March is Women’s History Month and whilst most of the attention tends to be centred on 8 March, International Women’s Day, here at Distributed Proofreaders we like to spend the whole month inviting volunteers to focus their attention on books by women or about them and their achievements.
One of those books is one we posted in August last year, A Book of Bryn Mawr Stories by Harriet Jean Crawford et al. I wanted to talk about it because I feel that it fits well with this year’s theme—Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment—as well as with the theme for International Women’s Day—Equality for Women is Progress for All.
Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia was founded in 1885 and was one of the first higher education institutions to offer graduate degrees to women. 129 years later it is still going strong, and it still has a strong focus on promoting educational access, equality and opportunity for women. Initially affiliated with the Quakers, by the time this collection of stories was published in 1901 it had become non-denominational.
The book is a collection of stories written by students of the college. In the opening story, Ellen, the central character, has been asked to give a speech on The Educational Value of College Life. Struggling to come up with inspiration, she visits fellow graduates of Bryn Mawr for ideas. When she parts from one of them, the other woman says, by way of advice:
“I should certainly deal with the practical value of college life, taking up some line of thought that will show its power to make women effective citizens in the broad sense of the word.”
And this is a recurrent theme in the book: how educating women, far from making them unfit for the place society has designated for them, actually makes them more fit.
I remember when they passed equal opportunities employment legislation here in the U.K. It seemed like the world opened up. I could do anything. It made you dizzy with the new possibilities. All right, I was fourteen and naive and unaware that legislation is one thing and changing the mindset of a whole country is another. It didn’t stop me visualising all sorts of possible futures that I would never have even considered before.
Those early women scholars must have felt a bit like that. At a time when it was still seriously believed by men of science that if a woman had to think about “man things” (like politics, economics, science, etc.) then her brain would literally overheat dangerously, the introduction of degree courses for women was revolutionary.
There were many critics of teaching women to this level. They said that it wasn’t necessary, after all a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother. They said it was dangerous, making women dissatisfied with their lot and leading them to disagree with men. It seems very strange, here in the U.K. slightly more than a century later, but it was the way things were back then.
Many of the characters in the stories sound slightly stilted and preachy to the modern ear. This is understandable when you remember that they were written in 1901, a time of great change, and at the height of the struggle for women’s suffrage and improved rights for women. They argue the point that educating women does not make them unwomanly, unfit for matrimony or other feminine pursuits. That it is good for women to be able to think and to be aware of the issues of the day. I am one of the many beneficiaries of the fight for women’s rights and I appreciate it every day. Although I live somewhere that has come a long way from where the students writing these stories were living, there are still places where women do not have the same rights as men, where they do not have the same access to education, property ownership, work and money. There are still societies where the fight fought by Bryn Mawr and other groundbreaking institutions like it is ongoing.
This book was inspirational and, more importantly, aspirational, and I, for one, hope that some day all women (and men) will be seen as equal, with the same rights and responsibilities, the same economic and political power.
Maybe, a century from now, we won’t need a special day or month to celebrate women and their contribution to the societies in which they live.