Rita R. Heller




The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers was a complex, often contradictory, educational institution which defies easy summaries. It was simultaneously elitist and egalitarian, conservative and radical, exclusive but also heterogeneous and inclusive. What is clear 68 years after its founding is that it was a significant force for social change in the otherwise quiescent years of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. It prepared many of its approximately 1,700 blue collar students, 90 faculty, and approximately 100 teaching assistants and tutors for leadership in the activist New Deal.

The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (BMSSWW) emerged in June 1921, at the behest of college president, M. Carey Thomas. The School represented the merging of a mature women's social justice movement with a fledgling workers' education movement. It built on the accomplishments of the National Consumers League (NCL) and National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL). Like these predecessors, the Bryn Mawr Summer School was a mixed-class undertaking engaged in evolutionary reform. The School also modeled itself after two formal educational ventures. One was the NWTUL sponsored Training School for Active Workers in the labor movement and the other was the Educational Department of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Both of these predated the BMSSWW by a few years. Another important ally was the YWCA. Over time the YWCA would emerge as the single largest recruiter of students for the Bryn Mawr Summer School.

The BMSSWW shared more than the ideology of the early 20th century social justice movement. It looked to it for advisors and directors. The Summer School's board of directors, formally named the Joint Administrative Committee, bore the names of notable NWTUL leaders, Margaret Drier Robbins, Agnes Nestor, Rose Schneiderman, Elizabeth Christman, Julia O'Connor, Mable Leslie, Frieda Miller, and Pauline Newman. Mary Anderson came to the School as Director of the then new Women's Bureau. Ernestine, Friedmann, Eleanor Coit, and Alice Hanson Cook were all YWCA Industrial Secretaries who served the School. The new institution also turned to a resource closer to home--the talent bank of Bryn Mawr alumnae who had become distinguished public servants. Among them were Emily Bailey Speer, National President of the YWCA; Pauline Goldmark, social investigator; and Edna Fischel Gellhorn, St. Louis League of Women Voters leader.

The appearance of a workers' school at an elite college, resulted from the efforts of two women, M. Carey Thomas and Hilda "Jane" Worthington Smith. One woman provided the vision, the other the stewardship. How was it that elitist educator M. Carey Thomas precipitously embraced the cause of downtrodden working women? In common with other innovative geniuses, Thomas defies categorization. By 1921, the 64-year-old Thomas had evolved into an impassioned activist, having increasingly promoted the experimental and practical. Bryn Mawr's Graduate Social Work School, opened in 1916, was the most dramatic pre-Summer School example of her shift from ivory tower to worldly concerns.

The Summer School program established at Bryn Mawr quickly became the model women workers' educational venture. It operated for 17 summers (from 1921 through 1938 with the single "omission" of the summer of 1935), was residential, served both organized and unorganized workers, and a national, and even small international, constituency. More factory women went through its campus (approximately 1700 overall) than any of the other programs. Personnel trained there dispersed to help found similar, later programs at the Wisconsin Summer School, Barnard Summer School, Vineyard Shore School, Southern Summer School, and Hudson Shore Labor School, and elsewhere. Many students also attended more than one program.

The woman Thomas tapped to transform her summer school dream into reality was the then Dean of Undergraduates, "Jane" Smith. Smith was yearning to break out of the confines of educating daughters of the middle classes and was electrified by the surprising assignment for which she was well-qualified. While in the Dean's office, she sponsored classes for campus employees displaying an ability to transcend class barriers. She and Susan Kingsbury, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work, had operated a community center in the town of Bryn Mawr. It was Smith, therefore, who played a critical role. It was she who took Thomas' nobly conceived, but shallowly rooted, idea for a workers' school and made it viable.

While the emerging experiment had social feminist, union-based, and other precedents (the British Workers' Education Association, for example), Bryn Mawr would make it distinctive. The College would imbue it with commitment to the liberal arts, standards of selectivity, and academic excellence. The College would also instill a mission-oriented approach. The School arose, as did all of worker education, from a fervent belief in education as a tool for social betterment. It grew also from Jeffersonian notions on the necessity for an educated electorate. But M. Carey Thomas gave the project her particular feminist cast. It was Thomas who audaciously argued the case to educate female laundry workers, seamstresses, and hosiery loopers all of whom were now eligible to vote. Thomas also hoped that other Seven Sister colleges would follow suit in opening summer schools and, thereby, educate America's blue collar women. That part of the dream never materialized. Only Barnard followed Bryn Mawr's model. For five summers it operated a workers' program for commuting ILGWU women from the downtown New York City garment center (pp. 2-19)*.




