It was a radical notion for her time, but M. Carey Thomas had always believed that women were equal to men, that they deserved the same chance to have a career and make their own choices in life. Her mother and a favorite aunt had encouraged Thomas' independence as she grew up in West Baltimore in the mid-19th century.
So when it was time to take on the president of Harvard College, Charles W. Eliot, in 1899, M. Carey Thomas was ready.
As president of the all-female Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia, she had seethed upon reading his remarks disparaging the education of women. Women, Eliot had said, simply could not handle the curriculum available in men's colleges. An angered Thomas wrote a friend, "Eliot disgraced himself."
And so, in her annual address to Bryn Mawr students the next week, Thomas spoke out with her customary forthrightness. In a speech that drew media attention around the country, she ridiculed Eliot, declaring: ". . . as progressive as one may be in education or other things there may be in our minds some dark spot of mediaevalism, and clearly in President Eliot's otherwise luminous intelligence women's education is this dark spot."
A woman giving a public scolding to the president of Harvard was unthinkable to many at the time. But it was just another chapter in a lifelong quest for the equality of women, according to "The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas," a biography just published by Alfred A. Knopf.
A few years after the Eliot incident, she commented on her own early concerns about women's place in American society. "I was terror-struck lest I, and every other woman with me, were doomed to live as pathological invalids in a universe merciless to women as a sex," she said. "Now we know that it is not we, but the man who believes such things about us, who is himself pathological, blinded by neurotic mists of sex, unable to see that women form one-half of the kindly race of normal, healthy human creatures in the world."
M. Carey Thomas was no pathological invalid. Born in 1857, the daughter of a doctor, she played a major role in the formation of Bryn Mawr College, first as dean in 1884 (she hired Woodrow Wilson as a faculty member) and then becoming the high-profile president of the college from 1894 to 1922.
Creating Bryn Mawr
In 1885, she and several Baltimore friends founded Bryn Mawr School in the city. In 1893, they were instrumental in the creation of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Their pressure -- and their money -- persuaded the school to agree that female applicants would be given the same opportunity as men. For Thomas, who had experienced blatant sexism as a graduate student at Hopkins in the 1870s, it was a triumph indeed.
The life of this tempestuous, driven, often contradictory woman is portrayed in vivid detail in "The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas." Its author, Smith College history professor Helen Lefcowitz Horowitz, hopes the book will re-establish Thomas as a historical figure of note.
"She was a very important and courageous figure in the history of women's education, and of women's rights in general," Dr. Horowitz, 52, said in an interview in her office on Smith's campus in Northampton, Mass. "Unfortunately, she's been mistakenly written out of the record."
M. Carey Thomas was one of the most famous women of her time, a person whose efforts helped shape both her native city and her country. Yet, curiously, she is little known today. For example, she is mentioned but once, fleetingly, in James B. Crooks' 1968 book, "Politics & Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore, 1895 to 1911."
"The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas" should bring new attention to Thomas. Dr. Horowitz depicts her as a brilliant, forceful and and deeply flawed woman.
"There was always about Carey Thomas something of the weird duck: she never fit into the straitjacket of Victorian convention or of her own effort to be a lady," Dr. Horowitz writes. "She was frankly ambitious in an era that glorified women's sense of duty. She was energetic, even brusque. She read more than seems humanly possible and continued through her life to read newly written books. She was free from many of the pressures other women felt to be good, obedient, and subservient to men."
Thomas was a mass of contradictions. The would-be aesthete who loved poetry and the theater evolved into a shrewd, hard-headed businesswoman who found nearly every conceivable way to elicit money for Bryn Mawr School and Bryn Mawr College. Born into a devoutly Quaker family, she nonetheless loved luxury and for many years enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle that included yearlong, around-the-world trips.
This promoter of a strong, liberal education also became a virulent racist and anti-Semite, proclaiming while president of Bryn Mawr College in 1916 that "The pure Negroes of Africa, the Indians, the Eskimo, the South Sea Islanders, the Turks" had "never yet in the history of the world manifested any continuous mental activity nor even any continuous power of organised government." She actively fought to limit the number of Jewish ++ students and faculty members at both Bryn Mawr School and Bryn Mawr College.
And in her private life, Thomas was far from the austere figure she appeared to be in her public persona. According to Dr. Horowitz, she entered into at least two long and passionate relationships with female lovers from Baltimore -- Mamie Gwinn and Mary Elizabeth Garrett, whose father, John W. Garrett, was president of the B&O; Railroad. Both were ardent feminists who were involved with much of Thomas' life work.
