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

Life After College

 

College girls had a number of options after graduation.  Many of them married and, in the social environment of the time, marriage spelled an end to work outside the home for most (exceptions included involvement in social causes like suffrage or settlement houses).  The heroines of successful series, however, often spend a number of books doing other things that were more interesting to their loyal teenage readers before settling down.  One possibility was returning to school for a fifth year, taking “post-graduate” courses to strengthen their skills in a specific subject: literature if they want to write, languages if they want to teach.  The post-graduate experiences of the fictional characters usually focus on the continuing social narrative of their stories, and many of the girls who elect this course appear to be driven primarily by a desire to maintain close contact with their friends, who also return.  Bryn Mawr offered studies of this sort; the course catalogs show that the MA as a terminal degree was available to women who had taken their Bachelor’s at the school, whereas alumnae of other colleges were only enrolled as graduate students if they aspired to the PhD.

Some of the girls in the stories do work, at least for a while.  The most common profession is teaching.  Betty Wales’ friend Katherine announces to her friends at the end of the year: “Ladies, behold the preceptress of the Kankakee Academy!”  A few of the characters go into business; Betty Wales herself, obliged by her family’s financial trouble to work for a living, opens and manages a tea shop.  Tea shops were a new idea at the turn of the century and they provided a safe and respectable venue for inexpensive meals to a growing group of women who were working, shopping, travelling – and eating – outside the home.  These shops were often run by the same women who frequented them, college-educated, “artistic”, and accustomed by college life to taking informal meals with their friends.

A third choice, and one which a surprisingly large proportion of the heroines of the series take up, is working at their alma mater.  Those who are not scholarly end up in the administration; Betty Wales, Grace Harlowe, and Marjorie Dean all return to campus to guide scholarship programs and residence halls for girls on financial aid, jobs for which their social skills and attractive personalities are essential.  Others, having taught in private schools for a year or two, drift back into the faculty.  One would suspect that the authors just did not want to let go of the campus environments that were so congenial to their readers and thrust their characters into the world, except that we see a similar pattern at Bryn Mawr.  Many of our graduates were employed at the college:  Helen Taft (1915) was appointed dean in 1917, and also served as acting president and professor of history over a forty-year career.  Lucy Donnelly (1893) advanced through the English department and was for many years its chair.  Other alumnae faculty included Georgianna Goddard King (BA 1896, MA 1897), Hilda Smith (1910), and Eunice Schenck (BA 1907, PhD 1914).


Senior Year
The College Girl

Bryn Mawr College Library