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

drawing of students in dorm room

photograph of student Susan Walker

As freshmen, the girls in the stories are characteristically unfamiliar with college customs and feel lonely and out of place.  An important part of each story is the heroine’s assimilation: her development of class spirit – then school spirit, the growth of her circle of friends, and the way she finds her special role in the life of the school.  Betty Wales insists that each girl will discover her “one big talent” – organizing events, skill in composition or math, public speaking – which she can contribute to the common good.  Jane Allen is unusual in spending most of her freshman year book unhappy and unpleasant, but even she is incorporated into her class eventually, through excelling in athletic competition.

In most of the books the students have some sort of “student association” or self-government at their college, although these are not as comprehensive as Bryn Mawr’s.  The plot possibilities of this experiment in governing a college are usually ignored, although the idea is ridiculed in Betty Wales Decides when a newly-formed student government decides to confirm all of the previous college rules.  At Bryn Mawr, however, the girls demanded self government and then took advantage of the opportunities it offered.  The students formulated their self-government association during the Fall of 1891.  The idea was promoted by Susan Walker (1893), and she and Anne Emery (1892) led the discussion, negotiation, and wrangling that finally resulted in a charter accepted in January 1892 by the College’s administration and the Board of Trustees.

notice for self-government student meeting

self-government resolutions

Clubs & Societies
Stunts & Spreads

Bryn Mawr College Library