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History and Legacies Overview

Established in 1885, Bryn Mawr was founded to offer a more rigorous education than any then available to women. Like many projects of late 19th-century Progressive thinkers, this bold vision embodied emancipatory potential and deep contradictions. 

The College's principal architect was the College’s first dean and second president, M. Carey Thomas, who became an influential national advocate for women’s advancement. Like some who were part of the Progressive Movement, however, Thomas embraced and contributed to the eugenics movement, and her vision for Bryn Mawr and for women excluded African Americans and reflected ethnic and anti-Semitic bias. The College continues to grapple with this complex legacy and the harms that resulted, and has made advancing equity and inclusion central to its mission and its vision of institutional excellence.  

From its founding, Bryn Mawr has prized superb teaching and research. The College offered undergraduate and graduate degrees from the outset, and was the first women’s college to offer the Ph.D. Bryn Mawr’s undergraduate and graduate programs became widely viewed as models of academic excellence, helping to elevate higher education standards nationwide.

While the College has been non-denominational for most of its history, Bryn Mawr was founded by members of the Religious Society of Friends (“Quakers”). Its Quaker legacy can be traced in the costly, principled stands President Katherine McBride took on behalf of freedom of belief and conscience during the McCarthy era and again in the late 1950s and during the Vietnam War, at times costing the College government financial aid funds. The College’s commitment to social justice has also found myriad forms of expression on campus, including in the 1914 founding of its Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, one of the first in the United States, and the deep engagement of many current students in community service and with social justice issues. 

Respect for students’ capacity to direct their own lives has always been an integral part of Bryn Mawr, which was the first college in the country to approve a student self-government association (1891). For more than 125 years, students have taken a large measure of responsibility for managing residential life and upholding standards of academic integrity through the College’s Honor Code, which many alumnae/i describe as a lifelong touchstone for professional and personal integrity.

The traditions of high expectations, academic excellence, civic engagement, and ethical commitment remain at the core of Bryn Mawr’s identity, expressed today through innovative academic programs and approaches to learning and among students and alumnae/i who pursue lives of purpose in all fields of endeavor. Bryn Mawr graduates include Emily Balch 1889, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946; Ume Tsuda 1894, founder of the first women’s college in Japan; Enid Cook ’31, a distinguished microbiologist and the first African American graduate of Bryn Mawr; seven recipients of MacArthur Fellowships; the first women presidents of the University of Chicago and Harvard University; recipients of Pulitzer Prizes; members of the National Academies of Science; one of Forbes Magazine’s ten most powerful women in the world; and many leaders in business, government, and nonprofit organizations.