A Quaker doctor with a clear vision and a penchant for career changes, a successful physician turned do-gooder, and a determined—if at times cunning—advocate for women’s higher education. In this dramatis personae, we find the familiar players who laid the foundation of Bryn Mawr. They are figures who continue to circulate in our collective imagination 125 years later because the story of the college’s early years has been told before and told well. Though it may take a bit of bibliophilic sleuthing to track down the early Bryn Mawr histories, they are worth the effort. In Margaret MacIntosh’s Joseph Taylor Wright: Founder of Bryn Mawr College (1936), we glimpse the young man whose boyish looks stymied his medical career and who “lodged in the land of the Buckeyes” to join his brother’s tannery business. Largely comprised of Taylor’s own words—in letters home and journals written abroad—MacIntosh’s biography gives voice to a pioneer whose concerns spanned both the literal and figurative foundations of his college. Just as he worried over building materials—“Can thee get any evidence of bricks made at Bryn Mawr being good? I fear the soil is too loose—not tough”—he hoped that his college would serve as “a grand opportunity for the higher education of women among Friends, and for the extending of the usefulness of the Society in the world.”
Taylor was never able to see his “grand opportunity” come alive with students. He died nearly five years before the first lectures commenced. His successor, another Orthodox Quaker physician, James Rhoads, assumed the helm of the college, and a young M. Carey Thomas accepted her role as the college’s first Dean. In her What Makes a College?: A History of Bryn Mawr (1956), alumna, children’s author, and former English faculty emerita Cornelia Meigs ably tells the story of the college’s first decades, ones in which the question of continuing Quaker affiliation remained unresolved and the direction of Thomas’s indefatigable will remained uncharted. Her engaging narrative spans the presidencies of Rhoads, Thomas, and Marion Park. She also charts the first years of Katharine McBride’s tenure in that office. According to Meigs, even as the college wrestled with its Quaker origins, instituted progressive educational experiments like the Phoebe Ann Thorne School and the Summer School for Women Workers, examined the place of graduate study in the small college, and continually reimagined the place of women’s higher education, it rigorously preserved a core commitment to academic excellence that M. Carey Thomas spent thirty years cultivating.
M. Carey Thomas, of course, remains the most enigmatic figure in the college’s history. In her retirement, she promised an autobiography that would—readers hoped—finally reveal her real personal and professional motivations. But such a project never came to fruition. Instead, Thomas left her story to be told by others. Edith Finch took up the challenge in the 1947 biography, Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr, that the executors of Thomas’s will and her heirs commissioned. Helen Horowitz revisited the subject nearly fifty years later in her unexpurgated 1994 volume, The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. Where the former tends toward hagiography and reads Thomas’s faults as misunderstood strengths, the latter renders her habitual manipulations with greater historical specificity. This is not to suggest that Horowitz ignores Thomas’s remarkable achievements; instead, she keeps both her extraordinary accomplishments in women’s education and her complex contrivances always within view.
Along with those cited below, these histories already fill an entire shelf. And yet, in one important way they remain incomplete. Like most institutional histories, these volumes concentrated on the administrative structures and personalities that ensured the College’s continued development. As such, they remained relatively silent on the contours of student experience. Bryn Mawr’s upcoming 125th anniversary provides an opportunity for a new exploration into the College’s past. This time, though, it will take a decidedly different form. Instead of retreading familiar ground, a large-format and colorfully illustrated volume will focus most heavily on the period following World War II and up through the turn of the twenty-first century. Comprised of the artifacts of student life—from College News editorials about co-education to scrapbook pages with dance cards and theater tickets—this will be a history told from the bottom up. Past and present student writings will help tell the story of, among other things, professional anxiety of the ’50s, protests of the late ’60s and early ’70s, curricular changes and the shrinking of the Graduate School in the ’80s, and planning efforts for the new century in the late ’90s. Conversations between generations of Bryn Mawr women will unfold on the page as current students compose biographies of alumnae and graduates reflect on their college years. Voices from the last century and a quarter will join together to tell the story of the institution as they experienced it. Keep an eye out for subscription and further information in upcoming issues of the Alumnae Bulletin.
Gertrude Stein, Fernhurst. Written, 1904.
Hilda Worthington Smith, Women Workers at the Bryn Mawr Summer School. 1928.
Margaret MacIntosh, Joseph Taylor Wright. 1936.
Edith Finch, Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr. 1947.
Cornelia Meigs, What Makes a College? 1956.
Ann Miller, ed., A College in Dispersion: Women of Bryn Mawr, 1896-1975. 1976.
Patricia Hochschild Labalme, A Century Recalled: Essays in Honor of Bryn Mawr College. 1987.
Barbara Sicherman, “Reading and Ambition: M. Carey Thomas and Female Heroism.” American Quarterly, 1993.
Jane Tompkins, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. 1996.
Helen Horowitz, The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. 1999.
Eric Pumroy, “Bryn Mawr.” Founded By Friends: The Quaker Heritage of Fifteen American Colleges and Universities. 2007.
Kathleen Waters Sander, Mary Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age. 2008.
Image: Learning through the years.
From left to right, students circa 1940, circa 1966, 1982, and 2007.