Martha Carey Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland January 2, 1857.
Thomas an American educator and suffragist went on to become the dean and later president of Bryn Mawr University.
Growing up, Thomas was strongly influenced by the staunch feminism of her mother and her mother’s sister Hannah Whitall Smith who became a prominent preacher in their Quaker religion. Her father, a physician, was not completely happy with feminist ideas, but his daughter was fiercely independent and he supported her in all of her independent endeavors. Though both her parents were orthodox members of the Society of Friends, Thomas’ education and European travel led her to question those beliefs and develop a love for music and theater, both of which were forbidden to Orthodox Quakers.
Thomas went to Sage College, a women’s school at Cornell University.
She graduated from Cornell University in 1877. Cornell offered her both the position of professor of literature and dean of Sage College, but she did not consider either.
She did graduate work in Greek at Johns Hopkins University but withdrew because she was not permitted to attend classes. She did further graduate work at the University of Leipzig, but that university did not grant degrees to women. She then went to the University of Zurich and earned a Ph.D. in linguistics, summa cum laude, in 1882 for her dissertation which was a philological analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This dissertation continued to be highly regarded by specialists eighty years later.She was the first woman and the first foreigner to receive such a doctorate from the university. She then spent some time in Paris, where she attended lectures by Gaston Paris at the Sorbonne, and then went back home to the United States.
In 1882, Thomas wrote a letter to the trustees of Bryn Mawr College, requesting that she be made president of the university. However, she was not granted the position as the trustee were concerned about her relative youth and lack of experience. Instead, Thomas entered in 1884 as the dean of the college and chair of English.
In 1885 Thomas, together with Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Mamie Gwinn, Elizabeth King, and Julia Rogers, founded The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore Maryland. The school would produce well-educated young women who met the very high entrance standards of Bryn Mawr College.
In 1908, she became the first president of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League. She was also a leading member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After 1920 she advocated the policies of the National Woman’s Party. She was one of the early promoters of an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Thomas lived for many years in a relationship with Mamie Gwinn. After Gwinn left Thomas in 1904 to marry (a love triangle fictionalized in Gertrude Stein’s Fernhurst), Thomas started another relationship with Mary Garrett they shared the campus home, living together until Garrett’s death. Miss Garrett, who had been prominent in suffrage work and a benefactor of Bryn Mawr, left Martha $15,000,000 to be disposed of as she saw fit.
Thomas retired in 1922, at age sixty-five. The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, which was founded at Carey’s behest in 1921, was a sort of “grand finale” bookending Thomas’ legacy as an earlier shaper of the college. Thomas, spent the last two decades of her life traveling the world in luxury, including trips to India, the Sahara, and France.
Martha Carey Thomas died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of a coronary occlusion. She had returned to the city to address Bryn Mawr College on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Her ashes were scattered on the Bryn Mawr College campus in the cloisters of the Thomas Library.