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

Clubs & Societies

illustration of two students

pamphlet for Bryn Mawr College Glee and Mandolin Clubs

Membership in societies is important in most of the books, and students first become members either late in their freshmen year or as sophomores.  Some of the colleges have Greek letter sororities, some have what are essentially social clubs open to girls with some sort of “promise” (“Dramatic Club” and “Clio” in the Betty Wales books) – in either case election is secret, determined by the members, and highly desirable. An initiation rite for a sorority is shown in the picture from Babs at College.  Most of the fictional schools also have clubs focused on shared interests, like music.  Some have open membership; others, like membership on the editorial board of the college literary magazine, are based on merit and election to them has faculty oversight or, at least, approval. In many of the books, the students at the core of the story also create private clubs to commemorate and formalize their friendship; these groups often have a philanthropic focus (to be nice to unpleasant and unpopular students, to assist students who are working their way through school financially, etc.) and their names reflect this character: the “Merry Hearts” (Betty Wales) and “Semper Fidelis” (Grace Harlowe), for example.

Bryn Mawr banned sororities from the beginning, and there is no trace of whether there were organized coteries.  But clubs we had in abundance: the Christian Union, the Chess Club, the Glee Club, the Mandolin Club, the Liberal Club, the Law Club, the Equal Suffrage League, and many serious departmental “journal clubs” open to upperclassmen and graduate students, which met weekly or biweekly in seminar to discuss articles and research.

photograph of College News staff

pamphlet for the Fortnightly Philistine

School spirit

Bryn Mawr College Library