For the Baltimore reader, "The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas" details the impact that Thomas and a small band of determined female friends had on the city.
Thomas and four friends would meet on the second Friday of every month, usually at one of their homes. By the standards of Baltimore in the late 1870s, they were all well-bred young women, privileged with money, social standing and education (that which was generally available to women at the time, of course). Their fathers were important businessmen, political leaders, or doctors.
Within the narrow confines of late 19th-century expectations for their sex, these five women -- Thomas, Garrett, Gwinn, Julia Rogers and Thomas' cousin, Bessie King -- could expect to lead lives of leisure and privilege. But the members of the Friday Evening, as they called themselves, did not concern themselves with issues that preoccupied most of their contemporaries, such as the city's social affairs.
They would talk of poetry, free love and the arts. They discussed the education of women. They wrote a novel together. They devoured the newest and most daring literature and poetry from across the ocean -- especially by the pre-Raphaelites, such as the English poet Swinburne, whose work brimmed with allusions to sexual and emotional passion between women. They wondered if an intelligent, independent woman would invariably suffer if she were to wed.
Elizabeth Fee, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, had written about the Friday Evening, and especially Thomas and Garrett, in a chapter of the 1991 social history, "The Baltimore Book." She applauds the new biography of Thomas.
"Without these very feminist ladies, the medical school would not have opened," Dr. Fee said. They're quite key figures in Baltimore. They were rich women -- Mary Garrett was quite wealthy -- but in being part of that upper crust, they had a lot of pressure to simply lead the normal life of a lady. These women were doing something quite different."
Mary Garrett gave hundreds of thousands of dollars each to Bryn Mawr College and Bryn Mawr School. Julia Rogers contributed heavily to Goucher College. In 1893, after Garrett's donation of more than $300,000 and the years-long lobbying of the others, the Johns Hopkins Medical School was founded.
The five friends' unusual collaboration "enabled them to do things that they would not have had the strength or courage to do otherwise," said Barbara Chase, who wrote about the Friday Evening for her master's thesis in 1990 while headmistress of Bryn Mawr School (she recently became head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.) "M. Carey Thomas was the only professional in the group, but the others did interesting things in the area of volunteering and philanthropy. They were quite revolutionary."
Away from the public eye, their private lives were intertwined in passionate relationships. Thomas became intimately involved with Gwinn for 25 years before a bitter falling out in 1904. Garrett was involved with Rogers before falling in love with Thomas in the early 1890s; when Gwinn left Thomas in 1904 to get married, Garrett lived with Thomas for the next decade. When Garrett died in 1915, she left to Thomas her estate, valued at about $4 million.
The question of the Friday Evening's sexuality, and their ability .. to achieve in a male-dominated world, are key subtexts in "The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas." Dr. Horowitz had become familiar with their story during her writing of the 1984 book, "Alma Mater," which dealt with the formation of seven women's colleges, including Bryn Mawr. But she avoided the question of lesbianism.
"When I wrote 'Alma Mater,' I made a very clear statement that has been recited to me by students and colleagues many, many times -- it was the most controversial statement in a book that does not attempt to incite controversy," she said. "When I was looking at the life of faculty women and saw that they were leaving dormitories and moving out in pairs, I talked about how important it was for women to own their own houses, and getting the money by their own hand, their own wit."
She pulled a copy of "Alma Mater" from a bookshelf and began to read: "And their bedrooms? Here we simply do not know and probably cannot know. The real question is, why do we care?"
Friends and lovers?
She put down the book. "For 'Alma Mater,' I didn't think it was essential to get into questions of sexuality. But this new book is a biography, and I wanted to understand this woman -- what was important to her, how did she understand the world? And so it became a very important question to me, and one of legitimate historical interest. But I wasn't more interested in the question of her sexuality than I was her religion, or her rise to power."
She acknowledges the difficulty of judging women's relationships of the late 19th century by today's standards.
"Women were constantly together, in part because their time with men was greatly restricted," Dr. Horowitz said. "And women freely showed their affection for one another. Many friendships were quite passionate, but not sexual."
But by the 1890s, Dr. Horowitz writes, Thomas' readings of some of the sexually oriented literature of the day, such as the writings of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, indicate that she was keenly interested in the sexual attractions between women. Thus, Dr. Horowitz maintains that by the turn of the century, Thomas was aware of her sexual orientation.
Society's mores changed, though, and Dr. Horowitz writes that Thomas concluded she needed to be more discreet about her personal life: "As late as the first decade of the twentieth century, she wrote of her relationship with Mamie in language analogous to marriage. But by the 1920s she faced a different world. The love between women that had once been broadly accepted was now being portrayed in fiction and on the stage as lesbian and deviant."
