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Web event #2: Bryn Mawr: Community? Empowered? Sisterhood?

nia.pike's picture

An institution described through the eyes of its members tells a lot. Bryn Mawr College through the eyes of its students is one such institution. Consider the following terms used by Mawrters to describe Bryn Mawr: sisterhood, home, academic success, traditions, community, stress, empowered, intellect.  

These words describe the culture that is Bryn Mawr College, a culture created by the cultural identities of the student body.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, culture is "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization" (Merriam Webster). One's environment throughout one's life influences these sets of characteristics, to comprise of one's cultural identity. Culture is not a single factor; rather, it is the intersection of many identities. Eli Clare, a white genderqueer activist and writer with cerebral palsy attempts to verbalize the intersectionality of these multiple cultural identities "gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race...everything finally piling into a single human body" (Clare, 143). We gain and develop these characteristics of our cultural identity as we progress through life, influenced by the culture of those around us and by our own individual actions.

However, in today's age of a global system, humans are no longer permanently stationary in one place, with one culture. When we change environments, we move to places with different cultural identities. One of these changes which can occur in our lifetime is moving to college. For some of us, myself included, college is a long way from home. I have roots in Houston, Texas and in the United Kingdom; however, I chose to go to Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania just outside Philadelphia.

Northeastern United States is, of itself, a culturally very different place than Texas or the United Kingdom. But attending a small, all-women's, liberal arts college like Bryn Mawr compounds this cultural shift, as the college has its own culture created and enforced by the student body.

Officially, as stated in Bryn Mawr College's Mission Statement, this college is an academic institution committed "to provid[ing] a rigorous education . . . to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work. Bryn Mawr teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum for women" (Bryn Mawr College). With the formal definition in consideration, the students of Bryn Mawr College have other descriptions for this academic institution, including the following: home, the Mawr, the Mothership, etc. These nicknames reflect student perspectives of this establishment, the  student culture of Bryn Mawr. An academic institution is much more than just academics, the students reflect the true heart of an institution.

Each institution, no matter what its overall intention, sets goals for its members. In this case, the administration of Bryn Mawr College sets ambitions for its students. These ambitions include academic goals including graduating, attending classes, meeting scholarly requirements, etc.  However, the students comprise of the institution. And because the student body is an integral part of the college, the students play a key role in cultural influence at Bryn Mawr. Does the student body, through the influence of the student culture at Bryn Mawr, set additional objectives?   

Collegiate pressures are more than simply academic; they are social. Perhaps even more so at Bryn Mawr since discussing grades is a taboo topic. Finding a place to fit into society at Bryn Mawr is paramount. In doing so, many students feel pressured to give up their native cultural identities to accept those prominent at Bryn Mawr, under the belief that if they do not, then they will not succeed.

One form of failure is cultural suicide. Emile Durkheim, a 19th century French sociologist who established sociology into the academic spectrum extended the thought of suicide in a societal view into the academic disciplines. He viewed suicide as the overall failure of certain individuals to integrate themselves into a larger societal structures such as the church, the state, family, and academia (Durkheim). This form of failure can be viewed through a cultural lens at academic institutions. As Dr. William G. Tierney,  an expert in the study of performance and equality in higher education argues: "college initiates must undergo a form of cultural suicide, whereby they make a clean break from the communities and cultures in which they were raised and integrate and assimilate into the dominant culture of the colleges they attend. . . if they fail to assimilate, they will fail at college" (Tierney).

