Liberating Voices (Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series): Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers / Edition 3

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During the 1920s and 1930s at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, working-class women were educated in the liberal arts and instructed in writing to assume more powerful roles in the industrial workplace. In Liberating Voices: Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, Karyn L. Hollis tells the remarkable story of how this multiclass, multiethnic American institution rooted in composition pedagogy, literary history, and leftist thought emerged from the broad social, economic, and ideological trends of the era. The summer school curriculum, Hollis shows, enhanced the individual and collective self-confidence of the 1,800 women who studied there between 1921 and 1938.

Drawing heavily on the women’s writings—including autobiography, poetry, labor drama, humor, and economic reporting—Liberating Voices adds significantly to the small oeuvre of published writing by working-class women, who were, in this case, mostly nontraditional students, immigrants, and minorities. Outlining a materialist pedagogy that centers on the women’s daily economic struggles as well as their family and community experiences, Hollis reveals the tensions that stemmed from differences in race, ethnicity, class, and religion. She also shows how the students exploited cultural scripts and drew strength from their diversity, eventually insisting on a democratic sharing of power with faculty and administrators at the Summer School.


Hollis provides a thorough ethnography of the Summer School with respect to its place in the social and political history of the 1920s and 1930s, and then situates the school’s pedagogy within the history of American education and composition instruction. Concepts from literary criticism and composition theory provide the framework for an analysis of the working women’s autobiographical writing, revealing how the narrative voice of their prose grew from weak and individualized to empowered and collective as the women described their families, childhood, work, unions, and education over time. The volume is complemented by sixteen illustrations.

Additional analysis of the women’s poetry points to their skill as both producers and consumers of literature. The common theme of body versus a powerful machine in the workplace bears witness to the industrial exploitation the women endured. Taking up postmodern questions of agency and voice, Hollis argues that the women used a variety of cultural texts to construct discourses that reflected their needs and desires. Liberating Voices not only provides a previously untold chapter in the history of American worker education, it also showcases a liberating pedagogy that has salient implications for contemporary classrooms.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Liberating Voices makes an excellent contribution to educational history in general and composition history in particular.  Karyn L. Hollis provides a detailed examination of the curricula at Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers and the forces that helped to shape it.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how writing and education have motivated social change and social critique in other times.”—Susan Kates, author of Activist Rhetorics and American Higher Education, 1885–1937
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809325672
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Series: Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Karyn L. Hollis is an associate professor of English at Villanova University where she directs the Concentration in Rhetoric and Writing.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Feminisms, Rhetorics, and Materialisms at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers 1
1 The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers 10
2 Composition Instruction, Labor Education, and Bryn Mawr Materialist Writing Pedagogy 33
3 Liberating Voices: Autobiography at the Summer School 61
4 Material Texts: Labor Drama at the Bryn Mawr Summer School 93
5 Women Workers and Literary Discourse: Transgressive Reading and Writing 117
6 Material of Desire: Bodily Rhetoric in Working Women's Poetry 151
Afterword: Questions of Agency and Voice 166
Notes 173
Works Cited 177
Index 187
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