Bryn Mawr to allow book on its history

Board of trustees relents after being petitioned by historians, other scholars

May 22, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Bowing to a storm of protest from historians and other scholars, Bryn Mawr School backed down yesterday and said it would allow publication of a history of the school it suppressed two years ago.

In a letter sent by fax to the author, Andrea D. Hamilton, Bryn Mawr's trustee board placed one condition on publication: that readers be notified the book is "not an official or sanctioned history" of the school.

The decision to lift the ban was reached during a 3 1/2 -hour meeting of the trustees Thursday, said David M. Funk, board chairman. He declined to comment further, saying only, "The letter speaks for itself."

Hamilton, who lives in Dallas, sold the book to Johns Hopkins University Press in 1998, but the academic press canceled the contract in 2000 after Bryn Mawr threatened legal action, citing an agreement the young scholar signed in 1995 to gain access to school records. The agreement gives the school approval rights over any publication based on its records.

After stories about Hamilton's case appeared recently in The Sun and later in the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 140 historians and other scholars and archivists petitioned Bryn Mawr to allow publication of Hamilton's work, which was written as a dissertation in history at Tulane University in New Orleans.

The signers, including three historians at the Johns Hopkins University, made it clear they were not judging Hamilton's work, but asking Bryn Mawr to hew to its "tradition of free and open inquiry."

Hamilton had been informed Monday that she would receive a decision yesterday. "I was so nervous," she said. "I couldn't just sit around the fax, so I went shopping." Her husband, Scott F. Wendorf, informed her of the decision by cell phone.

"I'm so pleased and relieved," said Hamilton, 35. "You know, I fought the battle alone and in the dark for a very long time."

Jim Jordan, director of the Hopkins Press, said, "We feel it's the appropriate outcome, and we would still like to publish the book."

Hamilton worked three years on the dissertation, which she successfully defended at Tulane. She spent another year revising the manuscript after passing the Hopkins Press' demanding approval process.

She hoped publication by a prestigious academic press would launch her career as an academic historian.

"From the very beginning of this controversy," said Wilfred M. McClay, Hamilton's adviser at Tulane, "she was disparaged and bullied by arrogant people who thought they could roll over her. ... Now she's a shining example of the very kind of woman Bryn Mawr School was created to help form.

"A great irony," McClay added, is that Hamilton's work "is actually quite kind to Bryn Mawr." There's very little biting criticism, he noted, and only passing reference to the alleged lesbianism of the school's founders and other topics in dispute.

Hamilton said she would take a few days to "regroup" and decide her next move. She said she had no objection to the disclaimer required of Bryn Mawr. "I have no desire to be the school's official historian," she said.

Bryn Mawr officials offered no explanation when they abruptly blocked publication of Hamilton's work nearly a year and a half after she landed the Hopkins contract.

Only then did former headmistress Rebecca MacMillan Fox put the manuscript out to two reviewers. Both had close ties to the school, and both panned Hamilton's work, one calling it "historically muddled."

Barbara Landis Chase, an influential former head of Bryn Mawr, is reported to have objected to the way the book depicts the school's role in the history of girls' education. Chase has declined to comment.

Funk's letter to Hamilton expresses Bryn Mawr's "continuing agreement with, and appreciation of" the two reviewers chosen by Bryn Mawr.

The letter also says Bryn Mawr doesn't consider Hamilton's work a history. A complete history, it says, would consider such things as "the choices and accomplishments of the school's alumnae" and "the perspectives of the four living heads of the school."

Fox, who resigned from Bryn Mawr last year, and Laura Kalman, a legal historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara who drafted and circulated the petition supporting Hamilton, praised the decision.

"It's a constructive resolution with which I concur," said Fox. "I look forward to seeing the book in print."

Said Kalman: "I'm thrilled at this victory for academic freedom."

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