To Know Her Own History
chronicles the evolution of writing programs at a landmark Southern
women’s college during the postwar period. Kelly Ritter finds that
despite its conservative Southern culture and vocational roots, the
Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina was a unique setting
where advanced writing programs and creativity flourished long before
these trends emerged nationally.
Ritter profiles the history of the Woman’s College, first as a
normal school, where women trained as teachers with an emphasis on
composition and analytical writing, then as a liberal arts college. She
compares the burgeoning writing program here to those of the Seven
Sisters (Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Barnard, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and
Mount Holyoke) and to elite all-male universities, to show the singular
progressivism of the Woman’s College. Ritter presents lively student
writing samples from the early postwar period to reveal a blurring of
the boundaries between “creative” and “expository” styles.
By midcentury, a quantum shift toward creative writing changed
administrators’ valuation of composition courses and staff at the
Woman’s College. An intensive process of curricular revisions, modeled
after Harvard’s “Redbook” plan, was proposed and rejected in 1951, as
the college stood by its unique curricula and singular values. Ritter
follows the plight of individual instructors of creative writing and
composition, showing how their compensation and standing were made
disproportionate by the shifting position of expository writing in
relation to creative writing. Despite this unsettled period, the Woman’s
College continued to gain in stature, and by 1964 it became a prize
acquisition of the University of North Carolina system.
Ritter’s study demonstrates the value of local histories to
uncover undocumented advancements in writing education, offering
insights into the political, cultural, and social conditions that
influenced learning and methodologies at “marginalized” schools such as
the Woman’s College.