According to Arnold van Gennep, a 20th century French ethnographer, entrance into a culture requires an initiation rite to allow new members  to transition from one culture to another (van Gennep). It could be said that Bryn Mawr's traditions are the initiation rites of its students into its culture as the students assimilate to Bryn Mawr culture throughout the time frame of their first year. Assuming Bryn Mawr's traditions are forms of initiation rites, confirms that Bryn Mawr has a culture into which it needs to transition its students. This sampling of an alumnae's blog confirms the influence of one of these traditions, Lantern Night "We cement our bonds with college sing-alongs lit by class lanterns, with nighttime ceremonies held in darkness accompanied only by Greek hymns sung in harmony in which we are passed lanterns to symbolize the light of knowledge coming to us from our older sisters" (MadLori). These traditions create a culture; Mawrters state that Bryn Mawr is a "cult" or a real life "Hogwarts." The reality is more than a passing comment. Bryn Mawr's culture is cult-like. Mawrters create this culture, feel empowered by this culture, and initiate others into it.

Every student who arrives at Bryn Mawr comes from a different culture, with different individual cultural identities. In some cases, their native cultural identities overlap with those at Bryn Mawr and the student does not face struggles integrating into Bryn Mawr's culture. But there are many cases where Bryn Mawr with its "progressive" and "open-mindedness" has stifled the cultural identities of students. The mindset of Bryn Mawr could be considered progressive when compared to other cultural hubs outside of the college. Yet the coming together of this progression, has not allowed all personal cultural identities to thrive. The student body at Bryn Mawr has become a close-minded place, focused on the advancement of certain cultural identities. Bryn Mawr like any other cultural hub has norms: white, queer, upper middle class, atheist, liberal, etc. If one does not conform to these norms, they are looked down upon, there exists societal pressure to conform to the cultural identity of Bryn Mawr.   

Of course, very few people at Bryn Mawr conform to all of these expectations when they enter as a frosh. Yet a change occurs in them over the years both physically and physiologically including notorious Bryn Mawr chop, straight hate, and the statement that "Republicans are as rare as unicorns" by our very own Bi Co News newspaper. The societal pressures to conform at Bryn Mawr are real. Not everyone participates in the act of pressuring their peers to conform, but enough people hold these expectations to a high enough value to suppress those who do not conform.   " [T]he reprimand . . . forms a crucial part of the . . . social formation of the subject. The call is formative, if not performative, precisely, because it initiates the individual into the subjected status."(Butler, 381) The suspect is any individual who does not conform to society's rules for expression, thus must be reprimanded until they conform. The reprimand can take a variety of forms, some direct, others indirect and more subtle. Every societal pressure at Bryn Mawr has a form of reprimand whether subtle or prominent.

One of the most directly avoided, yet also more prominent forms of pressures to conform to Bryn Mawr's culture is the pressure at Bryn Mawr to be queer. A poster went up last semester for a tea hosted by the college's counseling center which stated "Do you love your queer friends and feel pressured to adopt their orientation?" Before this poster appeared in public spaces around campus, I never thought about this unspoken pressure, but the poster brought this issue to light. A few days later, another form of poster went up, this time written by a member of the student body stating "Do you love your straight friends and feel pressured to adopt their orientation?" This directed and aggressive response concreted the divide that exists at Bryn Mawr. When asked about this divide many Mawrters could confirm that there is discrimination towards those who are straight at Bryn Mawr, yet few could solidify an example. The pressures they spoke of are subtle ones which have invaded the everyday experiences and responses of the student body. They mentioned the pressure to experiment with sexuality. The pressure to be a LUG (Lesbian Until Graduation) or BUG (Bisexual Until Graduation).  Heterosexual couples are looked down upon, while homosexual couples are applauded. One student commented that heterosexual PDA on campus is negatively gossiped about: "Why is that straight couple walking down senior row?" "Why is her boyfriend on campus?" "He's spending the night?!?!" While homosexual PDA is applauded and encouraged: "Look at that cute lesbian couple!" "We need to increase the queer quota on our sports team." Another Mawrters states that "all the cool kids are queer, while the straight kids are just straight." This unspoken divide is evident.

But what can be done to close this divide? This separation is analogous of the radical sectors of the black rights and women's rights movements, in which part of the larger movement took it upon themselves to put blacks or women above all other races and genders, respectively, in their interpretation of gaining rights and recognition. A similar situation is arising at Bryn Mawr: in the spirit of queer activism and equality for all genders and sexualities, being heterosexual is pushed aside as a negative cultural identity.

