Partners Mamie Gwinn, Mary Elizabeth Garrett
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, Stati Uniti
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850, Stati Uniti
Bryn Mawr College, 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, Stati Uniti
Sorbonne, Sorbona, Parigi, Francia
Leipzig University, Augustusplatz 10, 04109 Leipzig, Germania
University of Zurich, Rämistrasse 71, 8006 Zürich, Svizzera
Martha Carey Thomas (January 2, 1857 – December 2, 1935) was an American educator, suffragist, linguist. She was the second president of Bryn Mawr College. M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College and a redoubtable lady if ever there was one, chose as her life's loves two women, with some overlap. Historical figures suspected of having same-sex desires whose personal documents were destroyed include suffragist Alice Paul, educator M. Carey Thomas, interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper, and reformers Jane Addams, Molly Dewson, and Miriam Van Waters. During this period, unmarried women often coupled together as long-term companions, sharing their lives, their homes, their finances, and quite often their beds. The phenomenon was so common, in fact, that such arrangements were known by the colloquial term “Boston marriage,” a reference to the 1886 novel The Bostonians, by Henry James. Some of the most influential women of this era lived in such relationships. Jane Addams, founder of the American settlement house movement; Emily Blackwell, one of the first female medical doctors in the United States and a pioneer in providing medical training to other women; M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College; Sara Josephine Baker, an early advocate for childhood public health; and author Willa Cather are but a few examples. Surviving documents make it clear that the women involved understood these relationships to be serious, emotional unions. They refer to their partners as “My Ever Dear,” “devoted companion,” “lover,” “dearest,” and often describe lifelong devotion, as when reformer Jane Addams wrote to Mary Rozet Smith, her partner of more than thirty years, “I miss you dreadfully and am yours ’til death.”
As a student in Switzerland in the early 1880s, Thomas formed with her Baltimore friend Mamie Gwinn what they both considered a marriage. They lived together, loved each other passionately, and left a record of kisses exchanged and heads nestled in laps. By the time Thomas became president of Bryn Mawr in 1894, she was also in love with another Baltimore friend, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, who in addition was her financial patron. Unable to give up Gwinn's “little love” for the intense and fully requited passion of Garrett, Thomas carefully arranged the two women's comings and goings so they did not have to meet, although they of course knew of each other. But what is particularly striking about Thomas's story is the way she bridged the worlds of romantic friendship and homosexuality. For she read about lesbianism, including sexual acts between women, she admired and followed the trial of Oscar Wilde, and she kept lists of books labeled “Lesbianism” and “Books on Sapphism.” While she shared a bed with the woman she loved, as had countless romantic friends, she also read texts that linked love between women and sexuality. Yet Thomas seemingly never took in any negative portrayals of lesbianism, never expressed any guilt or unease.
Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore
Carey Thomas, as she preferred to be called later in life (she was known as Minnie to her family as a child), was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 2, 1857. She was the daughter of James Carey Thomas and Mary Whitall Thomas. She was conceived "in full daylight," because her father, a doctor, thought this would diminish the chance of his wife miscarrying.:3 Her family included many prominent Quakers, including her uncle and aunt Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith, and her cousins Alys Pearsall Smith (first wife of Bertrand Russell) and Mary Pearsall Smith (who married Bernard Berenson).
In 1864, when Carey Thomas was just seven years old, she was severely burned while trying to help her cook, Eliza, prepare lunch. Thomas's frock caught on fire and the young girl was engulfed in flames, which were shortly thereafter extinguished by her mother. Her recovery was long and arduous, a time during which her mother cared for her intently. Growing up, Thomas was strongly influenced by the staunch feminism of her mother and her mother's sister Hannah Whitall Smith, who became a prominent preacher. Her father, a physician, was not completely happy with feminist ideas, but his daughter was fiercely independent, and he supported her in all of her independent endeavors. Though both her parents were orthodox members of the Society of Friends, Thomas' education and European travel led her to question those beliefs and develop a love for music and theater, both of which were forbidden to Orthodox Quakers. This religious questioning led to friction with her mother.
Thomas initially attended a Society of Friends school in Baltimore. Minnie had a strong childhood relationship with her cousin, Frank Smith, Hannah Smith's son. The two were almost inseparable until Frank's sudden death in 1872. His death deeply depressed Minnie, and moved her parents to send her to the Howland Institute. Minnie transferred with her cousin, Bessie, to the Howland Institute, a Quaker boarding school near Ithaca, New York, in October, 1872. While at Howland, Minnie decided to dress as a man in the school's opera, which made her mother very upset, for it was "repugnant to her taste." It was here that Miss Slocum, a teacher at Howland, influenced her to study education, rather than medicine. Thomas hoped to enter Cornell University to pursue further education, but met with her father's objections. After a great deal of pleading from both Thomas and her mother, her father relented.
