The Women of Summer (1986)

The Women of Summer (1986) Historian Rita Heller, in this multiple-award-winning documentary, provides extraordinarily significant insights into the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Working Women, 1921-1938. This Philadelphia Main Line women’s college seemed an unlikely locale for a radical experiment: recruiting union and non-union working women for a Bryn Mawr summer session. Jane Smith, the head of this summer program, was a sensitive educator and a fierce warrior who guided this program for nearly two decades.

Some of the working women came straight from factory sweat shops; others were labor organizers. In 1926 the first African-American women, not without administration concern, joined the summer session. There were two core courses, English and economics, with 100 students split into deliberately diverse groups of 20. An innovative summer faculty engaged in role playing and exploration. Poetry and nature, frank and easy interchange between faculty and students, and coffee klatches provided a remarkable education to these prospective change agents. The underlying motto was : “If you want to do it, let’s see you do it.”

With some frequency, both professors and students were branded “agitators.” This occurred first during the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution. Less than a decade later, trustees reacted strongly against faculty/student involvement in the Seabrook Farm strike. Notable reformers, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, and Harold Lasky, came to conduct weekly discussion seminars. Mrs. Roosevelt, as First Lady, relied on Jane Smith in expanding adult women’s education through the country.

During the Great Depression funding from foundations and wealthy businessmen slackened. Eventually, the summer program was terminated in 1938. This film records the reunion of the summer sessions’ alumnae. Some of them returned to the factory work place, while others were able to pursue higher education. Clearly, many of them made a significant difference in the women’s movement, especially in labor organizing.

 

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