I remember when I first learned about the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Workers. Like many students, I stumbled upon its history while I was walking back to campus from town. It was the Fall (2013) of my freshman year at Bryn Mawr and I was still figuring out the College’s vast history. I saw the sign that gave a brief synopsis of the Summer School and promptly proceeded to send a picture of it to my dad, a labor activist, with great excitement. He encouraged me to look further into the Summer School’s history, and to even consider writing about it for my senior thesis given my own deep interest in women’s labor history.
Throughout my first year at Bryn Mawr, I intermittently looked for more information about the Summer School. It was hard to find anything about it though from internet searches. I often got lead to decades-old websites that had varying amounts of information with minimal sources and very few primary sources.
I ended up using the Summer School as an record of past behavior on Bryn Mawr’s part in terms of women’s rights and labor rights when Bryn Mawr United Students Against Sweatshops wrote a letter to President Cassidy during the Fall of 2014 requesting that the College Bookstore employ more ethical purchasing policies. Here is basically the sum total of what I was able to gather from resources outside of Bryn Mawr:
Bryn Mawr has a rich history of supporting workers rights and we hope that that you choose to continue it. In 1921, a time when concern was rising around the negative impacts of industrial working conditions on the U.S. labor force, Bryn Mawr College (under the direction of then President M. Carey Thomas and Dean Hilda Worthington Smith) created “The Summer School for Women Workers in Industry”. According to historians, “as much a reflection of concern for industrial work conditions as women’s rights, the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers was an innovative experiment in labor education and social justice organizing. The school’s directors infused liberal politics and feminist sensibilities in a more pragmatic curriculum that drew on the everyday working experiences of women in industry. Their objective was to raise the educational level of working-class women, many of who were immigrants, and to provide a sense of community that transcended ethnic, religious, and occupational differences. True to the Bryn Mawr spirit, the Summer School was conceived by women for women, and sought to expand woman’s culture in a program that relied chiefly on women nurturing other women. The program continued until 1938, when economic conditions forced closure of this educational experiment that had been copied by other colleges across the country.”
During my sophomore year, I decided that I should make a visit to the Special Collections department for some more information about the Summer School. However, soon after I made that decision, I learned that there would be a presentation on the Summer School during the Community Day of Learning. I was dead set on attending that presentation, and while there, ended up viewing the The Women of Summer— a documentary I had been planning to watch during Spring Break. I turns out that the documentary was heavily influenced and guided by the research a young Bryn Mawr alum did about the school while she was a thesising graduate student. The reunion that was the center stage of the documentary was organized in part by that student. I was lucky enough to meet the alum, and listened as she talked about her experience searching through her grad school and Bryn Mawr’s archives for information about the Summer School. It was a long and seemingly arduous process but she was able to find enough information to gather the Summer School alums and get funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to transcribe their experiences onto video. Because this was pre-internet though, all of this information about the Summer School hadn’t been made widely accessible to students, especially those who started attending the College years after the film came out. That’s why I’m glad an online exhibit has now been done on it that Bryn Mawr students (as well as other curious historians) can look at for more information.
I would love to see even more from the College when it comes to acknowledging its labor history and its interesting brush with progressivism in an otherwise conservative and elitist time period of Bryn Mawr’s history. I also wonder what current and former Bryn Mawr students can play in uncovering more of the College’s history? What resources can we tap into that we might not even be aware of?
On another note, I found a couple of pamphlets advertising Bryn Mawr’s Summer School and general summer schools as well. They’re worth taking a look at!