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  • Writer's pictureLyla Bhalla-Ladd

The Mutual Admiration Society and the Culture of Womanhood in Academic Spaces

In March of 2020, my high school awarded me the Kathleen O’Neill Jamieson Fellowship for advancing the empowerment of women and girls. As the inaugural recipient, the fellowship has been largely mine and my mentors’ to design and collaborate on. Given the turbulence of the months and years following receiving the fellowship, the study itself was delayed until Spring 2022.

For my study, I traveled to Oxford University in England to study a group of alumnae from the 1910s. The Mutual Admiration Society (MAS) was an academic, literary club founded at Sommerville College by Dorothy L. Sayers and three of her classmates. Somerville was the all-women’s college at Oxford at the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, women could attend Oxford and enroll in classes, but could not receive degrees for their work. Nonetheless, a few privileged women were awarded the opportunity to study at Oxford. From these elites, Sayers’ secret society was formed.

I first found the MAS by researching secret societies in general. My sister had just been tapped for a secret society at her university and I was intrigued by the historical, private nature of these social clubs. Most secret societies are historically all-male. We imagine a dark, wooden room filled with cigar smoke shared between the future leaders of business and politics. In every instance I could research, these clubs only recently, and seemingly begrudgingly, opened their doors to women.

I found myself looking around NCS, my all-girls haven, and wondering if my generation would feel truly welcomed by these all-male spaces now “allowing” women. Before this research, I had not considered a modern space in which women were only recently “allowed.” I had always been more than “allowed,” but celebrated and encouraged. NCS granted me the ability to grow without having to create my own spaces. At NCS, I learned of gender discrimination and disparities as a phenomenon that existed far away from me. I was granted the bubble of learning without the pressure of fighting to be taken seriously or heard among the volumes of male peers. During my preliminary research of secret societies, I looked around at my female classmates and wondered if being “allowed” would be enough for them after we graduated.

With more research, I discovered the MAS, an all-women’s secret society at one of the top universities in the world. The MAS was inspiring upon discovery. They met on the grounds of academic support and peer review, which grew later into friendship. The MAS existed on the conditions of its members being unwelcome in most academic spaces at Oxford and barred from many clubs that would assist with academic development. In creating their own space, within the walls of the all-women’s residential college, the MAS found an unconventional sanctuary. From their name itself, The Mutual Admiration Society inspired me to understand all-women’s academic spaces better.

I had seen in my own experience how my all-girl’s school could become incredibly competitive in the face of a college application process of few spots at top universities, competitive internships, and a rigorous curriculum with treasured As. Throughout high school, I valued being surrounded by such driven girls, but I also questioned if we were missing a culture of mutual support and a desire to see our peers succeed, even when we respected them as our competition. In looking at the MAS, I saw women who were competing for an even smaller pool of opportunities to break free from domestic life, and yet, a robust sisterhood that motivated and celebrated each other. I wanted this for myself and my peers, and the Kathleen O’Neill Jamieson fellowship focusing on the empowerment of women granted me the ability to deeply research this society from the archives at Oxford.

The road to Sommerville College was a long one. It was important to me to breathe life into these characters I had researched by visiting Oxford. When I finally arrived, the excitement I had to dive into the archives had persisted through all the delays. At Sommerville, I examined dozens of boxes filled with journals, letters, and photos from the MAS members. I read the letters the women wrote to each other in between academic semesters and after graduation. I had access to MAS meeting records and the women’s journal entries in which they wrote about the society. I could see their working drafts with each member’s comments in the margins, filled with praise and constructive comments. I even read the women’s teacher’s grading records to see how the members performed in their classes. I had never handled true primary sources before, so delicate I used gloves to touch the old papers. The letters these women exchanged only proved to me how central their bond was to their success at Oxford.

Dorothy L. Sayers, founder of MAS and later novelist, was the central thread of the MAS, and united the members in friendship. She approved all members and guests of meetings and organized a schedule that pushed the women to publish their work. By far the most successful of them all, Sayers still credited them often in her letters updating them of her triumphs. Many of the members did indeed have to leave Oxford and return to their homes to serve in domestic roles, especially when husbands and brothers left for war. Even in their hiatuses, the women nurtured their love of literature and their bond with one another.

Traveling to Sommerville and reading these documents in the old dorms where these women once were had a profound impact on the way I thought about the condition of womanhood, and the potential of true sisterhood. As I studied the systemic hardships the MAS members endured, I thought of how they needed support from peers experiencing the same discrimination. I thought of my history classes that taught me how other marginalized groups had found strength in community. In an increasingly more just world, I feel immensely privileged to have had the education and community I did at NCS.

My peers and I certainly did not face the inequality that the women of Sommerville did. Yet still, the legacy of struggle persists with women and girls today. The women of the MAS could not vote, earn degrees, and often could not decide on their own husbands. I can do all of these things, and yet the affinity I feel with the MAS feels intrinsic to my identity. The historical bond of women is something I only started to understand within my last year of high school and first year of college.

During COVID, my senior class arranged Friday night Zoom calls for us all to feel connected and in touch. We often talked about classes, joked about pop culture and social media, and occasionally discussed our more sobering struggles. I remember a specific call in which we discussed the “condition” of womanhood. At the dawn of our senior year, with most of us turning eighteen and college on the horizon, the concept of girlhood and womanhood was something each of us individually had thought very deeply about. Even over the artificial sense of a Zoom call, I saw my peers dive into a conversation about who we came from, the legacy of women’s strength, the pressure to succeed, and the drive to create a better world for each other. From politics and philosophy to art and music, girls I had known since pre-school delved into all the lenses of the female experience. I realized how quiet we had been about what really does matter to us- a feeling of connection and purpose.

Conversations like this are what solidified my curiosity in historical all-women’s spaces, and what led me to choose the MAS to focus on for this fellowship. How could I replicate and achieve what the MAS did a century ago? How could I bring my peers at NCS what they deserved- a healthy, mutually supporting, academic space? How could we see beyond the competition for success, and focus instead on the benefits of true sisterhood?

In the Spring of my senior year, I tapped 11 girls to join my own secret society. I named it the Pseudonym Society (P.S.) and selected the girls I thought had incredible literary skills and interests. In meetings, we read our favorite prose and did exercises for peer review and bonding. Girls now majoring in STEM read us their poetry, and we were able to understand each other. In one exercise, we wrote a free-form piece about what we truly saw in the girl sitting next to us. Through tears and honesty, I saw girls who had never spent more than a couple minutes together form a new bond of mutual understanding. Girls who had admired each other from afar, could come together and confess their compliments and praise. At P.S., my goal was to allow my peers to realize how talented and admired they were by peers who they deeply respected too. With only a semester to meet, P.S. is something I wish I could have had all through high school- a refreshing, artistic space to discuss literature with no caveats of participation grades or a looming final paper. I think of P.S. often, and I am still searching for women’s spaces that allow for a similar experience.

Truly, the inspiration of the MAS changed my perspective on why I am pursuing higher education, how I view success, my relationships with women, and how dearly I think back on my time at NCS. I could not be more grateful to have been granted to do the research.

I would like to thank the Dillard’s family and Kathleen O’Neill Jamieson for sponsoring this fellowship. This research has enriched my experience of what it means to be a woman in academic spaces and has inspired me to carry the values of these women beyond Sommerville. These women’s story has shown me so much and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have traveled to research their lives and their work.


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