Teaching Modules


Woodrow Wilson and Bryn Mawr

Part II: Primary Source Activity

Matt Cahill and David Polanco doing research at Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, November 2014.

Matt Cahill and David Polanco doing research at Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, November 2014

Students are asked to read Woodrow Wilson’s letter (dated October 20, 1887) and the excerpts from the Bryn Mawr College charter silently to themselves.

When they are finished reading, the teacher will launch into a discussion of the two readings:

  • Who was the audience to each of these documents? Was the audience for the public or private eyes? How does this change the tone of the document?
  • Within the College charter, how does Bryn Mawr view their students? What are the duties of the teachers at Bryn Mawr?
  • What is the overarching goal that Bryn Mawr College has for their female students? Is this view of women during the 1880’s a widespread view? Why or why not?  
  • What is the tone of Wilson’s letter?
  • How does he view his students during his lecture?  
  • Does he see his tenure as an undergrad Professor as a benefit or an annoyance? Why?  
  • How does Wilson’s views of his students contrast with the mission stated by the College? 


  • How do other historians generally view Woodrow Wilson? Or, what is the story that is painted of him?
  • How does this set of documents change your view of the future president?  
  • In our history textbooks how many dimensions are presented of a National figure? 
  • What is the importance of seeing national figures are multidimensional? Why should we care? How does it help us as historians?  

NOTE: if your students are struggling on this question, provide an example that they can understand. For example, the teacher can say that most students only see them as a teacher but they also do a lot of things outside of the class (provide those examples to show the different dimensions).

* * *

Letter from Woodrow Wilson

October 20, 1887     Bryn Mawr

Lecturing to young women of the present generation on the history and principles of politics is about as appropriate and profitable as would be lecturing to stone-masons on the evolution of fashion in dress. There is a painful absenteeism of mind on the part of the audience. Passing through a vacuum, your speech generates no heat. Perhaps it is some of it due to under-graduateism, not all to femininity.

I have devoted myself to a literary life; but I do not see how a literary life can be built up on foundations of undergraduate instruction. That instruction compels one to live with the commonplaces, the A.B.C., of every subject, to dwell upon these with an emphasis and an invention altogether disproportionate to their intrinsic weight and importance: it keeps one on the dusty, century-travelled high roads of every subject, from which one gets no outlooks except those that are catalogued and vulgarized in every guide-book. One gets weary plodding and yet grows habituated to it and finds all excursions aside more and more difficult. What is a fellow to do? How is he to earn bread and at the same time find leisure, and (in the toils of such a routine) disposition of mind for thoughts entirely detached from and elevated high above the topics of his trade?



Excerpts from Charter of The Trustees of Bryn Mawr College

In the admission of Students--other things being equal--preference is to be given to members of the Society of Friends; but in all cases, those should be prefer who are of high moral, & religious attainments, and good examples & influence and such as are most advanced in Education. But if not members of the Society of Friends, all must conform to the customs & rules of the Institution, and be willing to be educated as Friends, who are admitted, or may be.

And I further desire that care should be taken to educate Young Women to fit them to become Teachers of a high order, & thus to extend the good influences of this Institution far & wide through them...

I have been impressed with the need of such a place for the advanced education of our young female Friends, and to have all the advantages of a College education, which are so freely offer to young men. And as at Haverford those wishing to be educated (or willing) as friends. At the same time to be under care & oversight & control, of religious, conscientious, highly cultivated and refined Teachers & care takers, who should be concerned to guard & protect their minds & hearts, from evil or injurious influences, whether as regards morals, habits, associations, or unprofitable reading. So far as is possible the students should be deeply impress that true refinement of mind and of manners are essential to complete the female character; and subjection to our Redeemer can alone perfect this.