A Modern Mawrtyr’s Life: Bryn Mawr’s Quaker Heritage

Welcome to A Modern Mawrtyr’s Life—reflections on the daily Bryn Mawr College experience as reflected through the eyes of Alicia Steinmetz, political theorist and warrior princess.

In anticipation of the “Living Our Heritage” conference taking place in June, and my own deep interest in secularism and religion in the public sphere (I turned in my thesis on the subject this Monday—yay!), I have been thinking about Bryn Mawr’s Quaker heritage. According to the Bryn Mawr College chapter in the book Founded by Friends, written by our own Eric Pumroy, director of Library Collections, the school was founded on two main goals: creating a first-rate academic institution for women, and promoting the Quaker message through a sectarian Friends school.

How then did it end up fulfilling the first goal but losing the second? When Joseph Taylor was planning what Bryn Mawr was to become, he was torn between modeling Bryn Mawr on Haverford College and following the lead of the newly opened Johns Hopkins University, which was also Quaker but committed more to academic excellence than spreading the Quaker message. This tension between purposes was a source of much debate in Bryn Mawr’s early years, but the tides turned decisively through the efforts of M. Carey Thomas. Her strong vision and commitment to turning Bryn Mawr into an academically rigorous education for women, driven by the roadblocks she faced in attaining her own education, made her push consistently to prioritize a high quality of education over fulfilling religious purpose. Pumroy suggests that for Thomas, “if accomplishing this mission for women meant sacrificing a Quaker-based education, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make” (Pumroy 2007, 161). She was helped by the fact that many Quakers at the time were not interested in women’s higher education, which meant that Bryn Mawr would need to appeal to non-Quakers as well. Still, Thomas set Bryn Mawr on a path to becoming the first-rate academic institution that it is, even if that path meant the loss of its religious purpose.

Of course, facets of the Quaker influence remain, even though they have been secularized. The connection and cooperation between Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore was built on a sense of Quaker identity and common purpose between the three schools; and this cooperation provides a valuable educational resource for Bryn Mawr students today. The Quaker commitment to freedom of conscience led to the independence and self-regulation of valued institutions and practices such as the Self-Government Association and the Honor Code. Pumroy emphasizes that this commitment to independence “was balanced by a Quaker social consciousness” (Pumroy 160), which drove Bryn Mawr’s commitment to social and political engagement, locally and globally.

During the 125th Anniversary celebration, Bryn Mawr has continued to commit itself to academic rigor, self-determination, and civic engagement, all of which are part of its Quaker legacy, even if they appear to us to be wholly secular. It has been good for the college that it chose a secular path over a wholly religious one, but given the way modern society often pits secularism against religion, we might do well to keep in mind the influence Quakerism has had on many of Bryn Mawr’s most cherished institutions and practices. This shows us that we do not have to be Quaker to have Quaker-based ideas become an important and valuable part of our identity; and I for one think it is fitting that Bryn Mawr’s year-long celebration should end with a reminder of what this secular institution owes its religious founders.

If you are interested in learning more about Bryn Mawr’s Quaker heritage, check out Eric Pumroy’s Bryn Mawr chapter in Founded by Friends: The Quaker Heritage of Fifteen American Colleges and Universities. Ed. John W. Oliver Jr., Charles L. Cherry, and Caroline L. Cherry. Lanham, MD: Scare House Press, Inc., 2007.


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