Harry Sayen (00:00):
And this is Harry Sayen with the second half of Sayen from Scanticon live at the fireside lounge, and our guest for the upcoming 30 minutes is Rita Heller producer of a fascinating, I think it was 57 minutes film documentary titled "The Women of Summer." Rita, welcome.
Rita Heller (00:16):
Nice to be here this morning.
Harry Sayen (00:18):
Uh, have you always been interested in film work? That's something back in your childhood days, you were--
Rita Heller (00:25):
The best way to answer that is that I became increasingly fascinated by the process, um, in doctoral work and particularly going to historians meetings and becoming aware of the fact that the national endowment for the humanities was, um, furthering the possibility of historians and film people of working together in their media program.
Harry Sayen (00:44):
When you say your doctoral work? What were you taking a PhD for?
Rita Heller (00:48):
Uh, yes. I just completed a PhD at Rutgers University, uh, in American history.
Harry Sayen (00:54):
And you're going to teach, uh, history eventually, you think?
Rita Heller (00:57):
Well, uh, I would love to teach history, but, um, it's well known that there are lots of people who'd love to teach history and not--no university positions who want to hire them. So, uh, at the moment the prospects for university employment are not what all of us, uh, eager and--
Rita Heller (01:16):
Harry Sayen (01:17):
--a different level of teaching?
Rita Heller (01:20):
Well, at the moment, I think I'm, I have an aptitude and an interest for administrative positions that would tap my--this experience.
Harry Sayen (01:28):
How did land on this, uh, particular, uh, subject, uh, women in summer, which is about the, um, uh, well, I'll let you describe it.
Rita Heller (01:37):
Right. Well, it's the end result of a long and fascinating odyssey that started again when I started--[cross-talk]--I'll start at the beginning. Yes. When I started graduate school at Rutgers, um, by coincidence Rutgers had a set of archives because records labor center had been a, um, a successor school to the labor education centers that had been run at widely diversified universities and colleges in the twenties, thirties, and forties. And because the, the coincidence was that.
Harry Sayen (02:16):
It wasn't just at Bryn Mawr then?
Rita Heller (02:17):
No, no. However, Bryn Mawr, um, was the flagship program and was the most influential of the programs. Um, and because records had--it was--the coincidence was that, uh, Rutgers had the, had the papers, but I, uh, and one of the sets of papers was the Bryn Mawr Summer School papers. And of course I had been a college undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. Um, and the fascinating fact, and the really extraordinary fact was that in all of my days at Bryn Mawr in the fifties, and I know this experience was matched by people in the sixties, none of us had ever heard a passing allusion to, or seen a yellow to sepia photograph, um, bearing testimony to the prior existence of this extraordinary sister institution.
Rita Heller (02:58):
And so that, um, I had had the experience of coming across a really a buried treasure and, and the, and there was a particular charge and fascination to this fact that that generations of Bryn Mawr undergraduates had no idea that, um, so extraordinary, so fascinating. And so influential, and courageous a, um, exploration into social reform had gone on at the college.
Harry Sayen (03:23):
Right. Well, this was a summer school for working women, um, between the years 1921 and 1938, and that's 17 years. And after looking at your documentary, it's very obvious that, um, wonderful, wonderful things were done during this period. Uh, how did it start? What was the, uh, genesis, um, uh, not of your project, but of the summer school itself?
Rita Heller (03:52):
Yes, it's a complex and wonderful evolutionary process. And I think one should start the story, um, by mentioning and the greatest name recognition would be well, Jane Addams settlement houses. That's certainly the tradition that the summer school built on. Uh, it builds on progressive, uh, social reform most, um, notably recognized in the end and most generally known through the settlement houses, but that was just one impulse. Um, the second element and the second component in the process is, uh, were the activities and interests of, um, probably the most influential educator, feminist educator in our history. And I'm saying this perhaps out of more than a bit of pride and chauvinism in Bryn Mawr's history, uh, and that's M. Carey Thomas, who of course, had been the president for 35 years. And she was an extraordinary innovator, a giant among, um, educational leaders and among feminists.
