Why I (Still) Think Dean Spade is Super Cool

I first saw Dean Spade at a talk at Bryn Mawr last year. Before he even began to talk to us about his presentation topic, he took a moment to reflect on the Native American land that Bryn Mawr was located on. He reminded us of the privilege that we had to be in that space, and that the things that we could take from that space could open other doors for us. He told us not to ignore this privilege, but to recognize it, and to use our resources to make effective change in order to help others. Then, he began his presentation. I had never, in my entire college career (life even), had a presenter begin by having us recognize the basic foundations upon which we stood.

In the vimeo of Dean Spade speaking at Barnard College, he begins his presentation in the same way. I’m going to use this blog post to do a self-reflection on the fact that trans folk have been excluded from educational opportunities in the context of Bryn Mawr until recently (and arguably still are today).

Only recently has Bryn Mawr opened its doors to trans women. That decision, even, had been hotly contested within the administration. I would argue, even more so, within the student body. I remember I once heard a group of students talking (I was totally ease dropping), saying something to the extent of “A Women’s college is meant for women, so I think this whole thing is ridiculous.” Something even more shocking was “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them on campus.” This sort of transphobia ranges from mircoagressive to down-right prejudice. Who are we to place a value judgement on someone’s life in order to deny them an education? Bryn Mawr was created to give women (white, cis-gendered, traditional age, wealthy) an education because they were seen to have less opportunities to receive an excellent education. Key words: they were seen to have less opportunities to receive an excellent education. Why does this fundamental doctrine not ring true of other people- people of color, trans folk, non-traditional aged students, students from low income families. Are we not all entitled to an education that can change the way we think, the way we live, for the better? Simply on a moral stand point, I would find it hard to turn away someone searching for an education based on something as silly as their identity- I would rather focus my attention on people who have been systematically opressed and who do not have the same opportunities.


Way(too)Gay Archives

I was really bummed to miss the visit to the John C Wilcox archives with our class. I have worked at William Way for almost two years and I had been looking forward to watching my classmates experience what has so often felt like a second home to me. As both an organizer of Philly Dyke March and a Development Associate for the center I have worked with our public history in different forms. For the queer community having a space like the Wilcox archives and the larger community center is so meaningful. In a recent retrospective campaign celebrating the 40th anniversary of the center former executive director Claire Baker summed it up: “We can have nice things. We can do this. We can take care of ourselves. We don’t need to wait for anyone to rescue us. WE are our own champions.” (The video has Bob too! https://youtu.be/QVTBuzM6Loc)

Even forty years later our community must constantly challenge hegemony and become the champions for our human rights. Though we are rapidly advancing we are still in danger of one sided historicity. When the William Way Center changed their name to “LGBT Community Center” the John C Wilcox archives did not. Even though the most common modern abbreviation is LGBTQ for some reason the archive is named “GLBT”. I don’t know if my experience is unique but I am uncomfortable when someone uses GLBT instead of LGBT. It feels like a microaggression and I personally take the use as an active prioritization of gay cisgender males. For me it is as if the person is saying “Look, I know thousands of woman fought to be heard and now lesbians are supposed to be listed first BUT I still think gay men should be at the top of the food chain.” What does it mean that the people who hold the access to our community’s history can’t bear to give in to progress? When the very building the archive resides in uses LGBT it’s hard for me to assume that it’s a mere oversight.

I do not know what artifacts Bob pulled for Bryn Mawr’s visit but in my work with the archives I constantly had to dig to find images of people of color, transwomen, and even lesbian leaders. (If anyone is interested, I have our entire digital image directory on my Dropbox and would be willing to show it to whoever likes old queer pics!) My favorite part of the archive is the Gitting’s collection. Daughters of Bilitis founder & all around badass Barbara Gittings‘s widow Kay donated a huge amount of her personal effects which are a true treasure. They are so important in contextualizing the progress of LGBT rights in the past 50 years – she was everywhere. But what stories are still missing from the archives? As we move into a digital age it is becoming increasingly easy to make artifacts accessible online but the Center often has to fight to keep up with rising costs and limited resources. The center should reach out to people doing social movement work digitally and start to document the modern queer movement in a way that can be cheap and accessible.

