Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Martha Carey Thomas (1857-1935)
MSA SC 3520-13572


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries education was an idea that had started to take off, but was far from universally hailed as a necessary, or even positive, element to the development of young women.   There were, however, notable figures who advocated and actively pursued the belief in developing strong, worthwhile education for females during this time.  One such person, Martha Carey Thomas, devoted her life to broadening and perfecting higher education for young women; tirelessly working to change the minds of the general public to favor educating all of the citizenry.  Quite possibly, her most influential and famed accomplishment was her work with the development of Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, of which she was the second president.  Speaking about Thomas on the occasion of her retirement in 1922, Ada Comstock, a faculty member at the College, stated, "[Thomas is] the most colorful, the most vigorous, the most dynamic figure in American education today."1  Although her life's work was plauged by conflict and set-backs, Thomas remained unwavering in her conviction of the value of better schooling for women.

Martha Carey Thomas, or Minnie as she was known in childhood, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 2, 1857.  Her parents, Dr. James Carey Thomas and Mary Whitall Thomas, were devoted Quakers and active members of the Society of Friends.  Thomas' family, though not a part of the upper eschelons of society, was well-respected in the city.  Minnie was the oldest of ten children, but seemed to have the closest relationship with her mother and aunt, Hannah Whitall Smith.  These two women were the ones who fostered a strong sense of intellectual ambition in young Minnie due to their celebration of the value of education  They read books to the young girl and advocated feminist ideas, such as women's schooling, that would influence her development.2  

Minnie embarked on her formal learning at the Friends Academy in Baltimore, which was founded by her father and her cousin, Francis T. King. She was eager to continue her studies when she enrolled at the Howland Institute, a Quaker boarding school for girls in Union Springs, New York.  She attended courses there with her best friend and cousin, Elizabeth "Bessie" King, who would go on to become a major figure in the Women's Suffrage Movement.  The two girls frequently spoke of future opportunities they hoped to have and make for themselves.  Thomas, writing in her diary in 1871, clearly exhibited the foundations of the philosophy that drove her when she exclaimed, "If ever I live and grow up, my one aim and concentrated purpose shall be and is to show that women can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature and science and conjecture..., that a woman can be a woman, and a true one, without having all her time engrossed in dress and society."3  During Thomas' time at the Howland Institute, her father asked her to investigate Cornell University to help him design The Johns Hopkins University, of which he was a trustee.  Minnie fell in love with the school and, after persuading her father, was allowed to enroll, becoming a member of one of the first classes of female students admitted to the university.  She graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1877 and quickly looked ahead to earning a master's degree.  

Upon returning to Baltimore, Thomas decided to apply to The Johns Hopkins University, even though it was an all-male institution.  The school's board reluctantly allowed her to study, but prohibited her from attending classes or earning a degree.4  Unsatisfied and frustrated with her experience at Hopkins, Carey, as she was now known in adulthood, opted to travel to Europe in 1879 with her close friend, Mamie Gwinn.  While in Europe, Thomas enrolled at the University of Leipzig in Germany intent on earning her master's degree. She excelled in her work there and could not wait to continue the very demanding studies, but was disheartened to learn that the University refused to grant her a degree.  Not to be discouraged, Carey transferred to the University of Zurich where, after a grueling examination period, the board of examiners awarded her a Ph.D. summa cum laude in German philology, a great accomplishment considering only one woman before her had achieved the same distinction.5  Jubilant over her experience in Europe and ready to take on a position of strong influence in education in the United States, Carey Thomas returned to Baltimore in November 1883 with a positive, enthusiastic outlook for her future.

