LGB(T): the problem of gender identity in a historical narrative


Last week a comment by G Ragovin on Brenna Levitin’s most recent blog post raised a crucial point, which I believe warrants a response and a call for further thought:

Really really hoping that this winds up being LGB and T, rather than LGb. I’m aware that sometimes discussing trans or gender non-conforming folks adds whole new dimensions to work that genuinely are beyond the expertise or time that a researcher has available, but also that the history of gender non-conforming folks and LGB folks is deeply intertwined, difficult to pull apart because of the ways identity categories have shifted.

G’s comment reminded me of a couple of aspects of this project that we have not yet addressed on the blog, including how we are grappling with the slippery nature of identity categories over time, and how we plan to represent gender non-conforming subjects in the final product(s). Studying avenues of gender- and sexual deviance in relation to a changing mainstream always poses dilemmas when performing research on historical queer subjects: to excavate stories from the past for a contemporary audience sometimes involves acts of translation that suggest false equivalencies and elide important aspects of historical context. Past lgbt-flagprojects have taught me the difficulty of researching queer subjects in the nineteenth century,1 a challenge that G alludes to: “you can ask (and this may not be a useful question for gaining insight into past lives, but you can ask) would some 19th and early 20th c. inverts take to the terminology of the contemporary trans community, if they knew of it?”

Any researcher will be confronted with various dimensions of cultural change that make it difficult to draw clean lines between eras when working on queer subjects in the past. These include, among others:

  • Evolving vocabularies for describing identity categories
  • Shifting politics of identity categories, such as harsher or relaxed stigmas
  • Changes in the practices that would mark one as a sexual/gender deviant
  • Differences in how people document their sexual and gendered identities in ways that are readable to the future.

As G alludes to in their comment, the inclusive term “LGBT(Q)” tends to be applied very broadly despite the fact that trans* people tend to receive secondary recognition and that their perspectives are often markedly different from cisgender non-heterosexual individuals. In her work on this project for Tri-Co DH, Brenna is striving to incorporate voices beyond Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual, but G was right to suggest that this aspect of the project presents an extra challenge.2 Though less obscure to us than those of the 19th century, even queer histories from the last few decades often resist direct mapping to present-day vocabularies.


Transgender Umbrella page from the GENDER book. (cc) www.thegenderbook.com

In our first oral history interview, we asked our interviewee to comment on recognition of LGBT subjects in the College’s academic course material. He prefaced his response by remarking that “the B[isexual] and T[ransgender] dimensions did not figure, in ’89.” He acknowledged that there were transgender students as well as faculty members on campus at the time, but we have not yet been able to make contact with them in order to establish details or accounts of their perspectives. We have managed to be in touch with multiple transmen who identified as lesbians when they attended Bryn Mawr, and at least one is participating in the project. To what extent do their accounts represent a trans* student experience at Bryn Mawr? Certainly their experiences must be treated as valid and authentic, and yet they will never be able to furnish us with a sense of what it would have been like to navigate the social and academic waters of Bryn Mawr as an out member of a trans* community—nor should they be lumped in with a more generalized lesbian experience, even though they were active participants in lesbian and bisexual communities.

We’re interested in representing a variety of individual experiences without tokenism; a mentality of trying to check all the boxes should not be, and is not, our guiding strategy.   Yet it remains a challenge to balance the responsibility of inclusion with an awareness of the complexity of identity and the shortcomings of the vocabularies that we use to describe them. While questions remain about how to frame the contributions of our participants, we will continue to grapple with creating space for authentic T[ransender] voices in this work while leaving room for fluidity both in cultural and personal histories.


1A classic example of this problem from Bryn Mawr history is the personal life of the school’s second president, M. Carey Thomas. It is well known that she spent most of her life with female companions with whom she was emotionally intimate. However, no source provides perfect clarity on the exact extent of her physical intimacy with either Mamie Gwinn or Mary Garrett, her two long-term partners. Thomas lived in an era in which the convention of the Boston marriage made formalized romantic friendships between women socially acceptable, but such partnerships obviously existed in a different social context from current-day same-sex relationships. Because of her reputation as a staunch feminist and a forward thinker across many fronts, it can be tempting to view Thomas’s associations with Gwinn and Garrett as proto-lesbian relationships. However, to do so is problematic both because it insinuates details of physical intimacy that the historical record cannot confirm or deny, but also because it privileges sexual activity as a marker of legitimacy.

