A Haverford Woman’s Perspective on Bryn Mawr, the Bi-Co, and Gender

I should preface this article by saying that my mother went to Bryn Mawr, my god-mother went to Bryn Mawr, her daughter went to Bryn Mawr, and many of my mother’s best friends went to Bryn Mawr. I grew up hearing stories about the many great times had at Bryn Mawr (as well as Haverford) and it played into my desire to go to Haverford and take advantage of the Bi-Co. I do love the Bryn Mawr and Haverford from my mother’s stories, but our realities of the Bi-Co relationship are very different. Haverford’s co-ed shift drastically changed the relationship between the institutions in ways we have not fully come to terms with, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Haverford and Bryn Mawr women.

Much of the rhetoric I’ve heard around why Haverford became co-ed so late is that there wasn’t a strong push to admit women because of the Bi-Co. The symbiotic relationship between Haverford and Bryn Mawr quelled most of the animosity that would have existed if there hadn’t been women in and around Haverford. From what I’ve heard from my mother’s generation, once Haverford became co-ed there was a shift in the “type” of women who went to Bryn Mawr because the women who used to go to Bryn Mawr started going to Haverford. This was the first in a long line of statements I would hear about the “differences” between Bi-Co women, the effect of which was often to boost Haverford women by putting down Mawrters.

This encompasses sentiments from the nasty, “Date Haverford women, F*ck Bryn Mawr women,” to the biased, “Take that class at Bryn Mawr because it’s so much easier over there”, to the unimaginative, “What is a Bryn Mawr?”. I’ve heard these sentiments expressed by both men and women at Haverford. The older generations–my mother’s specifically–have said things along those lines and passed them down. I may not agree with these statements, but I think it is important to put into words that these are the comments that have been thrown around, very casually I might add. They perpetuate an environment that is hostile for women at both institutions, have made me personally uncomfortable in conversations about women and women-oriented spaces, and are just damn mean.

Conversations about value judgements on hook-ups or longer term romantic relationships at both institutions are particularly fraught. Some Haverford men I have come across have almost boastfully implied that they could get women at either college, increasing unnecessary tension to the supply and demand problem of hetero-relations at a consortium where women frequently outnumber men. The fact that Haverford men say these things to Haverford women, in what I think, is the hope to make themselves appear as a hot commodity (intentionally or subconsciously) creates a pseudo-competitive environment for Bi-Co women. Haverford men are not alone in instilling this mentality, but I do believe that many of the social divisions between Bryn Mawr and Haverford women stem from the issue of the male gaze, which is truly unfortunate.

Although this often begins with comments made by men, women also perpetuate it. I’ve seen this manifested by Haverford women questioning why Bryn Mawr women are in their classes, why they take up all the available men, and why they need to have so many traditions. I’ve seen sneers, jeers, and groans by Haverford women when the Blue Bus from Bryn Mawr comes rolling in on a Friday night to party in Lunt or Gummere. This, in turn, has the unfortunate consequence of Mawrters internalizing that questioning and becoming resentful of Haverford women.

These feelings did not come from nothing. Small acts and comments have built up in my psyche over time and have enforced an idea that I am better than a typical Mawrter, a statement which is obviously untrue. In my experience, we did not come into the Bi-Co knowing how to value women at either institution. We all learned this behavior. Thus a vicious cycle quietly and slowly continues, to the detriment of both groups of women.

These qualitative judgements are so unhealthy for the women in both colleges. Why does there need to be a hierarchy? And where does our sense that one exists come from? Is it hetero-Haverford women compensating to get the attention of hetero-Haverford men? Is it a lack of understanding what a women’s college is and the purpose it serves? These are questions I don’t completely understand, nor have the answer to, but I think Haverford women have an obligation to reflect on these questions, examine their values, and determine where are these values coming from.

Madeline Albright’s recent statement that, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” was in bad taste and form, especially to my millennial ears. But, the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it by young women goes to show how much the conversation has shifted away from second wave, women against men feminism to the feminism of ‘inclusivity of all’ and ‘social relationships transcending the bounds of gender’. I think it is paradoxical to have a mentality that reduces Haverford and Bryn Mawr women to stereotypes while also saying that a candidate’s gender won’t factor into your vote. We can take Albright’s sentiment and reinterpret it to a reality we know has much more intersectionality and is much more complicated than the feminism of her era allowed.

