Online Portal Showcases Women's College Experiences

Written by
Mary Lou Santovec

Aug 3, 2016

Aug 3, 2016 • by Mary Lou Santovec

There's no denying that women's colleges have played a vital role in our nation's political and social history long before women were able to vote. Consider how Wellesley College MA alumna Hillary Clinton is the first woman candidate for president to be nominated by a major political party.

A collaborative project led by Bryn Mawr College PA hopes to shed light on the women's college experience and how it helped shape generations of women students.

College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education is an archives portal that will contain historical documents currently in the library and archives of the Pennsylvania school and the remainder of the former Seven Sisters (historically women's colleges in the Northeast). The objective is to create a “rich body of research and teaching materials.”

Important resource on women's history

The portal aims to bring together collections of scrapbooks, diaries, letters and other memorabilia from the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries of the women's colleges and digitize them. The objective? To make these primary source documents available not just to the participating colleges but to anyone interested in women's issues surrounding “political reform and women's rights, sexuality and body image, religion, race and class.”

These items document student experiences at the schools originally called the Seven Sisters: Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe College MA (now the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University MA), Smith College MA, Mount Holyoke College MA, Vassar College NY and Barnard College NY. (Bryn Mawr is one of the group's smaller schools.) These schools educated the first generation of young women going to college.

Until the 1970s, well-to-do parents who sent their sons to the Ivy League schools of Harvard, Dartmouth College NH, Yale University CT, Brown University RI, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University NJ and Cornell University NY, sent their daughters to the Seven Sisters for a similar liberal arts experience. And like the Ivies, the Seven Sisters were initially set up as an athletic league.

Archival work

Dr. Jennifer Redmond, the then-director of the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women's Education at Bryn Mawr, led the project's initial discussions. Dr. Monica Mercado, a postdoc fellow at the college, later took over leadership of the Greenfield Center and joined the discussions, which coincidentally were taking place as Virginia's Sweet Briar College was deciding its fate.

“The slice of women's education [the portal] is capturing is coming from women students who are prosperous and ambitious” in addition to being socially conscious, said Eric Pumroy, chief information officer and Seymour Adelman Director of Special Collections at Bryn Mawr. The items will enable scholars to study just how women of those eras thought about their futures—for example, women's professional expectations in college during the early 20th century.

Receiving a $39,650 one-year planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Pumroy and his Bryn Mawr colleagues, Christiana Dobrzynski, college archivist, and Mercado, who is moving to a tenure-track position at Colgate University NY (but will remain as an advisory board member), began planning the portal in 2012. The planning grant enabled them to digitize 318 items, mostly photographs.

In 2014, the project received a $260,000 grant from the NEH to continue and expand upon its work.

Other women's colleges are using their archives to look at the history of women in science or for a different focus. This portal will focus solely on women and their educational experiences.

A snapshot of women students at Bryn Mawr

Not interested in the administrative-driven memorabilia or published items such as literary magazines, the portal is very much student-centered. It will feature items created by students for their own memories or for an audience of their friends. These items are often the ones discarded in a fit of housekeeping later in life.

“It's an illustrative example [that] they were human beings cultivating their own communities,” said Dobrzynski. The materials are creating a richer context about relationships.

“We just got a collection of letters from a student whose aunt attended Bryn Mawr from the 1920s,” said Mercado. “She kept her aunt's papers and needed some place to go with them.”

“Most of those who were creating the letters weren't thinking that they were being saved and other people would see them,” said Dobrzynski.

“Part of the reason they're valuable is that they don't get saved,” said Pumroy.

The portal's uses

Mercado, who has taught classes on U.S. women's history and the history of women and education using some of the material, acknowledged that the visual material is “surprising” to some of her current students. “One hundred fifty years ago is such a different time, but some things feel very similar to them,” she said. It helps that most of the colleges are still operating out of the same buildings that they were 150 years ago.

Coming from the college archivist perspective, Dobrzynski values the portal for its link to the alumnae. She has heard from some who have seen the initial postings. “They didn't recognize the inherent value of their individual stories and how stories in the aggregate matter,” she said. “There is a visceral connection that alumnae and current students feel to these materials.”

The cutoff of the early 20th century (pre–World War II) is a practical one. Copyright and privacy issues are nonexistent with the earlier dates. “We don't want to be putting up letters of people who are still alive or those who they are writing about who are still alive,” said Pumroy.

The portal is currently outsourced at Amazon. Once the site is sustainable, its open-source format will enable it to expand to include the archives of other women's colleges.

For specific details on the planning process and technology used, check out the white paper at



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