Posted on October 12 2015 by Stephanie Bredbenner, Bryn Mawr College Class of 2015

Exploring College Women: Barnard's Greek Games

During Spring 2015, Bryn Mawr College students in the History Department seminar Higher Education for Women: Bryn Mawr and Beyond explored the College Women beta site. Over the next month, we will publish some of their reflections.  To learn more about the seminar, visit http://historyb332.blogs.brynmawr.edu.

This is the picture that initially caught my interest.

Barnard Greek Games, 1931.

I thought it must be a theatrical production, and was amused at the idea that it might be some kind of pseudo-Athena worship. But the caption said that it was something called "The Greek Games." When I searched that tag, a slew of pictures from Barnard College appeared, and I was hooked.

Not only did the Greek Games involve dances with flowing dresses, but also extensive props, athletic events, and masculine costumes.

According to a post on the Barnard Archives blog by Elizabeth Parker, the Greek Games were a competition between first years and sophomores that took place every year from 1903 to 1968. They involved athletic competitions, theatrical productions, dances, and costumes, all infused with a Greek theme including discus, chariots, and Greek military costumes. The tradition has been revived a few times without much success, but a statue on campus (with Greek inscription, of course) remains to commemorate the event. Because the tradition combined pageantry, theater, and athletics, there are several directions that research into the history of the Greek Games could take. Firstly, women's colleges seemed to feel a special affinity for Greek: Bryn Mawr had an annual Greek play at May Day, "Anassa kata," and "Sophias" are in Greek, Athena is our patron goddess, and Greek phrases can be found scattered around campus. I'm sure there are other examples at other women's colleges at well.

Where did this interest in Greek come from? Might it be related to the competing "Greek" sorority system? Did it stem from an appreciation of the Classics that Barnard, Bryn Mawr and I'm sure other women's colleges fostered? Why was an event like the Greek Games deemed acceptable by administrators, students, and their families? Why did it continue to resonate for decades?

The pseudo-Greek nature of the event might have something to do with its longevity. Women's colleges also seemed to have a culture of theater and pageantry. Again, the extensive theater culture at Bryn Mawr comes to mind. One might ask probing questions about the value placed on identity-switching, drag, and performance at a women's institution. How did the Greek Games provide an outlet for creativity that students might not otherwise have experienced?

Finally, athletics. We've talked extensively in class about the stress placed on athletics and physical fitness at women's colleges. P.E. and physical examinations were often used to combat the myth that education stunted women physically and mentally. How did the athletic nature of this event legitimize it and in turn, legitimize women's colleges? It appears that the event was organized by students rather than faculty or administration. How does this, and the element of competition, affect the purpose of the games as athletic competitions?

Browsing through a few interesting photographs and doing some very preliminary research has led to several interesting research questions about the role of athletics, theater, and appreciation of Greek culture in student life at women's colleges. These questions could be applied in a study of student life at Barnard or a few other women's colleges, and lead to interesting conclusions about how the mission and anxieties of women's colleges manifest themselves in activities like the Greek Games. The photographic presence in student scrapbooks and publications, administrative documents, and external newspapers could also reveal the perception of the Games, and women's colleges, by different segments of society.

Related images include:

  • Juley, Peter A. (photographer). "Greek Games, 1917." 1917 Barnard College, New York (N.Y.) [link]
  • Sipprell, Clara E. (photographer). "Greek Games Discus, 1932." 1932 Barnard College, New York (N.Y.) [link]
  • Press Association, Inc. (photographer). "Greek Games Preparation, 1942." 1942 Barnard College, New York (N.Y.) [link]

About the author:

Stephanie Bredbenner graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2015 with a degree in History. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool.

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