Bryn Mawr closed book on career, historian says

Turnaround: Despite initial support, the school has forbidden the publication of a doctoral dissertation, leaving the author with little to show for seven years of work.

April 02, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

In the waning months of 1998, Andrea Hamilton was on top of the world.

She had earned a doctorate in history at Tulane University after toiling for three years on a scholarly paper about Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School and its place in women's education. She had sold the dissertation, a social history of the nation's first school dedicated exclusively to college preparation for girls, to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press.

With her paper due for publication as a book, Hamilton would move from student to scholar, and her future as a historian looked rosy.

Her dream has since crumbled.

Without explanation, Bryn Mawr lawyers have blocked the paper's publication -- forcing Hopkins to pull out -- by citing an agreement Hamilton signed to gain access to school records. The agreement gives Bryn Mawr approval rights over any publication based on research in its archives, and school officials have refused to sign off on Hamilton's book.

The rejection, said Professor Wilfred M. McClay, her adviser at the New Orleans university, makes it unlikely that Hamilton will find a job as a tenured professor at a respected university. "They were out to crush this thing," he said, "and a promising career is dead in its tracks, along with a book that would have put Bryn Mawr on the map."

Adding to Hamilton's woes after blocking the book's publication, Bryn Mawr officials also put her manuscript out for review by two historians, one the sister of the school's headmistress. Both panned the 349-page work, one of whose primary themes is that during its 12-decade history, Bryn Mawr gradually relaxed the high academic standards established by the five women who founded it.

Hamilton and McClay were stunned, because the paper had passed muster at an academic press with Hopkins' reputation. Before offering a contract, academic presses send manuscripts to at least two scholarly readers who pass judgment anonymously. In addition, manuscripts under consideration are reviewed by faculty.

"I was taken totally aback, and I was totally confused," said Hamilton, 35, who now lives in Dallas. "I'd had nothing but good relations with Bryn Mawr since the day I entered the archives in 1995. I'd sent them copies of my dissertation as soon as it was published in 1998. Then they suddenly turned from hot to cold without explanation."

Reconstructing what happened at Bryn Mawr and Hopkins is difficult because most of the principals, including officials at Hopkins Press and the private school in North Baltimore, won't comment.

What is known is that the congratulations at Christmastime 1998 from Bryn Mawr archivist Peggy Woodward -- "we will be happy to work with JHU Press on photographs and anything else that might be needed" -- turned to concerned calls from Hopkins Press editors a year later. Hamilton said she was told that Barbara Landis Chase, an influential former 14-year headmistress of the school, had read the manuscript and had had "severe reservations."

Sources said others, including Rebecca MacMillan Fox, headmistress in 1999, joined the criticism. They objected to the way Hamilton related Bryn Mawr's history to that of girls' education in America. "Several people read [the dissertation], including historians, and said it's not accurate history," said David M. Funk, who heads Bryn Mawr's trustee board.

Fox, who resigned a year ago after six years as headmistress, and Chase, now head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., both declined to comment.

McClay said Hamilton offered to revise her manuscript to satisfy objections, "but they wouldn't meet her one-sixteenth of the way."

When Hamilton approached another publisher, Bryn Mawr quickly stepped in. "The Bryn Mawr School does not authorize the proposed publication of material from its archives," Fox wrote early last year to Rowman & Littlefield Publishers of Lanham.

After halting publication at Hopkins in 2000, Bryn Mawr put the manuscript out for review.

Historian Suzanne E. Chapelle of Morgan State University wrote that she found a "very troubling attitude of apparent dislike for the school on the part of the author." Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University in Atlanta, Rebecca Fox's sister, complained of "unevenness, inconsistency and lack of focus."

By contrast, previous reviews were enthusiastic. "It is a splendid work," George Keller, a Baltimore-based higher education consultant, wrote Hamilton in 1998. He also suggested Hamilton submit the manuscript to Hopkins Press.

One of the anonymous reviews commissioned by Hopkins Press in 1998 and obtained by The Sun called the manuscript "a case study of an important private school for girls. Its significance lies in the fact that it is the first serious work (or among the first) on a subject that has been neglected by professional historians -- independent schools for girls. In many ways it is a model study of its kind."

But critics found Hamilton's study far from a model, objecting to her view of Bryn Mawr's place in the history of girls' education.

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