Campus Life for Students in the College of Liberal Arts for Women

The first class of 11 students graduated in 1934. During Women’s History month, we take a photo look back at what life was like for these pioneers and the hundreds of others who followed.

Monday, March 11, 2024

By Michele Berger
Photos Courtesy of University Archives

In April 1933, Penn’s “Bureau of Publicity” announced plans from University President Thomas S. Gates and the trustees to open a new College of Liberal Arts for Women in July of that year. The college would establish a four-year curriculum in arts and sciences, equal to what was then “offered to men in the College of the University.”

Penn Back Then

Penn Back Then is an oral history project begun in May 2005 by Penn Arts & Sciences. Alums from all decades can contribute their notable anecdotes and remembrances to this audio scrapbook. Click here to listen to nine from College of Liberal Arts for Women graduates.

Classes for these new students would take place mostly at Bennett Hall, which would also house the Bennett Club—the women’s student union—a soda fountain, a ping pong table, a record player and typewriter, even showers and an ironing board for commuters.

Just a year later, in 1934, the College of Liberal Arts for Women graduated its first class, the 11 students having “satisfied the minimum residence requirements of one year, after transferring from other colleges or other departments of the University.” Nine received a Bachelor of Arts degree, two a Bachelor of Science in Biology.

Hundreds more would graduate from the College of Liberal Arts for Women before it was absorbed into what is today Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. During Women’s History Month, we take a photo look back at campus and academic life for these pioneers.

The majority of classes for students in the College for Women were conducted in Bennett Hall, likely seen here (top) around 1945. Soon after it began, the college expanded its offerings, adding economics courses in March 1934, for example, to teach “women who face the problems of acquiring and managing property in its varied forms,” according to a special report in The Christian Science Monitor that year. Journalism classes—in news writing, publicity, reporting, editorial and feature writing, and editing—followed.

Bennett Union, run by an executive committee of students and a student director, occupied the fourth floor of Bennett Hall. Flyers dubbed it a “favorite drop-in spot.” In addition to the table tennis and the soda fountain—open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and serving “soup, sandwiches, candy … as well as the indispensables, coke and coffee”—the union offered College of Liberal Arts for Women students a place to study and hang out.

Snapshots of campus life, including rowers and coaches on the Schuylkill River (bottom left), with the Philadelphia Art Museum in the background, on the first day women were allowed to row crew. The scrapbook page (top left) details the results of the race for Freshman Class President for what appears to be the class of 1954.

On June 20, 1934, the College of Liberal Arts for Women graduated its inaugural 11 students, seen here. “As the first graduating class of the newest of the University schools,” Dean Merle Middleton Odgers wrote to Publicity Manager Henry Herbert that year, “this group ought to have some news interest.” Five of the 11 students came from Philadelphia, with the farthest—one Mary Ann Fees—hailing from some 300 miles away in Kane, Pennsylvania.