M. Carey Thomas Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.