Women of Summer and the Philippines

The bulk of the documentary was interesting, though difficult to follow. I was wholly unaware of the summer school program and was intrigued to learn about it.

What upset me, however, was the portrayal of the school one alumni founded in the Philippines. Much of the documentary was forward-thinking and culturally accurate (or, at least, open-minded.) That is, right up until they whipped out the White Man’s Burden and followed that alum to the Philippines where she founded a school in her husband’s home town and educated all the poor Filipino children. Singing was a constant theme throughout the documentary, identified with Bryn Mawr and their revolutionary activities. What is the first thing we see the children doing? Singing, as if the alum brought that cultural aspect to them and they are being raised enriched with Bryn Mawr ideals.

Nope. Singing, especially by school children, is a huge aspect of Filipino culture. They have parades, showcases, competitions, celebrations, and a variety of other opportunities to sing, dance, and perform. My father recently visited a good friend of his in Cebu and was able to catch the Sinulog Festival; he was taken aback by the skill, passion, and artistry of school children performing for the festival. (The closest American parallel might be marching band competitions.)

I was dismayed by the sudden paternalistic shift, as the documentary followed the specific alum to the Philippines. NOTE: I do not intend to characterize her work as paternalistic or colonialistic. What little we know about her specific attitudes and intents seems well directed. I am, instead, calling out the work of the film’s production team and the choices made that cast her work in such a light. Perhaps it was an accurate portrayal, but I would hope to think not.

Dead History?

Many people have mentioned the sign commemorating the summer school near admissions, which is also how I found out about it.  It is interesting to me that while that sign is there commemorating it, very few people talk about the summer school or the significance of it.  I think maybe part of it is that many people (especially domestic students) aren’t as familiar with the context surrounding workers, strikes, and immigration during this period in the U.S. As a result, the fact that there was a summer school for women workers held on Bryn Mawr’s campus loses significance. It wasn’t until recently in one of my other classes about tourism, that I personally learned more about American labor movements in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Most of my classmates in a class of 20-25 students also did not know about this history.  This leads me to ask what then can be done to remedy the archival gaps and gaps in knowledge so that our campus history can be told in such a way as to give voice to groups that are typically silenced?  The online exhibition is a step in the right direction (and I enjoyed it), but I think that sort of medium typically attracts people who are already interested in history and campus memory to a certain extent. How do we engage with other audiences who in all probability would be interested in this history if it was presented to them in an interesting manner?

The sign is another medium with which to tell the story of the women workers at Bryn Mawr and reminds me of a conversation that I had with one of the librarians at the Barnes Foundation (which I went to for a project for the aforementioned tourism class) in which she told me about how many visitors that come to the Barnes are frustrated because there are no informational plaques next to the art.  She referred to these plaques as “tombstones” and talked about them in the wider context of what people expect to experience in a museum. Namely that they expect to be able to go through an exhibit and read the plaques and then leave (her description). I think some of these expectations are very similar to what people expect history to look like. Some of these expectations I believe result in a static experience when I think that art and history should be experienced in a dynamic and multifaceted way because they are living disciplines.  In light of that conversation, I now think that commemorative signs like the one for the summer school can sometimes be “tombstones” because they more often than not just serve as a dull marker for fascinating events.

