The Somerville Literary Society: Empowering Swarthmore Women Since 1871

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

For the first 50 years or so of the College’s existence, the Somerville Literary Society was the extracurricular activity for female students. Founded in 1871 and named after Mary Somerville, a Scottish scientist from the 19th century, the society offered women a social organization with literary and scholastic opportunities. Somerville seems to have had a monopoly on the market for women’s social activities of the time – it preceded the sororities by several decades, and was the only women’s literary society while there were two such societies for men (the Delphic and Eunomian).

According to the 1889 minutes, Somerville held biweekly meetings that included, over the course of the year, 6 debates, 3 readings, 3 lectures, and 2 readings of their magazine, the Phreneskeia. Somerville also performed theater, ranging from Greek comedies to the occasional morality play – such as the “Play of Wyt and Science” of 1908, where students took the roles of “Wyt, Science, Reason, Experyence, Confydence, Honest Recreacion, and Study.” My, how undergraduate theater has changed.

Somerville’s biggest production, however, was Somerville Day, a gathering of current members and alumnae held every April 12th. With theater, lectures, and apparent traditions of “daffodils and strawberry sundaes,” this was a campus event on the level of the Sager Symposium or Worthstock/Kielbasafest.

A Phoenix from 1912 devotes three full pages out of four to Somerville Day, and by 1919, April had a special “Somerville Issue.” Somerville Day did encounter the requisite snarky Phoenix editorials, though. “No man dares to enter the Parrish Hall while the Screamerville meeting is in progress” writes one, and another complains, “Somerville Saturday has degenerated into a celebration of Women’s Rights. It is the one day in the year when the women feel equal to the men.”

Somerville was open to all women who maintained a C average, and early registers reveal some particularly accomplished students. The alumnae list for the class of 1876 includes a “Mary Willits, MD.” It’s probably fair to surmise that she was the first female Swarthmore graduate who went on to become a physician. It’s telling that Willits was 1 of 3 unmarried Somerville alumnae on the list of 14; this was an age when most women had to choose between a career and a family. Alice Paul ’05 was a Somerville member, as was Zaida Udell ’91, to whom I award this week’s McFeely Goodman Award for Most Amazing Name.

Aside: I worked at the Friends Historical Library transcribing various documents this summer, and Quakers have some ridiculous names. My favorites, from John Hunt’s Diary (1812-24) and Chesterfield Monthly Meeting Minutes (1774-82), include Keziah Pharo, Aquila Shinn, Caleb McCumber, Barzilla Coats (female), Barzillai Furman (male), Joseph Justice (Super Quaker!), and Moses Asshead. No joke.

The most lasting effects of Somerville, however, are the Lucretia Mott and Martha Tyson fellowships. In 1894, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy Susan Cunningham invoked the memory of Swarthmore founder and early feminist activist Lucretia Mott to create a fellowship covering a female student’s graduate school expenses. Later, in 1912, Professor Cunningham (now-retired) created a similar fellowship for women entering the field of education, in the name of Martha Tyson, a driving force behind Swarthmore’s founding. The Mott and Tyson Fellowships continue to be awarded to this day, with the same stipulations.

The method of fundraising was especially notable. Cunningham used Vassar’s financial aid model, in which undergraduates, graduates, and faculty contributed $1 each year toward the “Student’s Aid Society,” to create the Mott Fellowship. Starting in 1895, Somerville alumnae each pledged $1.50 annually to pay for a fellowship of $525 per year. As Cunningham described on a Somerville Day speech, “the Society herself could be the principal and the individual members the interest-bearing bonds.” This was at a time when each incoming class was larger than the previous, so the way Cunningham planned it, “as the membership of this society increases, the individual contributions will diminish.” A committee of faculty and Somerville alumnae awarded the fellowship.

This impressively collectivist and very Quakerly fellowship was so successful that Cunningham used the same system to create the Tyson fellowship in 1912. She argued, “By the time of the next Somerville Reunion the Life Members will number nearly one thousand, so that by the payment of $1.00 a year from each Life Member, the Lucretia Mott Fellowship of $525 and a new fellowship of $450 could easily be carried.”

Each year, the Mott Fellow would publish a letter in the Phoenix detailing her graduate experience. Anna Heydt ’12 describes studying classics at the “fe maelstrom” of Radcliffe (funny how puns transcend generations), and taking the occasional class at Harvard, being “the only girl going through the halls in a building with several hundred men.” Caroline Hallowell Smedley ’13 attended medical school at Berkeley and notes the “large proportion” of ten girls in a class of sixty, remarking, “Certainly the majority of the girls in our class are far from masculine—not at all the type commonly thought of as the ‘professional woman.’” Marie Bender ’14 studied math and astronomy at Chicago, and writes that “up to the present time, I have been the only woman to have a report, this year” at the Junior Mathematical Club – on “New or Temporary Stars.”

Somerville gradually disintegrated over the years. A Phoenix editorial as early as 1919 foresaw its demise: “The English classes are small literary societies in themselves; the public speaking department takes charge of dramatics and debate; and the “Phoenix” and “Halcyon” offer literary opportunities. The fraternities are at present the social units, while student government attends to college problems.” The undergraduate literary society faded away first, leaving an alumnae association running Somerville Day and the fellowships. An apologetic 1964 letter to Somerville members reads, “Experience shows that alumnae from 1940 on have little interest in attending or supporting the activities….The undergraduate Somerville Committee, whose sole function is to hostess on Somerville Day, has trouble getting members.”

Today, the Mott and Tyson are awarded and funded by the same process as any other fellowship. I spoke with Melissa Mandos, Fellowships and Prizes Advisor, who says that the Fellowships and Prizes Committee administers the Mott and Tyson along with the other fellowships, using a standardized application. Awards constitute about $5000 per person, collected from the endowment, and are primarily used to fund people going to graduate school for the first time. Last year, 4 women received the Mott Fellowship, for degrees from J.D. to M.Div., and 3 women received the Tyson, for degrees including a Master’s in Library Science and a Master’s in Bilingual Education.

Ultimately, there’s probably isn’t a place on campus today for a behemoth society like Somerville. Still, they leave behind two fellowships, an impressive legacy of scholarship, and an autograph collection including the signatures of Dorothea Dix, Wendell Phillips, Mrs. James K. Polk, and two letters from Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (There are copies in the Friends Library if you’re curious). It’s a little disappointing to find that the Somerville fellowships have lost their unique communal funding, but standardization probably makes more sense in the modern age. Maybe it could be brought back – after all, asking everyone to give $1 sounds more like a Web-based appeal than an innovation from 1895.

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