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Ecolit Paper: Attending to the Past in Order to Face the Present

sara.gladwin's picture

Do we really know our ecological past? Do we really understand our present? These questions seem to be intertwined in significant ways; our construction of the past also lends itself to the construction of the present. Is part of the key then to facing current dilemmas confronting the history of the land? I decided to explore some of these more ecological questions by reassessing my own interactions with the environment I live today- Bryn Mawr College. I was interested in finding out whether knowing more about the history of a particular space changed how I interacted with it in the future. In particular, I was interested in the history of maids who lived in the dorms and served the undergraduate students. However as I searched for information, my interest broadened to include Bryn Mawr’s entire racial history, especially the history of Perry House, one of dorms on campus that is important both as a space for a multicultural community and as a piece of Bryn Mawr’s racial history.

 My lens for exploration was through an Essay titled  “Do You Work for a Living or are you an Environmentalist?” by Richard White, which discusses some of tensions that exist with our understandings of the present day ecological crisis and our historical interactions with the environment. White approaches this by looking at current perceptions that being in nature is a leisurely activity and that to preserve access to that leisureliness is of the upmost importance. Many people whose work involves nature or the destruction of it are perceived in opposition to the environmental movement. He points to “the first white man” as the “critical figure in our confusion about work and nature.” Unlike many ideas we hold about nature today as pleasurable vacation time, White highlights the way being in nature was actually labor, not play. Those who explored America for the first time had to work to do so. He cites the Lewis and Clark journals, which focus mainly on the struggles shared by the men in their journey, not the beauty of the land. He also talks about accounts of history that represent America as an “untouched paradise”; a land that was “unchanged by humans.” The message then becomes that not only are we separate from the “purity” of nature and therefore separate from nature itself; but that the those who had “touched” the land previously were more akin to animals, the existed within nature and outside the realm of humanity. The discourse of civilization in constant opposition with the savagery of the elements dictates the way we view the world, even today. This way of interacting with history highlights the significance that our historical constructions hold on our present frame of mind. I believe that a similar awareness of Bryn Mawr’s history, especially it’s racial history, is key in making sense of the campus today. 

When I originally started researching for this paper, I somewhat naively searched the library and research databases with the key words “Bryn Mawr” and “Race.” However, I discovered there was very little information that focused primarily on the racial history of the college. The little I did find was included in biographies and articles about M.C. Thomas, second president of Bryn Mawr College, and in a documentary called “The Women of Summer: the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers: 1921-38.” My biggest shock was in learning many of the college’s racist beginnings came from M.C. Thomas’s own vision of Bryn Mawr College. I feel somewhat now ashamed to admit, both from what I had read and heard about M.C. Thomas, had previously imparted a goddess-like reverence in me. I vaguely placed her on a high pedestal in my mind as a champion of an “honorable” crusade for women’s equality... while failing to recognize the ways in which her perception of a “woman” was both inherently racially and class exclusive. I knew that “Bryn Mawr College” and the phrase “historically racist institution” had been used within the same sentence before, a fact I had even regurgitated at times to discuss Bryn Mawr’s past even though I had not bothered to question the ambiguity of that statement. How I not had noticed this before? I knew racism had to have been there, under the surface all along, but I kept missing it until it smacked me in the face. In 1916, when M.C. Thomas delivered her opening address to the student body, she included her views on race and education; “how much more insidiously dangerous is the lowering of the physical and mental inheritance of a whole nation by intermixture of unprogressive millions of backward peoples.’ If Americans “… tarnish our inheritance of racial power at the source,’ it can never be replenished (422 Horowitz). I continued to read other writings by Thomas that carried the same tone and racist ideology, but there seemed to be a gap in historical knowledge about Bryn Mawr and race further than this.

Finally, I stumbled upon two websites I believed would without doubt, have more information on Bryn Mawr’s past. The first website was the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, which was an online library of primary sources. Within one of their collections of photographs titled “Residing in the Past: Space, Identity and Dorm Culture at Bryn Mawr College,” one of the pictures is of a maid in a BMC dorm. A two paragraph long description briefly discusses the “forgotten hands” of Bryn Mawr, the maids and porters who would serve the undergraduate students. The description also asserts, “Floorplans like the ones from Pembroke and the dorm guidelines provide what may be the most tangible history of the maids and porters.” The dorms Floorplans provide a physical representation of the marginalization of the maids at Bryn Mawr, and one of the only representations at that.  The documentary about Bryn Mawr’s Summer School for lower class, poorer women also provided some insight into the lives of these workers. Several of the women in film described their first compliant about Bryn Mawr, which was of the maids quarters. They requested that the maid’s rooms be significantly changed to more livable spaces.