Thomas and Smith conceived of the experiment in collegiate terms. Over time, the School came to embrace collectivist goals also but this was far from its original intent. The founders knew their student constituency would be new and different and the course would be only an eight-week summer session. But, insofar as possible, the School's approach would be liberal/humanist, and its goals timeless and open-ended. In keeping with the liberal collegiate tradition, the School's priority concern would be the individual. It would focus on the enhancement of reasoning and broadening of minds.

The reality of working with the labor movement did cause the School to widen its focus. Unionists were not about to embrace warmly an elite college's notion of education for education's sake. A first challenge, therefore, was drafting an all-encompassing Statement of Purpose. This statement would have to reflect faithfully the School's collegiate, liberal humanist, open-ended orientation as well as establish credibility with both organized and unorganized women workers. Such a balancing act was necessary as the School's founders were committed to maintaining parity between the two different constituencies. The 1921 Statement described the School's object as offering "young women of character and ability a fuller education in order that they may widen their influence in the industrial world. . . and increase the usefulness of their own lives." In addition, the School disavowed connection to any "dogma" or "theory" (p. 19).

These 1921 objectives did not win over labor people who advised and visited the campus. One militant student later wrote about restiveness on the campus that first summer:

"What is the purpose of the Summer School?" was the burning question on campus. Were the courses designed to give a purely cultural education or did they contribute to usefulness in the labor movement? Should they be designed to give training in leadership in the Labor Movement? (p. 19)

Additionally, unionists worried about entrusting workers to college women who served the School as teaching assistants: "Why would workers study under tutors who obviously knew little of the problems of these workers lives?" In fact, labor's wariness set in immediately upon entering the campus through Rockefeller Arch. School director Smith later remembered that labor leaders warned the students "not to trust Bryn Mawr College. . . . as it was only capitalistic propaganda. . ." (p. 20).

By its third session, that of 1923, the School had revised its Statement of Purpose. In this later rendering the School's purposes included the study of liberal subjects and training in clear thinking as well as stimulation of an "active and continued interest in the problems of our economic order." It posited giving students "a truer insight into the problems of industry" and a greater feeling of "responsibility for their solution" (p. 20).




The School's founders aimed to create a community of industrial women representing a cross-section of occupations, regions, religions, and ethnic groups. The founders perennially sought a balance between unionized and nonunionized students. The School welcomed as applicants women between the ages of 20 and 35 who had had elementary school education and two years of industrial experience. The term "workers" referred to those working with the tools of the trade, but not in a supervisory capacity. Specifically excluded were teachers, clerical workers and saleswomen.

It appears recruiters were selective. Overall, one of every two applicants was admitted. The admissions committee sought women of promise with a reading background and intellectual curiosity. Applicants completed a written application of several pages and underwent at least one interview (p. 21).




Refinement of the School's written objectives played a role in its improved relations with labor. More crucial to labor's acceptance of the Summer School was the School's acceptance of the labor movement. Hilda Worthington Smith engineered the momentous decision--one which came at the end of the turbulent first summer, 1921. The College agreed to granting the labor movement equal representation on the Summer School's Joint Administrative Committee. Former Summer School faculty members and economist, Caroline Ware, described this system of governance as a "radical" advance. Ware viewed the sharing of control with labor representatives as prophetic, as a bold step taken forty years before the advent of "community control."

Now at the point where the students asked to be part of the governance of the School, M. Carey Thomas's first reaction was:

"What! we're the educators, they're the students." That's what Jane was up against. . . . Jane had the wit and wisdom to find a way to bring some of the students into a reception that Thomas was having... and she turned right around on that radical, radical issue. . . . That was the really revolutionary issue that arose. If you were going to have any elitist notion you would not. . . share the administration with the students. . . . (p. 68)

Smith's decision to support the labor movement was of singular importance. It demonstrated the School's earnest effort to be inclusive. It answered the grave doubts of such women labor leaders as Mary Anderson of the Women's Bureau, Rose Schneiderman of the New York NWTUL, and Agnes Nestor of the Chicago NWTUL. This bold step also increased Smith's effectiveness as she now had the added support of the labor movement. She continued to play the crucial role that she had from the School's inception. As impartial go-between, she balanced competing interest groups against one another: College trustees and the labor movement; leftist students and faculty and conservative, nonunionized students. This feat was more easily accomplished in the quiet twenties than in the charged atmosphere of the thirties. Under pressure the fragile coalition came apart.




