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The Inside: History of women at Bryn Mawr College

aybala50's picture

In a class on gender and sexuality last semester, I focused my attention on transgender students at Bryn Mawr, and those that haven't been able to come to Bryn Mawr College because of their sex. Throughout the semester I met with administrators, deans, staff and students around campus trying to learn more about the school's policy on admitting transwomen as well as transmen. Following are the links to these works. 

1) All "Women's" College 

2) Moving towards a right relationship between Bryn Mawr
     College and Transgender Students  

3) At Bryn Mawr: Exploring Transgender Further

After having time to think further about what I had learned, I met with a couple other staff from Bryn Mawr hoping some of my questions would be answered. How can Bryn Mawr change its admission policy, allowing transwomen to attend the undergraduate college? Will the approved proposals of the Task Force created in 2007 ever be implemented? Why can we NOT admit transwomen? I am not convince that there is no way around the penalty of losing our all women's status. The existence of graduate schools once threatened our standing as a small liberal arts school and a way around this was founded. We have small graduate schools with a cap on the number of students who can attend. Is this a possibility for the undergraduate school? Can we admit transwomen who are legally considered males? 

At this point, I find myself not being able to move. I've been learning more and more each step of the way, but now I want something to change. I just don't know how to bring about this change. So, I decided to take a step back, or several, and travel back to the beginning of the College. How have changes happened at Bryn Mawr in the past? What was women for Bryn Mawr in it's history? Following is a time line of events/ occurrences that I gathered from a variety of sources that I see relevant in figuring out "women" of Bryn Mawr. 


February 19, 1877 – Dr. Taylor’s will states that the remainder of his estate, real and personal is to go towards the building of a Corporation under the laws of Pennsylvania for a College or Institution of learning, “having for its object the comfort and advanced education and care of young women, or girls of the higher classes of society…”

April 24, 1880- Friends’ Review: A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal: “The College will admit students irrespective of denomination, preference being given to members of the Society of Friends”

1885- Bryn Mawr College opens its doors and is also the first college in the country to grant a PhD degree to women

March 18, 1886- Friends’ Review: A Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal: “…Bryn Mawr was founded on motives of Christian benevolence. Dr. Taylor desired that it should ever maintain and teach an evangelical and primitive Christianity as set forth in the New Testament…”

1889- International students were being admitted to BMC starting with students from Japan

1892- Self-government association found

1901- “Examining Our History: Inclusion/Exclusion at Bryn Mawr”: Jessie Fauset, a “colored girl”, won a scholarship to Bryn Mawr and decided to enroll. She was allowed to attend classes for a month and then went off to Cornell

1916- President Thomas gives a speech to the student body saying: “If the supremacy of the white race is maintained, as I hope it will be…it is the only race to educate women…certain races have not intellect, government…”

1920- A student presumed to be African-American stayed at Bryn Mawr for a week before leaving

1921- The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers opened by M. Carey Thomas. The director of the program was Hilda Jane Smith and all summer students loved her.

VIDEO: The Women of Summer (Published 1986)

1922- First student from China arrives at Bryn Mawr

April 1923- Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin on the new entrance requirements to the college: “Hereafter no student will be admitted with conditions.”

March 1926- Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin: Bryn Mawr has the reputation of “giving its maids an opportunity to study so that working here will be a stepping stone to other work like nursing or stenography”. There are three branches at this time: the night school, the Sunday school, and the Maids’ Club and students act as tutors.

1927- “colored” students will be admitted as only non-residential students

October 1929- Pictorial Review: “Due to its system of unequally priced rooms which sets a maximum annual expenditure at more than two thousand dollars, Bryn Mawr has often been accused of snobbery.”

February 7, 1931- Letter from an Alumna, Class of 1922 to President Park: “I now read in the Alumnae Bulletin that the question of taking colored students into the dormitories has arisen. I feel I must oppose with all my vigor such a course of action…my sentiments do not arise from any blind prejudice against the colored race. In fact I think we have shirked, so far, in dealing squarely with the negro problem in America.”

