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.


Transcription: Inspiring Thoughts on a Difficult Task!

Some really creative sites have emerged using old letters and transcribing them to illuminate new ways to understand some famous figures of the past. One’s epistolary practices, the care taken in responding personally to messages from fans, and the tenderness revealed in some of the more private transmissions of thought in such letters are some of the great reasons why letters from the past should be studied. Letters of Note is one such site, hosting letters from a range of artists, writers, singers, intellectuals and public figures, as well as some humorous letters from ordinary people. My favorite is a letter from Harper Lee which gives fantastic life advice to a young fan who wrote to her.

This recent blog post about quality control standards and how different projects are dealing with this issue (http://manuscripttranscription.blogspot.com/2012/03/quality-control-for-crowdsourced.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter) was an interesting one for me as I begin the volunteer transcription project.

Volunteers are working in special collections on key aspects of the M. Carey Thomas Collection including the Bryn Mawr College Summer School for Women Workers (which will be linked to an exhibit on the site this year), the relationship between the college and the Shipley School and M. Carey Thomas’ early family life, centering on the key period when she was injured in a fire at her family home.

Keep watching for details on the website progress, we are hoping to launch in June!