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Can Bryn Mawr be an Eco-Feminist Academy?

ekthorp's picture

Since its establishment in 1885, Bryn Mawr has been a place for women to challenge themselves academically. The ability to do this was cultivated by its metaphorical mother, M. Carey Thomas. Her vision for the school surpassed her male colleagues idea of “female Haverford” and helped develop a school where women learned in a format formulated for this intellectual needs and desires. What was essential then, however, may not remain to be necessary now, especially if Bryn Mawr wishes to prosper in the ecological age. By comparing John Berry’s notions of a successful academic institution with Thomas’s long-lasting goals for the school, several differences in both ends and means of the schools mission arise.

            Joseph Taylor originally envisioned Bryn Mawr in 1877. However, his vision was radically changed by the time of its establishment in 1885, due largely to the contributions of M. Carey Thomas. Taylor had intended Bryn Mawr to be a “female Haverford;” an institution for orthodox Quaker women to receive higher education. Carey’s commitment to the college became apparent with her ardent attempts to create an institution that gave women the same academic rigor as a male’s institution tailored to women’s needs. She did not want a replica of a pre-existing form; her eventually realized dream was to create an entirely new kind of academic institution.

            Thomas’ desires can be interpreted as an early radical feminist act.  Instead of or prescribing to existing notions of female education, as seen in Smith or Vassar, Thomas “wanted to appropriate the library and laboratory of men.” (Horowitz 118) She ensured that the ”curriculum of Bryn Mawr made no genuflection to women’s special nature,” a belief which rebelled against contemporary masculine desires for women’s colleges “to protect young women as they received the higher learning” (Hororwitz 118, 120).  This belief stemmed from her belief in the androgyny of the mind. As a result, “Bryn Mawr created special opportunities for women to enter the sacred groves of scholarship, but the groves had no gender,” systematically revolutionizing women’s higher education in America.

            Thomas’s effect on the college is most obviously seen in the college’s architecture, much of which she advised and supervised in extreme detail. Her acute care for the college’s design was so minute that she agonizingly argued over the distance of 20 feet between two academic buildings, Taylor and Thomas Halls (Horowitz 129).  And she won. Her adamancy bloomed from her belief that “buildings expressed the life of a community, that they had the power to shape life” (Horowitz 121). As a result, she engineered a college where women could have private spaces to work and study, and never once attend to domestic duties, including making their own beds.  She strayed from Smith’s ideal of home-like settings, instead creating dorms that ensured a single room to each student, and often an individual study as well (Horowitz 126-127). This legacy of individuality continues today, as most upperclass Mawrters, and many sophomores and several freshmen ,continue to have single rooms. This is a privilege uncommon to many other colleges and universities. At other schools, students must either be incredibly fortunate or live off campus in order to acquire a room of their own. This ideal of separation, however, is what initially induced Bryn Mawr students’ strong sense of individuality and independence from both other students and from their environments.

            Thomas’ ultimate goal of her life-long commitment to Bryn Mawr can be clearly seen in the development of the Deanery, her on-campus home and office.  The grandiose mansion gave her “ample scope to indulge her acquisitiveness on her travels” (Horowitz 133). This building stood as an exemplar for Mawrters of what they were to achieve with their education. It became a symbol “ of the pleasures of success enjoyed by an extraordinary woman” Horowitz, 133). This enjoyment was entirely material; her home was set up in order to display her consumption and love of physical luxury.

            This is where I believe Berry would beg to differ from Thomas’ academic system. Instead of cultivating women that perpetuate materialism and consumerism, he wants American colleges to create community with others and with the Earth as a whole. Further differences between his and Thomas’ beliefs can be drawn from their views on college curriculum.

            While Thomas’ curriculum was incredibly influential in improving women’s higher education, it strays heavily from Berry’s notions of an ecological college, one necessary if we are to reverse our damage to the Earth. Entirely unintentionally, given the recent  emergence of the ecological age, Thomas sacrificed an eco-critical and encompassing curriculum in order to advance her feminist idea of women’s education. Thomas had students dedicate their time to scientific research and languages, placing the humanities secondary to these studies. Students were expected to group their classes into “two related specialized areas” (Horowitz 115), a process which Berry would protest against. His notion of erasing division between disciplines in order to promote ideas of communion with other and with the Earth, goes directly against Thomas’ emphasis on individuality and academic order.

            Berry believes in teaching four major phases of human development- the evolution of the cosmos, the evolution of the physical the evolution of life,  and the evolution of human consciousness and culture- and the importance of realizing the unity of the total process, from the first unimaginable moment of cosmic emergence through all its subsequent forms of expression until the present” (Berry 91). While Thomas found the first two phases of this process integral to education, setting rigorous standards in physical science, she saw the last two secondary and elective. Berry interprets all of these as absolutely necessary to our understanding of the earth as a whole. This goes against Thomas’s commitment to individualistic learning methods, as demonstrated by the college’s commitment to separate living and study spaces for students, and boundaries between academic departments.

