February 2014 Archways

A Place for Myself

In 1921, a time when the assembly line threatened to dehumanize labor, the Summer School for Women Workers in Industry opened its doors at Bryn Mawr. The school gave working women the chance to sample the sort of education that, at the time, was reserved largely for the upper crust. In recounting her experience, one student captured the vision behind the summer school: “Here I have found a place for myself. I feel I am not just a part of a piece of machinery.”

That experience, and the larger history of this chapter in worker education, is captured in a recent digital exhibition, The Summer School for Women Workers: Diversity, Class, and Education.

Curated by Jennifer Redmond, former director of the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, with editorial assistance from Assistant Director Evan McGonagill ’10, the exhibition draws on materials from the College’s Special Collections and on the autobiography of the school’s director, Hilda Worthington Smith. A Bryn Mawr graduate (Class of 1910) and dean, Smith was the driving force behind that the school and served as its director for 13 years.

The students, all of them industrial workers, came from a variety of backgrounds. They were young, between 18 and 35, and had little in the way of formal schooling. Said one young student, “I couldn’t go to high school, though you might say I went through high school. My mother scrubbed the high school building every night, and I used to help her.”

The curriculum followed the collegiate fare of the time, including English composition, public speaking, political and social history, and English and American literature. Students were also expected to take courses focusing on the labor movement and industrial organization, a once-a-week class on physiology and hygiene, and two evening lectures titled the Origin and Evolution of the Earth and Life, and Community Relations in Life.

The Summer School for Women served as a model for similar schools at Barnard College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in North Carolina. It closed in 1938 and transferred to the Hudson Shore Labor School at Smith’s family home in New York State.

Key in providing new insights into the history of the Summer School for Women was The Women of Summer (1986), the award-winning, National Endowment for the Humanities-funded documentary by historian Rita Heller ’59. Interviews were conducted with Summer School students for the documentary, and the tapes, donated to the Bryn Mawr College Archives by Heller, are now part of the Oral History archive, which is currently being digitized and will be made available on Triptych when the project is finished. Already available in the digital exhibition is audio of an interview, recorded in summer 1976, with former labor leader Elizabeth Nord of Providence, Rhode Island, who attended the Summer School for Women during the sessions of 1922 and 1924.

To see this, and other online exhibitions, go to brynmawrcollections.org/greenfield/exhibits.

[Click on photos to see at full size.]