November 2012

Taking Her Place

A new Bryn Mawr College exhibition explores the history of women’s education.

By Jennifer Redmond

Images courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Special Collections

Taking Her Place, the Friends of the Library’s spring 2013 exhibition, explores both the history of Bryn Mawr and the College’s place in the wider history of women’s education. Based on the work of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr (funded by The Albert M. Greenfield Foundation in Philadelphia), Taking Her Place draws on the wealth of material held by Bryn Mawr Special Collections. Books, objects, art, pamphlets, as well as interactive digital elements such as audio interviews with Mawrters from the early decades of the college, reveal how women’s access to higher education allowed for their entry to the public sphere. Alumnae of Bryn Mawr and other institutions of women’s higher education stood upon their academic qualifications to protest, to claim access to, and to defend their activities in the worlds of politics, education, and social reform.

These images offer a small sample of the items on display in Taking Her Place, which will be hosted in the Rare Book Room gallery in Canaday Library from January 28 through the weekend of Reunion 2013. The exhibition is co-curated by Director of the Center Jennifer Redmond and research assistant Evan McGonagill ’10. Public events associated with Taking Her Place will occur throughout the spring, including an opening lecture by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, a renowned scholar of women’s educational history, and a talk by Elaine Showalter ’62, professor of English emeritus at Princeton University.

Be sure to check the Center’s website,, for more information and updates.

The Taking Her Place exhibition features original materials showing the contrasting opinions on the effect of college on women’s health.

As the caption to this image (top) from a 1905 Good Housekeeping magazine demonstrates, the ideas of Stanley Hall, President of Clark University, were well known in American society. The ‘college girl’ depicted here is lifeless, gaunt, and sickly, made weak by her persistent scholarly studies, which Hall, along with other psychologists, medical doctors, and social commentators, felt was brought on due to the inability of women to physically bear the challenges of higher learning.

M. Carey Thomas described her horror at reading Hall’s pronouncements in her essay “Women’s College and University Education (1908)”: “I had never chanced again upon a book that seemed to me so to degrade me in my womanhood as the seventh and seventeenth chapters on women and women’s education of President Stanley Hall’s Adolescence.”

Good Housekeeping, however, celebrated the college girl, lampooning ideas of female frailty with articles on recreation, vacation, and healthy sports for girls at colleges across America. The sporty college woman, here (bottom) portrayed energetically carrying both a book and a tennis racket, was an archetype of the early 1900s.

Such a widely read magazine was influential in changing stereotypes and derogatory depictions of educated women, and physical education became an important part of many women’s colleges. At Bryn Mawr College, it was conceived of as a way to ensure the vitality of students and has been a component of its liberal arts mission since the beginning of the College.

This image, taken from the 1902 College calendar, was created by Philadelphia-based artists Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green. It reflects the serious scholarly atmosphere of Bryn Mawr College; each of the women in the picture is intensely engaged with her work. As a poem from the Lantern in 1892 pondered:

“In cap and gown a maiden rare,/ With downcast eyes and thoughtful air./ … What deep reflection makes her wear/ A look so far away? What care/ Of Greek or Sanskrit ponders she/ In cap and gown.”

In the early years of the College, caps and gowns were worn by all students on campus and added to the distinction of the College as an institute of higher learning, setting it apart from the female seminaries or academies of the 19th century, which had mainly provided secondary education for women.

This pin is from the Women’s Suffrage Ephemera Collection, which includes a variety of ephemera related to the fight for women’s suffrage dating from circa 1910 until the early 1920s. In addition to a variety of printed materials and photographs, the collection also contains material from various suffrage conventions and conferences, including a large collection of pins, ribbons, and buttons, many owned by Jane Campbell or M. Carey Thomas. Many pro-suffrage protesters found that their status as college graduates was an important part of their platform. Their credentials empowered them, giving them a voice and a space in the conversation, hence the Bryn Mawr College labeling of this pin.