The second website was a collection of Scholarship, Research and Creative work at Bryn Mawr College, which included a collection of documents regarding history and architecture of the campus grounds. After downloading and reading many of the documents in this collection (there are eleven in total); I still found very little about the history of Perry House. Almost every other dorm had been historically accounted for except for Batten and Perry House, except for a document titled “The History of Land Acquisition” that detailed each purchase and sell that Bryn Mawr college made toward the land from it’s inception to 1977. Frustrated, I searched for Perry House outside of that collection and found only five documents on the entire website that included something about Perry House. Interestingly, one of these documents was an Outline/Concept Plan for Updating the Campus grounds created in 2008. Toward the end of the plan (which was 87 pages long) there were a series of maps seemingly intended to convey which areas of the College needed the most upkeep. One of these maps scored each space on campus in terms of its historical value, assigning a number between 5-1 (five being the highest) and color value to each building. On the map, the Perry House building is colored as light green, which signifies that it has a value of 1 on the scale of historical value. Clearly, through the eyes of facilities and the Bryn Mawr Campus Heritage Preservation Initiative, Perry House is of little historical value compared to other dorms of Bryn Mawr, most of which scored a four or five on the historical scale. Interestingly, the same committee also ascribed the Haffner Dorm has having no historical value whatsoever, giving it a score of zero, although it is listed in the district’s registry of historical places. Almost all of the other dorms on are also listed on registries of historical places, except for Batten, Brecon and Perry House. Perry House in the past year has been closed down by facilities with the intent of restoring the building, seeing as it was no longer becoming a livable space. Since then however, very little to no change has been initiated by the administration concerning Perry House. A small sheet of paper given out at the last BMC Plenary session promoting the restoration of Perry House states that Perry “…officially became the Black Cultural Center in 1972 after Black BMC students demanded a separate safe space to come together. This was a radical move because earlier in BMC’s history, students of color were forcibly separated form the rest of campus.” Unlike most of the short ‘blurbs’ of history regarding Perry House, which can be found through a simple google search, the language of this statement conveys a sense of urgency and ascribes importance to the building’s beginnings through the use of the words “radical” and “demanded.” In reading this, I wanted to know more about the creation of this space. It seems clear that students of color in 1972 asserted agency and enacted significant change to their college campus but the details have been obscured from the main body of information about Bryn Mawr’s history. Did they use plenary as a platform for change? Did they petition the administration? Was it controversial on campus at the time or was it an easy change to make? By the way it is described above, it seems that students of that time who felt that Perry House was necessary must have felt this way for a reason. In addition, the paper about Perry House included information on its extensive library centered on Perry’s own history and histories of women of color. Not only does this elevate the historical importance of the building in a way that seems contrary to facilities low number assignment of historical value; the physical loss of Perry House embodies a symbolic loss of historical awareness crucial to our understanding of Bryn Mawr’s campus as a whole. I knew from what I had previously read in Bryn Mawr’s history that the first black students admitted to Bryn Mawr were not allowed housing on campus. According to The Passion and Power of M.C. Thomas, the first African American student, Jessie Faussett, was admitted to the college after she was awarded a scholarship there. However, after a semester she transferred from Bryn Mawr to Cornell with the help of Thomas, who quietly raised money for the transfer tuition. Thomas wrote in one of her correspondences about Faussett, “I feel, of course, pledged to help raise the money for Miss Fawcett’s tuition fees if no other arrangements can be made, but I need not say that I should be very much pleased to be relieved from the necessity, in view of the fact that there are, as no one knows better than you, so many pressing needs for which to raise money.” In addition to Carey Thomas’s refusal to spell Jessie Faussett’s name correctly, she felt that a woman of color would not fit in on Bryn Mawr’s campus among the elite women she envisioned in her college and did everything in her power to maintain the image of the school as a place of education for the upper class, “refined” white women (342-3 Horowitz). If entrance alone to Bryn Mawr’s college was a struggle for African American women, why do the majority of the details around this struggle seem to missing from the College’s history? The value given to Perry House by facilities seems indicative of the way Bryn Mawr’s racial history has been undervalued and seen as only a secondary history. It seems imperative that to truly understand the importance of Perry House to our current student body and campus that Bryn Mawr as a racial institution needs to also be a more regular part of campus history.

