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

The College Girl

Grace Harlowe’s Fourth Year

Dormitory tea party

These novels offer up a series of images of “the college girl” in a social context where that identity was still being established.  The students of the earliest women’s colleges were unusual in that they came from prosperous families willing to encourage their daughters’ intellectual interests.  The popular stereotype of the college girl in the early days was one of wealth and a sometimes off-putting “braininess”.  But by the time these series became popular, the women’s college was not such a novelty.  More girls considered going to college, and more of their parents were prepared to consider sending them.  Exactly what the college girl was, then, became important and these popular novels played a part in the increasing acceptance of higher education for women.  The stories depict predominantly friendly communities in which a good-natured (and incidentally, good-looking) girl can make her way, with kindly guardians and reasonable rules, healthy living, and experiences through which the girls become not just better scholars, but also better people.  They must have reassured both parents and daughters that attending college would in fact improve the girls’ lives.

The heroines themselves never embody the older stereotypes of the college girl; although they come from well-to-do families and are reasonably bright, they are neither stunningly rich and snobbish, nor are they “intellectual”.  Likewise, they avoid the new abusive stereotypes which arose as a more diverse group of girls entered women’s colleges: they are not frantically interested in men, empty-headed in spite of their studies, or addicted to time-wasting entertainments.  They are thorough “all-around girls” and they represent those characteristics the mainstream found good in women’s education.

 stereotypical college girl

Anne Greene's letter home

Life After College

Bryn Mawr College Library