Finding Religion at College? Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education
Monica L. Mercado
The site brings together -- for the first time online -- hundreds of digitized letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photographs of students who attended the northeast U.S. women’s colleges once (and often still) known as the Seven Sisters: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Radcliffe (now the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University). Together, we have developed a pilot for subject-specific federated digital archives projects; our goal, most broadly, is to increase the visibility of women’s education histories, central to our missions as archives and teaching collections in historically women’s institutions. Digital collections development gave us the opportunity to connect our seven related but physically separate collections; our hope is to expand the portal significantly in the coming years.
|Tradition? The Barnard Greek Games (1931), |
Barnard College Archives, via collegewomen.org.
Religion isn't a buzzword at the Digital Libraries Federation, which has been particularly attentive over the last few days to the intersection of race and gender with our digital work. It's still not much of a buzzword in digital history more generally (although I'm still hoping to learn more about the conversations that happened as part of the recent Catholic Research Resources Alliance event, Catholic Archives in the Digital Age: A Conference for Teachers and Archivists, and I continue to follow other digital religion conversations on RiAH with great interest). And, to be honest, religion isn't a major part of my work in the Bryn Mawr College Archives. But having researched and written about Catholic women's higher education for much of the last few years, and having taught courses on the history of women's higher education at the University of Chicago and now Bryn Mawr, I wonder how a project like College Women can expand to take account of the experiences of both students at religious institutions, whose archives may be even less well organized than those of the elite northeastern colleges, as well as religious students in nondenominational or secular colleges.
So for the moment, inspired by the College Women site, how might we study religion at the Seven Sisters?
|"Religion" search results, collegewomen.org beta site.|
|The Bryn Mawr College "chapel," in a photograph|
displayed at the Sesqui-centennial Exposition of
1926, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.
As Eric Pumroy argues in Founded by Friends (2007), "Bryn Mawr did indeed grow and prosper as an academic institution, as its founders wished, but not as a religious one, which they had also wished. The tension between academics and religion was settled in favor of the former by [the College's second president] M. Carey Thomas, a dynamic leader who saw that Bryn Mawr’s great mission was to prove that women were capable of the same intellectual achievements as men. If accomplishing this mission for women meant sacrificing a Quaker-based education, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make." The Bryn Mawr chapel, for example, was not a grand, free-standing structure like Wellesley's beautiful Houghton Chapel; it was a large room in the central academic building, Taylor Hall. Its grandest occasion? Not regular prayer or worship, but the 1899 formal presentation of Thomas's portrait, painted by John Singer Sargent. The chapel no longer exists; the two-story space has been divided up into two floors of offices and storage space (that I accidentally stumbled into during my first summer on campus).
|Students walking with Abbey Chapel and Mary Lyon Hall|
in the background, ca. 1940s. Mount Holyoke College
Archives and Special Collections, via collegewomen.org.
I'm intrigued by these and other conversations about the place of religion on college campuses, as someone who has studied, taught, and written about American religion and American women's higher education separately for quite some time. The digital project, collegewomen.org, and conversations with my students who participate in religious life on the 21st-century campus, show me new ways of continuing these lines of inquiry, in the College Archives and in our new virtual portal. With so much of the scholarship on religion and education as an object of study often focused on the K-12 experience, how might women's history find religion at college?