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

Democracy & d/iffernce

Bertha Szold's letter home

Advertising Poster from the Scrapbook of Evelyn Page

An ongoing theme in the books is the desirable “leveling” effect of college life.  Betty Wales’ junior friend, Dorothy King, president of her class, tells Betty when she graduates, “I know I can trust you to work for the democratic, helpful spirit, and keep down cliques and snobbishness and see that everybody has a fair chance and a good time.”  The books recognize social and class differences among the students, especially in the form of wealth. Snobbish, unpleasant girls mock those who are working their way through school and the heroines reach out to them. Some of the accommodations are rather delicate: Betty Wales as a junior convinces her class to wear simple dresses at Commencement so the poor girls will be indistinguishable from those who could afford haute couture.  Some are very public: in most of the series the lead characters mount fundraisers for the “Student Aid” or their actions lead to the foundation of scholarship funds, dormitories for students on financial aid, and so on. Bryn Mawr provided some scholarships, but also employed students in a variety of positions; other students ran their own small businesses to supplement their allowances.

The books are products of their time and they do not address race, ethnicity, or religion with the same interest as they do class. The students in the book are almost all white, mostly Americans (with the occasional European thrown in to provide novelty), and by default Christian (the series differ in whether they discuss religion or not).  This reflects the situation in most of the schools they are based on, including Bryn Mawr. The Molly Brown series has a Japanese student, Otoyo Sen, and she becomes a close friend of the main characters, although her “foreignness” persists even as her English improves and her gowns lead the way in current western fashion. Bryn Mawr’s most famous Japanese student, Umeko Tsuda, who studied here from 1889 to 1892, returned to Japan to found the Women's Institute for English Studies, which grew into Tsuda College. There were a few other foreign students early in the college’s history and Jews seem to have been admitted routinely, but the early student body was demographically rather uniform and the leading organization on campus was the Christian Union, to which it was assumed the students would belong.  Bryn Mawr’s first black graduate belonged to the class of 1931.

Otoyo Sen gives a party

 Umeko Tsuda

Suffrage & Settlements

Bryn Mawr College Library