Thomas went to Sage College, a women's school at Cornell University, in September, 1875, where she formally changed her name to Carey from Minnie. She graduated from Cornell University in 1877. Cornell offered her both the position of professor of literature and dean of Sage College, but she did not consider either. She did graduate work in Greek at Johns Hopkins University, but withdrew because she was not permitted to attend classes. She did further graduate work at the University of Leipzig, but that university did not grant degrees to women. She then went to the University of Zurich and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics, summa cum laude, in 1882 for her dissertation, which was a philological analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This dissertation continued to be highly regarded by specialists eighty years later. She was the first woman and the first foreigner to receive such a doctorate from the university. She then spent some time in Paris, where she attended lectures by Gaston Paris at the Sorbonne, and then went back home to the United States. Thomas did not pursue her degree out of love for her academic work, but rather out of a desire to show Americans that women had the same intellectual capacity as men.
In 1882, Thomas wrote a letter to the trustees of Bryn Mawr College, requesting that she be made president of the university. She was not granted the position, however, as the trustees were concerned about her relative youth and lack of experience. Instead, Thomas entered in 1884 as the dean of the college and chair of English. Despite not receiving her desired role at Bryn Mawr, Thomas was active in the college's administration, working closely with then president James Rhoads. According to the biographical dictionary Notable American Women: 1607–1950, by 1892 she was "acting president in all but name".
At the end of April 1884 Thomas went with the encouragement of President Rhoads to tour other colleges in the area to become familiar with them in order to bring ideas back to Bryn Mawr. She started her tour at Vassar, then she went on to Smith College, Wellesley, and ended her tour at Radcliffe (or the Harvard Annex as it was still called at the time).
In 1885 Thomas, together with Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Mamie Gwinn (February 2, 1860 – November 11, 1940), Elizabeth King, and Julia Rogers, founded The Bryn Mawr School, a prep school in Baltimore, Maryland. The school would produce well-educated young women who met the very high entrance standards of Bryn Mawr College.
In 1894, President Rhoads died, and Thomas was narrowly elected to succeed him on September 1, 1894. Out of respect for President Rhoads's recent death, Thomas was not given any ceremony. She was president until 1922 and remained as Dean until 1908. During her tenure as president, Thomas' primary concern was upholding the highest standards of admissions and academic rigor. The entrance examinations for the college were made as difficult as those at Harvard University, and pupils could not gain admission by certificate. For the academic curriculum, Thomas emulated the "group system" of Johns Hopkins, in which students were required to take parallel courses in a logical sequence. Students could not freely choose electives. There were also other requirements, including a foreign language requirement that culminated in a sight translation examination proctored by Thomas herself. Overall, the academic curriculum at Bryn Mawr under Thomas shunned liberal arts education, preferring more traditional topics such as Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Thomas was also instrumental in bringing several new buildings to the College, which introduced collegiate Gothic architecture to the United States.
In 1908, she became the first president of the National College Women's Equal Suffrage League. She was also a leading member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After 1920 she advocated the policies of the National Woman's Party. She was one of the early promoters of an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For many years Thomas maintained an intimate relationship with long-time friend, Mamie Gwinn. Thomas and Gwinn lived together at Bryn Mawr College in a small cottage that came to be known as "the Deanery". When Gwinn left Thomas in 1904 to marry (a love triangle fictionalized in Gertrude Stein's Fernhurst) Alfred Hodder, a fellow Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, Thomas pursued a relationship with Mary Elizabeth Garrett. Thomas shared her campus home, the Deanery, with Garrett and together they endeavored to grow Bryn Mawr's resources. Upon her death, Garrett, who had been prominent in suffrage work and a benefactor of Bryn Mawr, left to President Thomas "a sum which would, in 1994, be close to $15,000,000.":424 to be disposed of as she saw fit. M. Carey Thomas had firm views on marriage, and in a letter to her mother she described it as a "Loss of freedom, poverty, and a personal subjection for which I see absolutely no compensation." :173
Both during and before her tenure as college president, Thomas actively worked to bar Jews from entering Bryn Mawr, both as faculty members and as students, biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz noted.
Thomas blocked the hiring of Jewish teachers, and later worked to remove Jewish candidates from consideration for faculty positions. Thomas also tried to block the admission of Sadie Szold, a Jewish student, to the college.
In August 2017, Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy addressed Thomas' "racism and anti-Semitism' and demands by some that the school drop Thomas' name from several buildings.
"While Thomas had a profound impact on opportunities for women in higher education," Cassidy wrote, "on the academic development and identity of Bryn Mawr, and on the physical plan of the campus, she also openly and vigorously advanced racism and anti-Semitism as part of her vision of the College. Some of you have suggested that the College rename Thomas Library and Thomas Great Hall because of this legacy, and others have suggested making that history explicit in other ways."
Thomas retired in 1922, at age sixty-five. She left the college in the capable hands of Marion Edwards Park, who had served as a dean at both Simmons and Radcliffe Colleges. The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, which was founded at Carey's behest in 1921, was a sort of "grand finale" bookending Thomas' legacy as an earlier shaper of the college.:40 Mary Garrett left a considerable fortune to Thomas, who spent the last two decades of her life traveling the world in luxury, including trips to India, the Sahara, and France. Thomas died at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1935 of a coronary occlusion. She had returned to the city to address Bryn Mawr College on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Her ashes were scattered on the Bryn Mawr College campus in the cloisters of the Thomas Library.
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