November 2016 Archways

Documenting the Sisters

Archways_College WomenKirsten Adams ’16 was researching images related to the war effort when she stumbled on a picture of two students delivering milk, circa 1916. Lily Corman Penzel (Mount Holyoke ’15) found a letter written by Ruth Walton (Holyoke ’22) that described the on-campus excitement over the first election in which women had the vote.

Although separated by hundreds of miles, the two young scholars were working from the same resource: the cross-institutional archives portal College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education. A collaboration among the institutions once—and often still—known as the Seven Sisters, the archive brings together digitized writings and photographs from seven libraries, dating from the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries. The materials in the archive document the experiences of students attending Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. (The Radcliffe holdings are now housed in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.)

“This is the first time these treasures are available online and searchable together,” says Eric Pumroy, director of the program and director of special collections at Bryn Mawr. “Researchers like Kirsten and Lily now have access to materials that shed light on the larger context of movements for women’s education in American society.”

The project grew out of discussions among the institutions that began in 2012, led by The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr. A beta-version of the College Women portal launched in the summer of 2015, with funding from a Foundations planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This spring, Bryn Mawr received a $260,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand the project, which includes letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and photographs. Evan McGonagill ’10 has been hired to manage the project.

A searchable collection of diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and photographs, College Women is designed for both scholarly researchers and casual browsers interested in the shared histories of women’s education at some of the first women’s colleges in the U.S. Together, the collections enable new studies in political reform and women’s rights, sexuality and body image, religion, race, and class, as well as major domestic and international events.

And those students making the milk delivery? They were called farmerettes, and during World War I, they ran a “war garden” and, for 20 cents an hour, offered their labor to local farmers whose farmhands were fighting on the front lines.
As for the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding took the country and a Mount Holyoke straw poll.

To browse the archive, visit