Bryn Mawr’s Embarrassing Aunt

If Bryn Mawr College had a cranky old female relative with embarrassing opinions whose appearance at family gatherings led to arguments and demands never to invite her again, it would be M. Carey Thomas. In the early 20th century, Thomas (1857–1935) was a pioneering advocate of women’s education and suffrage, an academic of some distinction (she was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich), and a brilliant academic administrator. As dean and then president of Bryn Mawr College from 1882–1922, she created the college that exists today, and her stamp is still visible in its reputation for academic rigor and in many of its peculiarities and customs, like its lack of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (“All of my ladies are Phi Beta Kappa,” she is supposed to have said). Those brainy, self-confident women who made James Thurber nervous are the daughters of M. Carey Thomas.

And yet . . . like her contemporary Woodrow Wilson, whom she hired to teach at Bryn Mawr before he moved on to other jobs, Thomas had the misfortune to be a progressive in the early 20th century, and so she believed in the progressive ideas of her time: not only in women’s suffrage and education, but also in eugenics and the superiority of the white race.

Yesterday’s progressive is today’s Bad Person, and so Bryn Mawr’s leadership, which is fully as progressive as it was in Thomas’ day, has set out to expunge the racist, anti-Semitic eugenicist M. Carey Thomas from the public face of the College.  But this is Bryn Mawr.  Unlike in ancient and modern enactments of damnatio memoriae, no statues have been toppled, no inscriptions rudely chiseled out, no portraits defaced. There have been committees, studies, agonized deliberations, heartfelt acknowledgements of “the harm and hurt Thomas’ legacy of exclusion, racism, and antisemitism has caused for so many,” and so on. First a moratorium was placed on the use of the names “Thomas Library” and “Thomas Great Hall” for two of the most prominent architectural features of the campus.  Then the change was made permanent.  The John Singer Sargent portrait of Thomas, one of the College’s great treasures, was put into long-term storage, along with the Paul Manship bust of Thomas. That was not enough. An inscription in raised Gothic letters on the front of the building now known as “Old Library” proclaims, “The M. Carey Thomas Library.” Earlier this week the president and trustees announced that the inscription would be removed and, along with the Sargent and Manship portraits, become part of some kind of exhibit somewhere at some time. Thomas’s ashes are buried in the cloisters of the building that used to be named for her, but the trustees affirm their belief in the “sanctity of human remains” and declare their intention to “preserve them as they exist today.” I’m waiting for another committee to form, perhaps with an exorcist.

The lesson, I think, is this: progressive thought, like conservative or any other kind of thought about our social and political condition, is necessarily imperfect and incomplete. We get some things right, and some things wrong. In 1923, votes for women and eugenics were ideas that a decent person might hold. In 2123, it may turn out that intersectionality is part of a consensus shared by every right-thinking person, and that uttering the phrase “Black Lives Matter” will get you expelled from decent society.  Or the other way around. When we presume to judge the past, we should imagine ourselves as the past of the future. We should remember that all of us owe who we are to Bad People, and that those Bad People are also sometimes good, and worth remembering.

~Lee T. Pearcy
March 22, 2023

Update 4/12/23:  Well, maybe not an exorcist, but this event certainly qualifies as a Service of Purification.  And since M. Carey Thomas’ earthly remains are buried in the Old Library cloister, maybe she’ll show up.