The 1921 acceptance of labor onto the Joint Administrative Committee was, according to Ware, "radica1." The 1926 enrollment of black students was similarly remarkable by any standard. Here were black factory women who were recruited for, and admitted to, residential study on a Main Line College campus during the socially-inert Coolidge era. The surrounding community, the site of the legendary play and film, "The Philadelphia Story," was an enclave of vast wealth and conservatism. In fact, the Summer School predated the College in admitting blacks. When the College matriculated its first black undergraduate in the fall of 1927, the student was "placed" with a black family in the town.

Unfortunately there are few particulars in the written record. One can only speculate on the sequence of events which brought racial equality to the Bryn Mawr Summer Schoo1. Also circumstantial was Smith's role in those events. By all accounts the YWCA was the beacon of enlightenment on matters of race, having gone on record favoring integrated facilities and conferences in 1918. The YWCA clearly deserved credit. It was also characteristic of Jane Smith to deflect credit away from herself. She wrote that the prime movers behind a resolution calling for the admission of students "without distinction of race, creed or color" were the YWCA-recruited students. That resolution passed the Council, the self-government campus group composed of students and faculty. The resolution was passed on to the Joint Administrative Committee for a decision.

Beyond that, the record is silent. Smith was an outspoken integrationist whose actions and writings speak for themselves. As the college dean she had operated an educational program for black campus employees. In her poetry she deplored injustice and oppression. One may conclude, therefore, that Smith lent crucial moral force to the School's integration (pp. 70-73).




         The primary impulses behind the School's founding had been M. Carey Thomas' "belief in education and belief in women." Feminist solidarity could, she felt, bridge the social and economic classes, which it did until overwhelmed by class hostilities in the thirties. The BMSSWW functioned as a de facto consciousness-raiser, a sanctuary removed from the male dominated work place. Over time its faculty was two-thirds women. The School's special female orientation was lost when it evolved in 1939 into a coeducational program at the Hudson Shore Labor School (p. 273).




Perhaps the Summer School's greatest contribution to workers' adult education was its innovative curriculum and pedagogy. The faculty devoted much energy on how best to teach adult students who had a rich work experience. The School's development was contemporaneous with the full flowering of the progressive education movement. John Dewey's ideas were in the air. The Summer School incorporated his basic tenets into its evolving pedagogy. It practiced "learning from life" with social change as the end goal.

The Summer School's instructional environment reflected Dewey's premise in his landmark 1916 work, Democracy and Education, that a teacher's raw materials are his students' attitudes and motives, not his discipline. The teacher must engage the learner in the acquisition of knowledge, use the learner's experience, and link these processes to the social milieu. Yet, notable by its absence from the School's archival records, is any acknowledgement of the generative thinker. According to former faculty members, Alice Hanson Cook and Oliver Loud, Summer School board member, Eleanor Coit, was the vital link between Dewey and workers' education. According to Cook, the Summer School deftly integrated theories of progressive, labor, and adult education (pp. 202-203).

From the Summer School's inception, its instructional program centered on a core of economics and English. In 1928, it adopted the Unit Method of Instruction. At the BMSSWW a "Unit" meant a coordinated team-taught curriculum presented to 20 homogeneously grouped students.

Three constants gave stability to the School's instructional program. First, the Summer School had deep commitments to humanistic education stemming from its collegial orientation and affiliations. Second, the BMSSWW drew its faculty virtually exclusively from the academic world and not from the labor movement. Third, the BMSSWW infused a sympathy for--if not formal endorsement of--organized labor's aims into most instruction from its very first classes in June, 1921 (p. 206).

The Bryn Mawr Summer School made a notable contribution to the theory and practice of workers'/adult education. It very quickly gained a premiere reputation as a successful practitioner in the experimental field. In addition, the School generated voluminous course outlines which, in effect, provided model workers'/adult education syllabi. The American Labor Education Service (originally called the Affiliated Schools for Women Workers) was an umbrella organization for the Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Wisconsin, and Vineyard Shore Schools. Known as ALES, and in operation until 1961, it was a primary disseminator of relevant literature and a sponsor of annual conferences and programs.




The key variables of funding, radicalism, and insider/outsider control are inextricably related. The BMSSWW was an "unnatural" institution in Mary Beard's opinion. It was a liberal, collegiate program for blue collar workers, founded, funded, and operated by an elite women's college--albeit with the active cooperation of the activist, union/labor left. Gifts from hundreds of individuals, as well as from foundations and unions, annually met the School's $20,000 operating budget. Leading American capitalists, Rockefeller, DuPont, and Pew, were among the School's consistent donors in the $100 to $1,000 categories (pp. 21-22).

