Given the Charlottesville, Va., protests and counterprotests over a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Bryn Mawr College’s announcement that it would immediately begin erasing the name of M. Carey Thomas, its best-known former president, from official use raises troubling issues.
As an African American feminist and author of a book on women’s suffrage, I believe it is crucial for campuses to examine their pasts if they want to be inclusive and welcoming to a diverse body of students. Institutions must determine whether symbols, as well as practices, customs, and governance, disadvantage certain students.
At the same time, I think we should examine the flaws Thomas and other controversial historical figures exhibited in the context of their time and of their contributions overall.
Thomas, who served from 1894 to 1922, was a leading advocate for the education of women at a time when few had access to higher learning and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She also “openly and vigorously advanced racism and anti-Semitism,” said the current president, Kim Cassidy.
On the increasingly diverse campus that has been an oasis for liberalism and feminism since 1885, the debate over Thomas and her legacy has simmered for years.
Still, if Thomas’ racial views are enough to get her name obliterated from the campus she helped lift to prominence, we are on a slippery slope.
In her time, many people shared those views. She is not even alone among noted suffragists who espoused such views or discriminated against black men and women in their movement — something I learned while researching my recently published book, Remember the Ladies: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box (Center Street).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the main leader of the women’s movement after the Civil War, made numerous public statements that many of her fellow women’s suffrage advocates, white and black, considered viciously racist (and anti-immigrant), even for the times, and they chastised her. “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung” getting the vote and ruling over white women, she wrote in an editorial.
Susan B. Anthony, who was Stanton’s associate and successor as head of one of the leading suffrage organizations, discouraged black women from attending its conventions in the South, ostensibly to avoid offending their hosts, and “disinvited” her long-standing friend Frederick Douglass from his customary attendance when the movement was courting Southern support.
Alice Paul — an alumna of Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, who emerged as the chief strategist of the more radical wing of the women’s suffrage movement in its latter days — at first discouraged black participation in the 1913 march against President Woodrow Wilson, also to appease Southerners and other elements. This was in spite of her self-described sympathies toward African Americans as a Quaker, she said. She let African Americans in but suggested they march at the rear of the procession.
Despite those views, all these women did much good in their lives, as Thomas did.
With Bryn Mawr’s moratorium on Thomas, clearly the pace of decisions to remove symbols that represent hatred and bigotry to some and “heritage” or nostalgia to others has quickened. Perhaps the way forward is to consider the whole record of our heroes before establishing memorials and when considering whether to remove them.
The current occupant of the Oval Office suggested that if Robert E. Lee were a target, other slaveholders, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, could be next. The problem with that reasoning is that the legacy of Lee is under attack not because he owned people, but because he was the leading Confederate secessionist, traitor, rebel military commander, fighting to protect the right to enslave people, including my ancestors, and make them work under inhumane conditions for life. Seceding and declaring war on your country is treason, not an act that we should glorify and use tax dollars to maintain.
The source of pain for those who want statues or names removed is never the sculptures or the buildings. It is the glorification of some part of history that remains hurtful for some. One Bryn Mawr alumna who protested the school’s decision online conceded that she never knew about the racial views of Thomas, only the good parts of her story. That is precisely the problem: If we are to honor people with permanent fixtures in places we all must share, we have to tell the whole story. We rarely do that, even in our schools, and that is why people are often misinformed and defensive about our nation’s past.
“No solution is ideal,” Bryn Mawr’s president wrote, “but my hope is that by fully acknowledging Thomas’ legacy of racism and anti-Semitism through this action, we will grant the community time for discernment: serious and thoughtful study, exchange of views, reflection, and action planning about our legacies of exclusion and resistance.”
Angela P. Dodson is author of “Remember the Ladies: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box” (Center Street, May 2017) and CEO of Editorsoncall L.L.C.