Bryn Mawr’s Next Top Alum: The Public Representation of BMC Alumnae/i

As a student, who is deemed worthy enough to be preserved in Bryn Mawr’s institutional memory? Which alumnae/i does the college actively try to present and represent in its promotional materials, on campus, around the world? These are questions that I’ve been grappling with ever since my first to Bryn Mawr’s campus as a prospective student. If I think back to this class’s first discussion, I know I’m not the only one thinking about these questions either. On the Bryn Mawr concept board that was made during our first class, someone wrote the name “Katherine Hepburn” and a question was brought up in class asking why Katherine Hepburn had been chosen as the alumna of the college — the “it girl”, our purportedly most famous graduate? Who decided that she was the person who would draw in students as opposed to Marianne Moore or Emily Balch? Was it the College’s administration, or maybe the Board of Trustees? Perhaps it was a public relations company who measured the “Q Score” —  the familiarity and appeal of a celebrity, brand, or entertainment product — of Bryn Mawr’s alums and decided that she had the highest score, making her the most recognizable. The diverse array of tactics that could’ve been used to determine who Bryn Mawr should showcase are a mystery, at least to most students.

Earlier in the week, I decided to get some work done in the mezzanine (loft area) of Bryn Mawr’s Campus Center and found myself staring at a quote on the wall that I had passed numerous times in my past two years at Bryn Mawr. It read:

“Each one ought to be dealt with as a separate individual, for we know that one’s mental and moral characteristics vary as do the faces of each one of us.” — Ume Tsuda, Class of 1892

Ume Tsuda Campus Center Quote

There in front of me beamed the quote of a student who we had just studied in class. Though Ume Tsuda has never been widely mentioned on Bryn Mawr’s campus, her presence is here even if it’s hiding in plain sight. As we read in Daughters of the Samurai, M. Carey Thomas took a liking to Ms. Tsuda, making sure to keep an eye on the College’s first Japanese student, and personally taking it upon herself to guide and mentor her. From a quick Google search I can see that Bryn Mawr’s website has posted a couple of informative posts about Ms. Tsuda over the years, highlighting in particular how she was inspired by Bryn Mawr to found her own women’s college in Japan.

Keeping this in mind, I once again ask the question, who gets displayed and showcased as a part of Bryn Mawr’s public history? Ume Tsuda was a “first”, but so was Enid Cook. Many of the upper middle class Black women who attended Bryn Mawr from the early 20th century up to the 1960s arguably reflected the values of the College just as much if not more than a visiting international student during that time period. Linda Perkins’ “The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960”  is the first time I’ve ever heard of these women though, many of whom went on to pursue illustrious careers while their White peers decided to become homemakers.

It’s the wild success stories, the alums who got a Bryn Mawr degree without too many bumps in the road and without too much controversy that the College has chosen to cherish in the past. The ones who can be exotified or perhaps even deified. The College has recently taken a step in a new direction in terms of which alumnae/i it chooses to represent. It was revealed that the former Perry House was renamed the Enid Cook Center ’31 during an opening ceremony this past Fall. By many, it was seen as a public acknowledgment of the College’s first Black graduate, and by some, as a decades late apology for the exclusionary housing policies that prevented Ms. Cook from residing on campus during her time at Bryn Mawr. Currently, there is a petition to rename Thomas Great Hall (TGH), formerly known as M. Carey Thomas library, due in part to the former president’s explicit eugenicist beliefs.

If Bryn Mawr chooses to act on the petition and change the name of TGH, this could signal a new era of public history and the representative image of Bryn Mawr College. Not only would the College be bringing further attention to its less than spotless past, it would also be giving current students agency in determining who gets represented in Bryn Mawr’s public history.