Gender is a social construct, but still has very tangible ramifications on this campus and in the Bi-Co. As women who face the same gender constraints that Bryn Mawr women do, why is our first impulse to insult or compete with these women and perpetuate a weird quasi-caste system that has no basis in reality?

Hopefully this article will enlighten people of a problem they didn’t know exists or ask new questions of people or instill some sort of reaction. Whatever your response to this article is, a conversation does need to start (or continue) about the role Bi-Co women, and women in general, have to play into each other’s lives. Differences should not stem from an institution first or primarily. I should not have someone’s opinion of me completely colored by the fact that I went to Bryn Mawr or Haverford. It is one of many factors that play into a complex makeup of an identity. We need to stop reducing women’s complex identities to the school they attend. Equality within genders is as important as equality between genders.

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9 Responses

  1. Hannah Frank says:

    great essay. Thank you for writing

  2. astrophoenix says:

    This is very well articulated.

  3. Katherine Bakke says:

    Thank you for writing this piece. I am a BMC alum (Class of 2011) and the peculiar, hetero-competitive atmosphere you describe colored my time within the BiCo. I remember sitting on the Blue Bus and overhearing two HC students say, “The only reason ‘they’ go to BMC is because ‘they’ couldn’t get into Haverford,” a sentiment I found insulting for many reasons, one of the most obvious being that I never even applied for admission to HC in the first place. I ended up majoring in religion at Haverford, and can (thankfully, gratefully) say that I was always respected by the faculty and students within the department. The BiCo offered a wonderfully rich academic environment for me, but it never provided a socially-supportive space for me as a Bryn Mawr woman. I hope your article sparks productive conversation on both campuses and improves the overall BiCo culture. Thank you again for your thoughtful commentary.

  4. Marie says:

    Great essay, reminds me of how the Haverford Ultimate Frisbee captain told me as a BMC freshman that recruiting from Bryn Mawr would be a waste of time.

  5. Interrupting Cow says:

    Thank you for putting this out there. As a student at BMC, I recall being excited to build friendships at Haverford, and being constantly confused as to why I encountered animosity or apathy at every social event. I always felt the loss of those opportunities, especially because I never heard a single stereotype about Ford women at Bryn Mawr — aside from “they hate us” and “they think we’re all lesbians who want to steal their men.” I had no idea why there was this ethos of negativity entirely on one side of the divide.

    Bryn Mawr held some of the most brilliant and impressive minds I’ve ever encountered, now over 15 years from graduation, so the idea that Mawrters are less intelligent seems especially ludicrous. You are so right, the whole thing is a strange, learned behavior that smacks of male gaze competition. I hope this triggers conversations that end the weird, baseless, and counterproductive whispers that stopped so many friendships before they started.

  6. Rebecca Budd Emmons says:

    I never was much into the party scene on either campus; I searched for dates and male companionship at my church, which was located in West Philly, so I didn’t ever wade into that potential “shark pool” at Haverford. My impressions from 15 years ago, were that I was more likely to see Mawrters in their pajamas in morning classes, because they weren’t trying to impress potential male dates. It also seemed, in the classes I took at HC, that the Haverford women were less inclined to jump into class discussions or stick their necks out as much. Certainly, that’s a generalization; but the Ford women seemed quieter in some ways than the Mawrters. I chalked it up to being in a co-ed environment, though it might just have been the herd mentality so many people carry over from public school: the notion that looking too smart makes you a target for sneers and mockery. However, perhaps it was just their personality, to not be overall as aggressive in academic settings? And then the question becomes, does a certain type of personality prefer one campus culture over another, and does that reinforce stereotypes? I can’t say I did a study of it – I attended one class a semester at HC, but was still rather focused on my own intellectual development.

    I’d never favored one college or university above another; only when I read the BMC brochure my junior year of high school did I know in my gut that “THAT was the school for me!” And I waited two years between high school graduation and matriculating at BMC, so I was dead certain of where I was going and what I planned to do while I was there. Which focus might have meant I noticed and experienced different interpersonal dynamics than many of my peers did.

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