M. Carey Thomas Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas, M. Carey


Thomas, M. Carey 1857-1935

(Full name Martha Carey Thomas) American educator and essayist.

Thomas was one of the most influential advocates of a woman's right to higher education. A prominent American educator, Thomas served as president of Bryn Mawr College between 1894 and 1922. Her collected writings, including her Education of Women, contain her insights on the intellectual equality of women and men, and powerful arguments for the continued expansion of educational opportunities to women. A feminist and progressive, Thomas is also remembered as an active member of the women's suffrage movement in the United States.

Biographical Information

Thomas was born on 2 January 1857 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of ten children in the Quaker family of James Carey Thomas and Mary Whitall Thomas. At the age of seven she was severely burned in an accident at her parents' home, an incident that led Thomas to question the existence of a benevolent God and moved her along the path to secularism. During her recovery, she embarked on a wide program of reading, which she details in her early journals. Thomas was educated at Quaker schools, including the Howland Institute near Ithaca, New York. After graduation she determined to attend college, an unusual desire for a women of that era. Defying her father, Thomas enrolled at Cornell University in 1875. While there she dropped her first name, preferring Carey Thomas, and earned her bachelor's degree in 1877. Thomas continued to pursue her education at Johns Hopkins University; however, she was barred from attending classes with male students and chose to withdraw within a year. Thomas later traveled to Europe in 1879 with hopes of earning an advanced degree in philology. She enrolled at the University of Leipzig in Germany, but because of her gender was refused a doctorate. She moved to Switzerland, and in 1882 obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Zurich, graduating summa cum laude. Following her return to the United States, Thomas received an appointment as first dean of Bryn Mawr College for Women in 1884. She was later named the school's second president in 1894. Thomas published her Education of Women in pamphlet form in 1899. Its reprinting the following year as part of the Monographs on Education in the United States series positioned her as the leading proponent of women's access to higher education. Following two decades of vocal activism on behalf of her belief in the equality of men and women, Thomas retired from her position as president of Bryn Mawr in 1922. She died on 2 December 1935 of heart failure.

Major Works

Aside from her abundant personal diaries and correspondence, which were collected in The Making of a Feminist: Early Journals and Letters of M. Carey Thomas, Thomas wrote a series of essays on the education of women in the United States. In these writings, Thomas outlines her thoughts on the equality of women and men. A firm believer in Darwinian ideas as they relate to society, she eschewed intellectual segregation based on sex. She argued instead that women should be allowed to compete with their male counterparts on the plane of higher education, rather than be limited to instruction in social niceties, such as etiquette and music, duties of parenthood and child-rearing. Over the course of her career as president of Bryn Mawr College, Thomas also presented her view of the future of women's education and asked women to make a choice to devote their lives to the advancement of human knowledge "to make it possible for the few women of creative and constructive genius born in any generation to join the few men of genius in their generation in the service of their common race." Scholars recognize Thomas's early essay Education of Women among her most dynamic statements of these beliefs. During her career she also wrote on other, generally social, topics. Thomas's 1924 essay How to Get into the League of Nations demonstrates her support of the League of Nations as a mechanism to ensure international peace.

Critical Reception

That Thomas was an integral part of the women's progressive movement in the early twentieth century is of little doubt to modern critics. Contemporary scholarship, therefore, has typically focused on other issues related to her cultural influence. Of particular interest has been Thomas's passionate devotion to reading. Using the records offered by her journals, critics have interpreted Thomas's youthful pursuit of literature as a means of transcending the limits placed upon her as a woman in Victorian America. Elucidating this process, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz and Barbara Sicherman have both studied Thomas's capacity to imaginatively "create" herself through reading and related this propensity to significant cultural shifts in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Principal Works

Education of Women (essay) 1899

Dr. Thomas on Woman's Ballot (essay) 1907

How to Get into the League of Nations (essay) 1924

The Making of a Feminist: Early Journals and Letters of M. Carey Thomas [edited by M. H. Dobkin] (journals and letters) 1979


M. Carey Thomas (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: "Education for Women and Men," in The Educated Woman in America: Selected Writings of Catharine Beecher, Margaret Fuller, and M. Carey Thomas, edited by Barbara M. Cross, Teachers College Press, 1901, pp. 145-54.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1901, Thomas presents arguments for equality in the higher education of women and men.]