How can the student body remove this negativity.? Awareness. It is evident that on Bryn Mawr's campus, LGBTQIA+ has a lot of momentum. I do not propose that this momentum slow down because I think its work is still needed both on campus and off. Yet across the queer culture, especially in places where being queer is "safe" like Bryn Mawr College, there has become a pathological attitude within the queer community that safe is an invitation for revenge against oppression (Swift) experienced outside Bryn Mawr.  One recently graduated Mawrter posted this picture on her instagram "I don't want 2 see or be seen by straight people" This offensive, publically displayed viewpoint does not foster sisterhood and community, aspects of Bryn Mawr Mawrters hold very highly. In response to this attitude, I would like to propose a new approach to bring about awareness without putting down other cultural identities on campus.

Bryn Mawr College advertises itself as a safe space where everyone is welcome. This aura of a safe space gives minorities outside of Bryn Mawr like the queer community, a sense of empowerment. In fact many Mawrters characterize Bryn Mawr as a place of empowerment for women, racial minorities, sexual and gender minorities. But being empowered does not mean putting down others in the process of rising to the top. Empowered is not dominance, it is a tool to enable. More emphasis needs to be placed on equality, in addition to the description of this institution as a safe place. Some of this change will have to come from the way students describe Bryn Mawr as a school. Mawrters notoriously tote Bryn Mawr as a school "with lots of gay people" "full of queers" "where being queer is normal" "we all hate men" These are actual quotes from the Bryn Mawr community. Is this really how we want to portray ourselves to everyone outside the Bryn Mawr bubble? Instead we should portray ourselves in a more positive light, while still maintaining the strong, independent, empowered mindset we hold so dear.

In order for this change to be effective for the entire community, it must occur without negative effects on other cultural identity groups on campus. Bryn Mawr is above all else a sisterhood, a home, a community, and we must foster this sense of togetherness, by coming together and not isolating and discrimination against the variety of cultural identities which exist on our campus.


Works Cited

Bi Co News. "Features." Bi Co News [Bryn Mawr] 2012. Print.

Bryn Mawr College. "Bryn Mawr College Mission Statement." Bryn Mawr College. N.p., Dec. 1988. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Butler, Judith. "Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Edited McClintock, Anne, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End, 1999. Print.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. Translated by J.A. Spaulding. Glencoe, NY: The Free Press. 1951. Print.

Gennep, Arnold Van. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

MadLori. "The Long-promised Post About Bryn Mawr." The Mad Tumblr. Tumblr, 5 Aug. 2012. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Merriam Webster. "Culture." Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.

Swift, Michael. "For the homoerotic order," Gay Community News. Boston. Feb. 15-21, 1987.

Tinto, Vincent. Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987. Print.


Fdaniel's picture

Queer College

I think your essay is very insightful and quite interesting. When doing research on the history of Bryn Mawr I see the efforts they've made in order to create diversity and include everyone including the LGBTQ+ community. All the accommodations they've made is quite impressive and I do think that the school as a whole is attempting to cater to our needs as students but while doing so are also bringing down other groups. "Equality" doesn’t mean to favor one group over the other but rather to respect both groups. This provokes a problem especially when discussing the queer community at this college. Only being in this school for a little over 3 months I've noticed the nasty looks and comments made towards heterosexual couples. A lot of Bryn Mawr's activism is geared towards uplifting the LGBTQ + community and that I don’t have a problem with but the idea of making another group look bad in order to uplift another is hypocritical. Although I do think that Bryn Mawr has expanded their idea of "Bryn Mawr Woman" I do think we have a long way to go in terms of being less judgmental and more supportive of all. I stated in my essay that a "Bryn Mawr Women" now are women of color, undocumented women, transmen, international women, and women of non-traditional college age. After reading your paper, I would like to add queer to that definition.

