Thomas, M. Carey (1857–1935)

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Thomas, M. Carey (1857–1935)

President of Bryn Mawr College and advocate of higher education for women in the U.S. Name variations: Min or Minnie; Carey Thomas. Born Martha Carey Thomas on January 2, 1857, in Baltimore, Maryland; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of a coronary occlusion on December 2, 1935 (ashes placed in the cloisters of the Bryn Mawr library); oldest of ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood, of James Carey Thomas (a doctor) and Mary Whitall Thomas; attended a Friends' school (Quaker) in Baltimore, and the Howland Institute, a Quaker boarding school, in Union Springs, New York; granted B.A., Cornell University; studied at Johns Hopkins University and Leipzig University; University of Zurich, Ph.D., 1882; lived with Mamie Gwinn (cofounder of Bryn Mawr) and Mary Garrett; never married: no children.


Ph.D. summa cum laude (first woman and first foreigner to be awarded the degree at Zurich).

Badly burned at age seven; spent two years at the Howland Institute (1872–74); spent two years at Cornell University (1877–89); co-founded and was board member of the Bryn Mawr School (1878); was appointed dean of Bryn Mawr (1884–94); made president of Bryn Mawr (1894–1922); was appointed first woman trustee, Cornell University (1897–1901); participated in Women's Medical School Fund, with Mary Garrett, which underwrote the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, open to both men and women; was active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National College Equal Suffrage League, and the National Women's Party (1906–20); founded, with Mary Anderson (chief of the Women's Bureau) and Rose Schneiderman (head of the New York Women's Trade Union League), the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (1921).

Selected publications:

Education of Women (1900); "Should the Higher Education of Women Differ from That of Men?" in Educational Review XXI (1901); "Present Tendencies in Women's College and University Education," in Educational Review XXV (1906).

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz , M. Carey Thomas' most recent biographer, maintains that Thomas ultimately "built better than she lived." Born in antebellum Baltimore during a time when few people expected women to achieve in scholarly circles, M. Carey Thomas lived to see higher education for women a commonplace in American culture. Her role in that transformation was an important one. She was co-founder of the Bryn Mawr School for girls, the first woman president of Bryn Mawr College and its primary architect for many years, and was instrumental in opening the Johns Hopkins Medical School to women. These public accomplishments would seem to be enough to ensure her inclusion in American educational history along with the other builders of American colleges and universities, yet she became obscured because of complexities in her private existence that seemed to be in direct conflict with this public image.

Nicknamed Minnie soon after birth, Martha Carey Thomas was born into a prominent family in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 2, 1857. Her father was a doctor and Quaker preacher, and her mother was a member of the Whitall family, well known for its strong Quaker women. Since Mary Whitall Thomas had suffered an earlier miscarriage, both parents were ecstatic over the arrival of their healthy baby girl. In addition, the new arrival would be doted on by her grandparents, particularly her maternal grandparents and her aunt Hannah Whitall Smith . These relatives delighted in Minnie's early "sturdy ways" and encouraged her in her voracious reading.

Despite the subsequent birth of nine other siblings, seven of whom survived to adulthood, the strong-willed Thomas would always be demanding of her mother's attention and resentful about diversions. This tendency was reenforced when, at seven years of age, she announced to her mother that she was going to be an "assistant cook" and went merrily downstairs. A few minutes later her horrified mother rushed to the head of the stairs to see her oldest child engulfed in flames. Her apron having caught on fire from the coals of the stove, Thomas rushed to her father's office but was unable to put out the flames. Her mother smothered the fire with blankets, but the burns were so severe that it would be months before Thomas would walk again. In later life, she suffered much pain because of the scar tissue that had formed around the burns and was forced to walk with a cane. During this crisis, Mary Thomas abandoned her other children to the care of others and stayed with Minnie constantly. Her devotion would never be forgotten, and the child craved her almost constant attention from this event until her mother's death in 1888.

By the time Thomas was 14, her aspirations to become an educated cultured woman were full-blown. The untimely death of her 18-year-old cousin, Frank Smith, with whom Thomas was quite smitten, released her to pursue this goal. She was, however, beginning to be aware how difficult her choice might be. She wrote in her diary: "I get perfectly enraged: how unjust—how narrow minded, how utterly incomprehensible to deny that women ought be educated…. If I ever live and grow up, my one aim and concentrated purpose shall be to show that a woman can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature and science and conjecture."

Smith, Hannah Whitall (1832–1911)

American religious leader and writer. Born Hannah Whitall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 7, 1832; died on May 1, 1911, in Iffley, near Oxford, England; daughter of John M. Whitall (a wealthy glass manufacturer) and Mary (Tatum) Whitall; sister of Mary Whitall Thomas (mother of M. Carey Thomas); married Robert Pearsall Smith (brother of librarian Lloyd Pearsall Smith), in 1851 (died 1898); children: Nelly (died at age five); Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946, an English essayist); Franklin (died in 1872 at age 18 of typhoid); Rachel (died in 1879, age 11); Mary Berenson (who married Bernard Berenson); Alice or Alys Smith Russell (who married Bertrand Russell); grandmother of Ray Strachey (1887–1940).