Rita Heller (04:53):
And we're only beginning to appreciate her role as the biographies, the comprehensive biographies are written being written as we speak. And it was a question of a surge of creative genius on her part based on a number of experiences she had had, um, notably her, um, personal acquaintance with workers programs in England, um, and in a word she returned from England and decided that within four months a summer school for blue collar women, that is women who had generally not gone beyond the eighth grade would be opened on her campus. And again, it was this bold and courageous act, which took fruit very promptly and very quickly.
Harry Sayen (05:37):
She was probably lucky in getting good people to teach at that school too. Isn't there a woman by the name of Esther Peterson? Do I remember the name correctly who was particularly good in carrying out the program, who's still alive today?
Rita Heller (05:49):
Yes. Well, Esther Peterson of course is very much alive and still travels the world and her, her latest cause is international consumerism, uh, and again, I would say that she would be the closest thing to a household name in our project, because she has had a most distinguished career as a, um, a consumer advocate, a women's advocate, a labor advocate. But actually if--I'd like to backtrack for a moment, because she's the protege of, um, the woman who deserves credit as the steward--in my writing, I described the process is twofold as M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr's president, as providing the imprimatur, and Hilda Jane Worthington Smith's class of 1910 as, um, being the steward. And of course she, um, Thomas could not have been luckier in her choice of steward for the program. Hilda Worthington Smith was yearning to break out of the confines of, of educating daughters of the middle class. She was a Dean at Bryn Mawr College and unsatisfied with it because she had also had training in social work and had been brought up in that [inaudible], uh, exciting era of, of the settlement houses. And so had her Bryn Mawr education, uh, and also her social work education and her innate desire to reach out to those in need.
Harry Sayen (07:07):
Well, you're talking to, uh, at least to initiate a program like this, a great deal of money, because you're not going to get any money in, uh, from, from the, from blue collar workers, uh, uh, to underwrite, uh, this, uh, what it's about probably a two month experience, uh, at the, at the, at Bryn Mawr, which is one of the more costlier, uh, uni- uh-colleges. Uh, so how did they get monies to, uh, start this dream?
Rita Heller (07:33):
Right, exactly. And I'm really glad you asked that question because, um, obviously utopian schemes like this can't get off for a space without money. Well, it's a wonderful story. And, um, it also resonates with our own experience about, you know, funding the project to recreate it. Um, and I'll get to that in a moment, but, um, it's a fascinating footnote to the whole story or a footnote or a major theme, and, it surprises everyone it's certainly always picked up by any movie review that's written about it that actually the primary money for this, the single largest sums came from Mr. And Mrs. John D. Rockefeller. Um, but it was, it was funded in large part by America's most famous capitalists of the period. And again, the appeal was, and this, you know, again, I I've explored it at greater length and we'll explore greater length in the, in my writing and progress. Um, it [laughs] was the manner in which the, the leadership appealed to their best instincts and presented it primarily as a program in education. And we know of course, uh, it was more complex than that, it was a program in education, but it also, it was an experience in politicization too. But it was always presented exclusively as it--always, they always appeal to their, their better instincts and to their consciences and to their wish--and to the American dream based on it--
Harry Sayen (08:57):
Well, had Mrs. Rockefeller gone to Bryn Mawr was that, uh--
Rita Heller (09:00):
As far as I know, not, um--
Harry Sayen (09:03):
I just wondered how they chose her?--
Rita Heller (09:05):
Harry Sayen (09:05):
--was she, was she a feminist? I've never heard that in the Rockefeller family before, but that--
Rita Heller (09:12):
I wish I knew the precise answer to that question. I believe that that, um, the network of Bryn Mawr leadership that went around gathering the money, simply were aware of where the money was in America. Although this is not to say that there isn't Rockefeller Hall, in Bryn Mawr college. Um, and we certainly have hoped to appeal to the successors, to the Rockefeller foundation, the various foundations, um--
Harry Sayen (09:35):
Well, whatever they got money--they got the money and, uh--
Rita Heller (09:38):
Yes, they got the money. And, but, but ironically and interestingly, um, it was funded primarily not exclusively, but primarily by capitalist funds based on an appeal for education for all.
