A Tribute to Millicent Carey McIntosh

Let us celebrate the life of an important Quaker educator, Millicent Carey McIntosh, who died on January 3, 2001, at the age of 102. A niece of M. Carey Thomas, the early president of Bryn Mawr College, she grew up in the Religious Society of Friends in Baltimore, the daughter of Anthony Morris and Margaret Carey. She graduated from Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and went on to Bryn Mawr College where she earned a degree in English magna cum laude. Between completing her undergraduate degree and entering graduate school, she worked as a social worker in Baltimore. After earning her Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins University, she taught briefly at Bryn Mawr College before becoming the head of the Brearley School in New York City. In 1947, Millicent Carey McIntosh became dean of Barnard College, the women’s undergraduate division of Columbia University in New York City. Through her extraordinary leadership, the title of the senior officer of the college was changed to president and, as such, she led this college until her retirement in 1962. Barnard, like Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe Colleges, had been founded toward the end of the 19th century to provide women with the same opportunities for education as were available to men in such places as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. The founding of Barnard College was a direct response to the position taken by Columbia University that allowed women access to reading lists but barred them from the classroom.

Millicent Carey McIntosh came to Barnard at a particularly dismal period in the 20th-century history of women’s higher education. It was soon after the end of World War II, when society was making room for returning veterans by deliberately removing women from the workplace and university classrooms. Young women were being told by every available means to marry, raise children, and be content with being housewives. The percentage of women graduating from college reached a 20th-century low. The numbers in Ph.D. programs would not again reach the numbers of the 1920s until the 1970s. Medical schools and law schools actively discriminated against women.

As the head of one of the outstanding institutions of higher education for women, Millicent Carey McIntosh probably did more for women, particularly for women’s opportunity, than any other single person of her generation. Both directly and indirectly, she actively encouraged women to realize their potential irrespective of the expectations of their families and wider social pressures for conformity. Through her own achievements, she opened up options for women well beyond the boundaries of the college.

She was my president when I entered Barnard as a freshman in l949. She was also my first close encounter with a Quaker woman. For me as for many other students at Barnard, she became one of the most important influences in determining who I would become in my adult life.

Perhaps her opening lecture to freshmen that year can communicate most dramatically the kind of influence she exercised. I was young, just past my 17th birthday. I came from an upstate farm and had grown up in a small, tight community where very few people went on to college or even left home for anything. I remember very clearly sitting in the Barnard gymnasium listening to Millicent Carey McIntosh give her welcoming talk to us. I no longer remember her exact words, but I can see her and I know exactly what she told us.

We were, she said, among the brightest women in this country. We should know that we would go on to make important contributions in this world, some on the basis of our undergraduate education alone, others with doctorates in hand. We should not listen to those who said that one had to choose between a career and a family. All Barnard women will marry, she said, unless we make a definite decision not to, but there will be few who will so choose. Know that we do not have to choose between a life of achievement and a home and family. Both can and will be ours. Pay no attention when others tell us what we should or should not do, but reach for our own potential, and in so doing be of service to our community, for the world needs us.

In 1949 this was radical instruction indeed. In that opening speech we heard her own distinguishing characteristics—directness, commitment to what one can do and the importance of doing it well, emphasis on the importance of service to the community, pragmatism, disregard for conventional norms, and an ability to focus quickly on critical questions.

Millicent Carey McIntosh was a plain woman. Her clothes were simple, her hair was short, and she wore little make-up, if any. Fashion seemed to attract her not at all. Nor was she a pretentious woman or one who found any task beneath her. She liked to tell us the story of the arrival of the Barnard search team to interview her in her home. They found her on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor in the foyer. A friend of mine in college spent the summer at a music camp near her summer home. My friend knew one of her sons, whom I believe was also at this camp. She was often invited to dinner with them. She reported that if you visited "Mrs. Mac," you would be put to work alongside her either weeding or shelling peas for dinner.

At a time when other women’s colleges were turning out women who married well, Barnard under Mrs. Mac directed women toward graduate school and professional careers. It was a period prior to the discovery of the importance of career role models and mentors for women.

How did she single-handedly do so much to reverse the dropout of women from higher education? At Barnard, she deliberately chose faculty who were married women and productive scholars, often with young children. She instituted a unique system of class advisors, carefully chosen to provide a mentor for each student. A faculty member who was a distinguished scholar, married, and usually with grown children, was released from classroom teaching to become the advisor for a class. She remained the class advisor for all four years, and we became her class. My class advisor wrote to me at least once every year until she died, keeping in touch with my life and offering precious advice across the years.

Throughout our curriculum the personal was intermixed with the scholarly. I remember the excitement when a history professor returned from pregnancy leave and told us in graphic detail the joy of natural childbirth, then a new option for women. Mrs. Mac herself told us about her five children, the oldest of whom was our age, and by example demonstrated that women could indeed have rich family lives as well as demanding careers. She also instituted a full-year, required freshman class called Healthy Living. The first semester was taught by the college physician and the second by Mrs. Mac. In her semester she focused on the community—the one from which each of us came and the one in which each would live her life. The world and the community needed our energy. Service, she pointed out, was not an optional choice but a necessity and our responsibility. World peace, reconstruction, greater equality for all, and better distribution of resources must be achieved and would not without the care and effort of all of us.

Just as Millicent Carey McIntosh opened Barnard to women, she opened it to minorities and lower-income students. Only one-third of Barnard women lived in dormitories, and many of these, as I was, were scholarship students. The remainder came from all parts of New York City. One African American student walked to Barnard across Harlem and Morningside Heights because she did not have the fare for the subway. Others came from the Lower East Side and from Brooklyn. We sat in class with girls from virtually every ethnic group, including many from foreign countries. It was at Barnard that I had the opportunity to form my first close friendships with African Americans and to be welcomed into their homes.

Not only was "Mrs. Mac" shaping an important educational experience for several generations of students, but she was affecting attitudes and programs nationally. She was an outspoken public speaker. She was the first woman to occupy a position on a corporate board. She served on the boards of trustees of other educational institutions, including Bryn Mawr College. Her influence spread far from Barnard. The women she sent forth from Barnard into medical and law schools and Ph.D. programs were almost always successful, countering the prevalent image of female incompetency. The self-confidence nurtured at Barnard served these generations of pioneering women well, as they encountered the stereotypes and discrimination prevalent in the institutions where they later studied and worked.

Looking back now, I do not think I could have found a better introduction to Quakerism. In the honesty with which she approached problems, the simplicity and integrity with which she lived her personal life, her compelling concern for and belief in others, the commitment she felt to service to make this world a better place, and her disregard for social norms that stood in the way of any of the above, she was a living representative of many of our testimonies.

Jane C. Kronick

Jane C. Kronick , a member of Haverford (Pa.) Meeting, graduated from Barnard College ('53) and earned a Ph.D. from Yale in Sociology. She is emeritus professor of Comparative Social Policy at Bryn Mawr College. Among her publications, she is co-author of Assault on Equality: A Critique of the Bell Curve.