            Berry defines education as “a process whereby the cultural coding is handed on from one generation to another” (Berry 93) Thomas worked to change some of this coding by transforming the way female academic educations function. Her success can be seen in establishment of rigorous academies specifically founded for preparing girls specifically  for Bryn Mawr’s difficult entrance exams, such as Shipley and Baldwin. However, Berry would take issue with what Thomas encouraged its initial alums to advance toward. “consumer-oriented society” that Thomas’ college perpetuated. Bryn Mawr’s respected scientific research departments helped find ways to further manipulate the Earth’s resources and encouraged girls to prosper within a materialistic system, instead of becoming critical of it. Carey made this research possible by encouraging students to work diligently with respected and dedicated professors. Berry would want to reverse this effect by encouraging students to develop communion through his curriculum.

            Berry insists that a curriculum is only effective if it teaches through “functional cosmology” (berry, 99) He envisions a system that teaches natural science, social science, and the humanities in unity with one another, ultimately creating a communion between the disciplines, the students, and the earth as a whole. According to Berry, if a college is unable to do this, the education is offers is insufficient. Here is where I believe Thomas would take issue with Berry. She worked incredibly diligently to create an education for women that she deemed appropriate. She went against standards set at the time, similarly as Berry is doing, in order to assure women received an “effective education.” She would take issue with Berry’s assumption that her efforts failed.

            Would Thomas, the essential creator of what Bryn Mawr has become, be able to reconcile her ideas of women’s education with Berry’s transformative desires for American colleges? Certainly, many of her values as to what a women’s college education should entail, such as individualism and independent subjects, contrast with Berry’s ideals. However, although stubborn and steadfast, Thomas believed in continuously growing and developing Bryn Mawr in order to retain its success. When resisting against hegemonic and patriarchal control over the college’s systems, “She insisted that only growth could sustain the standard Bryn Mawr had set” (Horowitz 117). Today, if reading the damage done to the earth as a patriarchic effect, she would possibly see the benefits of changing Bryn Mawr’s curriculum in order to negate this destruction. However, I posit that she would resist Berry’s notions of community and communion with the Earth. Thomas may support Berry’s dedication to a college that is “self-emerging, self-sustaining, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing, and self-fulfilling community,” she would ground this society in a dedication to academic rigor and feminine independence, while Berry grounds it in the “dynamics of the earth” (Berry 107) The entirety of Thomas’ theories on higher feminist education is tied up in ideals of individuality and separation that perpetuate the importance of the self, instead of the effects the self has on other and the earth itself. She would still want every student to graduate with the desire for her own Deanery, not a sense of communion with her fellow students and the Earth. 

            Can Bryn Mawr survive as an eco-feminist institution? I believe, that even though it goes against Thomas’ presiding and prominent notions of female education, it is a change we need to make. Now that we have a well regarded academic institution for woman established, we may begin working toward the goals that Berry outlines in his essay. Perhaps it may not have been possible to create an ecological academy during Thomas’ age, especially if she was focusing on furthering women’s education as a whole. However, it falls on our shoulders to throw off the material aspects of Thomas’s institution, and rebuild a college that works toward integrating all academic disciplines and disrupts our preexisting ideas of how a college should function.







Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. "A Certain Style of “Quaker Lady” Dress, Behold They Are Women!" Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Knopf, 1984. 105-33. Print.


Berry, Thomas. "The American College in the Ecological Age." The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988. 89-108. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

"Groves with no Gender"

In your first web event, you took note of the fact that Bryn Mawr is bordered by other girls' schools; here you "drill down" on the question of what women's education was imagined to be, by M. Carey Thomas in the 19th century, and what it needs to become, in what Berry now terms our "ecological age."

I think you develop an interesting contrast between Thomas's celebration of individuality, independence, and the material "pleasures of success enjoyed by an extraordinary woman” --and Berry's call into integration and community, a reflectiveness about the costs the earth is paying/cannot afford to pay, to sustain such material achievement.

Like Berry, of course, Thomas "worked to change the coding" whereby one generation teaches the next; she brought about a transformation in the way academic education funtions; he calls for further such transformation. But while her focus was on sexist practices of exclusion, his is on human practices of segregation--of disciplines of study and practices of living--more widely understood. Reframing their relationship in that way suggests not that Thomas, as you speculate, "would take issue with Berry’s assumption that her efforts failed," but rather that she might see his rallying cry as the next best step in a process she initiated.

Which brings us to the fine points of what an "ecological" BMC--or even an "eco-feminist" BMC--might look like.
You use the term "eco-feminist" in your title and conclusion, but don't really explore the juxtaposition of Thomas's belief in the androgyny of the mind," her refusal to "genuflect to women’s special nature,” her insistance that the groves of academe "had no gender" with contemporary eco-feminist beliefs in the unique nature of women--threatening because so powerful and earth-centered. I'd be interested to hear how you imagine a conversation between these two interpretations of what women are--and can be.

More pointedly, you end by saying that "it falls on our shoulders to throw off the material aspects of Thomas’s institution, and rebuild a college that works toward integrating all academic disciplines and disrupts our preexisting ideas of how a college should function." What exactly do you imagine? Destroying the buildings Thomas designed to "express the life of the community" (see two nice poems on this theme: Wissahickon Schist and Meta/phor)? Building more residences like Erdman, which (as smacholdt reports) was designed in belief that a "dormitory should not express a nostalgia for home, it is not a permanent place, but an interim place"?

What would a college "re-built" on ecological principles look like?