The “Outsider,” “Silencing the Past,” and *the college news*

As I was reading both Filene’s “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” and Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, I kept thinking about my role as one of the editors of the college news and how important and frustrating that work is. Last semester, when Bryn Mawr students were posting their opinions about race at Bryn Mawr on Yik Yak, I felt immense pressure to publish the posts, which Trouillot would call the “materiality of the first moment” (29). At the same time, I knew I couldn’t just publish the posts, because while it would be preserving the opinions, it wouldn’t feel right to present them without any commentary or interpretation. While I agreed with Trouillot that these moments of silencing–the immediate sources, how to archive them, and construct a narrative–are crucial for the creation of history, in reality these all happen in an instant. I felt so much pressure in that week to record and save what everyone was saying, and construct a narrative. In the end, we printed only a few posts from Yik Yak because we had space limitations, and I wanted to prioritize student response to the Yik Yaks, rather than the posts themselves.

The events of those two weeks were almost impossible to construct a narrative out of, because there were so many different incidents and movements all happening at the same time. If I were to break up the events by space I would say that they key action-spaces were:

  • Radnor & Radnor Halloween
  • The ECC Library, kitchen, and common room
  • Campus Safety
  • Yik Yak
  • The Campus Center & SGA meetings
  • Thomas Great Hall

The organization of power was radically different in each of these spaces. As I sat in each of these rooms, I was shocked that hardly anyone cared to participate in recording what was happening in the newspaper. No matter how many times I asked for help or offered to print things in the paper, the most that people did was listen politely. I don’t think this is anyone’s fault, or say this to complain about my peers, but just to say that I was baffled at how I felt like the only person in the room who understood that the newspaper was a powerful tool for recording and constructing a narrative.

I remember one of the weirdest moments of those weeks was when I was in the ECC Library, and students were planning to occupy Campus Safety, and one student recommended that they have someone from the college news present. Then, another student said, “Are we sure we want that? You know how the news can change things.” I felt like I had failed my peers if they didn’t know that they were the ones making the news. They were the ones who had the power to tell their own story. That’s the beauty of this feminist newsjournal, is that we make it our mission to prioritize voices that have been undervalued and silenced.

In the end, we published the “Race & Erasure” issue and got a great response from administrators, faculty and students. I’m skipping ahead in the story, but I think that the reason why it was so popular was because it was so timely, and because the students who wrote and submitted did a beautiful job of speaking out of their lived experience, as Filene writes about. Further, I think that having the paper come out then, and seeing the Yik Yak posts, along with a timeline of events going back a few years, created, as Filene writes, “a conversation, a civic dialogue” (26). I am endlessly fascinated with the college news as a space, and it’s unique power.

Even though we received a lot of positive feedback, I know that things fell through the cracks, and that we didn’t tell the whole story. Every issue I’m scared that someone won’t feel connected to the paper, and I really feel for historians, because I feel like at the end of the day, all they want is to tell a good story, and tell it right.


More on Outsider History-Makers

In the first chapter of Silencing the Past, I felt that Trouillot made a compelling point about why so-called “outsider history-makers” are important, but from a very different perspective than that of Filene. Trouillet write that “the fact that history is also produced outside of academia has largely been ignored in theories of history”(21). He is referencing the same type of history-makers that Filene writes about, historians who come from outside the confines of academia. But he sees them as shaping history in a very different ways. Unlike Filene, he is not concerned with their accuracy or their reliability, but on the way that they influence the winder culture and even the production of academic history. They don’t just produce historical narratives, they create the history itself and are both historical actors and narrators, categories which he says always overlap (22). Because we often receive our understanding of the past from these outsider voices, they fundamentally influence our understanding of the past and even shape our present.  His outsider history-makers aren’t outsiders at all, but part of a much larger system that produces history at all levels, both within and outside of academia.

Trouillot doesn’t tell us why outsider history-makers are necessary in the same way that Filene does, but he does tell us to stop ignoring them. He also seems much less concerned with the professionalism of the discipline, perhaps because he acknowledges that even academic peer-reviewed history is not without major flaws. He shows the complexity of the entire process of history-making, and consequently breaks down the barriers between insiders and outsiders. This all can relate to campus memory–we are the outsider history-makers at Bryn Mawr every day. Why do we tell the stories we do about Bryn Mawr history, and how does relating these stories make us into historical actors? And as historical narrators, we can’t deny that our entire perception of campus history is based on the stories we’ve already been told. Outsider narratives shape our view of history, and consequently they are fundamentally important to the study of history as a whole.