February 24, 1931- Response to the alumna from President Park: “Personally, I agree with all the premises of your letter and arrive at the opposite conclusion as to Bryn Mawr’s responsibility but officially I shall not bring up the matter of the residence of negro students this year…”

April 1931- Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin: Enid Cook (1907-1989), first African American student to graduate from Bryn Mawr. Enid lived with a Bryn Mawr professor her freshmen year then with a black family in the town during her remaining years.

1934- Lillian Russel, an African American student, graduates from Bryn Mawr. In her time at the school she lived with families in the area.

May 19, 1943- College News: Bryn Mawr College goes co-ed! “From 1944 to 1951 six men, all recently returned GIs, enrolled at Bryn Mawr. Although all six took courses, only one, Richard Logan graduated in 1949.”

1948- Gloria Millicent White, first residential African- American student receives her AB

October 19, 1949- College News: More than 10% of the undergraduate school is made up of foreign students

1954- Evelyn Jones Rich, African-American student, receives support from the school: “the College rallied to my support when a local restaurant which I had patronized for four years refused to serve me and a Negro male escort. Miss McBride believed that the college’s responsibility to me extended beyond the following months after we won a change in policy there…the College came through when the chips were down—quietly, firmly, successfully.”

June 4, 1955- Philadelphia Inquirer: Bryn Mawr plans to improve its science facilities, which would be “the first such center in any women’s college for students at all levels from the first degree to Ph. D.”

1959- “Women at Bryn Mawr”: Bryn Mawr refuses to take federal funds because it would have meant taking loyalty oaths as well. This was a part of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Act, which was later declared unconstitutional

October 12, 1960- College News: A student from Kenya, Wamere Mwangi, comes to Bryn Mawr as a transfer student to the sophomore class

1960- Only 9 African-American women had graduated from the institution at this time

May 1, 1963- College News: At present, there is three price levels for room and board. Those students that are receiving scholarship aid can only live in the low price rooms. This system “causes uncalled for discrimination among students”.

February 7-9, 1964- College News: Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges sponsor a civil rights conference

March 6, 1964- College News: Bryn Mawr joins other colleges in encouraging “negro applicants”. However, at this time “few negroes apply to Bryn Mawr. Some high school advisers…are often surprised to learn that Bryn Mawr is willing to accept their students.”

January 3, 1967- College News: article written by Kit Bakke, class of 1968. “Attention Must be Paid” asks for the college to provide “decent, dignified human life for its maids and porters”.

1968- College debates pro’s and con’s of going coed

April 15, 1969- News: “Bryn Mawr black students submit proposals on studies to community” resulting in Herbert Aptheker, historian and author, being named as BMC’s director of black studies

March 12, 1971- News: Trustees of Bryn Mawr grant students complete autonomy in SGA. Before this all major Self Government and Undergraduate actions required Board approval.

February 25, 1972- News (Bryn Mawr-Haverford): “A sit-in by 35 black students and 45 white students resulted in President McBride’s agreeing to a list of 10 demands presented to her by the blacks.”

March 24, 1972- News (Bryn Mawr-Haverford): Sisterhood’s all-black magazine RA is to be published next fall

March 31, 1972- News: “A women’s college has a responsibility to give its students a sense of what women are and what ‘culture’ women have and don’t have.” Other advantages of a women’s college include: less discrimination, more general respect, and a chance to know the female mind.

January 24, 1974- News (Bryn Mawr-Haverford): Haverford men living at Bryn Mawr are now eligible to run for all SGA offices

November 5, 1976- News (Bryn Mawr-Haverford): Article published on differing attitudes on gays in the bi-co. Responses ranged from disgust to indifference.

April 22, 1977- News (Bryn Mawr-Haverford): An attempt at a statistical analysis was made in which a specific date was proclaimed Gay Day. Students who were gay were supposed to wear blue jeans. There were fewer people wearing jeans than usual, but there was no evidence that these people were gay.

February 2, 1982- College News: President McPherson responded to the question of “What is the relevance of a women’s college to modern society?” In her answer she stated that: “You remember that Miss Thomas said that Bryn Mawr should be a college for women as long as that is necessary. We have asked ourselves about that necessity several times in the past and probably will ask it several times in the future…”

Fall 1984- Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin: Everybody votes but women. / They have lots of sense/ When they get the ballot/ The thing will be immense/ When they get the franchise/ Good citizens they will be/ And if you don’t believe us/ Just wait and see/ Oh, votes for women!

