Student-MadeJun 15, 2023

updated Feb 20, 2024

Miss Hall's History is Women’s History

Hallmark Women’s History Students examine MHS through an archival lens

Written by students in Dr. Liza Burbank’s Hallmark Women’s History class: Diana Calle ’24, Malena Carraro ’24,Shirley Dong ’23, April Harwood ’23, Ivy He ’23, Ada Liu ’23,Solitaire Niles ’23, Maddie Tillem ’24, Catherine Yang ’23, and Nico Zhou ’23. To focus their research, they dug deep into MHS history in roughly 20-year increments, exploring the curriculum, diversity, and dress code/attire.

Our Work

In our Hallmark Women’s History class, we had the opportunity to do archival research about the history of Miss Hall’s School. Having examined cultural and societal norms for women over time, we landed on three topics of interest that have evolved through the years: curriculum, attire, and diversity.

We are interested in tracking MHS curriculum over time because we know that society's views on women’s education, goals for educating women, and restrictions on educated women changed greatly throughout history. Dress code indicates how social expectations toward women shifted over the past 125 years. Finally, we were eager to learn about steps school leadership took to diversify and to consider how Miss Hall’s continues to grow as a diverse community.

To conduct our research, we read “The History of Miss Hall’s School,” by Susan Gordon ’69; dug into archived versions of the Miss Hall’s website; explored old student handbooks, catalogs, and yearbooks; and interviewed community members.

We were interested in researching the MHS curriculum because we knew that society's views on women’s education, goals for educating women, and restrictions on educated women changed greatly throughout history.

The Early Years

At the time of the School’s founding in 1898, few girls were provided equal opportunities in high school. Most schools were coeducational but organized with a two-track education system. One track led students, mainly males, toward college preparatory classes, while the other provided vocational training. The vocational track was encouraged for girls, especially poor girls and girls of color, encouraging them to become secretaries, nurses, teachers, or wives and mothers. All-girl schools like Miss Hall’s were important because they offered college preparatory tracks to their female students.

In its early years, Miss Hall’s had two courses of study: general education and college preparatory. Academics were rigorous, and students who received a college preparatory diploma were automatically accepted into college without taking an entrance exam. Classes in household arts were offered, as were art courses, which were designed to help students appreciate form and beauty and improve their handwriting. Physical education was also offered to help students achieve “symmetrical development and graceful carriage.” Honor was prioritized, and students with good grades were rewarded with activities and trips to other schools.

The dress code was extremely strict, reflecting restrictive gender expectations of American culture, featuring uniforms with blouses and long navy skirts, along with uniform dresses for other occasions. With millions of immigrants pouring into the United States, the nation’s demographics began changing, and this growing diversity was reflected in the Miss Hall’s student body. In 1905, the School welcomed its first international students, two girls from France. This started a new chapter at Miss Hall’s and set the foundation for prosperous diversity in the following century.

Mira Hall began her venture with little capital beyond her youth, her determination to have the best school she could build, and the strong idealism which directed her.

Second Head of School

The 1920s

Mira Hall’s emphasis on knowledge of the Bible, cooking and home economics, and taste in clothing reflected the influence of religion and motherhood on female education and was a remnant of the Christian Motherhood movement, which followed the Second Great Awakening almost a century earlier. Girls were trained in courtesy, consideration, neatness, and promptness, and behavior was regulated in many ways.

They were grouped based on academic and social skills and graded on neatness and posture. There were rules on talking at mealtimes, and students were forbidden to talk, sharpen pencils, write letters, or use reference books during study hall. Social events were strictly monitored and aesthetics were highly valued. For the spring formal, students could only invite boys their parents approved, and the students with the best handwriting sent the invitations.

In 1925, students needed two courses in chorus, drawing, physical training, or laboratory work. Promotions were made at the end of each year according to the number of credits gained. Main topics taught were English, Bible, Latin, French, Italian, Math, History, Science, Piano and Voice, Art, and Physical Education. Cooking classes were also required, as Miss Hall wanted all students to be wives and mothers. Students were to have an “ageless” taste in clothing, and knowledge of the Bible. Each week, students memorized and recited a Bible verse, and for many years, Bible verses about the purity and compassion of women were included in Commencement ceremonies.

