Investigating Our Past: The History of Clubs at Bryn Mawr

by katrina s. ‘19 and dr. spector-marks '04

In the fall of 2017, the two of us began a research project using copies of the Bryn Mawrtyr to track club history. This work began as part of the broader Bryn Mawr History Project, created by the History Department in the spring of 2017, which aimed to understand how our school culture has changed over time, including how the student body and student interests have shifted and diversified. Clubs are an expression of student interests, and since they have always been listed in the yearbooks, the subject seemed a digestible way to track diversity of interest at Bryn Mawr. Plus, it gave us, two history fanatics, a chance to explore more than a century’s worth of little-known Bryn Mawr history. Our findings blossomed beyond our initial focus on identity to a much larger exploration of the range of student experience over the years once we discovered what a treasure trove the Bryn Mawrtyr provided in relation to club history.  

To be honest, we did not know what we were getting into. We expected the project to take a few months, the first of many we would use to explore the history of Bryn Mawr, not a two-year-long expansive enterprise. We tore into old copies of the Bryn Mawrtyr, provided by Ms. Hruban, the school archivist, not realizing how long it would take to dig through 117 yearbooks. At the end of last year, we had a huge spreadsheet with 319 clubs spanning more than a century of Bryn Mawr’s history.

We realized that our analysis could only be as good as the data we collected, which was based upon the work completed by long-ago yearbook staff members. We realized how important the yearbook is to the school and how challenging it can be to make a book that encompasses an entire school year while still remaining faithful to students’ experience of that year. Based on the data we did have, here are our findings:

The most dramatic change was the rise in the number of clubs over the years. The growth between the 1920s and 1950s reflects what Andrea Hamilton, a historian of Bryn Mawr, refers to as the “country-day” model of schooling in her book Vision for Girls. At Bryn Mawr specifically, this signaled a philosophical move away from the founders’ inflexible academic requirements as well as a geographical move to a new campus in Roland Park, the new “country” suburb. During this time, art, music, and athletics became more important to the school’s pedagogy, resulting in the increased in clubs.

The huge spike in the number of clubs in the 1960s represents a transformative time in the school’s history. This decade saw expanded admissions recruitment, Bryn Mawr’s first African American students, and an emphasis on Bryn Mawr’s engagement with the broader community. The school’s new focus on individual student rights, social responsibility, and “real world” activities was a clear reaction to the nation’s turmoil during this era. All of this combined to make the sixties a time of explosive growth in club activities. As many as 28 clubs were offered in 1965, more than double the number offered in the previous decade.

A sharp break occurred in the 1970s, with a marked decrease in the number of clubs in the yearbooks. By 1976, there were only 10 clubs listed, and not until 1988 did club numbers return to the 1960s’ levels. There are two possible explanations for this: either the yearbooks failed to record all clubs or the number of clubs actually decreased. Most likely, the reality lies in a combination of the two factors. Nationally, the 1970s and early 80s were a time of intense cynicism and apathy, as people reacted to the failures of the 1960s social movements, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s impeachment, attitudes which probably contributed to a decline in school civic engagement.

Since the late 1980s, club participation has grown exponentially. In the 2000s and 2010s, this has led to a vast number of very short-lived clubs, usually with a small membership, which run for 2 to 3 years and then end when the leader(s) graduate. For example, of the 49 clubs in 2010, 7 ran for only one year and 17 ran for 4 or fewer years.  This trend likely reflects the pressure students feel to be leaders on their college applications.

While club numbers have risen relatively steadily through the years since 1902, there have been tremendous fluctuations in the types of clubs offered at Bryn Mawr. This is where we see student interests and diversity come alive. In order to analyze our data, we divided clubs into eight categories, as seen in the provided graphs, using our best judgment to distinguish in which category each club belonged.

The all-school organizations are a perfect representation of both tradition and change at Bryn Mawr. The Student Government Association began in 1907. Early SGA, however, was quite different from what we see now. It originally consisted of two permanent officers and two officers who were chosen alphabetically to serve a term of two weeks. These officers actually governed the student body--they were in charge of monitoring study hall and were empowered to give punishments for uniform violations and other misdemeanors. In the early years of the school, as now, athletics were a popular part of student life. The Athletic Association began in 1911 but had many different roles over time. From the 1930s through the 1960s, refreshments were sold at sports games, creating positions such as “Ice Cream Manager,” “Assistant Manager,” “Coke Manager,” and “Cookie Chairman.” Another organization, the General Appearance Association, inspected students’ uniforms, posture, and general cleanliness. Although the “posture officers” were listed under AA from 1937, in 1950, the General Appearance Association struck out on its own as an all-school organization. Its last year was 1970, likely reflecting the influence of the second wave feminist movement, which deemphasized women’s appearances. Of our current student organizations, Arts Council began in 1992, Community Service Committee (now CSL) in 1998, CAFE in 2008, and Environmental Coalition in 2016. It’s fascinating to consider that while some of our all-school organizations have been around for over a century, others have only existed for a decade or less! It’s hard to imagine Bryn Mawr without the six all-school organizations with which we are so familiar today.

