History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers opens its doors

The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women workers opened in 1921, a time when the political climate was favorable to women's rights and workers' education. As the first of four resident workers' colleges for women in the 1920s and 30s, it was founded as a result of the pressure from the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL) for women's colleges to get involved in educating working women (Hollis, 1994).

The Summer School was unique in the labor education movement in that it was exclusively for women workers, a collaborative effort by and for women, and held at an elite women's college. At Bryn Mawr, the women's social justice movement joined ranks with the labor education movement in creating a program to benefit women workers and indirectly, the labor movement (Heller, 1984). The program was the result of the efforts of M. Carey Thomas, the President of Bryn Mawr College for 35 years and Hilda Worthington Smith, Dean of Undergraduates. The school adopted a Deweyan philosophy of progressive education, leftist and liberal social thought and, to a certain extent, feminist principles (Hollis, 1994). In 1931 John Dewey himself visited Bryn Mawr and gave a talk in honor of Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House who that year received the Nobel Peace Prize .

The faculty believed that workers had the right to an education that reflected their role in production and would help them improve their daily lives. Hilda Smith believed that instructors should understand the students' practical experience in industry and the workings of the labor movement in order to help them gain a clearer understanding of the problems and feel more responsible for their solutions (Heller, 1984). Both students and faculty viewed education as a catalyst for social change. Although the school's charter mandated an impartial, non-dogmatic inquiry, economist Broadus Mitchell admitted "advancing the rights and influence of organized labor infused all instruction" (as quoted in Heller, 1984, p.120). In the beginning, the philosophy of the school focussed on education to enhance individual capacity; over time, however, the necessity of collective action to change workplace conditions became obvious. The economic hardship of the Depression years prompted the school to develop more of a pro-change, pro-union agenda, and the ideology ranged from liberal pro-unionism to Marxism (Heller, 1984).

The aim of the school was to create a community of industrial women from a variety of occupations, regions, religions and ethnic backgrounds. Alumnae committees, who were assisted by the Industrial Department of the YWCA, NWTUL, labor unions, churches and corporate and private benefactors, carried out the bulk of the recruiting and fundraising for the school. Requirements for admission were an elementary school education and two years of non-supervisory experience in industry. Recruiters also showed a preference for women who exhibited maturity, leadership abilities, intellectual curiosity and an awareness of economic problems. By 1931 the student body consisted mainly of recent immigrants of Russian or Eastern European origin, who worked in either the needle trades or in millinery, were mostly union members, over the age of thirty and from the northeastern United States (Heller, 1984). In 1926, black women were admitted to the program, partly at the students' request and also because Hilda Smith was in favor of an integrated school.

The course content and method evolved to meet the changing needs and interests of the students. The original liberal arts curriculum, which overwhelmed the average unschooled student, was redesigned to include a core of practical English and economics, with science and arts as secondary subjects. The classes were arranged in 20-member student units led by one economist and one English professor. Undergraduates from other Seven Sister colleges provided one-on-one tutorials. The faculty consisted mainly of women drawn to labor economics, who adopted a non-hierarchical teaching style. Unlike most educational practices of that time, classes were conducted in a dialogical method rather than as routine lectures, and were meant to stimulate students' critical thinking about social and economic problems (Bauman, 1985).

As the majority of students had only an elementary education, this was compensated for by using the students' work and life experiences as the basis for discussion. The use of autobiography was regarded as a source of personal information crucial to classroom success. In their writing the women revealed a sense of connection with others, a focus on relationships and a de-emphasis of individual ego (Hollis, 1994). The school also included democratic participation by students and faculty in administrative and curricular matters. The Joint Administration Committee, the policymaking arm of the Summer School, included equal numbers of Bryn Mawr representatives and industrial women. At Smith's urging, fifty percent of the members were elected by former students of the school (Heller, 1984). Day-to-day governance was the responsibility of the student council, which included 7 students, 3 faculty and 3 administrators (Ard, 1992).

The Bryn Mawr Summer School was a close-knit cooperative academic community, which adopted a repertoire of teaching techniques from drama and role plays to debates and discussion to accommodate the learning needs of women workers. A rich extracurricular program including field trips and music festivals, as well as a cooperative store and student newspaper contributed to community life.

Unfortunately, the Bryn Mawr Summer School had to close its doors in 1938, mainly due to "depression-generated internal and external crises" (Heller, 1984, p.121). The school's increasingly leftist politics and the alleged participation of faculty in the Seabrook Farms strike of 1934 alienated them from the largely conservative funders on whom they depended for their survival. As faculty member Esther Peterson commented, "We were not just nice girls anymore; we were vigorous people who wanted to change society" (quoted in Bauman 1985).

In summary, the Bryn Mawr Summer School offered an alternative educational program for women workers within a traditional institution. Its constituency of mainly young, single immigrant women benefited from a progressive education in liberal arts and economics which they would not otherwise have had access to. These working women were encouraged to develop confidence as speakers and writers and to seek leadership roles in the workplace. Indeed, the Bryn Mawr experience was the first time many of these women identified with a collective of women workers. 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. After the Bryn Mawr College closed it down, the Summer School moved to Hilda Smith's family home in New York State. Renamed as the Hudson Shore Labor School, it operated as a co-educational resident school for workers until 1952.


Ard, A. (1992). Powerful learning: A study of the Bryn Mawr summer school for women workers in industry 1921-1938. ASHE Annual Meeting Paper, 1-31.

Bauman, S. (Producer). (1985). The women of summer (Videotape). New York: Labor Institute of Public Affairs.

Heller, R. (1984). Blue collars and bluestockings: The Bryn Mawr summer school for women workers, 1921-1938. In J. Kornbluh & M. Frederickson (Eds.), Sisterhood and solidarity: Workerís education for women, 1914-1984 (pp. 107-145). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hollis, K. (1994). Liberating voices: Autobiographical writing of the Bryn Mawr summer school for women workers, 1921-1938. College Composition and Communication, 45 (1), 31-60.

Prepared by Carol Pye (OISE/UT)

Back to index