Ever wondered what M. Carey Thomas sounded like? If so, listen up!

We have previously featured a radio broadcast of M. Carey Thomas (available in this post on the issue of single sex education today), but given the significant and perennial interest in her (and particularly her mannerisms) that we’ve noticed through talking to people about this project, I thought I’d feature it again.

Thomas recorded this broadcast in 1935, just a few months before her death. By this stage she was a well practiced speaker, having given public orations on women’s education and suffrage for many years. She also gave chapel speeches to the students at Bryn Mawr which are warmly remembered in students accounts of their time at the college. What many may not be aware of is that Thomas undertook elocution lessons in order to perfect her oratory. As Helen Horowitz has written in excellent biography The Power and the Passion of M. Carey Thomas, she ‘hoped the world would see her [as] a woman of dignity and taste’ (page 227) and her professionalism while speaking was undoubtedly part of this.

Thomas’ regular and memorable chapel speeches to the students ranged from her personal ideas and experiences to more polemical speeches on the importance of the ‘Bryn Mawr standard’ and educational opportunities for women. She clearly had a vision of women in the public world, a role that could only be obtained through higher education and active participation in society.

In the radio broadcast, Thomas spoke about her own journey through education, how she had never come into contact with an educated woman in her childhood, and how her mother’s friends offered expressions of sympathy rather than encouragement when she went to Europe to pursue her educational journey. As Thomas says, they would have been less scandalized if she had run away with the coachman than her decision to obtain higher education! It reminds us of the importance of role models in achieving ambitions; to be able to see someone achieve what you wish for makes it ultimately seem more possible for you and more acceptable for those who see it as out of the norm. Although women’s access to higher education in the US is no longer in question, this sentiment holds true: role models, mentors and successful examples are necessary to envision and realize goals, regardless of what they are.

Thomas also highlights in the speech the objections made to women’s education at Bryn Mawr in its early years, with claims of physical incapacity resulting from the ‘strain’ of undertaking a degree, arguments which existed for centuries before Thomas’ own experiences and referred to in Michelle Smith’s (BMC ’12) post earlier on this blog. The societal expectations of women’s intellectual and physical capacity for higher education were low, and this may explain the detailed monitoring of student’s physical health in the early years of the college, proving that academic study could be combined with physical education to positive effect.

Thomas’ talk is a celebration of how far women had come in 1935 from her own days of education at the end of the nineteenth century, and her spirit of optimism and encouragement is something I feel is imbued in the overall spirit of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. 

Click here to listen to M. Carey Thomas mcareythomas1935 and let us know what you think!

Searching the M. Carey Thomas papers online – now made easier than ever with Triptych

Many people are interested in the papers of M. Carey Thomas, not just to explore the details of her own life, but because of the numerous famous people she hosted at the college and her voluminous correspondence with notables of her day. The above photograph shows Thomas standing on the verandah of the Deanery, her home for over five decades of her life. A history and guide to the Deanery has been digitized and can be found in Bryn Mawr College’s new institutional repository by clicking here.

The index or finding aid to her papers at Bryn Mawr College Special Collections was created when this archival material was committed to microfilm, and we have now digitized the index to make it even easier to search her correspondence. Although this collection is relatively well known, we hope it will become even more so now that you can search the descriptions of the materials online.

Using Triptych, you can now perform word searches of the many letters she wrote and received and which can be viewed either in their original form by coming to the Special Collections Reading Room or you may view them on the microfilm machines in Canaday Library or through ILL. To request material, just pay attention to what Reel Number is indicated as this corresponds with the relevant box of original material.

The M. Carey Thomas index can be found in the ‘Finding Aids’ section of the Triptych site and there are three different listings by which entries can be searched: the Author Index, the Reel Listings and the Author/Recipient Index.