       I also appreciate your discussion about culture shock and going to school in this environment. Although Bryn Mawr is very open to intersectionality and inviting more students into our community it seems as though they are trying to get us to assimilate. Do we have to loose a piece of our selves in college to be successful? Is Bryn Mawr’s definition of success really success? 

nia.pike's picture

Fdaniel, your last question

Fdaniel, your last question is one that I struggled with when I started the paper. In fact, I almost wrote the paper on how we have to sacrifice part of ourselves in order to assimilate into Bryn Mawr's culture. This statement is upsetting because it is so true. We gain so much by being at Bryn Mawr, but we also lose something in exchange. I think a true way to think about Bryn Mawr is whether or not through our Bryn Mawr career have we gained more than we have lost. As a junior I can say I have gained more than I have lost. The parts of me that I have lost/have morphed in the past 2.5 years have had a positive impact on my life. But I also wonder if when I leave the Bryn Mawr bubble whether or not I will have this same thought. Bryn Mawr inside the bubble is very different than the outside world. The outside world is our reality. We cannot hide in the bubble longer than our undergraduate career. And it is when we are in the real world that more reflections on the effect of Bryn Mawr on each of us as a person will take place. I frequently wonder how Bryn Mawr will have directed me 5 years, 10 years, 20 years from now.

Anne Dalke's picture


You’ve made a very explicit link between your last project, on rebelling from the chains of society, and this one, with the citation you include here from Butler: “the reprimand . . . forms a crucial part of the . . . social formation of the subject. The call is formative, if not performative, precisely, because it initiates the individual into the subjected status."

What interests me is the way in which this analysis grows from, and is also much more layered, than the last one: this time ‘round, you are much more cognizant of the ways in which social formation of one sort has the possibility of excluding and deforming other identities. Last month, I recommended a theorist named Diana Fuss to many of your classmates; her essay “Inside/Out” makes it quite explicit that  "any identity is founded relationally, constituted in reference to an exterior or outside.”

Following that logic, it may be that if the “cult” and “culture” of Bryn Mawr is (as you say) “above all else a sisterhood,” it will—definitionally, operationally, inevitably—create thereby the circle of outsiders that surround it: making a “safe space” for queers means putting straight people beyond “the pale”; if “being queer is normal” here, then the not-normal is not-that. What happens then to your vision of equality? How build a world without an outside, a community without walls?

Your paper makes an interesting commentary, btw, on Fdaniel’s tracing of BMC’s history of increasing inclusivity; you all should check out each others’ work, as well kwilkinson’s project on re-doing the wellness program here to accommodate more diversity…

nia.pike's picture

The Sisterhood of Bryn Mawr

After reading your comments, I do realize that the term "sisterhood" implies a divide within itself: that there those who are a part of the sisterhood and those who are not. Is it idealistic of me to want Bryn Mawr to be accepting of everyone and for it to truly be a judgment-free zone? Humans are naturally judgmental creatures because we have the ability to analyze, thus we analyze each other. Does a safe space for one identity automatically put another identity at risk? I was discussing my paper with a friend last week and she said that perhaps there is not negative effects on heterosexuals as I described, but perhaps it is perceived because we are so used to being outside of Bryn Mawr where heterosexuals dominate. At Bryn Mawr this domination is threatened not by another dominance, but by queer equality. She said that perhaps equality is viewed as having negative effects because it's so different to what we are used to. I found this very interesting food for thought. I don't quite buy it, but it's another layer to this situation that I had not considered before.

A community without walls. Both walls separating the community from the outside, but also walls separating parts of the community from each other. The later explanation is what my paper explored, the walls the student body at Bryn Mawr has created from the culture we also create. It is obvious that Bryn Mawr is currently a community which exists within the campus boundaries: the Bryn Mawr bubble is real! I think before we can build a world without an outside, we need to first build microcosms without walls. Bryn Mawr is a microcosm of society, we have formed our own society within these walls. But within our walls are also walls, which need to be torn down before we can examine the larger picture of a world without walls.