How Should We Remember M. Carey Thomas?

Alumnae/i offer perspectives on a difficult question for all.

In 2017, the Bryn Mawr community grappled with the College’s legacy of racism. In accordance with its model of shared governance, the College has formed a Working Group of faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumnae/i to lead the discussion of the College’s history and the legacy of M. Carey Thomas, who espoused racist and anti-Semitic views. In August, President Cassidy announced that, as the group does its important work, a temporary moratorium has been placed on the use of Thomas' name on buildings and spaces on campus. 

Alumnae/i response to the announcement has been all that one would expect: serious, thoughtful, and respectful. Herewith, the Bulletin offers a representative sampling.

I am writing to support President Cassidy’s thoughtful and, quite frankly, moving letter to the community. To say that I love the College, credit it for who I have become in my professional life, my personal life, in my parenting, in my moral compass, would be an understatement. I carry with me the feminism of the College, the ethics of the College, the ideology of the College in my heart every day. I also teach at the University of North Carolina, where we are grappling with these issues in a more public way and in a way that has, unfortunately, divided our community. I so appreciate Bryn Mawr’s ability to engage in this discussion in a civilized and respectful manner.

—Beth Posner ’89
Clinical Assistant
Professor of Law
University of North Carolina

We don’t change history by trying to eliminate those parts that now are offensive. Instead we should try to understand people’s actions and beliefs in the context of their world, not ours. Fortunately many of us have the good fortune of living in more tolerant, understanding times and places.

The bottom line is that without M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr would not exist, nor would its history and the contributions of her alumnae. I say celebrate her even more and, yes, understand her in the context of her world. Most of all, move forward on our current inclusionary trajectory.

—Barbara Bauman Morrison ’62

I am glad that Bryn Mawr is reflecting on its “institutional histories of inclusion, as well as resistance.”

Such a reflection must include a deep understanding of M. Carey Thomas. I assume that the Working Group that Dean Jennifer Walters is leading is aware of Lefkowitz Horowitz’s 1984 biography The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas. In the 1970s, some alumnae, including me, returned to Bryn Mawr to speak, and we hoped that we might help all of us to see this complex, flawed woman as clearly as possible.

What I find less easy to assume is the wisdom of the declaration of a moratorium. Once a name is erased, it is difficult, for many reasons, to restore it. 

I first encountered Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at Bryn Mawr. As I read President Cassidy’s letter, two lines from that play haunted me. “The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is often interred with their bones.” Dean Walters’ working group will do valuable, necessary work, but let us not bury the good as well as expose the evil.

—Catharine R. Stimpson ’58
University Professor and Dean Emerita
NYU Graduate school of arts and Sciences

Just wanted to send a note in gratitude for this process of discernment. It’s incredibly important that the current students be seen as key stakeholders in this process and the voices of alumnae/i be secondary. All things must evolve, and reflection on the impact of the Thomas name on the College’s current climate is necessary.

—Nora Landon ’01
Traditions Mistress ’99-’00

Brava, Bryn Mawr! Well done!

—Nealia Khan ’95
President, Bryn Mawr Club of Rhode Island

Thank you for announcing the College’s consideration of Bryn Mawr’s history and the naming of important places on the campus. As we openly acknowledge the College’s history—for better and for worse—parts we can be rightfully proud of, some we look back on with shame. Yes, many considerations of the times and cultural differences may explain, but not excuse.

Many of us remember the “maid and porters”—beloved people in the dorm communities, but nonetheless…. This soul-searching is important!

—Nancy Blumenthal Mann ’72 

I am proud of us for doing both the moratorium and the Working Group!

—Nancy P. Masland ’56
Co-President, Class of 1956

I too was surprised by the news. M. Carey Thomas was always an important role model and example for I think all of us. But I certainly hadn’t heard any of these allegations, even if not entirely surprising given the moment in history and the maids and porters system we arrived to. But others in our history have had similar views—e.g., Woodrow Wilson, another Bryn Mawr name, who has a school named for him.  

However, in these times of hyperbole and loss of rational public discourse, I thought taking time for more reflection and not jumping to make any decision in the heat of the moment, but taking temporary action to quiet the conversation was probably wise. Yale has handled similar issues terribly in my view while Princeton resisted the pressure to rename the Wilson school.  

I am hoping that the Bryn Mawr approach of time for further reflection and dialogue before making a decision will help it all come out the right way. And I am rooting for keeping the name!

—Barbara Paul Robinson '62