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

Suffrage & Settlements

Besides women’s education, the students in the stories – and the real-life students – are especially interested in two social movements. The first is women’s suffrage.  The books do not often feature active suffragists (Molly Brown is an exception), but many of the main characters and their friends are pro-suffrage and they understand participation in class elections and mock presidential campaigns as practice for the day they will take their place in civic society. Bryn Mawr had a lively chapter of the National College Equal Suffrage League, and many students were very active in the suffrage movement after graduation. The diary of Mary Worthington (1910), M. Carey Thomas' niece, describes how the League was founded on campus.

Social services for the poor engaged a great many educated women at the turn of the century, and many women’s colleges were instrumental in creating the first generation of professional social workers. The heroine of When Margaret Was a Sophomore runs a reading club at a settlement house, and much of Jane Allen Senior focuses on the “social service” work of Jane and her friend Judith, who leads a club for truant boys. Betty Wales and her friends, post graduation, participate in clubs and literacy efforts at a factory near campus. Bryn Mawr’s School of Social Work was founded in 1915 as a graduate department, and named for Carola Woerishoffer (1907), an alumna who had been a remarkably effective labor reform leader. The school offered an MA and a PhD, as well as a diploma for a two-year course. As in other similar programs, courses included “social case work”, with participation in the Philadelphia settlements.

Democracy & Difference
Senior Year

Bryn Mawr College Library