Continuously, my findings (or lack of) led me to consider the way history is constructed and informs our present. The more I uncovered about the history of Bryn Mawr College; the more urgent current campus issues became today, such as the restoration of Perry House. As I thought about the campus today that seems divided on whether or not Perry House is still relevant as a space, I recalled an article that was published in a Wesleyan College newspaper last year from a student that transferred from Bryn Mawr to Wesleyan. In the article, she had depicted Bryn Mawr using several negative stereotypes and then preceded to based her argument for why women’s colleges where no longer relevant on those stereotypes and that she believed woman had achieved equality. Almost immediately upon this articles publication, hundreds from the Bryn Mawr community aligned in defense of the college. Angry students and alumni commented underneath the article with the underlying message was that the reason woman’s colleges were still relevant was because of articles like this, which was written without regard to the history or present day struggle for gender equality and spaces of inclusion. Within our own community however, I see the way some students regard Perry House similarly. I think the exclusion of Bryn Mawr's racial history has contributed to some attitudes on campus that regards Perry House as expendable and not necessary. This very attitude points to the reason Perry House is still necessary for the community; to be conscious of our history and conscious that not all students on this campus feel as accepted as they do. I spoke with another BMC student, Jomaira Salas, who is active in raising awareness about restoring Perry House. She talked about what it means to be a woman of color and learn about the racism embedded in the college’s history: “You realize this space wasn’t created for you.” I can’t help but see the struggle of both Perry House and the Women’s College as similar in that they have to constantly re-establish themselves as a relevant space to the outside community. Learning about the College’s history has changed the way I view the community and the physical campus. I still feel that there is more to learn here that has not yet been uncovered, especially in terms of historical information. According to Jomaira, although the library in Perry House was moved out of the building before they closed it down, but it has yet to be archived and is therefore not accessible to the public. Making this part of history available may also be part of recognizing and acknowledging the past. I would like to continue shaping my present by being aware of what existed before me. Hopefully learning to interact with my environment in this way will create a broader understanding of ways to address other current issues.

Works Cited and Websites Used


Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Print.

White, Richard. ""Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?": Work and Nature.": in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon. Print.

The Women of Summer the Bryn Mawr School for Women Workers, 1921-1938. Filmmakers Library, 1985.



Anne Dalke's picture

"This space wasn't created for you"

The philosopher George Santayana quite famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Your project is in that spirit: we need to know our past, in order to change our future.

Did I already direct you (if not, I direct you now!) to the archive and powerpoint of the presentation that Florence Goff and Karen Tidmarsh did a few years ago, about Inclusion/Exclusion @ Bryn Mawr? It includes some of the quotes you found, but also places BMC in historical context (we come out better in comparison with the Tri-Co....).

One interesting point I think you make here is that "historical value" should not be reduced to "architectural value" (which is certainly how the term is applied in the Campus Heritage Preservation Initiative); that argument puts me in mind of the so-called "transparency" of ascribing monitary value to Perry House--a calculation that can certainly take in more externalities (such as all the funds that have been spent, in the past, to restore other dorms, while Perry House was being neglected). As Marilyn Waring showed us, "counting changes what's counted"--and/but some things cannot be.

I'd like to see you bring this survey of the racial history of Bryn Mawr back to the ecological questions you raised @ the beginning of your essay. You might take a page, in this regard, from the work of some of your classmates; see, for example, ekthorp's observations about the ways in which M. Carey Thomas celebrated the material "pleasures of success enjoyed by an extraordinary woman”; hira's parallel notation that "students at Bryn Mawr have historically not needed to worry about cleaning up after themselves"; and smacholdt's report that Louis Kahn (architect for Erdman) believed that “A dormitory should not express a nostalgia for home, it is not a permanent place, but an interim place.”

What are the ecological consequences of those understandings?