2For excellent recent work on the gender and gender non-conforming individuals at the College, see 2014 Pensby intern Emmett Binkowski’s project History of Gender Identity and Expression at Bryn Mawr College

Veritatem dilexi: Lesbian



Brenna Levitin, Class of 2016

Welcome to summer! We have partnered with the Tri-Co Digital Humanities Initiative  this year to sponsor a Greenfield intern to conduct historical research in the college archives for a digital project. Brenna Levitin, class of 2016, is a Gender and Sexuality Studies major and will be spending the summer excavating some of the history of queer individuals and groups on campus at Bryn Mawr. In just over a week in the archives Brenna has covered an immense amount of material and has already uncovered some interesting finds. Here, she shares a poem written by an alumna from the class of 1968 that was published in the 1989 Alumnae Bulletin. Look for more posts from Brenna as the summer continues!

Bryn Mawr is often associated with lesbians by the world’s collective conscious. This association and its accompanying veracity have, however not always been publically acknowledged by the college itself. When looking through the archive, LGBT sentiments most often crop up in student publications. These newspapers, zines, and booklets give passionate voice to the oft-marginalized lesbian[i] students.

In 1989, the Alumnae Bulletin published “The Pluralism Issue,” which gave voice to those alumnae/i who felt marginalized on campus. The editors sent out a call for submissions of writing about the minority experience throughout Bryn Mawr’s 104 year history. Most wrote about the lives of racial and ethnic minorities, but a vocal section described living as lesbians on a campus simultaneously approbative and hostile to homosexuality. Responses came from far—class of 1939 and near—class of 1989, from anonymous submissions with vague graduation dates to those who confidently outed themselves.

One submission was the following poem, written in 1989 by Judith Masur ’68. The poem discusses the experience of a lesbian living within the predominant heterosexual culture of Bryn Mawr. Though awareness of sexual minorities is a fairly recent event, Masur elegantly weaves the tale of lesbianism throughout all of Bryn Mawr’s history, from M. Carey Thomas to the present.


The first reference, to Bryn Mawr’s motto, is repeated twice.

Veritatem dilexi

Veritatem dilexi: Lesbian

“Veritatem dilexi” means I delight in the truth. Which truth is left ambiguous, but is implied to be the existence of lesbians at Bryn Mawr. It is easy to see how lesbianism can be an eternal truth of Bryn Mawr: from M. Carey Thomas’s journals, to Applebee’s eponymous column, to the open mic nights of today, literary expressions of lesbianism are threaded through our history like one strand in a complex tapestry.

The second stanza makes blatant reference to M. Carey Thomas and her partners, Mamie Gwinn and Mary Garrett, who lived together with Thomas (at different times) in her on-campus residence, the Deanery.

The President’s ‘friend’
The First Dean’s ‘companion’

Lesbianism as it is now understood did not exist in the 1890s, either as perversion or as fact of life. Gwinn and Garrett were explained as Thomas’s dear friends and companions, words which inadequately summed up their relationships as romantic and likely sexual partners.

M. Carey Thomas is referenced again later:

What was it she said
About marriage and failure?
Maybe we got it right the first time

The anonymous “she” is Thomas, often misquoted as saying that only Bryn Mawr’s failures marry. Most likely, the quote was closer to, “Our failures only marry.” The poem wonders at the common misconception, inquiring whether the mistaken Thomas quote is perhaps the correct one. Written when marriage equality was not even a star on the horizon, the poem implicates heterosexual marriage as failure. Those who married men, failed. Perhaps the ultimate failure is, as a school, to erase the rich history of lesbians at Bryn Mawr.