How Religion Shapes History

Just thought I’d finish a post I had in my drafts and editing it to make it more relevant…

I found it interesting at the beginning of the semester that for and institution that prides itself on not having a strong religious background, we have a lot of special rituals and traditions. We give offering to Athena, we have the friendship poles, we participate in Lantern Night and Hell Week. We have these rituals and traditions to create community and connections. Which is also the point of religion, in some sociological definitions. However actual religion is often dismissed on campus, as we discussed the other day. Just thinking about it, for some people, it is a sin to worship Athena. I love the concept of Athena and participate in offerings often, but I’m not sure how often the college thinks about the religious needs of some students, and the implications that some college actions have on their religious identity. Even thinking about the Chapel, I had never heard about it before class. And I did a lot of research on Bryn Mawr before I came. It’s very interesting to think about the current state of the Chapel as a representation of how Bryn Mawr views religion, and I’m interested in what the college has planned to remedy that. I know the limited space on campus is a big problem, so I doubt we’re going to another Chapel any time soon. But I wonder how the college plans on fixing a problem that they haven’t addressed. And I suppose that is why we’re all here, right? Because the whole concept of history is that we can learn from our mistakes, but only if we address them?

History as Inconceivable

I first encountered Trouillot last semester in a course on the colonial experience in Latin America. The ideas he advances, while seemingly obvious in hindsight, were in many cases not concepts I had ever thought to consider or factor into my narratives before. I kept the book throughout the semester, and was quite pleased to have an excuse to buy it this time around.

One of his most interesting ideas as relates to Bryn Mawr’s history specifically is the notion that he advances in Chapter 3: that there is a kind of history that even after an event has happened remains incompatible with the current mode of thinking, and therefore is neglected or written in a falsified narrative because quite literally a historian cannot comprehend what has happened. Trouillot’s primary example is the Haitian Revolution, which defied entrenched Western notions of race and social order (82), but I think it could be applied to other examples he advances throughout the book: for example, the denials made by those who do not believe in the Holocaust because it is literally inconceivable to them that such a thing could have happened, and furthermore, because somehow those events do not matter (13).

Turning, then, to Bryn Mawr’s history, it makes one wonder whether some of the events that our historical narrative has obscured were denied because we did not wish to discuss them, or whether it was because we could not even conceive that they had happened. I think it’s probably a bit of both. On the one hand, Bryn Mawr’s exclusion of African Americans and general suppression of diversity is a source of great shame for this institution, which could make it something we do not want to discuss. On the other, I think that among many members of the student body, there is a sense that such a thing could simply not have happened here, in this institution that so proudly declares itself on the front line of women’s education. Bryn Mawr’s narrative as pioneering institution does not allow for a vision of a school which systematically denied many women the opportunities they deserved. Nor is it compatible with other aspects of the Bryn Mawr we know today: an institution that denies maternity leave to its professors, for example, or vastly mistreats its staff, both student and professional.

In light of this, the next logical step seems to be to change the narrative to fit the facts, but as Trouillot notes, change is rarely that easy to come by. It would require, for one, acknowledging that these events do matter. To admit the College’s shortcomings and present the school as an institution where everyone is consciously trying to do better and owning up to a racist past and present takes courage and the destruction of a more comfortable narrative. Still, it’s an effort that should be attempted if we want to move forward.

“Outsider” History-makers?

Benjamin Filene’s Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us was an interesting, but intensely irritating read. Yes, he does spend part of the article discussing the merits of the methods used by those who work with historical topics without an academic foundation in history, which he calls “outsider” history-makers. However, he spends the vast majority of the article deriding and dismissing their focus and their work, lumping all such “outsiders” in a small handful of generalized groups, to the exclusion of many. My overall irritation stemmed from his assumed “right” to call non-academic enthusiasts “outsiders,” as if those without an academic foundation specifically in history could not possibly do their work with as much intellectual rigor as those with such foundation. Filene argues that “outsiders don’t particularly care about any of these standards,” such as “originality, evidence, and context.” (19) That is simply not true.

