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


illustration of man and woman skaing together

illustration of man and woman courting

Many girls entered single sex colleges when they were as young as sixteen, and all colleges restricted contact with men while the girls were at school.  Freshman and sophomore dances at college, for example, were “girl dances,” which (like much in college life) gave the students a chance to practice social skills they would use later in a larger sphere.  But by junior year the characters in the stories are usually interested in men and they attend football games and dances at men’s colleges.  The heroines are usually not attached to a particular boy, and some of the series are extended romances during which a prolonged acquaintance and courtship are played out.  Marriage almost always meant the end of college or outside employment for middle- and upper-class women, so any series character who was destined to finish college and take her place in any possible sequels needed to be left free of a firm commitment.

A frequent feature of these stories is romance between the girls and the male faculty.  Betty Wales’s older friend becomes a “faculty wife”, and the Molly Brown series comprises a six-book story of courtship with the first faculty member Molly meets (although Molly is not conscious of the attraction for years).  A relationship that we now view with skepticism and dismay was less disturbing in an era where most people assumed a marked difference in roles within a marriage and a less even distribution of power between the partners.  In any case, the relatively young men teaching at women’s schools were in fact the focus of “crushes” and more serious affections.  Bryn Mawr was no exception to this rule, and in the early days the girls called the young male faculty “The Temptations.”  Faculty-student marriages included Madeline Palmer (1899) and Professor Charles Bakewell, and Lucy Evans (1918) and Professor Samuel Chew.

wait until I make my annual inspection, ordered Judy carefully examining the fourth finger of the left hand of every girl Molly Brown's senior days 1913

Image of Princeton University pennant

photograph of Professor Charles Bakewell

Stunts & Spreads
Democracy & Difference

Bryn Mawr College Library