A subject like this fairly bristles with possibilities of misunderstanding. To get a firm grip of it we must resolutely turn our minds from all side issues and endeavor to put the question in so precise a form as to make sure that we at least mean the same thing. Stripped of its nonessentials we shall find that the real question at issue has very seldom been seriously argued. Not, of course, because of its unimportance—it is all-important—but because its approaches are set round about with our dearest prejudices, especially if we are men. Logical pitfalls lie on all sides of us; controversies past and present darken the air; our path leads us thru hard-won battlefields. If we are women, our almost irresistible impulse is to slay again the slain; if we are men, the graves of our dead comrades provoke an equally irresistible desire to send a scattering volley into some weak side-encampment of the enemy instead of lining up squarely for the last logical trial of arms. I have contrasted men and women advisedly, because this is one of the very few questions on which most educated men and women are to be found in opposite sides of the camp. If it were possible to discuss it dispassionately, I believe men and women could reach substantial agreement.

I will try, first of all, to state the subject of discussion so that there may be no possibility of our misunderstanding each other in regard to it; next, I will make an attempt to clear the way of prejudices and prejudgments that have really nothing at all to do with the argument; and finally, I will address myself to the argument itself. Higher education means generally any education above the highschool grade; that is, the education given in the technical and professional school as well as in the college.

In regard to technical and professional education there should, it seems to me, be little, if any, serious difference of opinion, and I shall therefore begin with that. We may differ as to whether it is desirable for a college course to precede, and be presupposed in, the course of a technical or professional school, but we cannot think that men students of law or medicine or architecture, for example, should be college-bred, while women students of law, medicine, or architecture should not. Personally I am confident that in ten years' time after graduation, physicians, and lawyers, and architects, whether men or women, whose parents have been able to send them to college, will be found to have outstripped their non-college-bred competitors both in reputation and in income. But, however we decide this matter, it must be decided in the same way for men and women. Sex cannot affect the question of the best preliminary preparation for professional and technical study.

So also with professional and technical courses themselves. Once granted that women are to compete with men for self-support as physicians or lawyers, whether wisely or unwisely does not now concern us, being merely one of the many side issues that have in the past so obscured our judgment of the main argument; indeed, if women are not to compete there will be, of course, no women in medical schools and law schools and no reason for argument at all—the question is simply, what is the best attainable training for the physician or the lawyer, man or woman? There is no reason to believe that typhoid or scarlet fever or phthisis can be successfully treated by a woman physician in one way and by a man physician in another way. There is indeed every reason to believe that unless treated in the best way the patient may die, the sex of the doctor affecting the result less even than the sex of the patient. The question needs only to be put for us to feel irrevocably sure that there is no special woman's way of dealing with disease. And so in law, in architecture, in electricity, in bridge-building, in all mechanic arts and technical sciences, our effort must be for the most scientific instruction, the broadest basis of training that will enable men and women students to attain the highest possible proficiency in their chosen profession. Given two bridge-builders, a man and a woman, given a certain bridge to be built, and given as always the unchangeable laws of mechanics in accordance with which this special bridge and all other bridges must be built, it is simply inconceivable that the preliminary instruction given to the two bridge-builders should differ in quantity, quality, or method of presentation because while the bridge is building one will wear knickerbockers and the other a rainy-day skirt. You may say you do not think that God intended a woman to be a bridge-builder. You have, of course, a right to this prejudice; but as you live in America, and not in the interior of Asia or Africa, you will probably not be able to impose it on women who wish to build bridges. You may say that women's minds are such that they cannot build good bridges. If you are right in this opinion you need concern yourselves no further—bridges built by women will, on the whole, tend to fall down, and the competition of men who can build good bridges will force women out of the profession. Both of these opinions of yours are side issues, and, however they may be decided hereafter, do not in the remotest degree affect the main question of a common curriculum for men and women in technical and professional schools. But you may say that men and women should study bridge-building and medicine and law in separate schools, and not together. You may be foolish enough, and wasteful enough, to think that all the expensive equipment of our technical and professional schools should be duplicated for women, when experience and practice have failed to bring forward a single valid objection to professional coeducation, and when the present trend of public opinion is overwhelmingly against you; and for the sake of argument let us grant that beside every such school for men is to be founded a similar school for women. But this duplication of professional schools for women leaves us just where we were in regard to the curriculum of professional study to be taught in such women's schools. So long as men and women are to compete together, and associate together, in their professional life, women's preparation for the same profession cannot safely differ from men's. If men's preparation is better, women, who are less well prepared, will be left behind in the race; if women's is better, men will suffer in competition with women. What is best in medical training for men will be best in medical training for women; what has bad results in medical training for men will be found to have the same...

