M. Carey Thomas

Pioneer in Women's Higher Education

M. Carey Thomas, formal Bryn Mawr portrait
M. Carey Thomas, formal Bryn Mawr portrait. Courtesy Bryn Mawr College via Wikimedia

M. Carey Thomas Facts:

Known for: M. Carey Thomas is considered a pioneer in women's education, for her commitment and work in building Bryn Mawr as an institution of excellence in learning, as well as for her very life which served as a model for other women.

Occupation: educator, president of Bryn Mawr college, pioneer in women's higher education, feminist
Dates: January 2, 1857 - December 2, 1935
Also known as: Martha Carey Thomas, Carey Thomas

M. Carey Thomas Biography:

Martha Carey Thomas, who preferred to be called Carey Thomas and was known in her childhood as "Minnie", was born in Baltimore to a Quaker family and educated in Quaker schools. Her father, James Carey Thomas, was a physician. Her mother, Mary Whitall Thomas, and her mother's sister, Hannah Whitall Smith, were active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

From her early years, "Minnie" was strong-willed and, after a childhood accident with a lamp and the subsequent convalescence, a constant reader. Her interest in women's rights began early, encouraged by her mother and aunt and increasingly opposed by her father. Her father, a trustee of Johns Hopkins University, opposed her wish to enroll at Cornell University, but Minnie, supported by her mother, prevailed. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1877.

Pursuing post-graduate studies, Carey Thomas was allowed private tutoring but no formal classes in Greek at the all-male Johns Hopkins. She then enrolled, with her father's reluctant permission, at the University of Leipzig. She transferred to the University of Zurich because the University of Leipzig would not award a Ph.D. to a woman, and forced her to sit behind a screen during classes so as not to "distract" male students. She graduated at Zurich summa cum laude, a first for both a woman and a foreigner.

Bryn Mawr

While Carey was in Europe, her father became one of the trustees of the newly created Quaker women's college, Bryn Mawr. When Thomas graduated, she wrote to the trustees and proposed that she become the president of Bryn Mawr. Understandably skeptical, the trustees appointed her as professor of English and as dean, and James E. Rhoads was appointed president. By the time Rhoads retired in 1894, M. Carey Thomas was essentially performing all the duties of president.

By a narrow margin (one vote) the trustees gave M. Carey Thomas the presidency of Bryn Mawr. She served in that capacity until 1922, serving also as dean until 1908. She stopped teaching when she became President, and focused on the administrative side of education. M. Carey Thomas demanded a high standard of education from Bryn Mawr and its students, influence by the German system, with its high standards but less freedom for students. Her strong ideas directed the curriculum.

So, while other women's institutions offered many electives, Bryn Mawr under Thomas offered educational tracks that offered few individual choices. Thomas was willing to be more experimental with the college's Phoebe Anna Thorpe school, where John Dewey's educational ideas were the basis for the curriculum.

Women's Rights

M. Carey Thomas maintained a strong interest in women's rights (including work for the National American Woman Suffrage Association), supported the Progressive Party in 1912, and was a strong advocate for peace. She believed that many women ought not to get married and that married women ought to continue careers.

Thomas was also an elitist and a supporter of the eugenics movement. She endorsed strict immigration quotas, and believed in the "intellectual supremacy of the white race."

In 1889, Carey Thomas joined with Mary Gwinn, Mary Garrett, and other 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.


Mary Gwinn (known as Mamie) was a long-time companion of Carey Thomas. They spent time together at the University of Leipzig, and maintained a long and close friendship. While they kept details of their relationship private, it is often described, though the term wasn't used much at the time, as a lesbian relationship.

Mamie Gwinn married in 1904 (the triangle was used by Gertrude Stein in a novel's plot), and later Carey Thomas and Mary Garrett shared a house on campus.

The wealthy Mary Garrett, when she died in 1915, left her fortune to M. Carey Thomas. Despite her Quaker heritage and childhood emphasizing simple living, Thomas enjoyed the luxury now possible. She traveled, taking 35 trunks to India, spending time in French villas, and living in a hotel suite during the Great Depression. She died in 1935 in Philadelphia, where she was living alone.


Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. 1999.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "M. Carey Thomas." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/m-carey-thomas-3529593. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). M. Carey Thomas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/m-carey-thomas-3529593 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "M. Carey Thomas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/m-carey-thomas-3529593 (accessed March 31, 2023).