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We expected that at a school like Bryn Mawr, academic and book clubs would be a prominent and consistent category. We were wrong! The first academic clubs were not seen until 1913. They seem to have been least popular in the 1940s and 1950s and the early 1980s. Even within the academic clubs, there are trends that reflect changing student interests. While most of the school’s history reflects primarily literary interests, STEM topics have become prominent in the last decade, with such clubs as Chemathon (2005, 2009-present), Women in Engineering (2008-10), Robotics (2015-present), Biomedical Club (2016-present), and Girls Who Code (2018-present).

While STEM clubs have only recently appeared, a book club existed in 1914, 1934 to 1937, 1967, 1975, 1987-1988, and 2009-2016. Perhaps the relative scarcity of these clubs in a community of book lovers reflects the fact that it is difficult to host a club organized around what is usually a solitary activity. While most academic clubs were relatively short-lived, others lasted longer: The Quill began in 1923 and has run continuously since, It’s Academic has run intermittently since the 1970s, and there has been either a debate team or club for 49 years, intermittently since 1927.

Whereas Bryn Mawr’s academic clubs are less prominent than one might expect, arts clubs have consistently been a central part of Bryn Mawr. Strikingly, Bryn Mawr has never seen a year without an arts club. The popularity of the arts at Bryn Mawr is reflected in the longevity of these clubs: Dramatic Club - 86 years, Glee Club - 56, Mélange - 56, Art Club - 40, Handbells - 33, Cambrian Choir - 23, Camera Club - 22, Stage Club - 21. Types of arts clubs also tended to recur regularly: there was a painting or drawing club in 1907, 1933-1970, 1974, 1982, 1988-89, 1992, 2016-17. The arts have long been a vital part of the balance sought by students.

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Another creative outlet for students is crafting/miscellaneous clubs. We expected to see a far higher number of clubs dedicated to subjects such as knitting in the early years, but this was not the case. Bryn Mawr was founded to be a rigorous academic institution, not a finishing school, and as such, the school made a serious effort not to do anything to undermine the academic intensity of the school. Ironically, traditionally female crafts only appeared very recently: Knitting Club, Crafts Club, Home Ec for the Modern Girl, etc.

This section of clubs also includes miscellaneous clubs that we could not sort into other categories, such as cheerleading, which had a storied history, starting in 1912 and continuing until 1981. This was seen as an activity, not a sport, although it was taken quite seriously by the student body. Technological revolutions are reflected in the inauguration of the Camera Club in 1939, Computer Club in 1986, and a typing club in 1988. Other miscellaneous clubs remain a mystery to us, such as What’s in an Egg?, Glow, or, quite literally, Mystery Club.

CSL/Advocacy clubs changed greatly over time. Early Bryn Mawr was quite interested in community outreach. Reflecting Progressive Era values, in 1912, Bryn Mawr created its own branch of the national Junior League, a volunteer organization focused on improving the living and working conditions of immigrants. These types of clubs continued to exist into the 1920s, but around the time of the Great Depression, they vanished. This was likely due to the school’s transition to the country day model, which occurred in the early 1930s and cut Bryn Mawr off from Baltimore City. The move out to the suburbs was prompted by parental complaints about the school’s proximity to city businesses, cars, trolley lines, and the “Negro invasion’ at the school’s ‘very doors.” By the 1920s, families wanted to insulate their children from the “evils” of the city, including exposure to different classes and races.

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CSL/Advocacy clubs really only made a return to Bryn Mawr in 1980. A club called Cities was founded that year, which aimed to educate students about rent control and welfare programs in Baltimore. From then on, there was steady growth in advocacy clubs, making up around 18% of our current clubs. Current CSL/Advocacy clubs range from animal rights advocacy to environmental activism to fundraising for a range of diseases. At the same time that general advocacy clubs begin to return, there was also a flowering of school-focused advocacy groups. This category included organizations aimed at helping the school as a whole (AA, Ambassadors, Making BMS Better) and clubs interested in student health and well-being (SADD, Coping with Stress, One Love).