Harry Sayen (09:49):
So it didn't come from union bonds and that type of thing--
Rita Heller (09:51):
Uh, in, um, symbolic amounts because unions were struggling and in debt. So yes, yes, there was something of a coalition of interests, but we could not have functioned without the lion share--
Harry Sayen (10:04):
--the reason I mention that is I find it so fascinating of unions and capitalists getting together for this particular project, which we'll go into right after this one minute break.
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Harry Sayen (11:10):
We're talking with Rita Heller and, uh, about her documentary on, uh, a summer program that the Bryn Mawr College did from 1921 to 1938, a very successful program in educating blue collar workers. And I guess it was absolutely a first of its kind and on a mass scale like this. How many, uh, how did they choose the, uh, uh, people to come to the school? That's--I find it fascinating how they would--where would they go? Just any old factory somewhere? How did it work?
Rita Heller (11:44):
Well, it was a mini recruitment system, um, not too different from a collegiate recruitment system for applicants. Um, and it, uh, utilized the talents of the old girl network of Bryn Mawr across the country. Um, and basically if you're going to get down to, to document to a single example, you could say that alumni in a Montclair would, um, be organized to recruit in the factories, let's say at Patterson--
Harry Sayen (12:12):
--Oh, yea, the steel factories at Patterson--
Rita Heller (12:15):
--Something of that sort. So it depended very much on, let's say the proximity of a well-to-do community that would be more likely to have, Bryn Mawr graduates and, a Bryn Mawr club, um, going to a nearby industrial town. And, um, but it was, you know, the old girl network in combination with this, um, coalition of idealists and social reformers, uh, including the Women's Trade Union League, including the YWCA. And this is part of the inspiration, inspirational, uh, dimension of the story, that it was a question of partnership and every kind of conceivable partnership and many of it, much of it utopian. And in fact, people sometimes quiz me and say, haven't you presented this material in much too idealized fashion. And I, um, I'm open to, um, presenting warts and all, except I found too few. So I don't believe I have the story of the material, but it was just one of these utopian schemes that worked.
Harry Sayen (13:06):
Well in their classes they try to get a mix. In other words, I'm thinking back in 1921, um, uh, the, uh, black, white situation was not particularly good. And, um, uh, it's, it's improved today. It's still nowhere near what it should be, but it wasn't good then. And, and, and yet, uh, from seeing the documentary, there were Blacks in the program. Was this done on purpose to get a mix and then hope for the best?
Rita Heller (13:31):
Very conscious of bringing in a cross section, extraordinary piece of history. Let me answer and speak to the issue of, of integration, because I see this as one of the great forerunners of the Civil Rights Movement, and, um, to be very specific about it, in 1926, Black women were invited to enroll in summer school, and this did not happen without a, um, without provoking a sharp response from M. Carey Thomas, who at least committed her thoughts to writing and her objections to it because she was known to have, um, what we would describe as, um, well, currently would be described as a racist fuse on the subject. And that's the greatest criticism that one could level against her, but much to the credit of the leaders of the school, and M. Carey Thomas really wasn't there at all times, and certainly she, um, she objected to the climate of Bryn Mawr because it was far too tropical in the summer, fortunately for the school, because it was not as scrutinized by her. And of course she could be a sharp critic of things, but, um, to the very much to the credit of the leaders of the school, um, who courageously went ahead and followed their own beliefs. And that again is a, a rich subject that, you know, requires a fuller explanation. But early on, I realized that, um, this marked the program, um, as a, um, as a major piece of progressive reform--
Harry Sayen (14:59):
Well, tell me, Rita once, uh, once the students got the, how many were there in the class, uh, uh, and then what did they do? What was the curriculum?
Rita Heller (15:07):
Yes. Well, okay. There were, um, the, the school consisted of 100 women enrolled per summer in the summer. And, um, some of the most able and promising women returned for a second summer, but a very small proportion of that actually two of the women in our film were people who had come back for a second summer. Um, yes. And again, the question of what the curriculum was was fascinating because they, they, um, started with very collegial goals, very much based in the humanist tradition. Um, and again, so it was firmly cast in the humanist tradition of a Bryn Mawr College that is humanism and some social science. Um, but obviously this, this social side, um, this pure humanist, um, curriculum had to accommodate itself to the, the needs and the particular interests of the students. So basically it was a, a core curriculum of English and economics with a variety of electives--
Harry Sayen (16:03):
You'd almost have to have it at the, like a convoy, the speed of the slowest ship too. So it had to be almost basics. Did it not?