Only a heroic figure of Hilda Jane Worthington Smith's stature could keep so "unnatural" a coalition smoothly functioning. Her departure for a New Deal position, after the 1933 session, left a void and exposed the School's fragility. In the politically charged "red decade," ideology came to dominate campus life. Increasingly the College distanced itself from what had now become a controversial offspring. In the words of former student, Sophie Schmidt Rodolfo, the School ended (in August 1938) when "the novelty wore thin and the money ran out." The Summer School was put off the campus for 1935 as a consequence of a controversy involving a strike the previous summer. Finally, in 1938, the College severed its connection completely. The College promoted the School's incorporation into the Hudson Shore Labor School, a new operation situation on the upper New York State property of the family of Hilda Smith. At the time of the School's demise, the School and College both focused on the advantages of coeducation and year­ round operation which the Hudson Shore location now provided (pp. 242­

263). .




In a unique follow-up canvass, which this writer conducted 40 to 60 years after the experience, 3% of the students wrote of the Bryn Mawr Summer School's lifelong impact. In overwhelming numbers (between 83% and 86%), the students said it had had a considerable impact on their lives, self-image, and skill development (p. 275).

The School's liberal, collegial orientation bore fruit in the widely divergent paths which students followed. A few women experienced dramatic upward social mobility while others returned to the factory. No single pattern emerged from the canvass of fifty-four women. Twelve gave up paid employment for full-time homemaking, eight continued in the same industrial work until retirement, seven combined homemaking with community volunteerism, and six left industry for either retail or white-collar work. Fourteen provided no career data. One-fifth of the respondents felt the School had had no impact at all on their work. Five became middle­class professionals. Twelve, for at least some period of time, heeded the School's message to assume greater responsibility for the solution of industrial problems. The ten who became shop chairladies and volunteer organizers are now chiefly remembered by co-workers, daughters, and granddaughters. Carmen Lucia and Elizabeth Nord became vice presidents of the United Hatters Cap and Millinery Workers' International Union and United Textile Workers' Union, respectively (pp. 269-270).

Outside evidence has established the School's national contribution to union leadership training. Six of seventy-five subjects in the 20th Century Trade Union Women Oral History Project had been students at the Bryn Mawr Summer School (p. 271).

For many of the faculty, the School's impact was as powerful as it had been on the students. It was their first opportunity to help the disadvantaged, an experience that proved irresistible and pivotal. The New Deal generated opportunities. The School's director, "Jane" Smith, became part of Harry Hopkins' Federal Emergency Relief Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration. Those Summer School faculty who joined federal agencies were members of a long-viable Washington network. These included Marguerite Gilmore (U.S. Women's Bureau), Katherine Pollak Ellickson (AFL-CIO), Jean Flexner Lewinson (U.s. Department of Labor), Esther Peterson (U.S. Department of Labor and Women's Bureau), Ida Craven Merriam (Social Security Board), and Caroline Ware (Organization of American States). Others staked out new territory. Colston Warne, for example, founded the Consumer's Union. Peterson became a link to the contemporary women's movement when she was named as first chairperson to the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 (pp. 271-273).

The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers built on a fusion of the best impulses of progressive social and educational reform, as well as of women's higher education, suffragism, and feminism. A belief in the ability of education to reform society had driven much progressive reform. But the enlistment of an elite, academic institution into reform constituted a significant departure from existing models. The resulting utopian School forged new connections between the educated elite and workers. It introduced experienced women reformers to the new militant workers and progressives to nascent New Dealers. Declining suffragism plugged into the dynamism of the rising labor movement, giving the School its energy and its mission. In the politically quiet 1920s, the School thus kept alive a commitment to peaceful social change, grooming many of its participants for the recharged world of FDR and serving as a bridge to the later era (pp. 268-275).




Page numbers in text refer to my dissertation, Rita R. Heller, "The Women of Summer: The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, 1921-1938" (Ph.D. thesis, Rutgers University, 1986), of which this paper is an abstract. Earlier versions appeared as Rita R. Heller, "Blue Collars and Blue Stockings: The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, 1921-1938," in Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers' Education for Women, 1914-1984, eds. Joyce Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), and Rita R. Heller, "The Bryn Mawr Workers' Summer School, 1921-1938, A Surprising Alliance," History of Higher Education Annual, 1981. A 1985 documentary film, based on the 1986 dissertation, is also entitled "The Women of Summer."




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