The Blog

A Historian and Her Source

The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore puts an academic's book on hold.

12:00 AM, May 20, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT an exclusive, 117-year-old private girls' school would object to having its history written by a capable historian? For reasons that remain obscure, the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore is blocking publication of a book about the school that was originally written--with the school's cooperation--as a Ph.D. dissertation at Tulane University. Professional historians are up in arms.

From the moment she stepped into Bryn Mawr's archive in 1995, Andrea
Hamilton was confronted by a rich history. Reporting from primary sources, including correspondence between the founders of the school, Hamilton told the story of a forward-looking, college preparatory school founded at the dawn of a great expansion in educational opportunities for women. Tulane approved her dissertation in 1997, and Johns Hopkins University Press and Rowman and Littlefield both offered to publish it as a book.

Staff members of the school continued to help Hamilton even after she signed a contract with Johns Hopkins in 1998. The Bryn Mawr archivist offered to assist with finding photos. In one conference call, the librarian and archivist voiced what seemed to Hamilton minor questions about the content of her dissertation. Then the school pulled the plug.

The Johns Hopkins Press had sent the revised manuscript to Barbara Chase, a former headmistress of the school, and the school itself had sent copies to two readers familiar with the subject. All three readers strongly opposed its publication, calling it everything from "historically muddled" to lacking in "basic validity." The school informed Hamilton, without asking for revisions or corrections. The only specific objection mentioned was her handling of documents concerning the desegregation of the school. In 2000, Bryn Mawr played its trump card. Citing an agreement Hamilton had signed with the archivist in 1995 saying she would not publish anything without the archivist's permission, the school threatened legal action. Hopkins had no choice but to cancel the contract. The next year, when Rowman and Littlefield expressed interest, Bryn Mawr again threatened to sue.

Historians worry that the school is setting a bad precedent for their profession. Last Monday over 140 scholars and university archivists signed a letter to David M. Funk, president of the Bryn Mawr trustees, imploring the school not to hide its history: "By leaving the matter as it now stands, you risk making this unfortunate episode the legacy of Bryn Mawr School: a footnote in the history of the suppression of academic freedom and historical debate."

"All of us," the letter continues, "have spent at least part of our careers working with manuscript sources and encouraging graduate students to do the same. Dr. Hamilton did what graduate students in American history are taught to do."

Andrea Hamilton's dissertation adviser, Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, dismisses desegregation as a plausible explanation for the school's position. "Disagreement about segregation? What a bombshell! They [the school] HAVE to be kidding!"

McClay speculates that what the school really object to may be Hamilton's discussion of the influence of Carol Gilligan's "women's ways of knowing" and "different voice" philosophy on the school in the 1980s. The school may also have been sensitive about Hamilton's treatment of the fact that the founders' vision--every girl should aspire to college and a career--was sometimes compromised at patrons' demand.

The manuscript, however, seems fairly evenhanded. Hamilton expresses respect for the founders' mission of providing girls with the best education possible. In conclusion, she calls Bryn Mawr "a working school, complicated by the problems and flaws inevitable in all institutions. . . . The hope is that in helping us to think more deeply about how one prominent girls' school has defined and redefined itself in relationship to the position of girls and women in society, the history of the Bryn Mawr School can give us greater insight into the exploration of modern issues in the education of girls."

In April, when the Baltimore Sun reported on Bryn Mawr's objection to the publication of Hamilton's book, Bryn Mawr's board of trustees decided to revisit the matter. The executive committee was due to reconvene last Thursday, though the results of that meeting were not immediately available.

Trustee chairman David Funk told The Daily Standard that the scholars' letter was "well written" and "well argued" and that the board valued every comment it's been given on the controversy.