While in Europe, Carey Thomas had heard about a proposed women's college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Thomas was thrilled with the possibilites such a school could provide to the females, much like herself, who were disillusioned and aggravated with the lack of suitable educational opportunities when compared to those of men.  Without hesitation, she immediately composed a letter expressing her interest in becoming president of the college.  She wrote that, "her success at her Ph.D. examinations and her summa made her feel that she might 'without presumptuousness' offer herself as a candidate for the Bryn Mawr presidency.  She wrote with 'less hesitation' because of her conviction that 'it is best for the president of a woman's college to be a woman.' "6  Although the board of trustees chose to install Dr. James E. Rhoads as first president of Bryn Mawr, Thomas was honored with the position of Dean of the College and the first professor of English.  She enjoyed working in these capacities, but longed for the ability to wield more power over the development of the school, which opened in 1885.  She would have to wait a few years before she could  take the reigns of the college, but continued to have engaging opportunities to devote her time to.

In 1884, Thomas, along with four friends including Mamie Gwinn and Mary Elizabeth Garrett, met and proposed the founding of a college preparatory school for girls in Baltimore.  Calling themselves the "Friday Evening Group," the girls envisioned a college preparatory school that would serve as a model for the proliferation of congruent institutions around the country: "By establishing a model school for like-minded women in other cities to emulate, the founders believed that their local school could potentially enhance both the quality of girls' education and the number and caliber of women attending colleges and universities at the national level."7   Baltimore in the 1880s had exceptional educational opportunities for males, but no such schools to prepare females for college study existed.  Women, it was believed, had no need for higher learning as they had no place in college life.  The Bryn Mawr School opened on September 21, 1885, with Carey Thomas as the treasurer, and later chairman of the school's corporation.  Though for much of the first decades of its existence the school was fledgling and suffered from financial woes, young girls in the area were relatively enthusiastic about the opportunities it afforded and the many Bryn Mawr College scholarships it offered.8  Eventually the school grew into an impressive and revered educational institution for young girls and was a beloved project for the women who had been a part of its inception.  

In 1894, M. Carey Thomas was elected the second president of Bryn Mawr College, upon Dr. Rhoads' retirement.  This position was the pinnacle of her hopes and dreams as she was able to finally have a greater role in the proliferation and development of the goals of the school.  She wanted it to be an upstanding example for other female colleges, and immediately set to work on increasing the size of the school and reworking course materials to challenge the student body to the fullest.  Her efforts to provide young women with the best college education in the country, equal to that of men, and create a rigrous, demanding curriculum boosted the college into the forefront of the public eye.  She altered the founders' originial vision of creating Bryn Mawr as a sister school of a nearby liberal arts college for men.  Instead, she worked to mold it into a women's college that upheld the standards set by research universities, such as The Johns Hopkins University.  To achieve this she "instituted an entrance exam as difficult as that administered by Harvard; she designed a demanding curriculum similar to that offered at Johns Hopkins; she hired a faculty composed of recent graduates from German universities--mostly men--who were expected to conduct original research."9  She also instituted a graduate school, including the Bryn Mawr Carola Woerishoff Graduate School of Social Economy and Social Research, established in 1915, the first purely graduate university school of social work in the country.  Bryn Mawr quickly became one of the leading instutions among American colleges and drew increasing numbers of applicants each year.  During her tenure as president, a position she held until her retirement in 1922 at age 65, Carey Thomas garnered immense financial support for Bryn Mawr from prominent figures of the period, including John D. Rockefeller.  In her twenty-eight years as president she utilized the growing endowment given to the school to style it as a major university and beacon of educational opportunity for women.  New dormitories, a library, and sundry auxillary buildings were constructed under her direction, and all used the Collegiate Gothic architectural style, which was a first in the country.10 

She also introducted the Women's Suffrage Movement to the Bryn Mawr campus under the auspices of her long-time friend, Mary Elizabeth Garrett.  Thomas and Garrett worked together to raise tens of thousands of dollars to meet the expenses of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and rallied college women to support the cause.  Thomas became the first college president to advocate that women be given the right to vote as a step toward social and financial equality.  In addition, Bryn Mawr became host to numerous rallies in support of suffrage, including speeches given by suffragette leaders Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt.11  Although Thomas ran into conflict in her capacity as president of the college as well, especially due to her desire for complete domination of all aspects of the school and her burgeoning racism and elitism, she proved through her dedication to quality women's education that Bryn Mawr College was able to compete on an equal level with men's schools and was necessary and desired by women seeking to prove their educational capacities in defiance of the stereotypes of the age.