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M. Carey Thomas (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: "Motives and Future of the Educated Woman," in The Educated Woman in America: Selected Writings of Catharine Beecher, Margaret Fuller, and M. Carey Thomas, edited by Barbara M. Cross, Teachers College Press, 1965. pp. 158-69.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1908, Thomas observes the state of women's education at the time and makes recommendations for its future.]

The passionate desire of women of my generation for higher education was accompanied thruout its course by the awful doubt, felt by women themselves as well as by men, as to whether women as a sex were physically and mentally fit for it. I think I can best make this clear to you if I...

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Roberta Frankfort (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Martha Carey Thomas: The Scholarly Ideal and Bryn Mawr Woman," in Collegiate Women: Domesticity and Career in Turn-of-the-Century America, New York University Press, 1977, pp. 26-40.

[In the following essay, Frankfort describes the evolution of Thomas's vision of the educated woman.]

When in 1899 Martha Carey Thomas, the young and spirited president of Bryn Mawr College, accused the venerated president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, of having "sun spots" on his brain, the account was carried in newspapers across the country. Her presumption was a rarity among even educated women whose preoccupation with conflicts between womanliness and intellect often...

(The entire section is 5925 words.)

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Nous Autres: Reading, Passion, and the Creation of M. Carey Thomas," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 1, June, 1992, pp. 68-95.

[In the following essay, Horowitz explores the ways in which Thomas "created herself" through her reading of romantic literature, and in so doing challenged accepted ideas of a woman's private identity and same-sex love.]

What does it mean to read? Does an author fill readers with a text, etching impressions on the blank slates of their minds? Or do readers shape a text, giving it content and meaning to suit their bents and instincts? As reader-response theorists engage in this new version of the philosophical debate...

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Barbara Sicherman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Reading and Ambition: M. Carey Thomas and Female Heroism," in American Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 73-103.

[In the following essay, Sicherman analyzes Thomas's reading and its relation to expanding social roles for women in the late nineteenth century.]

"[T]he fact is," fourteen-year-old Minnie Thomas declared in 1871: "I don't care much for any thing except dreaming about being grand & noble & famous but that I can never be." She did become famous as M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, where she provided a model and an environment that promoted ambition in other female dreamers. As an adolescent she hoped to show "that the...

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Further Reading


Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M, Carey Thomas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 526 p.

Comprehensive critical biography of Thomas.

Meigs, Cornelia. "Martha Carey Thomas." In What Makes a College? A History of Bryn Mawr, pp. 65-120. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1956.

Studies Thomas's considerable influence as president of Bryn Mawr College between 1894 and 1922.

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