Rita Heller (16:11):
Uh, yes and no. Um, again, many of the students were, even though they were unschooled, they were brilliant. It was something of a self selecting process of those people who wanted to go. So you had, you know, you had your eighth grade factory women, or your sixth grade factory women who had read Tolstoy, um, and these were literate. Uh, these were readers, these were literate people. These were immigrant--
Harry Sayen (16:32):
You tended to get the more inquiring type of persons coming there in the first place--
Rita Heller (16:36):
--Indeed, because also a recruiting slant was to make it very clear to the prospective students, that the goal of the program was not to, um, get them a better job. And that was stated unequivocally in a very important recruiting slant. We're not going to teach you how to type, we're not going to get you a better job. We're not increase--going to increase--
Harry Sayen (16:54):
--Not vocational in any way?
Rita Heller (16:56):
And not vocational in any way. And, um, you know, we, we, we want to share our education with you. And so these are the people who risked--who lost their jobs, who lost wages, you know, again, there's courage and there's daring and there's adventure in every aspect of the story, um, on the part of the college for alienating some of its more conservative elements, on the part of the women who went, who lost their jobs--
Harry Sayen (17:20):
--You'd probably get some of the, some of their own, uh, alumni would be up in arms and also [cross talk] some of the owners of the factories where these ladies came from.
Rita Heller (17:29):
Harry Sayen (17:29):
I mean, they might be a little unhappy when, uh--
Rita Heller (17:33):
--they came back a bit more--
Harry Sayen (17:34):
--they came back a little more--
Rita Heller (17:34):
Harry Sayen (17:35):
--knowledgeable of what was going on, particularly in economics.
Rita Heller (17:37):
Yes, absolutely. And there's no question about that. Um, again, it, for whatever reasons, because of the, um, sincerity and dedication and, um, idealism of all involved, it, it, it maintained its equilibrium. But certainly, you know, certainly there were factory owners who probably--I mean, I don't know of any instances of it--but I'm certain there have to have been those who forbidded other workers from going, because it made them--it empowered them--
Harry Sayen (18:08):
--Well, over the years, uh, Rita, what was the, uh, track record of the program? They've they got this, so some of them came back a second time. Um, did they upgrade themselves where they would, did they go on to better things, better jobs, more fulfilling jobs?
Rita Heller (18:22):
Yes. Well, largely I conducted the first ever canvas on these people and I devised, what would I think sociologists, um, describe as a, uh, open-ended subjective questionnaire. Um, so again, I've relied on subjective analysis, but yes, to answer your question, 20% of the women became active trade union leaders, two of whom, uh, nationally known vice-presidents of unions, one of whom was in the film and it's Carmen Lucia, um, who was an extraordinary, uh, nationally known and feisty and wonderful woman. Uh, another 10% experienced, dramatic, upward social mobility, that is they left factory work and, and became school teachers or social workers. Uh, and Sophie in the Philippines of course, had been sent to college through direct intervention of the summer school. So even though that wasn't the intention, that was the unintended by product--
Harry Sayen (19:13):
--So she's the one that started the school--
Rita Heller (19:16):
--She started a school in the Philippines that's right. A school which still flourishes today, run by her daughter, an American PhD, in which we filmed in the last throes of the Marcos regime. And that of course has a story and a half--
Harry Sayen (19:28):
--That was a thrilling part of the film--
Rita Heller (19:28):
--And it's a thrilling part of my life to realize that dream, to get to film Sophie, um, I'd corresponded with her for many years before. And, um, and you know, that--
Harry Sayen (19:38):
--So in other words it was a success the 17 year program--
Rita Heller (19:42):
Harry Sayen (19:44):
--Extraordinary success, which leads me to wonder why the, why the program ended. I mean, this was so successful. And so obviously a need and yet suddenly at the height of the program, and you can't blame the war because this was 1938. Now the program came to an end. Why?