The Author Index details the correspondence Thomas had with others and gives descriptions of the letters in the folders, such as the below screenshot describing correspondence with Mary Garrett in 1894-5 regarding her health and financial matters. Searching this way will allow you to pinpoint more specifically what letters you may wish to view; Thomas’ correspondence with certain people is extensive and this will assist you if you wish to focus just on a certain period of letters or those from a particular person. As part of our work we have been digitizing and transcribing the letters between Mary Garrett and Thomas and this will form part of the digital collections of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education site (see previous post by Amanda Fernandez ’14 on the Educating Women blog, ‘From frustration to fascination’ which describes her work on this part of the project).

The Reel Listings are in chronological order and begin with material relating to Thomas’ early life as a child and include letters and materials related to her family.

For those interested in her formative years, this material includes papers from her mother, Mary Whitall Thomas, describing her personal reflections on religion and women’s place in society, and her journal detailing the Baltimore life of the Thomas household. This material gives us a glimpse into her personality and helps us to understand somewhat where Carey Thomas received her belief in women’s independence and the possibilities for a woman’s role outside domestic concerns.

A selection of this early material from Thomas’ childhood is currently being transcribed by volunteer Joanne Behm, a Bryn Mawr College alum, and a blog post on some of her findings will follow soon on the Educating Women blog so check back for more details. Many of the early letters between Thomas and her cousins are richly illustrated with their childhood drawings and will also be digitized and made available to view online as part of our digitized collections.

Finally, the Author/Recipient Index allows you to search if you know the name of the person corresponding with Thomas, and this will direct you to the reel/box numbers where you can find their letters (note: you will find letters arranged by year and thus correspondence over time from the same person can often be found in multiple boxes)

A note on the limitations of this method of searching: it is often necessary to know the exact name of a person as names of organizations are not always listed, so for example, you may need to know the exact name of the Secretary or Treasurer of an organization in order to find letters relating to them. There are also precautionary tactics needed when searching for correspondents who married whilst Thomas was writing to them as seen in the screen shot below.

Despite these limitations, the possibilities afforded by online searching of this catalog greatly increase the likelihood of you finding the letters that you wish to and it is much easier to use than the hard copy.

Our thanks are due to digital project assistant Jessy Brody for digitizing the materials and digital collections specialist Cheryl Klimaszewski for her work on Triptych.

From frustration to fascination

Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Archives

By: Amanda Fernandez, BMC 2014
Transcribing the letters of M. Carey Thomas has been, at least, an interesting experience. In the beginning of my work, which consisted and consists still of transcribing Thomas’ many personal letters to Mary Garrett, her good ‘friend’ and supposed lover, I found myself tangled in her Ramen-like script, frazzled by her tendency to close her letters or conclude post scripts by writing vertically over the already horizontally written text, and endlessly confused by her inconsistent punctuation. I was also simultaneously thrilled—to be holding these letters written by a figure well known to me as well as all Bryn Mawr students from the day we step on campus as prospective students. The letters that imply so much more than what is explicitly expressed, becoming to me through the process of transcription living documents.  I also wondered as to how these personal letters were relevant to the Greenfield project—one focusing on compiling a digitized collection of resources regarding the history of women’s education which I assumed would exclusively want more of Thomas’ academic papers and proceedings. As I transcribed, which requires reading the content closely especially in the case of these letters, I found that before there is contribution, there is character. That is to say that it is crucial to understand the driving ambition and persistence of M. Carey Thomas which was essential in leading up to her contributions to women’s education and particularly women’s place in the early history of their higher education. These letters, despite their personal tone, definitely capture Thomas’ personality and shine a lot of light on a character that I found, as a current student, has transcended time in this small space.

On campus there is a generic perception of M. Carey Thomas—her ghost lingers within the confines of the cloisters where her ashes are spread, she curls her ghostly toes in Taft fountain, which was once the exclusive Deanery garden.

