“The Best Thing in a Girl’s Life”: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Fact


 Psychology study in Thomas Librar

 Grace Harlowes Second Year at Overton College

Characters in the stories do not spend as much time on the academic side of college life as real college girls did, of course.  There is only so much one can say about Freshman Composition which is amusing to a reader, so academics appear when they can drive a plot: the freshmen are worried as the dreaded midyears (January exams) approach and are taunted about them by their older friends; they fail to get passing grades, are “conditioned,” and have to give up desirable activities while they catch up; their growing interest and skill in a subject leads to election to an honor society; and so on.  In real life, although “a girl couldn’t help having a good time,” as Betty Wales says, the students at Bryn Mawr spent a lot of time at their studies.  They wrote to their parents (probably truthfully) that they were working hard, and described their difficulties in getting books on reserve, finishing their essays on time, and catching up on late work.

The faculty (including the president of the college) play a number of roles in these stories.  They are sometimes merely antagonists, enacting their parts in dramas that move the plot along.  In the scene from Grace Harlowe’s Second Year the faculty member (mistakenly) accuses the heroine of having plagiarized an essay.  Faculty members also represent the corporate spirit and morale of the schools, leading the students through difficulties when they cannot steer themselves.  More frequently, they appear as kindly friends who nurture the students’ hopes and abilities, serve as counselors and role models, and generally represent amiable adulthood.  The Bryn Mawr faculty filled all these roles – although they were generally admired by the students, some of them (at least periodically) assumed the role of tormenters, as Dr. James Tupper, English Literature, did in the poem preserved in Elsie Kohn’s scrapbook.

 Science Lab in Dalton Hall

 Poem from Elsie Kohn's scrapbook


Bryn Mawr College Library