This post is the first of a series concerning the history of LGBT presence at Bryn Mawr College.

[i] We use lesbian here because we are primarily discussing time periods where other non-heterosexual sexualities were not yet understood. We acknowledge and affirm the existence of bisexual and pansexual students on campus, and we hope that these remarks will be understood as addressing them, and any other woman-lovers, as well as the named lesbians.

Purchasing Privilege

Pembroke Hall Interior

Money has played a vital role in women’s higher education from the earliest days of its establishment, both as the means for change and as a lubricant for societal acceptance of that change. It is tempting to view women’s path into higher education as a narrative about dismantling privilege across the board, which in many ways it has been. However, privilege is multi-faceted, and exists in many overlapping and entangled forms. Like many histories of rights and access, this complex entanglement has resulted in a slow and graduated pattern of progress rather than a straight upward trajectory, partially because of the participation of many agents with varied approaches and priorities: some of the institutions that fought the oppression of women early on did so from a foundation of financial and racial privilege, while others took more radical approaches to economic and racial diversity without directly addressing gender.[1] M. Carey Thomas firmly believed that women’s intellectual capacity matched that of men, but her approach to securing gender equality (as embodied by Bryn Mawr) was based on appropriating, rather than dismantling, the elite status associated with the liberal arts education.[2] In the process of carving out their own stake in education, women have often used money to reify the elite status of the educated rather than changing the tone of the debate to include a broader view of equality. However, though the disparities and contradictions of early progress in educational access may not be consistent with the interpretation of “equality” that we attempt to hold ourselves to today, they should not be considered failures. Rather, they are indicative of the complexity and length of time that it takes to apply holistic change to society.

The strong association between liberal arts education and elite status is deeply rooted[3] and self-reinforcing: not only does it require access to a source, such as books or tutors, but traditional education also demands time and space in which to study—both of which are derived directly from wealth. Virginia Woolf asserted that the material prerequisites of education were not to be romantically discounted, famously declaring that intellectual productivity demands not only “a room of one’s own”, but also the rather significant income of at least five hundred pounds per year.[4]

Our recent look back at nineteenth-century college entrance exams makes these requirements feel tangible: would the passage of any of these exams been conceivable for an applicant that did not have the financial means to acquire tutors and study materials, find well-lit and heated spaces for study, and apply the ample amount of time that the work requires? The actual tuition of attending a school like Bryn Mawr, hardly insignificant, is only the crowning expense atop a pyramid of socioeconomic privilege that made attendance an imaginable possibility. Nor was it the final expense: Jen Rajchel, in her exhibit “Residing in the Past, has also discussed the ways in which the exposure of economic privilege was woven into the fabric of daily life once the student arrived at school.

In addition to the material aspects of education, money can purchase immaterial advantages. A physical setting for the school could have been acquired without indulging the sumptuous details boasted by the Bryn Mawr College campus, but the institution in any lesser form would not have embodied the future of women’s education as envisioned by M. Carey Thomas. The campus’s deliberate mimicry of the magisterial style of its predecessors was an intangible but crucial component of the political statement that Thomas was making about the educability of women, and it would have been diluted or lost had the school been a different (less expensive) physical environment.

The achievement of higher education for women simply cannot be imagined without the role of financial privilege in the narrative: the sum of the tangible and intangible things afforded by money is that wealth grants a public space in which to pioneer change: at Bryn Mawr[5] and Johns Hopkins[6], dissenting voices were only overcome and outweighed by the Garrett family fortune. Women’s right to education may have been fought for heroically in the cultural battleground of public opinion, but it was also purchased. This fact, though not always flattering, is an important part of our history and must inform any discussion of our institutional identity.

Research assistance by Jessy Brody.



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

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.


