Historians sign on to petition Bryn Mawr on quashed book

140 unite on principle, ask city girls school to allow publication

May 13, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

An international cross-section of historians has rallied to support a fellow scholar stunned when publication of her book on Bryn Mawr School was blocked by the school after she sold the manuscript to the Johns Hopkins University Press.

A petition bearing the names of more than 140 historians -- many of them well known in their fields -- will be delivered in electronic and paper forms to the private North Baltimore girls school today with a message:

"We earnestly hope that you will reconsider your earlier decision and allow the Bryn Mawr School to be remembered for its tradition of free and open inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge," the historians say in the petition directed to David M. Funk, chairman of Bryn Mawr `s board of trustees.

The book, a social history of Bryn Mawr emphasizing the school's place in girls education, was written as a doctoral dissertation at Tulane University by Andrea Hamilton, now a part-time teacher in Dallas.

Two years ago, Hopkins canceled Hamilton's contract -- giving no explanation -- after Bryn Mawr officials invoked an agreement she signed to gain access to school records. The agreement gives Bryn Mawr approval rights over any publication based on research in its archives.

The issue came to light recently when stories on Hamilton's case were published in The Sun last month and later in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The petition was drafted and circulated by Laura Kalman, a legal historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has never met Hamilton, Kalman said Friday from Jerusalem, where she holds a Fulbright research professorship, "but when I read about what happened to her, I thought `This could be me.'

"Besides, I'm tenured," she said, "and my mom always says that just as people helped me get there, I should help the people who follow. This is a chance to make a real difference in the life of a young scholar and take a stand on an issue vital to our profession."

The petition emphasizes that those who signed are not judging the quality of Hamilton's work.

"Reasonable people may differ about Dr. Hamilton's interpretations and conclusions, as we do about all subjects of historical scholarship," the petition states. "This is our trade, and this is what we do. ...

"When the subjects of scholarly inquiry engage in the apparently arbitrary suppression of responsible scholarly work, it fatally undermines our pursuit of that mission."

The petition's signers teach or conduct research at a broad cross-section of international colleges and universities, ranging from the University of Maryland, College Park, to McGill University in Montreal, the University of Virginia, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Among signers are historians James T. Patterson of Brown University, James A. Henretta of the University of Maryland, Thomas Bender of New York University, Peter S. Onuf of the University of Virginia, Lizbeth Cohen of Harvard, Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia, Helen L. Horowitz of Smith College and Mary Francis Berry of the University of Pennsylvania.

Horowitz, biographer of Bryn Mawr founder M. Carey Thomas, was one of the readers of Hamilton's dissertation for Hopkins Press before it offered her a contract. Berry is also chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Five university archivists also signed the petition.

"I deal with university archivists and curators all the time," said Kalman. "I've signed permission forms, but they're usually pro forma agreements applied in a pro forma fashion. If they're used to restrict, to police, I'd have to think carefully about working in archives."

Funk, the Bryn Mawr chairman, said school officials are "taking a fresh look at everything involved with this case, and we'll either reaffirm [the decision to block publication] or we won't. We'll be reviewing Dr. Hamilton's manuscript, and we'll be reviewing the agreement she signed."

Other Bryn Mawr and Hopkins Press officials have declined to comment on what happened to Hamilton's work.

It is known that after canceling the contract in spring 2000, Bryn Mawr's then-headmistress, Rebecca MacMillan Fox, sent the dissertation to two reviewers -- one of them her sister, Emory University historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Both panned the 349-page thesis, Fox-Genovese calling it "historically muddled and misleading."

Earlier reviewers praised the book, however. One, Baltimore-based higher education consultant George Keller, called it a "splendid work" and suggested Hamilton submit it to Hopkins.

Barbara Landis Chase, an influential former head of Bryn Mawr, is reported to have read the manuscript and objected to the way it depicted the school's role in the history of girls education. Chase, now head of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has declined to comment.

Hamilton wrote that though Bryn Mawr had once dedicated itself to challenging assumptions about womanhood, the school in later years "often perpetuated society's expectations for girls."

Critics said the author dealt incompletely with the Bryn Mawr of modern times, failed to interview any of the living former heads and relied too heavily on material from the archives.

Hamilton, 35, and her Tulane adviser, Wilfred M. McClay, have suggested that the rejection will make it unlikely that she will find a job as a tenured professor at a respected university.

Publicity on Hamilton's case has made her something of a celebrity in academic circles. Historians' Internet chat rooms have been abuzz with discussion of her case, and late last week, the History News Network at George Mason University posted the historians' petition.

"I don't feel like a celebrity," said Hamilton. "It all seems to be happening beyond me now. It's about me, but in some ways I feel like I'm watching someone else."

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