Basketball was a popular sport at Bryn Mawr College from its early days. Having been adapted in 1893 by Senda Berenson, gymnasium director at Smith College, to be appropriate as a form of exercise for women, basketball quickly became the most popular competitive team sport at many women’s colleges. This image (r), taken from a College calendar from 1901, illustrates the fact that women at the turn of the century were playing such sports while fully clothed in appropriate attire. In an era when many still feared that the mental and physical exertion of college life would be too much for women, playing basketball was a somewhat daring act. You can view the digital exhibit Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, 1885-1929 on the Greenfield Center website.


This 1906 postcard (l) is one of a number in the College archives depicting cartoon stereotypes of the “college girl.” The girl is caricatured as frivolous and self-absorbed. The caption also emphasizes that this comes at the expense of her family, specifically her mother, who presumably did not enjoy a college education but drudges in order to secure advancement for her daughter without realizing the waste. Though women’s higher education was becoming firmly established by the end of the 19th century, doubts about women’s educability had not been expelled from society, and the substance of college life for girls remained a matter of discussion and controversy.

This 1898 image (r) of a student working in the laboratory facilities in Dalton Hall demonstrates the College’s commitment to advancing women’s education in fields, such as science, that were previously closed to them. Prior to the building of Dalton, the number of students allowed to select a science major had to be restricted due to the small space available in the old facilities, a two-room wooden construction with just 29 desks.

Built by Charles F. Osborne and J.C. Worthington, Dalton was constructed between 1891 and 1893. The cutting-edge facilities represented M. Carey Thomas’ vision of ensuring high standards and rigorous training for female students. In a 1901 article for Educational Review, she argued that “in law, in architecture, in electricity, in bridge-building, in all mechanic arts and technical sciences, our effort must be for the most scientific instruction, the broadest basis of training that will enable men and women students to attain the highest possible proficiency in their chosen profession.”

Scrapbooks were kept by many Mawrters during their time here and subsequently donated to the College archives. They bring to life the student experience in past decades, and many of the items date from the first three decades of the College. As a form of visual autobiography, they offer enchantingly laconic clues to the personality, experiences, hopes, friendships, and social lives of undergraduates. Many from the time of Thomas’ presidency make reference to her through the saving of invitations to tea at the Deanery or copies of the John Singer Sargent portrait of Thomas, which can be seen as part of the exhibition. They were often created with great attention and care, having elaborate and decorative covers or witty captions.

Special Collections is currently digitizing the scrapbooks and albums (over 100 in total), and you can access the collection by visiting the tri-college digital collections site, Triptych, at

This depiction (l) of the Lantern Night ceremony is taken from the 1902 College calendar. Images of the traditions have come to be iconic of Bryn Mawr life and culture and contribute to a sense of shared experience among students and alumnae. The Lantern Night tradition gives freshmen their first opportunity to identify as members of the Bryn Mawr community. In the image, class unity is emphasized by the green lantern that each woman holds and by students’ uniform dress.

By claiming and adapting the dignified attire of male scholars who have preceded them, they situate themselves within an older tradition and make it their own. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz writes in Alma Mater that rituals often link “the students to the college landscape.” The ceremony originally included a procession through each of the college buildings that symbolized the freshmen’s new ownership of the campus and their place among a community of women scholars.

M. Carey Thomas (r) was the first dean and second president of the College and is generally acknowledged as the chief visionary of the school. From an early age, Thomas demonstrated a stunningly focused ambition to improve women’s access to higher education. A diary entry from age 14 reads: “How unjust how narrow minded how utterly uncomprehensible [sic] to deny that women ought to be educated & worse than all to deny that they have equal powers of mind. If I ever life to grow up my one aim & consentrated [sic] purpose shall be & is to show that a woman can learn can reason can compete with men in the grand fields of literature & science … that a woman can be a woman & a true one with out having all their time engrossed by the dress & society.”

If you would like to hear more about the work of the Center, contact Jennifer Redmond to arrange a visit from her to your local alumnae club (

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