M. Carey Thomas was a member of numerous groups that indicate her committment to feminist beliefs.  These include: first woman trustee of Cornell University, 1895; one of the founders of the Association to Promote Scientific Research by Women, 1900; first president of the National College Women's Equal Suffrage League, 1908; a member of the National Women's Party; one of the founders of the International Federation of University Women, 1919; chairman of the International University Women's Clubhouses, 1919-1926; one of the founders of Reid Hall, an international Paris club for university women, 1920; and the first chairman of Board of Summer School Managers, 1920-1922.  She was also the recipient of honors awarded over the course of her career, including: LL.D. from Western University of Pennsylvania, 1896; LH.D. from Goucher College, 1916; LL.D. from The Johns Hopkins University, the first time the degree was ever awarded to a female, 1922; voted one of the twelve greatest American women by the Maryland League of Women Voters, 1922; and the creation of the M. Carey Thomas prize, established by the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association, 1922.12  In addition to her fund-raising for the Women's Suffrage Movement, Carey Thomas was also instrumental in opening up The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to women.  In 1890, Johns Hopkins accepted an endowment, largely funded by Mary Garrett, which held the clause that the money be used only on the occassion of the medical school opening to women candidates and affording them the same opportunities provided to male students.13

Martha Carey Thomas devoted her life to enhancing the opportunities available to women for higher education at a time before such an idea had become a mainstream belief.  She worked tirelessly on the development of the Bryn Mawr College Preparatory School in Baltimore and Bryn Mawr College.  These endeavors enabled her to demonstrate her own strong education that she had fought against many odds for, and provided her the necessary backdrop against which to actively lobby for greater education for women.  However, she was a product of her times, subject to intense racism, elitism, and stereotyping that created friction between herself and outsiders, and which has tarnished her memory in today's day and age.  However, the ideals she worked towards can be revered as groundbreaking for her time and essential to the development of the educational system we have today.  After retiring from the presidency of Bryn Mawr College, Thomas reamined active in speaking for women's schooling and equal rights, but also spent her last years traveling the globe, a pastime she had enjoyed since her time in Europe in the 1870s.  Martha Carey Thomas died on December 2, 1935, only a few weeks after having spoken at Bryn Mawr's fiftieth anniversary celebration.14  She had achieved what she had set out to do, as written in her diary as a young girl of fourteen, but had also accomplished so much more in her lifelong career and devotion to women's education and equality.


1.  Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) 438.   return to text

2.  "M. Carey Thomas," Biography Resource Center, 2005.    return to text

3.  Jacob, Kathryn Allamong. "Martha Carey Thomas, 1857-1935: Feminist and Pioneer Educator," in Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes (Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1977) 372.   return to text

4.  "Hopkins Graduates its Largest Class; Dr. Thomas First Woman to get LL. D. from Hopkins," The Baltimore Sun, 14 June 1922.   return to text

5.  Luckett, Margie H. Maryland Women (Baltimore, MD: King Brothers Inc. Press, 1931) 473.   return to text

6.  Horowitz, 164.   return to text

7.  Hamilton, Andrea Dale. A Vision for Girls: A Story of Gender, Education, and the Bryn Mawr School (Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 1997) 31.   return to text

8.  "The Bryn Mawr School: A New Vision for Educating Girls and Young Women," The Bryn Mawr School, 2005. to text

9.  Biography Resource Center.  return to text

10.  "M. Carey Thomas Papers," Bryn Mawr Library Special Collections, 2005. to text

11.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 80.   return to text

12.  Luckett, 474.  return to text

13.  "Miss Garrett's Gift; She Presents $306, 977 to Johns Hopkins Medical School," The Baltimore Sun, 30 December 1892.   return to text

14.  "Dr. M. Carey Thomas Dies; Noted as Woman Educator," The Baltimore Sun, 3 December 1935.   return to text

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton; revised March 2013.

Return to Martha Carey Thomas's Introductory Page

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