[1] Often, different forms of privilege were in dialogue with one another during the formation of institutional identity. In her biography of M. Carey Thomas, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz reports that Harvard president Charles W. Eliot cautioned against coeducation while advising the Thomas family on school policy for Johns Hopkins University: as paraphrased by Mary Thomas, mother of M. Carey Thomas, “coeducation does very well in communities where persons are more on an equality, but in a large city where persons of all classes are thrown together it works badly, unpleasant associations are formed, and disastrous marriages are often the result.” (Horowitz, p. 48)

[2] Several of the resources on this site, which are part of an effort to process our own history, have explicitly acknowledged that in most cases the documented use of the word “women” is a recognized stand-in for “white, middle- or upper-class women”. For example, see Jessy Brody’s exhibit, “Athletics and Physical Education at Bryn Mawr College, 1885-1929

[3]In ancient Rome, the liberal arts were the near-exclusive property of men of the ruling class; to be educated was to be elite, and only the elite were educated, as William V. Harris describes in Ancient Literacy. The Renaissance and Enlightenment saw the revaluation of the classical canon and its integration into early modern education, influencing the elite who led the American Revolution. Liberal education remained essentially a classical education throughout the 19th century. Even today, remnants of the philosophy of ancient education remain in the idea that the liberal arts prepare one to be a good citizen, able to lead and succeed in high-status, male-dominated occupations such as politics and business, even without conferring profession-specific qualifications. The liberal arts, albeit in changed form, remain a mark of social status. For more information about the development of the liberal arts in the United States, see Classica Americana, Reinhold, The Culture of Classicism, Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900, The American College in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Roger Geiger, The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, A History of American Higher Education, Thelin, American Higher Education, A History, Lucas.

[4] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London, 1945.

[5] As early as 1883 Carey Thomas had a desire to install herself as president of Bryn Mawr College. However, her path to the presidency was to be long and drawn out. Upon the resignation, due to failing health, of the College’s first president, the trustees responded to the subject of her potential appointment with the admission that they were “terrified at the thought of putting a woman in sole power.” Thomas’s eventual installation as president was effected through an exchanged in which Garrett offered the school $10,000 per year, or more than 10% of the annual budget, on the condition that Thomas be given the presidency. (Horowitz, p. 257)

[6] Though M. Carey Thomas had originally enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Medical School (which was part of the university that several male members of her family had helped to found), her frustrating first year resulted in her subsequent departure for Leipzig. Though she was allowed to sit for exams and consult with professors, she was not permitted to attend classes. (Horowitz, p. 98) Coeducation remained a subject of conversation, but was strongly opposed by a large percentage of the board. When the medical school needed money, Mary Garrett took advantage of their desperation and offered to raise the needed sum on the condition that the school begin admitting women on equal terms with men. It was only by applying pressure during a moment of financial need, and the contribution of a humongous sum, that Garrett was able to secure coeducation despite its unpopularity with the administrators. (Ibid, pp. 233-35)

M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett – lives in letters

Following on from our previous posts by Bryn Mawr College student worker Amanda Fernandez (click here to see her first post specifically on the Thomas collection letters), I’m returning to the topic of letters from a different perspective – what the letters between M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett reveal about their relationship, and Garrett’s important role on campus during her life here with Thomas.

Mary Garrett

M. Carey Thomas










Before addressing the letters in details, I wanted to include a quick update about how the letters will appear on our site…

Letter from Mary Garrett to M. Carey Thomas, 1880. The letter details Mary's recent failure in an examination, which left her feeling embarrassed and deflated. She looked to Thomas as an inspiration in academic terms for her success in passing university exams and going to Europe for her doctoral studies

The letters will be featured in two ways on the site: as a collection which is searchable, showing both digital scans of the original letters (such as you see on the left) and their transcriptions, and as an online Omeka exhibit, which I will be working on in the coming months. The former method will allow for the searching of the letters by year and tag, for example, geographical place, and detailed summaries will be provided on the content.

These are currently being transcribed and the earlier years of their correspondence will appear first, with the collection growing as transcripts are produced. The exhibit, like the others on the site, will lead you through the broader narratives of their letters and the events of their lives, first as friends within a social circle that included shared friends and activists, later as living companions and fellow suffragists.