While CSL/Advocacy saw an up-and-down pattern, political clubs experienced a more straightforward rise over the years. In the early years of the school, there were almost no political clubs. It was only during the 1960s that they began to appear. This is unsurprising given the national atmosphere of rebellion against the political system during the decade. In 1965, political/international clubs were the second most popular type of club, a rather remarkable feat considering that in 1960, there was not a single political club on campus. The aptly named, and presumably non-partisan, Political Club ran from 1961 to 1968. (In terms of partisan politics, Bryn Mawr has had a Democratic Club in 1965, 2005-2007, 2011, 2013, and 2018-2019 and a Republican Club 2002-2007, 2011-2014, and 2018-2019).

Alongside the political, we grouped clubs with an explicitly international focus. While languages and culture were always of interest, 1962 marked a burgeoning interest in international issues. That was the first year that Model UN was a club at Bryn Mawr and the summer of 1962 inaugurated a new international exchange program under the national American Field Service Committee (AFS continued as a club until 1987 and brought international students from a variety of countries to study at Bryn Mawr for a school year, much as ASSIST does today). The number of political/international clubs decreased after this decade and only began to increase again in the 2000s. The more short-lived clubs included Women of the World and Diplomacy, while others have become staples of the Bryn Mawr community. Princeton Model Congress has run for 22 years, Amnesty International for 23 (not consecutively), AFS for 25 years, and Model UN for 49.

There were no identity clubs at the school in the early days. As “identity politics” is a relatively new construct, we have had to read back into the historical record a concept that did not exist at the time. Even the question of what counts as an identity club is a fraught question. For instance, was Human Sexuality in the 1980s intended to be a coded safe space for LGBTQIA students or a general forum about student sexual health? Was Colores, a “multicultural club focused on hispanic [sic] culture,” an identity club or a language and culture club? There are no right answers, but we have tried to approach the issue with both historical and contemporary empathy.

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The first identity clubs appeared in the early 1940s and were all Christian organizations such as Prayers Committee and Christian Association. Over its 28-year reign, Christian Association became the most popular club in the school’s history. CA often had close to 50 or 60 members, almost the entire Upper School. Prayer was a daily part of the school routine, and most students came from a Christian background. But CA was not just a collection of students reading Bible passages. The club often hosted outside speakers from the Baltimore community to discuss important social topics, as well as the Bible. CA’s reign only ended in 1970, by which point the school was beginning to diversify and religion became less of a mandatory social norm in many communities.

The end of CA was followed by a decade-long gap in identity clubs. When they began to reappear, it was as many of the clubs that we recognize today. Asian Awareness was started in 1987, Black Awareness in 1988, and Jewish Students Association in 1989. This sudden growth likely reflects the fruits of Headmistress Barbara Chase’s recognition of student diversity and engagement with the community. Christian Fellowship ran from 1998 to 2000, was reimagined as Cornerstone from 2001 to 2006, and then came back permanently in 2007. More recently, GSA began as a Gay-Straight Alliance in 2003, Muslim Student Association began in 2009, a Latinx student club ran (under various names) from 2009 to 2010 and 2018 to 2019, and Desi Club started in 2014.

Another interesting thing to note about the identity clubs is the shift in nomenclature. In the 1980s and 1990s, these clubs were intended to build allyship and raise “awareness” within the community, hence the use of terms like awareness, alliance, and association. More recently, many clubs have emphasized their role as affinity spaces, instead, changing their names to Black Student Union (1998) and Asian Student Union (2017), while in 2016, Gay-Straight Alliance became Gender and Sexuality Alliance, reflecting the presence of trans and genderqueer students.

Having worked on this project for two years now, it is hard to believe that it is coming to a close. The time that we have dedicated to the project has felt incredibly worthwhile. Seeing the finished project now, we are incredibly proud to say that we had a part in creating something that will help to educate our student body about different periods at Bryn Mawr. Our school’s history is so much more than just its founding or the snippets of history that we hear on Founder’s Day. We have a long rich tradition as a girls’ school in Baltimore, and we hope that this project teaches more students about parts of our school’s history that they have never explored. Bryn Mawr is constantly evolving as its student body changes, but it is important that we understand where we came from and how the school we attend came to be.