Materials and Organization

I am increasingly interesting in the categories in which materials and information are placed and how those categories are ordered.   In browsing the Wikipedia pages for Bryn Mawr College and for Hilda Worthington Smith, they section headings in both entries were interesting to me. The Bryn Mawr College page was more striking because I have some awareness of Bryn Mawr and the image of the college that is put out to the general public. The Tri-College Consortium is mentioned in the second paragraph of the introduction, though the Quaker Consortium and Penn are put only in the section “Organization.” This is an accurate representation of the connection, or lack thereof, that the college has with Penn, but how would this have shown through in the resources that we put together for this entry? This is perhaps evidence of what Phillips and McDevitt-Parks describe as “open authority.” Wikipedia, they state, allows for dialogue between experts and the public in the digital world where everyone is a curator. I also found it interesting that “Sustainability” received its own section, because it seems as if this is not a major part of the college, but the Wikipedia contributors felt that it was significant enough for its section. These clickable titles carry meaning for the reader, so in creating a Wikipedia entry one must be careful about how information is divided.

The other label that I am interested in is “miscellaneous.” In the Rita Rubenstein Collection on the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, there were many items that were put into categories such as “Miscellaneous Student Writings,” “Student Interviews and Miscellaneous Biographica Materials,” “Faculty Interviews and Miscellaneous Material,” and a section titled simply “Miscellaneous Material.”   In regards to the organization of resources this does not seem effective but I wonder if anyone has considered an alternative for archiving and arranging materials.

Bryn Mawr vs. Wikipedia: Class, Authority and Accessibility

It was funny to me that the “Historians in Wikipedia” article ended with, “Do not be afraid to click that edit button.” Here, Phillips and McDevitt-Parks name an emotional labor to creating history. They highlight that there is anxiety that comes with asserting authority and knowledge. Though academia is seen as cold and unfeeling, the degree that it awards you structures class and therefore structures shame and pride. If you aren’t wealthy or have the opportunity, you can’t pursue the PhD or a college degree, which legitimizes your claims to assert that you have knowledge. There is a fear that comes with inserting yourself in a space that you feel you don’t belong. However, Wikipedia creates a separate space where history comes alive, in a way. Wikipedia entries both assert authority and are ever-changing, living documents. I wonder about the ways that the Summer School was doing similar work as Wikipedia, in terms of making learning and authority more accessible and open. In extending a space to working class women, did that make Bryn Mawr a malleable place, in the way that Wikipedia posts are editable documents? I’m inclined to say no, because the women were not able to edit Bryn Mawr in the way that we can write and rewrite Wikipedia posts. It follows then that the principles of the two institutions are different. Wikipedia was founded to be accessible, and Bryn Mawr was founded to be exclusive. How much can we truly edit Bryn Mawr in order to make it accessible?

Some Context Please?

As I was reading the digital exhibit for the Summer School I realized how important it is to have context for the things we find in archives. Thinking about the racist past of Bryn Mawr, it was hard to look at the exhibit and not yearn to see more/any African Americans. And I was like, “of course Bryn Mawr is slacking again!” But also I wanted to appreciate what a big impact this must have had, considering access to education was so different back then and the perception of European immigrants was also very different.

This reminds me of last semester in Social Theory, which is a super intense crash course in the theories of the first major theorists of sociology, when our lovely TA provided context as to why all these theorists were writing about religion in the way that they did. And the context provided helped us remember that in the 1900s in Europe, Jews and Christians were considered to be of different races. There was a student in the class who tried to compare it to the struggle that Black people faced at the same time, which was not only offensive but also unnecessary. Which I don’t say to put that student on spotlight but to say that even without that comparison, I understood the situation, and don’t think that putting things in context needs to be complex or long or a book, but can be very simple and quick. What our TA said could not have been more than a paragraph but it put everything in perspective and helped my comprehension so much. And I think in the case of archives this helps us get the most of the material that we’re looking at!

False Links and Historical Oversights

In browsing the Wikipedia entries for Bryn Mawr College and Hilda Worthington Smith (as well as for M. Carey Thomas), I noticed that the Summer School for Women Workers is linked in red on the latter two pages. I have often seen these false links on Wikipedia, but I have never before stopped to think about how and why they were created. Who decides what people/organizations/etc. should have their own page on Wikipedia? Furthermore, why would one acknowledge the need for a page, but not bother to create the page itself?

