147.3 x 96.5 cm (58 x 38 in.)
Inscribed: (Upper left:) John S. Sargent
M. Carey Thomas
(1857-1935) was a
pioneer for women's education after having overcome incredible
to become educated herself. She became president of Bryn Mawr College
1894, and served until 1922 where she played a pivotal role in knocking
down barriers and setting high standards for women in education.
To sit for the portrait she traveled to London in late July of 1899 with her friend Mary Garrett where she sat for six days in Sargent's Tite Street studio. It would be officially presented to the college in November that same year wherein it was proclaimed:
(Content Shepard Nichols, '99, describing the presentation ceremony for the November 24, 1899 issue of The Fortnightly Philistine)
Carey was born in Baltimore -- Martha Carey Thomas and called "Minnie" to her Quaker family. She was the oldest of ten children. She pretty much hated her first name and preferred to be called by her middle name. Her father, James Carey Thomas, was a physician and a trustee of Johns Hopkins University and a strong supporter of higher education -- although his views didn't necessarily apply to his own daughter. This conflict with her father would apparently shape her whole life.
As a young child she was highly intelligent, willful and a ferocious reader. As she got older she was sent to a Quaker dame's school thought appropriate for "young ladies" but she detested it and grew jealous of her younger brothers' more substantive education.
-- Carey Thomas
(Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 1, by Edith Finch, 1947.)
When she arrived at Cornell, she was determined to attend herself. Though her father staunchly apposed co-education for women and especially his daughter, she wouldn't take no for an answer and she received her bachelor's degree from Cornell in the spring of 1877.
-- Carey Thomas
(Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 2, by Edith Finch, 1947.)
-- Carey Thomas
(Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr," ch. 1, by Edith Finch, 1947)
When she graduated from Zurich, she did so summa cum laude -- the first woman and first foreigner to do so. While she was there she learned about a proposed women's college at Bryn Mawr, a small little village nine miles west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from which her father was a trustee. She immediately applied for the position of presidency.
She didn't get it.
- Carey Thomas
In 1889, she joined with Mary Gwinn, Mary Garrett, and two other key women in offering a large gift to the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in exchange for ensuring that women would be admitted on an equal basis with men.
By 1894 she was performing many of the functions of the president and against Rhoad's recommendation, upon his retirement (which appears to be the "official version" but I wonder if Rhoad wasn't forced out in a power struggle, since he reportedly wept after the trustee's election) by a split vote of the trustees, Miss Carey Thomas was elected the next President of Bryn Mawr College.
Finally, having obtained what she originally wanted, she steered the school into her vision of what a school for women should be:
--Carey Thomas, 1901
Carey Thomas is truly a pioneer and a hero for women's education and a significant subject in John Singer Sargent's oeuvre. But the story about Carey isn't that simple. She apparently was a flawed hero -- as many of our heroes often are. In her quest to become one of the Gold of Plato's Republic, she became corrupted herself. Instead of changing the "old boys club" her only intent was to join them and show she could more an "ol' boy" than they were; and she did so by fully embraced some of the worst elements of thinking of the "enlightened few". She was a woman who came from a privilege family and like many of her class, never looked beyond that. Education, for her, was for the privileged, and the school she ran was for the privileged. Again, like many of her class at that time, she was a supporter of the eugenics movement. She endorsed strict immigration quotas, and believed in the "intellectual supremacy of the white race."
To me, if Carey Thomas is a hero -- and she is -- she also stands as a warning. We should never cover up her flaws in our praise for her, nor should we dismiss her positive accomplishments -- significant accomplishments for all those that followed.
For me, it's a mixed bag
and a reminder
that though true: to become enlightened, one must become educated; it
is fallacious (as Carey Thomas shows us) that to be educated --
educated even -- is to guarantee enlightenment.