Mary Elizabeth Garrett was a major leader in the movement to provide higher education for women, and a leading advocate in the women’s suffrage movement in Maryland. She was born on March 5, 1854 into a wealthy and prominent Baltimore family. Her father, John Work Garrett, was the president of the B & O Railroad. Ms. Garrett never attended college and instead studied under her father, discussing academic, social, and political topics with a group of four friends, known as the Friday Night. Despite her own lack of formal education, Ms. Garrett was an outspoken supporter of higher education for women at the turn of the century.
“Knowledge is power and I for one am going to do my best to gain it.” While Ms. Garrett and her friends had wealth, they were still constrained by the rigid gender divisions in American society. Their philanthropy was their power because it allowed them to effect change when the vote was not an option. Ms. Garrett was a major force behind the establishment of two new schools in Baltimore at the end of the 19th century. The first, Bryn Mawr School, was created to fill the void of formal college preparatory schools for women. Bryn Mawr School was revolutionary, not just because it facilitated equal education for women, but because it was founded by women alone. As Ms. Garrett’s friends became involved with other schools and organizations, she became the lasting founder and fundraiser of the school.
Ms. Garrett’s chief contribution to higher education for women occurred when she helped raise funds for the opening of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1889, the trustees of Johns Hopkins University found that they were unable to open the medical school due to a financial shortfall of $500,000. Ms. Garrett, along with a team of women, organized a campaign to raise money for the new medical school. Ms. Garrett informed the University trustees that they would only turn over the funds if the school was graduate-level and admitted women on the same terms as men. The trustees accepted these conditions, and in 1893, Johns Hopkins Medical School opened its doors as the first graduate medical school and first co-educational medical school in the country. Ms. Garrett was the key benefactor of the medical school, contributing more than half of the necessary funds.
Ms. Garrett soon realized that she could not confine her philanthropic outreach to education. She turned toward the women’s suffrage movement, working with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and with local Baltimore suffragists to further the cause. She graciously opened her Mount Vernon home to the movement for NAWSA’s 1906 convention. Ms. Garrett invited Baltimore college women to attend the convention and meet Susan B. Anthony, who remarked how proud she was to see so many young women passionate about the cause of suffrage. Throughout the remainder of her life, Ms. Garrett focused on donating money to the national movement and assisted with local groups and suffrage events such as the 1912 Baltimore suffrage parade.
Ms. Garrett died on April 3, 1915 – five years before the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. She is buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2017.
© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2017