Historical Markers
Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry Historical Marker
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Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Bryn Mawr Campus, Corner of Morris Rd. and Yarrow St.

Dedication Date:
October 31, 2001

Behind the Marker

Bryn Mawr College campus, showing Taylor and Merion Halls, the Gymnasium and the Deanery, c. 1886.
Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, circa 1886.
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.
Sepia photograph, head and shoulders
Bryn Mawr College president Martha Carey Thomas, circa 1895.

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.

The Bryn Mawr Summer School was the brainchild of M. Carey Thomas, the College's longtime president, and Dean Hilda Worthington Smith. Their vision was to join education and reform as a means of expanding and elevating the condition of working-class women. Organizers made an implicit connection between individual experience and collective identity based on shared gender and economic interests.
Sixteen young women wearing uniforms sit on the lawn of the college grounds.
Students at the Bryn Mawr College summer labor school, Bryn Mawr, PA, circa...

John Dewey's educational philosophy and contemporary concerns about social and economic conditions influenced Thomas and Worthington Smith in the industrial age. Dewey himself visited the school in 1931, to give a talk honoring Jane Addams, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Bryn Mawr faculty and alumnae took an active role, but what made the program so innovative was the genuine concern that the women students had a voice in curricular and extracurricular activities.
Young women exercising with ropes and rings, YMCA Central Branch, Philadelphia, PA 1918.
Young women exercising with ropes and rings, YMCA Central Branch, Philadelphia,...

The program recruited women students from the ranks of labor unions, churches, and voluntary associations like the YWCA. The only admission criteria were an elementary-school education and two years of industrial work experience. Consequently, the ambitious liberal-arts focus of the first curriculum proved impractical and was redesigned in favor of more useful knowledge that drew on the women's experience in the workplace. A core curriculum evolved that stressed English language skills and economics. Field trips, festivals, visiting lecturers, a student newspaper and a cooperative exchange expanded the learning environment.

Instructors drew on the women's life experience as basis for discussion, as much as possible connecting formal education with real world situations. As one observer put it, "The pedagogical practices of shared authority, learning based on women's experience and grounded in the understanding of education for social change all served to provide an empowering learning experience for the women who attended the school." The Summer School merged the individual and the social, seeking to create informed women would use their knowledge for the good of society.

Ultimately, the left-leaning political views promoted in the Summer School put its organizers at odds with the more conservative financial donors. After Bryn Mawr College ended the program, the Summer School was renamed and moved to New York State, where it closed in 1952. The Bryn Mawr Summer School is an excellent example of early twentieth century reform enthusiasm, and the belief that education is an essential ingredient in struggles for economic progress and social justice.
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