M. Carey Thomas: The Fight for Gender Equality in Higher Education

Created by: Michael Stein and Hannah Wilcove

For our feminist activism research project this semester, we decided to investigate the admirable contributions of Martha Carey Thomas, known more commonly as M. Carey Thomas. Thomas was born on January 2, 1857 in Baltimore, Maryland. Some terms associated with Thomas and her valiant work would include: educator, feminist, president, philanthropist, advocate, activist, and suffragist. Through verbal, written, and direct activism, Thomas left a significant legacy in the fight for equality in education.

To begin, Thomas’ work is important to share because it was a revolutionary step in the fight for gender equality in education both in the United States and, arguably, internationally. Thomas was one of the first women to participate in truly significant activism that remains widely relevant today. It is necessary to understand how society’s views on education have evolved overtime in conjunction with the activist work from individuals such as Thomas.  

First, one of Thomas’ chief contributions was through verbal activism. In 1895, a year after she became president of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Thomas began giving public speeches to voice her opinions to larger audiences. Her speeches slightly varied in content, but always mandated two key objectives: (1) to advocate for women in higher education (in terms of equality, opportunity, and social obstacles) and (2) to promote Bryn Mawr College as an example and model for other higher education institutions. She began to give more and more speeches locally as well as nationally, which united communities in a way that was personal and meaningful. Her speeches were later transcribed into written text, allowing them to be more accessible and resonate well beyond the halls in which she spoke.

Second, another one of Thomas’ prominent contributions was through written activism. In 1899, the prestigious Columbia University invited Thomas to write a piece for their upcoming “Monographs on Education” Series. Thomas gladly accepted the offer, and wrote an essay titled “Should the Education of Women Differ from that of Men?” The piece ultimately argued that the education of women should not, in fact, differ from that of men. Furthermore, the entire series was published by the U.S. Department of Education in 1900. Thomas’ essay, then, was able to reach new audiences, including ones within academia and research in general. Her publication in Columbia’s education series legitimized her argument and added to her developing success. The fight for women in higher education was finally being considered in a serious, scholarly manner.

(Except from Thomas’ essay: “College education [for women] should be the same as men’s, not only because there is, I believe, but one best education, but because men and women are to live and work together as comrades and dear friends and married friends and lovers, and because their 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.”)

Third, Thomas also successfully engaged with direct activism. In 1899, Harvard’s president, Charles William Eliot, was invited to speak at Wellesley College (a liberal arts college for women) for the inauguration of its new president. Thomas was also invited as a guest. However, Eliot’s speech was very controversial. In his speech, he claimed that the education of women should be fundamentally different than the education of men. In his speech, Eliot states, “It remains to demonstrate what are the most appropriate, pleasing, and profitable studies for women, both from the point of view of the individual and the point of view of society; and this demonstration must be entirely freed from the influence of comparisons with the intellectual capacities and tastes of men. It would be a wonder, indeed, if the intellectual capacities of women were not at least as unlike those of men as their bodily capacities are.” Thomas, upon hearing these insidious comments, directly confronted Eliot. She writes, “Eliot disgraced himself. He said the traditions of past learning and scholarship were of no use to women’s education, that women’s words were unlike men’s as their bodies, that women’s colleges ought to be schools of manners and really was hateful.” Thomas published her disapproval of Eliot’s sexism as well as spoke with him in person. While Eliot remained largely bigoted, Thomas’ bravery to contest the president of one of the world’s leading higher education institutions was truly remarkable, powerful, and important. Moreover, it gained media attention, and perpetuated the fight for women in higher education.

In summary, M. Carey Thomas fought for gender equality in higher education through verbal, written, and direct activism. Her work was successful and significant, and continues to remain relevant today.

Pictured below: Bryn Mawr College

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