In the Beginning
In the beginning, there were no rules. For the first few years, according to Annie Crosby Emery Allinson (Class of 1892), when the College was tiny and the students “nearer the gods,” problems of noise and quiet settled themselves. But as the student body grew, more wills came into conflict, and the Golden Age came to a close. So no one was surprised when Dean M. Carey Thomas announced, just before Commencement in 1891, that “the social life of the College could no longer be conducted without ‘rules.’”
The assumption of everyone, including Thomas, was that those rules would come from the dean herself.
“But after the meeting,” Allinson wrote, “Miss Susan Walker (Fitzgerald) of 1893, and a few others, asking themselves whether law and liberty could not be combined, arrived at the idea of the students framing their own social code. Miss Walker, as spokesman for this self-appointed committee, went to the Dean and gained her willing consent to the new experiment.”
That experiment led to the establishment in 1892 of the nation’s first student Self-Government Association in higher education. Today that association, of which all undergraduates are members, informs virtually every aspect of academic and social life at Bryn Mawr. Through collaboration with the administration and faculty, Bryn Mawr students have a voice in everything from mundane rules about noise, pets, and posters to policies governing academic integrity, faculty appointments, and curriculum. The SGA’s authority rests formally on two living documents: the Constitution and the Honor Code, which together outline a system of rules and principles that seek to create and guide a community built on personal integrity and mutual respect.
What is remarkable about Allinson’s account of the SGA’s genesis, chronicled for the Alumnae Quarterly in 1909, is both how quickly the students moved to take the project of governance into their own hands and how readily Thomas signed on to it. That initial interaction—when the students’ expectation of self-determination met with the administration’s willingness to support it—set in motion a dynamic that continues to underlie self-governance at Bryn Mawr 125 years later.
After Thomas’s buy-in, an executive board was empowered to create a set of resolutions, and by the fall of 1891, what Allinson called “the age of oratory” was underway. “The students of Merion Hall,” she wrote, “used to say that they had never been disturbed by noise until the Executive Board held midnight sessions in my room to discuss the necessity of ‘quiet hours.’” Community discussions were marked by spirited debate and an occasional relish for shock that would feel familiar to anyone who has lived through Bryn Mawr’s particular brand of impassioned dorm and dining hall conversations. In one stormy meeting, a student argued that “law-making should be left to Thomas” and “shocked our less daring intelligences by announcing, ‘I prefer monarchy to democracy—nor need it be a constitutional monarchy.’ Against philosophy like this, our only weapons were an unbewildered piety and a militant faith.”
Although the student body was perhaps fatigued by the process—Allinson noted the “Gorgon face” of skepticism at a meeting held to ratify the SGA charter in the winter of 1892—clever problem-solving saved the day when a supporter leapt to her feet with a motion that self-government be abandoned. When the chair “put the question with assumed indifference,” there was silence in the chapel. But to the request for opposing votes came a fervent “No” that resounded on the campus and officially established self-governance at Bryn Mawr. “I doubt if any Bryn Mawr undergraduates,” wrote Allinson, “have ever been more gallantly serious than we were when, with chivalric seriousness, we pledged ourselves to an ideal.”
Athens and Hegel
Allinson told the story, in language permeated with classical references, as Bryn Mawr’s own version of the birth of Athenian democracy. In the end, for Bryn Mawr as for the ancient Greeks, the fall from the gods led ultimately to progress through the establishment of a rule of law based on democratic principles. At a time when Greek and Latin were prerequisites of admission and classical studies remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum, the allusions were “within a frame of reference she knew her audience would understand,” says Grace Ledbetter ’87, chair of Classics at Swarthmore College. What’s striking about the story, Ledbetter goes on to say, is that Allinson and her fellow students were using that frame of reference as a means to realize a radically democratic vision within their own community. “They are taking the framework of their classical education, the most classical model of government, and applying it in a way that’s radical within their own contemporary context.”
If Ledbetter sees SGA’s origin story in terms of classical ideals, radically applied, Charlie Bruce ’16, last year’s SGA president, responds to it through a different interpretive lens—that of Hegelian dialectics. As a comparative literature major, Bruce was inspired by the work of Grace Lee Boggs, M.A. ’37, Ph.D. ’40, a human rights advocate who wrote about the Hegelian principle of dialectical change and used her own work in philosophy as a basis for lifelong activism. Bruce sees the principles of dialectical change at work in the origins of the SGA in that “it’s all about taking a given circumstance, having some kind of constructive dialogue about it, and finding a way to make it into the best possible shape that it can be.” The story “totally embodies Boggs’s ideas of how institutions change, how people change, how cultures change.”
“Historically Bryn Mawr students have been agents of social change,” Bruce goes on to say. “It doesn’t surprise me that that spirit has been around from the inception of the institution until the present day.”
Particulars and Principles
The history of the SGA is the history of the issues that have engaged the Bryn Mawr community and so is predictably bound up with the larger social currents of any given moment. In 1925, at a time when women were claiming greater social freedoms, the student leadership succeeded in lifting an increasingly unenforceable ban on smoking. In 1929, as the era of Prohibition dawned, the Association sought fiercely to preserve alcohol use as an area of individual privilege. And in 1976, at the height of the campus housing exchange with Haverford, the Equal Rights Amendment to the Bryn Mawr Constitution passed, allowing resident Haverford men to hold SGA office.
But despite the historical particulars that make archival snippets feel dated and sometimes quaint, the constant that resonates is the insistence by the students that practice meet theory, that the mundane realities of student life remain tangibly anchored to higher principles.
For students who tangled with Thomas in 1921 over how many weekends they were allowed off campus, the question was not just about weekends away. Rather, the president of the Association wrote in the College News, “the very principles of self-government are at stake.”
While acknowledging that Thomas saw “continuity of residence” as affecting academic work and therefore within the administration’s purview, “We, on the other hand,” wrote Katharine Gardner ’22, “feel that as a self-governing body, we should have a part in making as well as in carrying out all policies regulating College life.”
On campus today, the SGA continues actively to seek consistency between the College’s principles and its practices and to navigate the balance between individual freedoms and restrictions meant to serve the good of the community—albeit through very different conversations. Among the predominant recent issues, according to Bruce, have been “hard conversations about community, about who feels included, and who doesn’t, and why.” As SGA president, Bruce took a leading role in facilitating these critical dialogues. “I tried to make clear while I was in office,” says Bruce, “that this was a space where anyone could start a conversation.”
If the Victorian Mawrters hashing out the foundations of self-governance in Merion Hall in 1892 had a crystal ball allowing them a glimpse of the conversations Bruce describes, they might be flummoxed by the cultural complexities of the defining issues for Bryn Mawr’s far more diverse community of the early 21st century. But they surely would recognize in them the same core qualities that we see in them looking back—an impassioned insistence that the community live up to its own ideals, the belief that dialogue is the first step toward institutional and social change, and a commitment to the practical work of community building.
Is the Association that was radical 125 years ago still remarkable today? “Yes, always,” says Bruce emphatically. “I have never been in a place where there are so many people who are devoted to not being complacent and to asking and thinking critically about how their world could be better for them and for the people around them.”