As Kathleen Waters Sander, Mary Garrett’s biographer has noted, Garrett was a figure of much interest in her day, but sadly her name has been somewhat forgotten in the realm of philanthropy and activism.  As Waters Sander comments in Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age (Johns Hopkins University Press: 2008), Mary was

a favorite of the turn-of-the-century press, who were fascinated by her unique combination of wealth, activism, business expertise, and extraordinary philanthropy. She became one of the country’s most publicized women, unselfishly using her money and status to transform women’s lives and to break down the barriers that prevented women’s equal participation in society (page1)

Born into the wealthy Garrett railroad family of Baltimore, Garrett grew up with a sense of purpose about her wealth; she wished to use it for altruistic means, to benefit society. She also wished to use her wealth to enhance women’s access to higher education and to professional medical education, providing educational opportunities to them that, ironically, she herself was not able to partake of. In the letter shown above, Garrett wrote to Thomas after her failure to pass the Harvard Examinations for Women (an exam regarded as a benchmark for accrediting women’s learning but this did not allow them access to Harvard University) which her friend Julia Rogers had just passed. Garrett felt herself to be unable to reach the high levels of academic achievement Thomas had attained in completing her degree at Cornell University, and Thomas was at that time preparing to take up her doctoral work in Liepzig, Germany. In this excerpt from a letter from June 10th 1879, Garrett’s tone of congratulation is tinged with sadness that she is losing a friend who has been an encouragement to her:

._ Your letter ought to act like a tonic_ It is so good to hear of the people who really are at work, even if one can not be of them I think I can say, Minnie, that I am truly glad you are going, but it will be a tremendous loss for us _ I wonder whether you know how much I have grown to care for you in the last two years + what a help + encouragement you have been for me_*

Again, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, Garrett felt that her difficulties in academic achievement could be linked to medical problems with her uterus:

… Dr. Jacob will not nearly be encouraging as I had hoped. Of course she says I can study even this summer a couple of hrs. a day, if I like; but that I shall probably never be able to work eight or nine hours a day + altogether I am freed to the conclusion that I was not cut out for a student either mentally or physically _ I am going to see her on Friday or Sat. for all examinations about that trouble wh. you may remember she said i had behind the uterus + wh. I am afraid is not very much better + as you can imagine, I am not looking forward to the visit with much pleasure.*

Garrett did confess to procrastination in her study in this letter, but her prose clearly indicates a belief that she did not have the physical capacity to study due to problems with her gynecological organs. Waters Sander has attributed Garrett’s stifling, conservative world in which her father prohibited her from pursuing marriage, college or a career, as the cause of her mental collapse, or ‘neurasthenia’ in Victorian terms, at the age of 25.

Despite her own health challenges and her lack of confidence in her own intellectual abilities, Garrett displayed true altruism, particularly her important role in the history of Bryn Mawr College, which, while documented, is not remembered to its fullest extent. Much like Garrett’s positive attitude to women’s education in general despite her own prohibition from academia, she generously supported (both financially and emotionally) M. Carey Thomas’ bid to extend her cultural education through trips abroad and to obtain the position of President at Bryn Mawr College Thomas so desperately craved (for more on the details of this support, see the excellent Thomas biography by Advisory Board member Helen Horowitz, The Power and the Passion of M. Carey Thomas). Garrett’s family had a strong sense of purpose in their civic activism in Baltimore, and this undoubtedly influenced her decision to open the Bryn Mawr School for girls in 1885 in Baltimore (along with Bessie King, Mamie Gwinn, Julia Rogers and Thomas, the Friday Night group) to educate girls for the entry requirements to any colleges that would allow them to enter. This school would open horizons for girls that these women had not had the opportunity to gaze at and the college preparation mantra of the new establishment ‘flew in the face of all conventional wisdom at the time’ on appropriate education for women as Waters Sander has observed (Mary Elizabeth Garrett, page 125).

