FRONTLINE: Retrospect on M. Carey Thomas

Carey and Madame X
To her portraitist, Bryn Mawr College’s iconic leader was something else entirely.

Carey and Madame X
To her portraitist, Bryn Mawr College’s iconic leader was something else entirely.

To manage their posthumous images, the pharaohs left pyramids and sphinxes carved with their own faces. Statues of Stalin stood in nearly every Soviet village. And TV producer/philanthropist Sidney Kimmel dumped megabucks to brand Philadelphia’s new performing arts center with his own name.

In 1898—with a considerably smaller budget—M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, chose artist John

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Singer Sargent to do her portrait, which still hangs in the college library. Proud to be a pioneer in women’s higher education, Thomas thought Sargent’s unconventional style was a good match for her unconventional womanhood. Best remembered today for Madame X—the 1884 portrait which gave a Paris socialite a slutty image—Sargent was known as a painter of independent women: suffragists, actresses, lesbians and society belles. He purposely avoided conservative females and housewives. “I don’t like them,” he told a friend. “They are too like your well-to-do, respectable, middle-class women going to church on a Sunday afternoon.”

Carey Thomas’ attitude exactly.

Born in Baltimore and the eldest child of Quaker parents, Martha Carey Thomas ultimately rejected most tenets of organized religion. Instead, she embraced a form of social Darwinism, which held that society should be led and protected by its best people. Unlike her parents, who defined “best” as Christians, preferably Friends, Thomas favored the educated, the wealthy and, especially, those who appreciated beauty—the arts, literature, knowledge. Unlike many in her era, she envisioned an active role for women.

Thomas—who, even as a child, went by Carey rather than her feminine first name—was conceived “in full daylight,” according to a family story. Her mother, Mary Whitall Thomas, had previously miscarried. So her father, James Carey Thomas, a physician, proposed having intercourse at midday so conception would occur when both were “at the height of their physical powers.” Mary Thomas wondered aloud for the rest of her life whether this had produced her daughter’s “irrepressible” personality.

The Thomases wanted their daughter to be born again. When she was 2, Mary Thomas recorded hopefully in her diary that Carey “made her first little prayer tonight. She asked Heavenly Father to give her a new little heart.”

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But by age 4, Carey was off the traces: As a joke, an aunt dressed her as a boy and Carey decided she liked it. Then, at age 7, she was severely burned in a kitchen accident and nearly died. Carey spent 18 months in bed, enduring painful dressing changes that put an end to her childish faith. Her mother prayed over Carey’s bed that her suffering might ease. But what the girl had observed was that the prayers didn’t work.

“I felt sure that if my mother prayed hard enough, God would not let my dressings hurt me so awfully,” Thomas later wrote. But “the pain never lessened [and] I knew that there must be something wrong with God.”

As she grew older, Thomas increasingly dismissed the religious and gender-based restrictions that hemmed her in. When Mary Thomas rejected Carey’s request for a set of science instruments, saying, “Oh, but you can’t, you’re girls,” she and a friend immediately got to work and made their own Leyden jar to create electricity. When James Thomas mentioned St. Paul’s injunction that men were stronger and, therefore, should lead women, Carey wrote, “it made me so mad, almost beside myself.”

Her Own Woman
By age 15, Carey had an unformed vision of a future dedicated to debunking her father and St. Paul. She wouldn’t marry, believing required subservience. “If Heavenly Father spares me my senses, I’ll never be dependent on anyone, man or woman, if possible,” she wrote in her diary. “I am thoroughly and heartily women’s rights and never expect to change my opinion.”