Take his discussion of re-enactors for example. He asserts that “re-enacting is driven by a fantasy” and their motivation is the same as the draw to Disney’s Main Street. (18) (Don’t even get me started on that point. Main Street U.S.A. was never meant to be a reenactment of anything; it was designed as an intentionally idealized homage to Walt Disney’s home town.) I have personally spent a great deal of time with a Civil War re-enactor. His, and his group’s, draw to the historical time period had nothing really to do with history. They were gun enthusiasts fascinated by the specific weaponry of a specific era. In contrast, I subscribe to a handful of channels on youtube, created by individuals that Filene would lump in the same category as the disparaged re-enactors, for re-enact they do. Just not on youtube. Instead, their videos describe ways of life, death, warfare, and culture during their chosen historical time period. The depth of their research is tremendous and their rigor is strenuous. Some of it comes from first-hand experience. You’re not going to find an archive document on why cloaks are so bloody useful, but you’ll figure it out pretty quick when you’re standing in torrential rain and are still warm and dry. The majority of their information, however, comes from research that would rival any academic historian.

While I do agree with Filene that academic historians have a lot to learn from the approaches taken by what he calls “outsider” history-makers, I bristle at his suggestion that academics can take those approaches and make them “better” or “correct” by applying academic rigor he assumes to be missing. While it is not present in all circumstances, he is doing a disservice to those non-academic historians who are putting in the effort and research. There is nothing wrong with a narrow focus, if it is taken in context and researched adequately.

The Importance of Physical Objects in Public History


Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is physical objects in Public History. I’m taking another class where we’ve been talking a lot about the physical monuments in relation to the memory of dead Presidents, and the interplay between the lifeless physical object and the alive passerby. With all of those things bubbling in my mind, it turned me back to Bryn Mawr’s own physical objects- namely Athena.

When my friend Anna Kalinsky class of 2015, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, came back to campus, one of the first things she wanted to see was Athena. What makes this so? This culture that we have within our own community places value on this inanimate statue. It’s not even the original statue! Since 1996, the ‘real’ Athena has rested in Carpenter library, with a cast taking her rightful spot in Thomas Great Hall. Undergraduates frequently give this cast of Athena ‘offerings’, as if she was a real deity that had some profound impact on the way our lives could play out.

I think that the role of physical objects in public history is fascinating, mostly because the objects are given importance by the society/community in certain contexts/spaces. Otherwise these objects would just remain objects! For example, with our own Athena, no one to my knowledge leaves the ‘real’ Athena offers. The interplay between the space of Thomas Great Hall and the cast of Athena creates this perceived importance that the community responds to. If one of these elements were to be altered, the discourse would change entirely.

Anna Kalinsky '15 and Athena posing for the camera.

Anna Kalinsky ’15 and Athena posing for the camera.

“Is History Written About Men, By Men?”

Janice Nimura visits class on January 26, 2016.

Janice Nimura visits class on January 26, 2016.

Are you reading this blog post? Great! Remember that your first contribution to the blog is due Sunday night, before our February 2 class. Looking forward to more posts and comments! –MM

* * *

During class today, writer Janice Nimura mentioned two recent posts on Slate and Bustle about popular history books, and to read more, here are the links:

** On Twitter, Rebecca Onion, who is the History writer for Slate, runs Slate Vault, and is an American Studies Ph.D., is doing great things under the wide umbrella of history in public: check out her feed @RebeccaOnion. If you think you’d like to talk to her at some point in class, let me know, and we’ll invite her!

History in Public Syllabus, v.1

The syllabus for History in Public is now online; registered students will have access to the reading list shortly.

I have deliberately left space in the syllabus to pursue new interests as they develop over the semester, also leaving open the possibility for additional guest speakers and site visits. Taking inspiration from Jesse Stommel’s digital studies course, we will revise and re-write the syllabus as we go, and, as Jesse suggests, discover what we’ll learn together as we learn it, questioning what we’ll do even as we begin to do it.

Finally, please note that the course is not intended to offer a comprehensive history of Bryn Mawr College; instead, I have chosen moments in time that are especially fruitful for thinking about the intersections of race and gender in the archives, as we explore possible ways of sharing those histories in public. I will continually add to (and crowdsource!) the Research Resources and Digital Collections page to aid students in their exploration of Bryn Mawr’s history.