She was a woman ahead of her time M. Carey Thomas the POWER & PASSION

September 04, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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