|Who was M. Carey Thomas?
Although she was denied educational opportunities because of her sex, M. Carey Thomassupported by her wealthy companion, Mary Garrettwent on to make a lasting mark on women's education and further their social and economic independence from men. "If it were only possible for women to select women as well as men for a life's love...all reason for an intellectual woman's marriage would be gone," she once asserted. "I believe that will beindeed is already becomingone of the effects of advanced education for women."
Thomas was born in Baltimore in January 1857 to devout Quaker parents, the eldest of 10 children. Minnie, as she was then called, was an assertive and willful girl. At an early age, encouraged by her mother and aunt, she began challenging the social constraints placed upon women.
At 15, Thomas persuaded her father to allow her to attend the Howland Institute, a Quaker boarding school for girls in Ithaca, N.Y. After she promised him that she would avoid contact with male students, he reluctantly permitted her to enroll at Cornell University, where she graduated in 1877.
Upon her return to Baltimore, Thomas' cousin and friend, Bessie King, introduced her to a group of young womenincluding Julia Rogers, Mamie Gwinn, and Mary Garrett, heiress to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad fortunewho formed a philosophical discussion group called the Friday Night club.
Thomas wished to pursue graduate studies in Greek, and sought admission to Johns Hopkins University, where her father was a trustee. Although she was allowed to receive tutoring from the faculty, she was prohibited from attending regular classes with male students, which led her to quit after a year. With Gwinn as her companion, she traveled to Germany to enroll at the University of Leipzig, but was denied a degree because she was a woman. She finally earned her Ph.D. from the University of Zurich in 1882.
Back in the United States, Thomas applied for the presidency of Bryn Mawr, a new Quaker women's college in Pennsylvania, but the post was given to a man. Instead, at age 27, she became the college's first dean and a professor of English.
Although she never publicly identified as a lesbian, Thomas shared a romantic friendship and a home on the Bryn Mawr campus with Gwinn, who also taught English at the school. In addition, during this time, Thomas had a passionate relationship with Garrett, while Gwinn was also involved with a male English professor, Alfred Hodder. Thomas and Gwinn's relationship ended in 1904 when Gwinn married Hodder, after which Garrett took up residence with Thomas.
The erstwhile Friday Night club adopted the mission of promoting women's education, starting a college preparatory school for girls in 1885 and forming the Women's Fund Committee to raise money for the founding of John Hopkins School of Medicine. Relying on Thomas' persuasive skills and Garrett's money, the women pledged several hundred thousand dollars on the condition that the new institution admit women on the same terms as men.
The medical school's first class, admitted in 1893, included three women. (Today, women make up about half the student body.) Among the early students was Gertrude Stein, who enrolled in 1897. Discovering that medicineespecially delivering babieswas not to her liking, Stein quit in her fourth year without completing her studies. Soon thereafter, she memorialized the love triangle of Thomas, Gwinn, and Hodder (a longtime friend) in Fernhurst, one of her first novellas.
Influenced by Garrett's promise of financial support, the board of trustees appointed Thomas president of Bryn Mawr, a position she assumed in 1894. Having rejected the religion of her youth, she insisted upon a secular education and high academic standards for women. Although the faculty complained about her autocratic management style, she held the post until her retirement in 1922.
Thomas became known as one of the most prominent advocates for women's education. College women ought to receive the same schooling as men, she argued, "not only because there is but one best education, but because men's and women's effectiveness and happiness and the welfare of the generation to come after them will be vastly increased if their college education has given them the same intellectual training and the same scholarly and moral ideals."
Thomas was also an advocate for women's suffrage, a supporter of the Progressive Party, a proponent of an equal rights amendment to the Constitution, and a peace activist. But her views were as reactionary in some areas as they were progressive in others.
A supporter of the eugenics movement, she touted the intellectual superiority of whites and discriminated against African-American and Jewish applicants to Bryn Mawr.
In 1915, Garrett died of leukemia, leaving Thomas her estate. Thomas spent her later years pursuing her interests in literature, the arts, and travel, accompanied by Edith Lowber, with whom she began a relationship a decade after Garrett's death. Thomas died of heart failure at her home in Philadelphia in December 1935, and her ashes are buried in a library named in her honor on the Bryn Mawr campus.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.7 June 17, 2005