To those in the Bryn Mawr community, the story of the school’s founding is a familiar one: in the late 1800s, five young women banded together to create a college preparatory school for girls. At a time when women were largely considered incapable of undertaking the kind of rigorous study the founders envisioned, this was a radical idea. But thanks to their vision and perseverance, The Bryn Mawr School was created, and continues to offer an exceptional educational to girls today.

This story is true. However, like any other story, there are nuances and complications beyond the surface of this well-known narrative. And, like any institution, Bryn Mawr has evolved and changed over the course of its 133-year history. Today, Bryn Mawr is proud to be a diverse community dedicated to social justice, equality and inclusion. However, the history that has led Bryn Mawr to where it is has not always matched the standards to which we now aspire.

Last year, students raised questions and concerns about the ways in which the societal views of some of our founders on the topics of race, religion and what kinds of girls were worth educating conflicted with what Bryn Mawr stands for today. These questions led to an opportunity: the creation of an ongoing project between students and faculty to research, and in some ways, retell, the story of Bryn Mawr.
Banner photo: The Class of 1962 displays college banners. The first African-American student graduated five years later, in 1968.

Below: The Class of 2017 in their college shirts. Fifty years later, Bryn Mawr is proud to have 38 percent diversity in the student body.
Dr. Kim Long Riley ’79 is the chair of the Upper School History Department, which is leading the project. As an alumna, she feels a deep a connection to the idea that Bryn Mawr was a place built for women. But, she acknowledges, the story of Bryn Mawr is not told in a way that explains how the school evolved from the time of its founding. Riley sees the last 50 years of history as being especially pivotal to this story. “We’ve reached a point where we can look back and see what it looked like from when the very first African-American student, Erselle Datcher, graduated in 1968 to 2017, when we have 38 percent diversity, and see how we got here,” Riley says. “We need to find a way to retell the Bryn Mawr story so that it resonates with every girl, because it’s a powerful part of what education at Bryn Mawr is.”

Together with her colleagues – Karen Cullen, Dr. Irina Spector-Marks ’04 and Dr. Kevin Yeager, as well as librarians Claire Hruban and Patti Rickert-Wilbur – Riley is working with students to delve into the school’s history, especially that of the last 50 years. Riley is energized by how excited students have been to join the project. “They are such Bryn Mawr girls,” she says, laughing. “They are so engaged and interested in seeing how to give more dimension to a story [about the founders] that to them was very flat. There is a lot of interest in seeing when the different ways in which the school has transformed started to happen.”

Katrina Salmon '19 is one of the students involved in the project. As a self-described lover of history, Salmon decided to volunteer for the project in the hopes of learning more about the school, and helping future Bryn Mawr students. "As a young Bryn Mawr student, I remember hearing an almost mythical story about the founding of the school," she says. "Since then, new information about the founders has come to light, and this information needs to be presented to all divisions in a way that allows each student to understand the reality of the founding, while still giving room for students to celebrate the wonderful accomplishment of the founders in creating Bryn Mawr."

The faculty group's work began over the summer, when, thanks to one of Bryn Mawr's Innovation Grants, they were able to begin compiling material and information about the founders and the school's history. In addition to examining these historical documents, which were pulled from Bryn Mawr’s archives as well as other sources, students will be conducting oral history interviews with alumnae to collect their thoughts on the different experiences students had at Bryn Mawr over the years. The project draws inspiration from what other institutions with complicated pasts have done to bring their full stories to light. Already, Riley says, the History Department has collected and reviewed a wealth of material relating to the founders’ lives as well as to what she calls the different “eras” of the school. The process is demanding, but worthwhile. “Our history is interesting in the sense of being part of a reflection of change in society and also a reflection of our desire to model change in society,” Riley reflects. “It’s important, and we ought to tell that story.”

If you are an alumna interested in being interviewed for the project, please contact Dr. Kim Long Riley ’79 at rileyk@brynmawrschool.org.
“We need to find a way to retell the Bryn Mawr story so that it resonates with every girl, because it’s a powerful part of what education at Bryn Mawr is.”

- Dr. Kim Long Riley '79, History Department Chair
Located in Baltimore, Maryland, The Bryn Mawr School is a private all-girls kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school with a coed preschool for ages 2 months through 5 years. Bryn Mawr provides students with exceptional educational opportunities on a beautiful 26-acre campus within the city limits. Inquisitive girls, excellent teaching, strong student-teacher relationships and a clear mission sustain our vibrant school community where girls always come first.