The Deanery

She stares down sternly from her portrait in Thomas Great Hall, the lead image for this post. Everyone on campus knows about M. Carey Thomas. She’s a legend and someone that over time has been transformed into a fantastical concept. It isn’t difficult to see why M. Carey Thomas to me was just an idea, an elusive aura—and I never bothered to explore why and how Thomas had managed to leave such a lasting impression. I see now in my close readings that Thomas initially became an idealized figure for having been a woman who from a very young age fought tirelessly to no end for her right and the rights of all women to receive an education if not equal to then superior to that of men. Her letters reveal the details of Thomas happily struggling to attain her own education alongside her close group of friends, which included Mary Garrett. As much as she is a well-known figure on the campus where she became the first woman to be a college president—no one here really knows what she stood for and how her personality still impacts this community. This first struck me as I stared into the John Singer Sargent painting of Thomas in Canaday’s Gallery, noting her strong brow and unrelenting glare. In other portraits of famous ladies painted by Sargent, the women painted are surrounded by opulence and props that clearly allude to their wealth and status. Thomas’ portrait portrays her in the traditional academic robe with an indigo sash—all effective in conveying Thomas’ identity as a strong faced academic woman who meant business, something unheard of in her time. This is an identity that continues to live on this campus—the archetype for what constitutes the ‘Bryn Mawr Woman’ is founded on the character of Thomas, one who would not accept ‘no’ for an answer and who would almost always compromise, if it was to her convenience.

The Friday Night Club

I believe that even our sense of community working for the empowerment of each other, with each other, is one derived from Thomas’ own model of sorority with her group of friends with whom she met every Friday (and is referred to in her letters as “Friday Nights”) where politics and reform were discussed and a course of action was plotted.  The way that Thomas refers to these meetings and the serious and passionate tone she takes on when addressing this group of friends is still the tone that thrives in our everyday interactions with one another on this campus.

In reading Thomas’ letters there is a sense of her that is very different from the mysterious identity imposed on her by time and forgetfulness. She is more than a figurehead—more than a magical time-transcending aura that permeates anything and everything Bryn Mawr. Digitizing these letters is vital to reinstating Thomas’ personhood—bringing to life the reality of her personality in the light of her contributions. Coming in contact with these letters has made the distance that surrounds M.C. Thomas become a little bit shorter every pen mark I familiarize myself with—and I hope that by expanding accessibility this distance can be bridged for others.

M.Carey Thomas, a Ouija Board, and a Moment of Reflection

The only thing missing from last year’s course, “History of Women’s Higher Education,” was a Ouija board. As a class, we spent part of the semester examining the various representations of M. Carey Thomas  through her letters, biographies, and first-hand student accounts. Often times, this would lead us to use these archival artifacts to muse about what her response might be to the Bryn Mawr of today. Still, I was tempted to sneak down to the cloisters and attempt to resurrect her formidable spirit.

Recently while reading the speech of M. Carey Thomas in Special Collections, I could not shake the feeling that Thomas had risen from the Cloisters, sans Ouija Board. I felt included—or more accurately, implicated—in the opening “I doubt the most imaginative and sympathetic younger women in this audience can form any conception of it means… to be able to say…the battle of the higher education of women has been gloriously, and forever, won.”

Immediately, I focused on the fallacy of her absolutism of “forever won,” but I would like to linger for a moment on the first half of this declaration. It is true that I cannot comprehend a time when the mere fact of my sex would prevent me from attending college, especially as an alumna of women’s college with such a rich history. In some ways, this lacuna in my own memory speaks to Thomas’ intrepidity and the work of all those who labored towards creating higher institutions which did not discriminate on the basis of sex.  While I cannot imagine wanting so desperately to learn Greek that I would rather die than be told of my innate inadequacies (as Thomas declares in her speech), it is the presence of this communal  memory –no matter how hyperbolic that it might seem to us today– that creates a responsibility to remember in whatever available medium.

The experiences of women who have struggled to eliminate gender biases in education cannot be fully comprehended today, but their memories, their words, and their notable silences are marked with a tangible urgency that defies temporality. While working on the Greenfield Archive, I look forward to sifting through the voices and discovering those fragmentary moments when the past does not seem so distant and can be briefly beckoned to the present.