Miss Carey Thomas
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
Oil on canvas    
147.3 x 96.5 cm (58 x 38 in.)
Inscribed: (Upper left:) John S. Sargent
Jpg: brynmawr.edu
"The man's world must become a man's and a woman's world. Why are we afraid? It is the next step forward on the path to the sunrise . . . "
(1908 Address to the North American Woman Suffrage Association, Buffalo) 

M. Carey Thomas (1857-1935) was a pioneer for women's education after having overcome incredible obstacles to become educated herself. She became president of Bryn Mawr College in 1894, and served until 1922 where she played a pivotal role in knocking down barriers and setting high standards for women in education. 
The portrait was commissioned in 1898 by the alumnae and students of Bryn Mawr. Thomas had just completed the fourth year at the helm as President of the still young college and had firmly put her mark on the institution after having been its chief academic officer for fourteen years, and after having been its first Dean when it was formed. 

To sit for the portrait she traveled to London in late July of 1899 with her friend Mary Garrett where she sat for six days in Sargent's Tite Street studio. It would be officially presented to the college in November that same year wherein it was proclaimed: 

    . . . the portrait - our portrait - belongs to the college and to the future. But that future, past and present of Bryn Mawr are one . . . in standing for the idea of women's education, for which it is our pride that Miss Thomas preeminently stands. 

    (Content Shepard Nichols, '99, describing the presentation ceremony for the November 24, 1899 issue of The Fortnightly Philistine)

How she got to this position of the leading figure of women's education in America is an interesting story.  
 * * * *

Carey was born in Baltimore -- Martha Carey Thomas and called "Minnie" to her Quaker family. She was the oldest of ten children. She pretty much hated her first name and preferred to be called by her middle name. Her father, James Carey Thomas, was a physician and a trustee of Johns Hopkins University and a strong supporter of higher education -- although his views didn't necessarily apply to his own daughter. This conflict with her father would apparently shape her whole life. 

As a young child she was highly intelligent, willful and a ferocious reader. As she got older she was sent to a Quaker dame's school thought appropriate for "young ladies" but she detested it and grew jealous of her younger brothers' more substantive education. 

    . . . a woman can be a woman and a true one without having all her time engrossed by dress and society.  
    -- Carey Thomas 
    (Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 1, by Edith Finch, 1947.)
In 1872, Carey with the help of her mother, Mary Whitall Thomas, and her mother's sister, Hannah Whitall Smith (both active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union WCTU), persuaded her father to allow her to attend a newly opened school for girls in New York.  While studying there her father asked Carey to investigate Cornell University for a possible destination for one of her brothers.  

When she arrived at Cornell, she was determined to attend herself.  Though her father staunchly apposed co-education for women and especially his daughter, she wouldn't take no for an answer and she received her bachelor's degree from Cornell in the spring of 1877.  

    "One thing I am determined on is that by the time I die my brain shall weigh as much as a man's if study and learning can make it so." 
    -- Carey Thomas 
    (Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 2, by Edith Finch, 1947.)
Immediately following (the fall of 1877) she applied to John Hopkins University.  With her father's position as trustee she was reluctantly admitted for a master's degree program -- the first woman to enter a Hopkins graduate course -- but was prohibited from attending lectures. Carey became frustrated by the continual roadblocks and opposition to her degree program and was denied any study in Greek. She withdrew after completing only one year.  
    "My one aim and concentrated purpose shall be and is to show that women can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature and science . . ."  
    -- Carey Thomas 
     (Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 1, by Edith Finch, 1947)
She traveled to Europe and enrolled at the University of Leipzig but then transferred to the University of Zurich because the former wouldn't award a Ph.D. to a woman, and forced her to sit behind a screen during classes so as not to "distract" the male students.  

When she graduated from Zurich, she did so summa cum laude -- the first woman and first foreigner to do so. While she was there she learned about a proposed women's college at Bryn Mawr, a small little village nine miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from which her father was a trustee. She immediately applied for the position of presidency.  

She didn't get it.  

    The life of the intellect and spirit has been lived only by men. The world of scholarship and research has been a man's world.  
    - Carey Thomas
Who got the presidency was a man by the name of Rhoad. Carey was, however, appointed Dean of the College and first Professor of English. Once there, she struggled within the school's framework trying to form it to her vision.  

In 1889, she joined with Mary Gwinn, Mary Garrett, and two other key women in offering a large gift to the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in exchange for ensuring that women would be admitted on an equal basis with men.  

By 1894 she was performing many of the functions of the president and against Rhoad's recommendation, upon his retirement (which appears to be the "official version" but I wonder if Rhoad wasn't forced out in a power struggle, since he reportedly wept after the trustee's election) by a split vote of the trustees, Miss Carey Thomas was elected the next President of Bryn Mawr College.  

Finally, having obtained what she originally wanted, she steered the school into her vision of what a school for women should be: 

    Women while in college ought to have the broadest possible education. This college education should be the same as men's, not only because there is but one best education, but because men's and women's effectiveness and happiness and the welfare of the generation to come after them will be vastly increased if their college education has given them the same intellectual training and the same scholarly and moral ideals." 
    --Carey Thomas, 1901
 * * *

Carey Thomas is truly a pioneer and a hero for women's education and a significant subject in John Singer Sargent's oeuvre. But the story about Carey isn't that simple. She apparently was a flawed hero -- as many of our heroes often are. In her quest to become one of the Gold of Plato's Republic, she became corrupted herself. Instead of changing the "old boys club" her only intent was to join them and show she could more an "ol' boy" than they were; and she did so by fully embraced some of the worst elements of thinking of the "enlightened few".  She was a woman who came from a privilege family and like many of her class, never looked beyond that. Education, for her, was for the privileged, and the school she ran was for the privileged. Again, like many of her class at that time, she was a supporter of the eugenics movement. She endorsed strict immigration quotas, and believed in the "intellectual supremacy of the white race."  

To me, if Carey Thomas is a hero  -- and she is -- she also stands as a warning. We should never cover up her flaws in our praise for her, nor should we dismiss her positive accomplishments -- significant accomplishments for all those that followed. 

For me, it's a mixed bag and a reminder that though true: to become enlightened, one must become educated; it is fallacious (as Carey Thomas shows us) that to be educated -- highly educated even -- is to guarantee  enlightenment. 
(women in American History 

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Sixty Ninth Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1900, no. 32.
Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900, no. 14.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, no. 373.
Bryn Mawr College, 1980.
McKibbin, David, "Sargent's Boston," Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1956.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, pg. 164.
SIRIS IAP 81690419

Created 12/26/2002