Hannah Whitall Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1832, the daughter of Quakers John M. Whitall, a wealthy glass manufacturer, and Mary Tatum Whitall . Hannah was the author of the religious classic The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (1875). Married in 1851, she and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then Mill-ville, New Jersey, where both preached. In 1874, with Robert's health deteriorating, the family moved to England and continued their evangelical work. After returning to the United States in the late 1870s, Robert lost a fortune in worthless silver mines, money that had come from Hannah's family. In 1886, they settled permanently in England.

The couple had six children, including English essayist Logan Pearsall Smith and two daughters, Mary Berenson and Alys Smith Russell , who married powerful men: Bernard Berenson and Bertrand Russell, respectively. Hannah also wrote The Record of a Happy Life: Being Memorials of Franklin Whitall Smith (1873) and The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It (1903). Though her husband died a bitter fanatic in 1898, Hannah Smith took things in stride and spent her retirement at the home of her son Logan at Iffley, on the Thames in Sussex, England, where she wrote in 1907: "Although I am confined to my wheel chair and cannot get out much, yet the views out of our windows are so lovely, and the river is so shining, and the grass is so green, that I feel the lines have indeed fallen to me in a pleasant place. I often have a feeling as if I were living in a novel."


Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper & Row, 1959.

In 1872, Thomas and her friend Bessie King were sent to the Howland School, a Quaker school in Union Springs, New York. While there, Thomas came under the influence of instructor Jane Slocum who encouraged her to become a scholar rather than a doctor. Slocum also convinced her that Cornell University would be the best place to go to school. Returning to Baltimore after graduation, Thomas spent a year preparing herself and her parents for Cornell. Initially opposed to his daughter going to a secular, coeducational institution, James Carey Thomas was eventually won over by the pleas (some sources say tears) of his wife and daughter. Entering Cornell as a junior, Thomas requested that people call her Carey and began to sign her name as M. Carey Thomas. One of 20 women in a class of 240, she lived in the new Sage College, a magnificent dormitory created for "coeds" (a word coined at Cornell University) and designed to increase revenues for the school. Swept up in the intellectual excitement of Cornell in the early years, Thomas excelled in advanced work in mathematics, science, Greek, Latin, literature, and philosophy. She did particularly well in Hiram Corson's courses in English literature and gradually she determined to become a scholar in languages and literature. Upon graduation in 1877, at age 20, however, she still feared that no woman would be able to hold a professorship in a "regular university unless the race of wise men dies out."

For the next two years, M. Carey Thomas suffered the lot of many of her college-educated peers. Women were, by the 1870s and 1880s, allowed limited access to colleges and universities. There were not, as yet, however, any career paths for women and few women were staunch enough, determined enough, and supported enough to obtain the necessary additional training to enter male-dominated fields. Thomas returned to Baltimore, "read" in philology under a tutelage arrangement at Johns Hopkins University (where she was not allowed to obtain a graduate degree even though her father was on the board of trustees), and became increasingly depressed. She did form two close relationships with women who would remain her constant companions throughout much of the rest of her life, Mamie Gwinn and Mary Elizabeth Garrett . This threesome, along with two other friends, founded the Bryn Mawr School for Girls. At some point during this period, Thomas and Gwinn began to plan their escape to Europe for study despite considerable reluctance from both their families.

In 1882, M. Carey Thomas was able to return to Baltimore in triumph with a Ph.D., summa cum laude, from the University of Zurich. For more than three years, she and Gwinn had lived and studied in Germany and Switzerland and traveled throughout Europe. Emboldened by her new credentials and anxious to find a public arena for her new worldly cultural attainments, M. Carey Thomas asked, at age 26, to be named the president of the proposed Quaker college in Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr, where her uncle, James Whitall, was president of the board of trustees and her father was a member. Clearly, the presidency was an unrealistic goal for any woman at that time, and Thomas was eventually persuaded by her Aunt Hannah to consider the deanship of the new school. In March 1884, Thomas was named professor of English and dean of the faculty. For the next 18 months, she visited other women's colleges (Vassar, Smith, Wellesley), recruited faculty, planned curriculum, and generally prepared for the opening of what, for her, had to be the best college for women in the United States. Fifty years later, she characterized this period as a time when the men involved "set out to produce a well-behaved fowl … but found that they had hatched a soaring eagle instead."

Garrett, Mary Elizabeth (1854–1915)

American philanthropist. Born Mary Elizabeth Garrett in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 5, 1854; died in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on April 3, 1915; daughter of John W. Garrett (president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad); never married; lived with M. Carey Thomas.

At her father's death in 1884, Mary E. Garrett inherited a third of his considerable fortune, and thereafter devoted her time and money to the advancement of medical education for women and to woman suffrage. During her lifetime, her benefactions amounted to a very large sum; for example, she raised $100,000 for Johns Hopkins medical school with the provision that women be admitted. When she died in 1915, Garrett bequeathed $15 million to M. Carey Thomas , president of Bryn Mawr College, to be disposed of as she saw fit.

