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

Class Spirit

 That Freshman

Hazing at Bryn Mawr College, 1911

A student’s identity as a member of a specific class is established – and enforced – early in these books.  Every series has incidents where the freshmen are instructed, exhorted, and generally pushed around by the older girls, especially the sophomores.  The women of the “sister class” – the juniors – usually offer emotional support and a good example.  In some books this attempt to enforce conformity extends to violence. The poetical self-defense against the sophomore class depicted from That Freshman leads to a snowball fight that breaks windows in a faculty lounge.  In most of the books (excepting the peculiar Nancy Pembroke, College Maid, which thankfully turns into a co-ed series), instances of hazing – and even unfounded reports of hazing - are followed by assemblies where the president of the college calls for the abolition of the practice and the girls commit to reforming their customs.  In fact, hazing was a feature of male colleges which found its way into the women’s schools along with the classical curriculum.  Bryn Mawr vacillated on how much conflict was acceptable.  In 1901 Mabel Austin, a freshman, reported that seventeen sophomores invited six freshmen to a fudge party, but once they had their victims rounded up, they locked the door and left them overnight in a room in Denbigh.  College President M. Carey Thomas boycotted chapel (morning assembly) the next day to dramatize her dismay. 

Class identity – and class spirit – does appear early in the books, sometimes openly acknowledged as an outcome of the formalized strife between the freshman and sophomore classes.  Each student wants her class to succeed, and the struggle for excellence provides motivation for class parades, meetings, banners, and shows.  It is clear that identification with the class was very strong in the early years of our College, and this identification was reinforced throughout the four years by a series of public events which enacted and displayed the relationship between the classes: Freshman Rush (a sort of group hazing which turned into Parade Night), the Sophomore-Freshman dance (given by the sophomores), athletic competitions between adjacent classes, Banner Night (when the juniors gave the freshmen their banner), and so on.

Parade Night at Bryn Mawr College

 Invitation to the Sophomore-Freshman Dance, Brn Mawr

Freshman Year

Bryn Mawr College Library