Rita Heller (20:02):
Well, again, you know, we historians have trained to deal with complexity and ambiguity. In large part, the mission had been fulfilled externally that is the labor movement had been legitimized under the New Deal. And so there was less a pressing need. I mean, the struggling labor unions were now a legitimate part of the American mainstream and acknowledged as such. Um, it is always takes a tremendous energy to sustain, um, a utopian scheme. And I think in my understanding of the way things work, uh, programs such as this end when the money runs out in the novelty wears thin, uh, and I see it, I see it largely in those terms. So I see the fact that it lasted for 17 years [crosstalk] as more--I that's, I look at it as the bottle, you know, the half full bottle that something is so distinct and alien from Bryn Mawr's primary mission could operate so--
Harry Sayen (21:00):
Do you see a need today for a similar program? [crosstalk] And do you think it's possible?
Rita Heller (21:04):
Well, America is more diverse than ever. We know that our immigration patterns are just more encompassing and more diversified than ever. And, um, certainly the campuses, most campuses are empty in the summer. We have able newcomers who are not part of the mainstream who could benefit from this kind of elite--and I use the word with confidence and feeling, I don't think it's a pejorative sense that I'm not uncomfortable saying--elitist education, one-on-one with the best educators available. And, you know, part of our mission when we undertook the project was to encourage people to think about doing this. And again, it was private initiative and private money and in my own experience and my own view of things, I think it's somewhat sad and somewhat ironic that we were not able thus far to recreate the funding partnership that funded the original school, because after all our money, what made our dream possible to recapture the story, what made our dream possible was tax money. And the National Endowment for the Humanities was really, um--I would have to say other than the Public Broadcast Network, which always loved the program went for the program immediately, found it fascinating, extraordinary, and you know, said, of course, this is, this is, this is part of our mission. And you know, this is definitely something that we--send off a, send off a grant. Well, we'll take it on--
Harry Sayen (22:26):
--So, uh, you were, uh, you did get the public grants to do this marvelous film. Now tell me, when are we going to be able to see this film, everybody get their pencil out on this now and write it down. [cross talk] First news--
Rita Heller (22:38):
--Yes, we have a firm air date, Public Broadcast Service has programmed this film for--
Harry Sayen (22:44):
--In other words your channel 13, your channel 12, and what have you?--
Rita Heller (22:47):
--Well, basically it works like that, but again, under our free system, the affiliates have the option to take the feed or not to take the feed--
Harry Sayen (22:54):
--Do you work with 13 only?--
Rita Heller (22:56):
--We work with the public--well, actually we work with the Public Broadcast Service in Washington. It's been very involved and very excited about it, but we also like to say that the Pittsburgh Public Broadcast Station has taken it on as a, as a, um, what they call they're--they're our presenting station--
Harry Sayen (23:11):
--What's the date and time?
Rita Heller (23:11):
September 3rd, 10 to 11:00 PM, Wednesday, September 3rd, Labor Day weekend--
Harry Sayen (23:16):
--Well, I wish you well, it's a perfectly, uh, it's an inspiring film, and you did a wonderful job. We'll be back in one minute to tell you about next week's program. [Music]
Rita Heller interviewed by Harry Sayen during the "Sayen at Scanticon" live radio program, July 13, 1986
Harry Sayen interviews Rita Heller, creator the documentary film "Women of Summer," about the Bryn Mawr College Summer School for Women Workers in Industry during the live radio program "Sayen at Scanticon." Heller discusses her work on the film and provides some history about the Summer School, founded on the history of settlement houses and progressive social reform. Heller also discusses her graduate work at Rutgers University in the labor archives, which originally sparked her interested in the Summer School. As a Bryn Mawr alumna, Heller says she didn’t have any knowledge of the Summer School while at Bryn Mawr and when she happened upon the archives it was like finding a buried treasure. Near the end of the interview Heller talks about the reasons for the end of such a successful program and highlights the incorporation of labor unions into the New Deal as well as a lack of money and novelty that ultimately ended the successful and inspiring program.
Sayen, Harry (interviewer)
Heller, Rita Rubinstein, 1938- (interviewee)
1 online resource (1 audio file (24 min.))
North and Central America--United States--Pennsylvania--Montgomery--Bryn Mawr
North and Central America--United States--New Jersey--Mercer--Princeton
Women of Summer Oral History Collection--http://archives.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/resources/bmc-rg12-ohw