For the next ten years, Thomas busied herself with the educational details of the new school. She gathered a distinguished faculty which included a future president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson; she planned the construction of new academic buildings and dormitories; she supervised the curriculum; and she taught both large undergraduate courses and challenging graduate seminars. In the summers, she and her friend Mamie traveled to Europe where, despite her stated intentions to pursue her scholarship in philology, they reveled in the rich cultural life of late 19th-century Europe, attending plays, visiting museums, and dining with

the literati of the continent. Clearly, Thomas was enjoying her busy and productive life.

In 1892, when President Rhoads of Bryn Mawr announced his desire to retire, he indicated to the board of trustees that he thought Dean Thomas should be his successor at the Quaker school. Some members of the board, concerned about the dean's secular lifestyle and what to them seemed like excessive independence, expressed reservations; approval for the appointment passed by only one vote. Thomas herself was not certain she should take the position, but take it she did; from 1894 on, she emerged as a major public voice for the higher education of women, advocating greater access and equal academic standards. Thomas achieved national stature after she gave a speech in 1899, at the Bryn Mawr Chapel, criticizing Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, for his opposition to coeducation. She remained as president of the college for 28 years until her retirement in 1922.

I think its cruel when a girl wants to go to college and learn and she can't … while a boy is made to go whether he wants to or not. I don't see why the world is made so unjust.

—From the diary of 14-year-old M. Carey Thomas, October 1, 1871

The years as president of Bryn Mawr were years of great accomplishment for Thomas, both at the college and as a speaker for women's rights in the larger society. She was the first president of the National College Women's Equal Suffrage League and worked for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After the suffrage amendment passed, she joined the uncompromising National Women's Party led by Alice Paul and opposed protective legislation for women. Thomas expressed in later years her belief in "sex solidarity." In 1921, she, along with labor activists Mary Anderson and Rose Schneiderman , founded the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, an experiment in collaboration between academics and women workers that would be remarkably successful. In addition, Thomas was an exceptional fund raiser. She persuaded the notoriously close-fisted John D. Rockefeller to contribute matching funds for the construction of a dormitory named after him and, even though she often kept the college in debt, she created a campus that architecturally mirrored the high academic accomplishments of the Bryn Mawr students and faculty.

All was not serene during these busy years, however. Perceived as autocratic by the faculty, particularly the male faculty, Thomas was forced to capitulate when a crisis over governance occurred in the 1915–16 school year. She suddenly declared herself in favor of self-governance for faculty (a position she would deny in later years) and survived to serve as president for another six years. In addition, in 1904, her longtime companion Mamie Gwinn left the deanery (Thomas' extravagant residence on the Bryn Mawr campus where they both lived) and married one Alfred Hodder, a Bryn Mawr professor of questionable reputation. Furious about the marriage, Thomas never forgave Gwinn and moved her other friend Mary Garrett, the railroad heiress who had often accompanied Thomas on trips and whose fortune had under-written many of Thomas' professional and personal adventures, into the deanery. They lived together until Garrett's death in 1915. Finally, Thomas' increasingly virulent anti-Semitism and racism began to severely limit her effectiveness in working with broadly based women's groups.

Increasingly, after Garrett's death, Thomas absented herself from the Bryn Mawr campus. This was partially due to increasing disinterest in governance but more especially to the huge bequest she received in Garrett's will, which enabled her to indulge her taste for luxurious travel and fine things. In 1922, amid great accolades, she retired after ensuring that her successor would be a woman, Marion Edwards Park .

In retirement, Thomas traveled extensively, worked in a desultory fashion on her autobiography, and, whenever she was in residence at the deanery at Bryn Mawr, meddled in the affairs of the college. Her extravagant lifestyle (she had 15 servants) caught up with her in the 1930s, and she spent or lost virtually all of the fortune left her by Garrett. Thomas spoke at the 50th-anniversary celebration of Bryn Mawr College on November 2, 1935, and died a month later, on December 2, 1935.


Cross, Barbara M., ed. The Educated Woman in America: Selected Writings of Catharine Beecher , Margaret Fuller , and M. Carey Thomas. NY: Teachers College Press, 1974.

Dobkin, Marjorie Housepian, ed. The Making of a Feminist: Early Journals and Letters of M. Carey Thomas. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1979.

Finch, Edith. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr. NY: Harper and Row, 1947 (censored biography).

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Veysey, Laurence R. "Martha Carey Thomas," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

suggested reading:

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. NY: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.


M. Carey Thomas Collection, Bryn Mawr College; Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, Johns Hopkins Medical School, Baltimore, Maryland; the Rockefeller Archive Center, North Tarrytown, New York.

Anne J. Russ , Professor of Sociology, Wells College, Aurora, New York

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Thomas, M. Carey (1857–1935)

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