To realize her dream, Carey focused on higher education. James Thomas was a lay Quaker minister, a fact that involved the family in church and community projects. Among these was the founding of Johns Hopkins University. When Johns Hopkins became all male, Carey chose Cornell, graduating in 1877 with a degree in literature. While she was at Cornell, a wealthy benefactor proposed a Quaker college for women; Carey’s father, uncle and cousin were helping to choose the site. The news crystallized Carey’s career plans: The college would be the vehicle with which she would demonstrate a woman’s potential. To gain control of the vehicle, however, she would need both higher academic credentials and the appearance of a good Quaker. For the former, she headed to Switzerland where, in 1882, she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Zurich. And she campaigned. “It is best for the president of a woman’s college to be a woman,” she wrote James Rhoads, who headed the emerging college. She offered recommendations regarding the size and qualifications of the faculty and the number of fellowships. She also offered herself, declaring that her success at Zurich qualified her “without presumptuousness” for the college presidency.

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All the while, Thomas obscured her religious skepticism. “Thee knows I have an affection for the Society of Friends which an outsider could never feel,” she wrote her mother. “I believe its views are more in accordance with the Bible than those of any other denomination.” And this: “Personally, I like to go to meeting once a week. I believe it helps one.” (In fact, in Thomas’ three years abroad, she never once attended Quaker worship.)

As it turned out, the elderly Rhoads himself was named first president of Bryn Mawr. But that only meant a delay. In 1884, Thomas was named the first female college dean in the country. When Rhoads retired a decade later, Thomas replaced him and remained in the office until 1922.

Though not its first president, M. Carey Thomas left her stamp on Bryn Mawr. She saw it as a women’s Leipzig, devoted to research and attracting great scholars. It was the first to organize study into a group system—a forerunner of the academic major—and prepared students for graduate work and significant (read: non-teaching) careers. It offered graduate education to women at a time when virtually no other U.S. colleges did. “(Thomas) was a heroine in her prime, widely celebrated in the press” wrote biographer Helen Horowitz. “Of the important women of the time, she held a prominent and secure place.”

Except among “Mawrters”—as Bryn Mawr students and alums call themselves—her reputation has faded, in part due to her now-unfashionable bigotries. Thomas’ Bryn Mawr hired no Jewish or African-American faculty, though it did admit Jewish students. When black educator Mary McLeod Bethune spoke at morning chapel in 1920, Thomas saw that she left on the morning train. Seating a black woman for lunch, she thought, “might cause difficulty.”

On the other hand, Thomas was dedicated suffragist—first president of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League and an advocate for the National Woman’s Party. Such activities made the college suspect to conservatives.

His Own Man
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American parents. Widely traveled in Europe, he never set foot in the United States until just before his 21st birthday, when he returned to retain his citizenship.

Sargent’s mother, an amateur artist, always encouraged him to sketch, insisting that he finish at least one drawing daily. He later studied formally in Italy, Germany and Paris. “He worked hard and with a uniformity of excellence astonishing even in a man so generously gifted,” wrote art critic Thomas Craven. “He never missed a dimension, or varied a hairsbreadth from the exact size and just relationships of features; he was a dead shot at likenesses.”

In 1882, while living in Paris, Sargent won a commission to paint Virginie Gautreau, an American expatriate known as one of the city’s great beauties. It caused a scandal. The enormous (82 by 43 inches) canvas, Madame X, showed Gautreau standing, clad in a strapless black dress that bared her shoulders and (almost) her chest, with one hand resting lightly on a table. Her pale skin, with the dark dress and background, only emphasized how much of it there was.

“The doors of the Salon were hardly open before the picture was damned,” Sargent reported later. “The public took upon themselves to inveigh against the flagrant insufficiency, judged by prevailing standards, of the sitter’s clothing.”

Another artist later painted straps on the dress. Sargent moved to England.

And that was where Thomas found him in late July 1899, when she sat for Sargent for six days. The painting, which arrived at Bryn Mawr that October, shows Thomas in a dark academic robe with light on her serious face. The effect emphasizes her intelligence, which, in that era, was about as popular with most of Sargent’s clients as showing them underdressed.

But it worked for Thomas, who enthusiastically lent the portrait for showings.

“I should very much like to have my portrait exhibited in Washington,” she wrote the Corcoran Gallery in 1906. “So many people have the unjust impression that [Sargent] is incapable of painting the portrait of a woman as seriously as that of a man.”

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