The dress code was rigid and specific: Students were required to wear a school uniform consisting of a dark blue serge sailor suit, and they could bring to school only a plain tailored suit, a white crêpe de chine dinner dress, and a gymnasium suit. An afternoon dress and a riding habit were the only optional clothing items — nothing else was permitted. The “List of the Requirements” from 1923-24 states, “not until a pupil's outfit conforms exactly to this list will her school permissions begin.” 

From the Archives — the 1930s


1940s - 1950s

A notice in the 1943 school catalog explained how educating girls for college would help them be able to work during the war effort. The catalog emphasized mechanical drawing, history, language, home economics, math, and science, as these courses could educate girls about the world and help them get jobs in the war.

Duty was still valued, as it had been during the first World War, but while earlier students could only contribute to the war effort by rolling bandages, knitting socks, and educating themselves on current events, Miss Hall's now offered courses to teach valuable skills needed for jobs related to the war. This emphasis on preparing students for jobs outside of homemaking was a massive change to the curriculum.

Another large change was abolishing the general academic course. Because the curriculum now focused on college prep, all students at Miss Halls were expected to attend college, something that wasn’t true decades earlier. During the 1948-49 school year, electives in banking and accounts, current events, sewing, chorus, speaking voice, art, and physical education were offered.

By the early ’50s, the two track system was abolished, and classes focused entirely on college prep. The number of women attending college increased, as did the overall number of students at MHS. German, geography, creative writing, and public speaking were added to the curriculum.

The general fashion preferred by women at the time was shirtwaist dresses, which stressed a small waist and accentuated the hips and chest. Although students would dress differently on different occasions, their outfits were similar — dresses above the ankle, highlighting hip, waist, and chest. On weekends, students also preferred patterned, shirtwaist dresses.

From the Archives — 1940s & ’50s


The 1960s

Experiential learning increased in the 1960’s with independent studies, guest speakers, programs, and frequent films focused on contemporary culture. At the same time, the School became less focused on manners. Miss Hall’s partnered with A Better Chance to bring high-performing students of color to the Berkshires. Jewish students were accepted, and mandatory church attendance was replaced with a Sunday vespers program written by students. Upperclassmen still took a bible course, but students no longer had to memorize or recite passages. Rules regarding study hall, curfews, and grading also relaxed during this l period.

The 1960s also saw progressive change in terms of diversity. In 1963, A Better Chance (ABC) was founded to help students of color obtain access to educational opportunities. By 1965, ABC partnered with 75 independent schools, including Miss Hall’s. That year, ABC sent four students — Arlien Acevedo ’67, Essie Harris ’68, Janyce Jones ’68, and Gloria Ortiz ’68 — to MHS. Essie and Janyce were the first Black students at Miss Hall’s. MHS employed Spanish Teacher Helena Cevallos from Ecuador, and through that connection, Ecuadorian students came to MHS in 1968, adding to the diversity and marking early efforts in achieving racial and ethnic inclusivity among students.

1970s - 1980s

There was sharp focus on college prep at this time, with multiple Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered and course objectives highlighting preparation for college. The math curriculum became more progressive, as it emphasized preparing students for the expanding role of women in professional fields of mathematics. Women in STEM became more highly emphasized and appreciated.

History classes moved outside the box, focusing increasingly on current events and society and student ability to analyze historical, political, and cultural issues. MHS offered advanced courses, community service opportunities, a student forum to discuss important issues, and, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, afternoon electives on everything from SAT prep and typing to CPR and karate. The 1980s also saw the return to single sex education, after eight years as the co-ed Hall School.

As opportunities for women expanded during the 1980s — which saw the first female Supreme Court Justice and the first female Vice Presidential candidate — women’s fashion expanded. MHS students had more freedom to dress as they chose.

The loosening of immigration restrictions, along with economic development and geopolitical conflicts worldwide, led to more international students at Miss Hall’s. Students came from the Middle East, including Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Central America, Asia, and Africa. Many students came from Japan and Korea throughout the 1980s. In 1989, Yiyan Zhou ’91, now a Miss Hall’s Trustee, was the School’s first student from China. The International Students Alliance (ISA) was established in the mid 1980s to highlight cultures and provide the opportunities for international students to think about their own culture through a new lens.

From the Archives — 1970s & ’80s


1990s - 2000s

The evolution of the Horizons program, launched in 1995-96, was a major development in Miss Hall’s history. School leadership had emphasized service since the start, but until Head of School Jeannie Norris developed Horizons, community service had been offered through clubs and extracurriculars. Adding Horizons to the academic program moved service from an optional activity to a graduation requirement.