We have talked a lot in class about the selectivity of the historical record. In order to truly understand an event, we must examine it from as many points of view as we can; unfortunately, a large part of these seem to be lost or forgotten in the telling of history. The red links on Wikipedia emphasize such exclusions. Rather than lead to carefully cited encyclopedia entries, they testify to a regrettable oversight and absence of information. It is beyond frustrating to click on a link hoping to learn more, only to be met with a dead end! Ideally, the frustration caused by these false links would inspire further research, perhaps even the creation of the missing page itself. In this sense, the very absence of information can be just as much of a “starting point” as a completed entry. However, the surest way to make a historical topic accessible is to give it its own page—and judging by the number of red links on Wikipedia, there is still much work to be done.

It is also worthy to note that Bryn Mawr College’s own page, which is probably visited more often than the other two mentioned, displays no link of any sort to the Summer School. Unfortunately, this lack of emphasis makes the school more likely to be overlooked by a casual browser of the page. A false link here would certainly be more effective than no link at all.

The ideological content of worker’s education

I had previously learned about the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, first when working on a disorientation guide with the Environmental Justice League my freshman year, and next in the biography of Rose Pesotta, an anarchist feminist garment workers organizer, who attended the school. Yet, even after reading the digital exhibit, I had no idea of the politics of the school, or “worker’s education” in general. Was it a creation of liberals attempting to groom women workers to work for reform instead of revolution, a charitable project, or an accidentally or purposefully radicalizing force, or a combination? As Hilda Smith noted, the phrase “worker’s education” scared many conservatives and even liberals. This is probably because it bears a striking resemblance to “political education”, what leftists called education meant to build class consciousness and propel revolutionary action. Some radicals, like the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, even believed that workers had to learn so that they could take over the factories, and the larger society, themselves. The 1930s proved an interesting period for the labor movement and radicals, as the country was pushed to the brink of revolution and the powers that be finally gave into some degree of reform. One can read FDR’s own letters for evidence of the general motivation to save capitalism from itself. With a place at the bargaining table, radical ideas seeped into the mainstream. The Bryn Mawr school seems like a good example of this. Before entering the school, many women were more antagonistic towards bosses and the bourgeoisie, but to their surprise the school incorporated a variety of ideas and values into the curriculum, mitigating some of these antagonisms. For example, Jennie Silverman wanted to start a Marxist study group, and then it became a class, part of a capitalist institution instead of working against it. On the other hand, the school provided women with new knowledge, often focused on labor issues, that propelled their organizing. Some, like Rose Pesotta for instance, did not become liberals and stayed firm revolutionaries. Ultimately the coalition between liberalism and radicalism could not last, as evidenced by Bryn Mawr ending the school after police brutality towards its students observing the 1934 Seabrook Strike.

One interesting aspect of the project was the role of race. M Carey Thomas urged Hilda Worthington Smith not to admit black women while admiring the concept of education women workers, perhaps because she envisioned the working class, and women workers, as white, and saw racial justice and equality for white women as mutually exclusive. This reminds me of the argument that the working class was constructed based on whiteness and through exclusion. This is one reason why the seemingly inclusive environment at the school is especially interesting. The school periodicals even published abolitionist poetry, and one poem in the documentary even addressed racism within labor unions. It seems like the school really represented one related important socialist principle, internationalism. The documentary even discussed how it was organized into multiple sections, each containing workers from different places and industries. This reminds me of the IWW’s idea of “one big union” and a larger trend towards internationalism during this period. This was also relevant to the liberal feminism that surely influenced women like M Carey Thomas and Hilda Smith, as many feminists used the idea of a common bond between women to campaign against everything from child labor to war. Yet, this often discluded women of color, especially black women. 

Representing the Women of Summer

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!