On this date in 1858 a pioneer in education and women’s rights was born. Martha Carey Thomas — known as Minnie to her family but simply as Carey by her own preference — was born into a Quaker family in Baltimore. She was badly burned at the age of seven and became an avid reader during her convalescence. She had a strong independent spirit, influenced by her mother and aunt, both early proto-feminists. She graduated from Cornell’s Sage college and was offered a position as dean but opted to expand her horizons first.
Coming from great privilege, she toured Europe where she developed a love of music and theatre. This put her at odds with her Quaker upbringing, leaving her largely without religion for the rest of her life. She attended a number of universities in Europe to demonstrate the academic prowess of women and received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Zurich. (Her dissertation was on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of my favorite works of literature.)
When Thomas returned from Europe, her father had just been made a trustee of the new Byrn Mawr college. Drawing on her academic strength, she petitioned to be made president of the university. Citing her age — she was 25 — the board rejected her offer but made her a professor of English and a dean. Recognizing her talents, President John Rhoads had her tour other women’s colleges to get ideas for the new school. She visited Vassar, Smith College, Wellesley, Cambridge in Boston, and Radcliffe, returning with a stronger sense of feminism and a strong desire to improve education for women.
After Rhoads’ death in 1894, Thomas was made President. She stopped teaching, but continued as Dean until 1908. She maintained strict academic standards and designed a system of tracked academic courses modelled on Johns Hopkins. (She herself had attended that school but left because she could not officially gain credits as a woman.) She frequently lectured on women’s intellectual equality with men.
One man’s mind differs from another man’s mind far more widely than all women’s minds differ from all men’s.
She was a staunch suffragist and the first president of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League. She was also a peace activist and a supporter of the Progressive party. Sadly, she did not always use her privilege for good. Despite being part of a marginalized population and an activist for equality for women, she was also a eugenicist and an opponent of non-European immigration, thus showing her complexity as a flawed human being.
Thomas was romantically involved with Mamie Gwinn, whom she had met while studying in Leipzig. They were together for many years until Gwinn left her to marry a man. That triangle was immortalized by Gertrude Stein in Fernhurst. She later became involved with Mary Garrett, with whom she lived in the campus president’s home until Garrett’s death.
Carey Thomas retired from Bryn Mawr in 1922. Mary Garrett had left her the astounding sum of $1.5 million; she dedicated some to the school and used to the rest to retire in luxury, engaging in world travel and her love of music and theatre. She died in December 1935 at the age of 78, leaving behind a complicated legacy. While I do celebrate Thomas’ voice for the Suffragist Movement, her peace activism, and her stand for equality for women, it is a great disappointment to see that she was not able to look at the intersections of oppression, or realize how her eugenicist beliefs marginalized people, as she was marginalized.