December 12, 1985- College News: Over a two-day period Bryn Mawr students protest, displaying signs, and singing protest songs in support of divestment.

February 5, 1986- College News: BMC admits older women (McBride Program)

March 3, 1986- Letter to Bryn Mawr College Community from President McPherson: The trustees in response to the 1985 protest by the students, “continuing its process of reviewing its investment policies with regard to those companies doing business in South Africa, approved the prompt sale of stocks in five companies that did not appear to be attempting activity to oppose institutionalized racism in South Africa.”

1986- Bryn Mawr Now: Bryn Mawr starts having discussions on sexuality (Human Sexuality seminar offered)

April 1995- Agenda for the Future: “…Bryn Mawr is and should attempt to remain: a college with a special commitment to the education of able undergraduate women and to graduate men and women in the College’s two graduate schools; a college composed of a faculty devoted to fine teaching and first rate scholarship; and a college composed of staff members and administrators whose desire for professional growth contributes to the enhancement of the College’s educational enterprise.”

2006- Teaching and Learning Initiative starts at BMC

2007- Transgender Task Force is created

October 4, 2008- Inaugural Address of Jane McAuliffe: “Access to excellence was the reason Bryn Mawr was born. From its earliest days, this College has sought to offer the most rigorous education to those who were otherwise excluded from the best undergraduate colleges and the most challenging graduate programs.”

November 2008- Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin: The first Black alumnae/i conference in more than a decade was held in October 2008

August 28, 2009- Bryn Mawr Now: the newly arrived class of 2013 is “the most international” yet

Fall 2009- Transgender Task Force’s proposals are approved


The definition of women has changed drastically since the beginning of Bryn Mawr College. While at some point women were not worthy of education, the opportunity was provided to women, that is "women of the higher classes of society", at Bryn Mawr College amongst some other schools. Women at Bryn Mawr worthy of education were rich and white. The school has always been very selective in it's admission of women who have great record of schooling before coming to Bryn Mawr as well. 

So far women=rich, white, and privileged enough to be educated 

Women from countries other than the United States gain admissions, first from Japan, then from China, though "certain races have never yet in the history of the world manifested any continuous mental activity nor even any continuous power of organized government. Such are the pure negroes of Africa, the Indians, the Exquimauz, the South Sea Islanders, the Turks, etc..." (M. Carey Thomas, 1916) 

Women now includes certain international students

1921- Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers 

Women now includes the working women 

1927- "colored" students are now allowed to attend the college, but they cannot live in the dorms.

Are African-American students considered women in 1927? 

1948- First residential African-American student graduates

Women now includes African-Americans

By 1960 only NINE African-American women have graduated from Bryn Mawr 

1977- Bryn Mawr and Haverford discuss gay, some students agree and others do not in "homosexuality" 

Women now includes gay

Women of Bryn Mawr include transmen

Women of Bryn Mawr need to have vaginas

Women of Bryn Mawr does not include transwomen

What is now a Bryn Mawr woman and what about it needs to change? 


Anne Dalke's picture

Looking for the tipping points

what I'm really admiring here is your decision to "step back" from your focus on the admission of transwomen to Bryn Mawr to think more broadly and historically about how-and-why change has happened @ Bryn Mawr in the past--in particular, your decision to trace the various points @ which the category "woman" has altered, as the students @ the college began to include not only only well-to-do white women, but also women of various nationalities, races, religions and classes.

I very much enjoyed reviewing the time line of evolving difference that you constructed (which included a number of facts I hadn't known), and now I'm eager to follow you (where I think you might want to go next? which would be) in figuring out not just what changes happened, but how they were brought about. What constituted the various "tipping points" @ which the College was willing, for instance, to admit black students? Or to give them financial aid? Or to let them live in dormitories? Are any of those stages replicable in terms of the admission and support of transwomen? How might you find out?

You might get in touch w/ bluebox, who in writing about the historical changes in Girl Scouts included both a video and a link regarding the organization's admission of a transgender child--and the negative response which that decision provoked. I'd love to get you and her into conversation about the evolving future of women's-only organizations.