Thomas was an active writer and her letters to Mary reveal her personal concerns and emotions which she often sought to keep private and distinct from her professional persona as Dean and then President of Bryn Mawr College. Even before assuming these roles, Thomas shared her challenges studying for her doctorate in Europe to Garrett, detailing her struggles not just with the work but also with the attitude towards women as they were studying. Carey’s letters to Mary in late 1879 revealed the harrassment she received from some of her male peers at the University of Leipzig, which she felt was their way of trying to chase out the women, an experience she warned Garrett and their friends to keep secret lest her family find out and demand her return to America. As is well known, Thomas eventually triumphed, receiving her doctorate summa cum laude from Zurich and returning to the US to embark on her strategy to be a serious scholar and to take control of Bryn Mawr College.

Thomas and Garrett lived for many years together at the Deanery which Garrett lavishly decorated with works of original art and fine furniture. The Deanery was, as well as a private residence for Thomas and Garrett (and Mamie Gwinn before her), a formal entertainment space used for faculty parties, dinners for visiting speakers and for student teas and other entertainments (which as you can see in this excerpt from the scrapbook of Lorraine Mead Schwable (class of 1912), included both Garrett and Thomas’ names on the printed invite).

As you can see in this picture of Mary Garrett enjoying May Day celebrations on campus, she was a well known figure and a feature of life at Bryn Mawr College and participated fully in its social calendar. Scrapbooks also reveal, as Jessy Brody has documented in her blog post on candids and ephemera,  that invitations from Thomas and Garrett’s were items kept by students in documenting their important moments at the college. As the invite particularly underscores, as well as the photographs of Garrett at May Day, she was quite clearly regarded as Thomas’ respected friend and companion and had a role of importance at the college. We must conclude, therefore, that whatever opinions people have/had on the nature of their relationship, it was recognized and accepted that Mary Garrett had an important role in Thomas’ life and that she enjoyed an elevated status at the college because of this and her Deanery connections.

Thomas and Garrett shared much in their ambitions for women in their contemporary society and worked closely on issues such as suffrage and access to higher education. Helen Horowitz has argued that it was Garrett who facilitated Thomas in being more public and vocal in her advocacy of women’s rights, particularly in expanding her realm of interest from access to higher education into suffrage and women’s role in the public sphere. Their letters reveal their shared aims, their intellectual exchanges, joint passions for art, literature, poetry and engagement with prominent scholars of their time, and their very different personalities that somehow seemed to work together in creating partnership, friendship and intimacy that lasted over four decades.

More will be explored in the forthcoming Omeka exhibit about their letters and what they can reveal to the historian about the influence they had on each other throughout their lives. In the meantime, keep reading the blog for further updates!

* With thanks to Amanda Fernandez for creating the transcription of Mary Garrett’s letter.


Process, memory and form: exploring the spoken and the written word in the Bryn Mawr College collections

This post is brought to you by Amanda Fernandez (’14) who has been working as a project assistant in Special Collections throughout the summer, specializing in digitizing material for The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. Here she reflects on the difference between digitizing and transcribing oral and written records, both of which illuminate the lives of alums in the past, finding frustrations and fascinations again in comparing epistolary and oral practices in recording memory and interpreting impressions from the past ….


Summer being almost through, most student workers still happily off at their summer destinations, clinging to what remains of sweet summer and denying the soon to come scholastic year, I have stayed and carried on with my letter transcribing here in Special Collections. In addition to this, in order not to find myself enveloped (no pun intended) in a monotonous workflow, which would eventually incite distaste towards the project (as well as M. Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett), I have taken up another task. The project, which once belonged to Isabella Bartenstein (who is now happily gallivanting about Avignon!), involves listening to and digitizing a collection of interviews of alumna and long retired staff, all in order to compile a digitized collection of the Oral History Project. The project started in 1960 and was an active effort on behalf of the Alumnae Association to collect personal accounts of students’ and staff members’ experiences at Bryn Mawr and how it affected their lives.  In 1981, the OHP became more of a collaborative project when the paper work and cassettes were moved to the archives. Caroline Rittenhouse (BMC class of 1952) conducted many of the later interviews and directed the project when she became the College Archivist in 1987. The transferring of these audio tracks from the ancient medium of cassette tape to mp3 on a digital recorder by means of a tangle of wires that turn my workspace into jungle, can be tedious or thrilling, depending on the entertainment and interest value of the interview as a whole. Some of the most interesting interviews turn out to sound more like conversations which is suggested against in the general interview guidelines but, is almost entirely inevitable considering that the dialogue usually occurs between two alums.

