Founding Bryn Mawr

This exhibition explores the earliest years of Bryn Mawr College from its conception in 1872 and the laying of its foundations in 1879, to its opening in 1885 and first decade of operation. It considers the motives and philosophies of the white Quaker men and women who brought the College into being. 

These earliest years were marked by contestation and compromise, as competing visions shaped the physical and conceptual landscape of the College. 

Every aspect of Bryn Mawr’s campus  – from the stones of its buildings to the height of its stairs – was vigorously debated and consciously designed. The exhibition reads the physical evidence of the built-environment to discern the founders’ formative ideologies. It examines archival documents to expose the patriarchal and white supremacist beliefs that shaped the curriculum and residential life of this new college, founded in the wake of the Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction (1865-1877).

The exhibition observes the ways in which Quakers undertook the higher education for women as part of their broader vision of social reform. These individuals aimed to produce students who conformed to ideal notions of femininity that were rife with contradictions. Students were left to resolve these competing demands. On the one hand, they were expected to fulfill societal ideals of morality, refinement, and subordination to patriarchal authority, on the other hand, to realize unprecedented ambitions for intellectual, physical, and professional achievement.

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