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)