As you might guess from my last name, I’m Jewish. And, like every other Jew I know, I was angered and alarmed by the violent display of anti-Semitism recently in Charlottesville, Va.
So you might also guess that I was gratified to see Bryn Mawr College scrub its website of some references to its best-known president, M. Carey Thomas, who was a racist as well as an anti-Semite.
The drive to cleanse the residue of famous racists from public spaces actually distorts our understanding of racism, which has been far more widespread than we like to imagine. And it encourages us to think of ourselves as somehow purer — more aware, more enlightened, and less flawed — than the human beings who preceded us.
Since Charlottesville, Confederate monuments have been toppled in several Southern states. In New York, there were renewed calls to take down the statue of Christopher Columbus on the edge of Central Park. Here in Philadelphia, protesters demanded the removal of a statue as well as a mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.
But these figures were creatures of their time, not of ours. Almost any white person in M. Carey Thomas’ era was a bigot by 2017 standards. Not mentioning her name’s use on a building or library won’t help us remember that. Rather, it will make it easier for us to forget.
Was Thomas an anti-Semite and a racist? You bet. She tried to block Jews from enrolling in the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore, which Thomas helped found in 1885. After becoming president of Bryn Mawr College in 1894, she sought to restrict the school’s faculty and student body to those of “Anglo-Saxon” stock.
In a 1916 talk to Bryn Mawr students, Thomas warned that people from other backgrounds were weakening the entire nation. Unless America took measures to limit immigration, she said, it would soon witness “the lowering of the physical and mental inheritance … by intermixture of unprogressive millions of backwards peoples.”
Thomas’ talk was published in the Bryn Mawr College alumnae bulletin, and — as best we can tell — no readers raised any fuss about it. And that should tell you something important: However loathsome to us, Thomas’ ideas about religion and race were standard-issue white-Protestant views.
And they were central to the suffragist movement, in which Thomas played an important role. Especially in the South, one of the key arguments for women’s suffrage was that it would increase white voting power vis-à-vis blacks. “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage,” declared Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters.
Racist ideas also helped fuel the campaign for birth control, another crusade close to Thomas’ heart. The movement aimed to enhance women’s autonomy, but it also sought to limit the fertility of “lesser breeds” of women. “More children from the fit — less from the unfit — that is the chief aim of birth control,” declared Margaret Sanger, America’s most prominent birth-control champion.
Thomas was right there with her, warning that “the ever-increasing production of morons must be scientifically checked” and that “weak-minded people must be prevented from having children.” But these ideas weren’t unique to Thomas; instead, they formed the racist backbone of white America itself.
Removing Thomas’ name in some references from Bryn Mawr’s website and publications can help us pretend otherwise. We can imagine her as a lone miscreant, a shameful blot on an otherwise pristine heritage. Erasing her from public memory becomes a way of forgetting how commonplace her beliefs really were.
But there’s more. When we remove the physical traces of discredited historical figures, we give ourselves more credit than we deserve. We forget that we live in history, too, and that we will be judged by it as well.
I drive a gasoline-powered automobile, even though it contributes to global warming. I walk by homeless people on the streets, mumbling an embarrassed “no” to their pleas for help. I eat animals, which feel pain when they are slaughtered.
How will I fare when the day of historical judgment comes? I can’t say, of course. But I do hope that future generations show me a bit more charity than we’re currently giving to the people who came before us.
That’s not to say we should excuse what they did. Monuments to racists should contain clear visual reminders of their misdeeds, so we never forget about them. The statue to Rizzo might be coupled with a memorial to African American and gay civil-rights workers, two frequent targets of his bile and bigotry. And Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Library (which I hope will retain its name; the college hasn’t decided yet) should feature a permanent display about M. Carey Thomas’ anti-Semitic and anti-black attitudes.
But I hope it also points out that she lived in intimate relationships with two different women at a time when homosexuality was becoming deeply tabooed. She was a despicable bigot in many ways, but she was also a brave pioneer. She loved, and she hated; she opened doors, and she closed them. She was a complicated mixture of good, bad, and much in between. Just like you. And like me.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press). firstname.lastname@example.org