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


A Dance in Betty Wales, Freshman

 Dance Card, Sophomore Freshman Dance, Bryn Mawr

These books were written for teenagers in an era when female sociability was highly prized, and the heroines are frequently (although not invariably) socially adept.  They find it easy to make friends – bringing new characters into the stories – and they are able to smooth over the quarrels which might lead to the loss of important members of the cast.  They are, or they become in the course of the story, popular within their class and the college as a whole.  Many of the plots revolve around making and keeping friends, and those series which continue into the post-graduation lives of their characters carry on with the “same old crowd”.

Close friendships have always been part of college life and most of the books address the “crush”.  In its stereotypical form the crush is represented by the fervor with which a freshman regards a junior or senior.  The eponymous heroines of the books usually have only the mildest of crushes; Betty Wales holds a junior in high regard for the two years they are at school together, but she does not blush or find herself unable to speak in the presence of the adored elder, as lesser characters do.  There are also passionate friendships between classmates and roommates in both the books and in real life.  The girls hold hands, kiss, swear their undying love, and so on.  This is not surprising in an atmosphere of intimate and continuous contact which included single-sex dances, cross-dressed entertainment, and a social milieu which privileged stylized expressions of courtesy and chivalry.  We would see these now as sexual – and the fact that women who were studying for careers usually understood that the career precluded marriage supports this perception – but it is clear that at the time they were not so regarded by mainstream public opinion.

 The Wide Awake  Girls at College

 Note Between Bryn Mawr Students, 1907

Class Spirit

Bryn Mawr College Library