I’ve found that audio recorded interviews relay much more information than the hand-written letter does. Letters, more specifically the letters that I have been transcribing, are not capable of lending me as accurate an insight into M. Carey Thomas as would an interview I think.  In transcribing and reading the letters, I tend to peel out my own conclusions—imposing my assumptions in order to erect the shadows of two people and a dramatic exchange draped over their correspondence. To be honest, I have gone as far as judging M.C.T. for the way she’s dotted her i’s.  In retrospect, something seems obviously askew in that practice—how could I understand enough about the culture of written narrative (which entails so many variables; structure, etiquette and subsequent tone, the relationship between the addressed and the addressee etc.) in that time and setting to  mold detailed personalities? I could also draw illusory conclusions from an audio recorded interview if the interviewee is putting on a ‘persona’—but even then, the intuition developed in perception of sound gives the theatrics away.

In listening to interviews I am depending on the human memory—which does not have a reputation for accuracy or precision, especially with the wear and tear of time. Experiences are subjective and the ‘singed’ memories thereafter are much like the newspaper clippings I find attached to letters; they yellow and tear here and there, the paper thins out and sometimes the words that were once clipped for their current relevancy in that time are now relevant in another upon being re-read—sometimes completely transformed by new perception that has been changed much in the same way as the physical clipping. We know that each person will recreate scenarios and memories according to the way they perceive and process—these interviews are unique in that memories are sewn together—memories most times compared and sometimes even confirmed. The exchange of sound waves seems to solidify the person that in letters appears just as a shadow; we are able to build a more three dimensional personality in our heads, we sense their stories in sound, the tone and expression being audible and creating a clearer picture.

Most of the interviews, if not all, are based on a standardized interview format—meaning that each of the interviewers are asking the same questions. Some interviewers ask the interviewee to expand, or they turn the interview into more of a dialogue where one relates to the other, prompting a more enthusiastically responsive and detailed answer. I guess interviews also depend on commonalities and relationship—what the interviewer can draw from the interviewee depends very much on what they have in common in regards to their experience at Bryn Mawr which would allow for the best and most informative dialogue—this also limits the interview in a situation where there is no familiarity. The most intriguing interviews I’ve heard thus far are those that have evolved into conversation due to the binding induced by commonality—such as one between two alums who were both raised by alums. In this exchange they share not only their own experiences (as one time students at BMC as well as what it was like being raised by BMC alums) but also the BMC memories transmitted to them by their mothers. At certain times throughout the recording, I caught the presence of four, each alum and her mother’s memory.

Through these tapes I have also confirmed my own faith in the long standing reputation of exceptional characters that proceeds Mawrters, women that  exceed expectation and burst out of the restrictions imposed on them by the social codes of their time. This was clear to me in most of the interviews, but particularly in two, the interview of Katharine Fowler Billings (class of 1925) who became an accomplished and renowned Geologist in the 1920’s when it was practically unheard of for a woman to take up such a profession.

An article on her pioneering work appears here on the GeoScience World site.

Isabel Benham

The second was of Isabel Benham who scraped and clawed her way as an independent woman on Wall Street starting in the 1930’s and I could not help but tear up a bit when she remarked, “Bryn Mawr taught you you were the best that there was and you can do anything you want.” Isabel was even dubbed the ‘Mother Superior’ of Wall Street (go to Link to Isabel Benham’s College Yearbook). In both of their interviews, their voices resounded with enthusiasm despite the distance of years from their time at the college and good humor.

Aside from what I have learned from the nature of the medium of audio, I am assured by the content of these interviews that Bryn Mawr women grow to be ‘defy-ers’ of their time.


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.