Liberating Voices: Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers. By Karyn L. Hollis. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 192 pp. Cloth, $55.00. ISBN 0-8093-2567-5).
Reviewed John Thomas McGuire
The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers has not been entirely ignored in the historical literature, but it usually appears as just part of an overall mosaic of women's labor activities in the 1920s and 1930s. Now Karyn L. Hollis, an associate professor of English at Villanova University, provides an in-depth analysis of how the school helped women workers empower themselves through the use of written compositions and theatrical plays. The result is a valuable contribution to the historiography of working-class agency in the United States during the twentieth century.
The Summer School was established in 1921, using Bryn Mawr teachers as its faculty and bringing in female workers from all over the United States, including African Americans, to attend the short sessions of classes. In 1938, the Bryn Mawr Board of Trustees withdrew its support of the Summer School, fearing that demands by the working-class students to include a Marxist on the faculty threatened to affiliate the school with the political left. The Summer School continued until 1954, albeit as a coeducational, private effort.
Hollis views the Summer School as a means by which working-class women could use a "materialist pedagogy" to reflect on their experiences and to initiate changes. By offering opportunities for self-expression through autobiographical writings, theatre productions, and poetry, the school allowed its working-class students to adopt a rhetoric, thus textualizing "their arduous material conditions--the low wages, the stifling factory floor, the disrupted family life." (p. 2)
The great strength of Hollis's book lies in her inclusion of the workers' own writings and her analysis of these writings. She presents poetry that displays a witty, poignant reflection of their lives. We find here, for example, a particularly amusing poem by a worker, Fay Koenigsberg, entitled "A Boss Hiring A Private Secretary." Using blank verse, the worker demonstrates the callous attitude of corporate executives as they question applicants for secretarial positions. "Do you know, Miss Blank, how to write advertisements?/Do you know correspondence, book-keeping, and three foreign languages?" The poem concludes, "And hope that you are satisfied,/If not, there are others." (p. 147) Another poem, "A Mother's Misery," further demonstrates the oppressive effects of work on a working-class mother desperate to help her family. "Stitch twice and then turn under./Baby feeling better? Wonder-/Two long seams; now stitch again/Call the doctor: Yes but then--." (p. 162)
Through such examples, Hollis reveals how the working-class students seized upon their creative writing opportunities to demonstrate both the difficulties of their lives and the resiliency needed to cope with those difficulties. At the same time, she explains how the workers' autobiographical writings moved from descriptions of their lives to realizations of an overall class consciousness, from a relatively powerless "I" to a more active "we."
Hollis also provides important context for the activities of the Summer School. As she notes in the introduction, progressive activities did not entirely die in the 1920s. Although the decade witnessed a resurgent conservatism, particularly on the national level, many people in the United States struggled to continue the Progressive Era's reformist impulses. The succeeding decade, moreover, made the efforts of the Summer School more relevant, as the school's student body used theatre productions to dramatize the effects of the Great Depression and to demonstrate the New Deal's efforts to alleviate the decade's economic misery. The author also notes how pedagogic influences of the era, particularly the new emphasis on expressionist writing and John Dewey's stress on character improvement, influenced the Summer School's educational efforts.
The book also takes note of two important issues: the cross-class influences of the Summer School, and the nascent feminism of the workers' writings. Hollis elucidates how the school's education went in two directions; faculty were influenced by their working-class students and gradually de-emphasized their middle-class perspectives.
While Liberating Voices presents a strong, comprehensive analysis of the Bryn Mawr Summer School, four minor weaknesses do appear. First, Hollis's definition of "materialist pedagogy" is initially vague in the introduction, although the definition becomes clearer in the first two chapters. Second, a discussion of the workers' post-Summer School activities would have strengthened Hollis's argument about the changes in workers' self-awareness. Third, Hollis does not prove her claim that the Summer School students unconsciously rejected patriarchal power. For example, her contrasting of Henry Ford's pro-business ideology with the Summer School students' poetry only demonstrates the workers' general anger at industrial capitalism, not the nascent feminism she suggests. (pp. 130-34) Finally, the New York City shirtwaist makers' strike -- known as the Uprising of 1909-1910 -- occurred before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (p. 13), and the fire took place in 1911, not 1912. (p. 165) These flaws, however, do not detract from the overall strength of Hollis's book, which provides a significant analysis of how the Bryn Mawr Summer School sparked women workers' self-realization in the 1920s and 1930s.
McGuire teaches at the State University of New York at Cortland. The
recipient of grants from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute,
the North Caroliniana Society, and the State of Iowa Historical Society,
he has published articles and reviews in American Jewish History,
The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Labor History, Left
History, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies,
and The Hudson Valley Regional Review. He is currently revising
his dissertation, a study of women reformers in New York during the
1920s, for publication.
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