation. Characteristically, the author does not deal with any of those problems. She internalizes the male image of her role, yet rebels against it. Passive resistance would appear to mean a compromise for acceptance, based on the assumption that men could be cajoled or seduced into accepting women as equals. Bryn Mawr was an ivory tower that fooled her (and many other women) into believing that such a situation is possible and workable. As a product of an elite school, the author was able to secure one of the few places offered to women at Harvard Medical School. What relevance does passive resistance have for a secretary? For that matter, what relevance does passive resistance have for the average Bryn Mawr graduate?
Bryn Mawr's implied philosophy is that it is sufficient for a woman's college to provide a haven for women so that they can develop enough confidence to tackle the obstacles facing them in a man's world. If Bryn Mawr were providing that confidence-building haven to its students it would qualify as an important first-rank feminist institution. But, in fact, Bryn Mawr has capitulated utterly to society's regressive view of women and is actually producing intellectual decorations, women of »sensitivity«, who are rising to the challenge of »managing career and family« and developing into feminine and attractive people. Bryn Mawr as it is today is a metaphor for the discrepancy between women's apparent freedom and their actual social and psychological entrapments.
A woman's college that does not relate to the needs of its students and pretends that its education will solve the »inequalities« of women within the society is dishonest. Most prestige colleges train wives for the ruling and professional classes. If Bryn Mawr claims to do more, to train women to take a place alongside men in the present social structure, it is deluding its own students by not openly admitting and exposing the problems that women have faced and will continue to face until there is real liberation. Were the college to deal actively with sexism, the ramifications of their problems would begin to be apparent. Few women students would gear their struggle to their own self-interest so narrowly defined. Prestige education does offer the pretense of freedom and equality to many women; more important, however, is the distance that it creates between the »ordinary« woman and the Bryn Mawr woman. As long as the pretense of individual achievement (tokenism) is maintained, as long as the rhetoric of »uniqueness« is not exposed for the lie that it is, collective action will be made impossible by this very elitism.
Many of us as students believed that all of Bryn Mawr's problems could be solved by adding men, and the pressure for coeducation is still strong. Many women still feel that women (like blacks in the early stages of the civil rights movement) must integrate with men in order to prove that they are equal. How Bryn Mawr will deal with this pressure from many of its students and weigh it against its responsibilities as a woman's institution is unclear. What is clear, however, is that if Bryn Mawr chooses to remain an all-woman's college, it must radically redefine its responsibilities and choose to deal actively with the political and psychic oppression of its women students as a group.
Minimal steps toward becoming a feminist institution must be taken. The college must critically examine itself in order to deal honestly with sexism in its course and goal orientation, as well as in its own attitudes toward its students. It should devote resources toward developing a broad-based women's movement, whether through research, publication, or activism, and should establish a Women's Studies department which would include courses in history, sociology, psychology, and literature. The courses should be oriented toward developing ideas on structural change necessary for the liberation of women as a group, regardless of class.
At present, the reasons for remaining a woman's college are never discussed; they are justified purely by snobbery and tradition. The decline in the number of applications and the increase in the number of women who drop out or seek psychiatric help reflect the individualism that is a major stumbling block to Bryn Mawr's feminism. A woman's college, no matter how excellent it pretends to be, cannot evade its fundamental feminist responsibilities without doing serious damage to its students. Today, such a school can only genuinely reactivate its feminism by declaring active commitment to the struggle of all women for their liberation. Only by repudiating parochial interests can the school become a place where women can learn together, deal with their problems together, and act collectively in their struggle to assume their rightful positions as functioning adults in the world.