James Thomas Flexner, the eminent American historian who is a nephew of M. Carey Thomas, disputes Dr. Horowitz's conclusion, pointing out that Gwinn later married Alfred Hodder.
"The fact that Mamie Gwinn had an affair with a man tends to dispel the notion that Aunt Carey was a lesbian," Mr. Flexner said from his home in New York. "I knew this book was coming out, and I was rather afraid of what it might say. But I don't want to enter into a debate over this."
Anyway, Dr. Horowitz cautioned, "we don't know what Carey Thomas would be if she were alive today. She would have birth control. She would have a chance for a career and a marriage and children. She could have friendships with men as well as women. Some people would say, 'Of course she'd be bisexual.' But how would we know? She doesn't exist outside of her times."
Racism and anti-Semitism
Similarly, Thomas' documented anti-Semitism and racism raise the question of how she should be judged by late 20th-century standards.
Among the middle and upper classes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a certain genteel racism and anti-Semitism was tolerated, even expected (Baltimoreans will recall the furor over entries in H. L. Mencken's diaries). But even in that context, some of Thomas' statements and actions will test her admirers.
Dr. Horowitz points to Thomas' vehement lobbying against the admission of a Jewish student, Sadie Szold, to Bryn Mawr School in 1886. After Garrett -- a co-founder of Bryn Mawr -- admitted Szold to the school, Thomas wrote her a strongly worded letter, saying, "I have just heard from Mamie what you have done about the Jews, and I am very much worried. . . . I should on no account take them [Jews], and I register my strongest protest."
"The conflict over admitting Sadie Szold to Bryn Mawr School affected the relationship between her and Garrett for some months," said Dr. Horowitz. "That was an example of her anti-Semitism going beyond the times, beyond her social circle. She was willing to risk her relationship with Garrett over the entry of a Jewish child at Bryn Mawr School."
Dr. Horowitz also acknowledged being "really disgusted" by one of Thomas' most famous public statements. That was her chapel talk to Bryn Mawr College students in 1916, in which Thomas disparaged the intelligence of practically every racial and ethnic group except Northern Europeans and the British. She also noted the influx into America of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, warning against "the lowering of the physical and mental inheritance of a whole nation by intermixture of unprogressive millions of backward peoples."
"That was the conventional wisdom of the educated elite of the time -- they were all anti-immigrant, especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe," said Leo Dolenski, manuscripts librarian at Bryn Mawr College. "One's first reaction today would be repugnance -- if Thomas said it today, it would be another story. But her speech was printed in the alumni bulletin, and I don't think it caused anybody to blink."
"There was a period of doubt when I wasn't sure if I would continue working on the book," acknowledged Dr. Horowitz, who, like Mr. Dolenski, is Jewish. "But I said, 'I'm not going to flinch. I made a commitment.' I put in the worst racial stuff, just as I put in her most telling statements [rebelling] against Quakerism. I wanted that out, because it was interesting to me and it was part of who she was."
Thomas' racial statements came late in her life, when, as Dr. Horowitz says, her accomplishments were fewer and some of her unattractive qualities came through. "The twentieth-century part of the story is far less appealing," she writes, "but it exists, and I and my readers must face it."
For instance, Thomas' love of money became even more pronounced. When Garrett died in 1915, Thomas inherited her estate. Used to an opulent lifestyle, Thomas now "fashioned a life in the grand manner," as Dr. Horowitz writes.
Thomas wrote to two potential house guests: "I have to have eight servants for my entertaining (two waitresses, two house maids, cook, laundress, seamstress and ironer, lady's maid), and [a] housekeeper, and they have very little to do."
Upon retiring as president of Bryn Mawr College in 1922, Thomas became less of a public figure, though she did announce in 1925 her support for an equal rights amendment. Thomas traveled frequently, and by the time of her death in 1935 at the age of 78, most of Mary Garrett's estate was gone, Dr. Horowitz writes.
Still, as she concludes in the biography's preface: "What is ultimately most remarkable about M. Carey Thomas is not what she did or said, but her construction of her self. Whatever reservations I have about her, I always come back to the hard fact that she was a pioneer. She operated in a world without models of who she could be and become. There is a sense, hard to recreate in today's densely textured world of contradictory female images, that Carey Thomas was utterly alone. . . .
"Ultimately she built better than she lived. The institutions that she created and the doors she opened for women remain as a lasting legacy."