Summer reading of assigned texts was required for all students in the 1990’s. Academic requirements were similar to today, but the classes offered were different and had a strong emphasis on test preparation. The dress code continued to expand, offering students more freedom, as jeans became acceptable attire on Fridays.

In 2010, Miss Hall’s partnered with ASSIST, a program that “connects America’s finest schools with the world’s leading scholars.” Initially, Miss Hall’s welcomed scholars from thirteen countries, and they spent a year at Miss Hall’s. This expanded the School’s diversity, especially its European diversity.

From the Archives — 1990s & ’00s


Present Day — 125 Years of MHS

Those of us in this class believe that the education we are receiving, in addition to developing content knowledge,Ty promotes leadership skills, mutual respect, boldness, independent thinking, empowerment of marginalized genders, and a commitment to giving back.

Our feelings are reflected in the current curriculum and school expectations. Classes consist of foundational, upper-level, and Hallmark courses. Hallmark courses are the School’s most advanced classes. Unlike AP classes, they are not focused on test preparation, so teachers have more freedom to teach subjects they enjoy, while students can take in-depth, discussion-based classes that teach them to think critically. A Miss Hall's graduate is expected to demonstrate four core competencies of vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and gumption, and the curriculum reflects the values of the School and the students, including a commitment to gender and social justice and to serving the community.

A Miss Hall’s graduate is expected to demonstrate four core competencies of vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and gumption, and the curriculum reflects the values of the School and the students, including a commitment to gender and social justice and to serving the community.

Hallmark Women’s History in D.C.

During its 125 years, Miss Hall’s has grown into a global community that embraces differences. Today, MHS students come from 21 countries, with 38 percent of students identifying as White, 32 percent as Asian, 13 percent as Black, 9 percent as Hispanic/Latino/a/x, 7 percent as Bi/Multiracial, and 2 percent as from other ethnic backgrounds. Christianity is no longer the only religious belief on campus, and students observe many religions. Student organizations, such as the Diversity Coalition, were established to celebrate our diversity. We also have the ISA supporting international students, Essence organizing dialogues around race and ethnicity, Spectrum promoting representations of genders and sexuality, and affinity groups providing spaces for students to explore and understand themselves with others who share their identity.

The Miss Hall’s School Dress Code allows students to display and develop their personal identities. Students are generally empowered to “dress for the job” they have each day, with specific requirements for “Professional Dress,” on occasions such as off-campus Horizons placements, Accepted Students Day, and Commencement.

Student Life at MHS



Miss Hall’s School has evolved in many ways since 1898. The curriculum and dress code changed over the years in response to cultural norms placed on girls, as well as in response to global events that affected society in drastic ways. Diversity at Miss Hall’s also grew, as global events led to immigration and as new programs and resources helped MHS achieve racial and ethnic diversity in the student and faculty bodies.

The curriculum gradually evolved from regimented and controlled to collaborative, unique to each student’s interests, and, sometimes, service-based. The changes also reflect current gender roles. Whereas students in the early and mid-20th century were required to take Bible and cooking classes, students are now encouraged to take classes in subjects that interest them, even if the subjects are traditionally male-based, such as science and math. Overall, the education has become much more student centered and less focused on aesthetics and traditional norms.

The dress code has also drastically changed, moving from “Lists of Requirements” specifying the style, color, brand, and quantity of clothing to more personal choice. These changes are often related to changes in society and women’s social status. The common thread is that women’s fashion has become freer and more diverse. Now, the School gives students more freedom on what they can wear, as it can show an individual’s personality and characteristics. This also reflects that women’s lives have become less defined by others, as women have gained more equality and freedom.

The School’s racial and ethnic diversity have also expanded, as national policies have evolved and changes have been made by the School. This is reflected in guidelines for enrollment and faculty recruitment, as well as in the demographics of both groups. This diversity has become more obvious since the 1980s. In materials from the School's archives and from interviews with current faculty, we can clearly see how Miss Hall’s has developed into an inclusive and international community.

Currently, MHS enrolls about 180 students, with 38 percent international students and 25 percent students of color. More student clubs related to ethnicity and race have been established, creating safe spaces for students to speak up and make connections with others who share their identity.

In short, Miss Hall’s has grown into a place that empowers more students from around the world to contribute to the betterment of society.