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


What constitutes a woman’s college education in the early twentieth century?  Is the “college girl” like other girls – or not?  What will she be like at the end of four years far from home?  Will she have any friends?  Will she be able to find a job?  Will she be able to get a husband?  For many prospective students, their parents, and their neighbors, these questions were answered first by “college” series books written for teenage girls. 

This is a show about books, but the books are put into context by the historical experiences of the students of Bryn Mawr College, which opened in 1885.  Some of the people and events in these stories seem strange to us as readers whose college experiences were very different.  We may wonder whether athletic enthusiasm could really run so high at a women’s school, whether the girls of adjacent classes actually fought with one another, and if college “spirit” was as palpable in real life as it is in these novels.  Fortunately, we can draw on the Bryn Mawr experience, as preserved in photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, and letters home, to illustrate and illuminate the fictional events, and to help us judge how close the stories came to real life.



Exhibition Overview
College Girl Fiction

Bryn Mawr College Library