Gender and Meritocracy: A Historical Perspective

14 January 2020


Meritocracy is out of fashion. It is critiqued by those concerned with social mobility and for its threat to academic excellence. For all of the hand-wringing, though, there hasn’t been much analysis of meritocracy as a concept: what it is, where it comes from, and whether it might be worth saving. This lack is felt especially in discussions about higher education, given that universities are tasked with creating the “best” possible researchwhile also redressing social injustice. An exploration of meritocracy might give us purchase on the question asked by this forum: does higher education perpetuate or challenge hierarchies? 


It is not a surprise that meritocracy is critiqued from both the right and the left, because it is a knife that cuts two ways. Opening an institution to the best and the brightest might allow some in who were legally barred before. But it might, at the same time, reproduce the social inequities that determine who counts as the best and the brightest in the first place. The history of meritocracy in higher education, therefore, is not simple. In this post I’ll share some of my findings on the inclusion of women in higher education. It is, of course, a tale to celebrate: including women in the professoriate and university administration has completely changed the face of the institution in the past century. Yet there is a darker side, too. Like other groups who were able to leverage meritocracy in their favor, some in the pioneering generation of female academics worked, with some success, to pull the ladder up after they had climbed it. 


The story of women’s inclusion into the university is, like the story of the university itself, a trans-Atlantic one: the product of German-American exchange over the course of 100 years from about 1810 to 1933. As we would expect, these were mainly male circles—they were white, aristocratic, and Protestant ones, too. For many young white men of privilege, going to a German university was a recognized pathway to success in business, science, government, or administration. Some like James Burrill Angel and Andrew Dickson White would return to have major impacts on the development of higher education in America. Forty-five American university presidents can be traced to the universities of Leipzig and Göttingen alone. 


But a small minority of Americans taking classes, and sometimes degrees, in German universities were not white or not male or not privileged, or some combination of these. When the American university builders adapted the German system for America, they took a system intended for an elite segment of the population with its twin concepts of Bildung (self-cultivation) and Wissenschaft (scholarship) and wedged it into a democratic tradition with ensuing contradictions. The stories of white American women who traveled to Germany for a university education reveal how one further from the academic seats of power could harness the German tradition to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, their use of that very tradition perpetuated many of the academic hierarchies they aimed to disrupt. 


The education that was available to white American women in the late nineteenth century had come a long way since the Civil War. Many of the Land Grants had been coeducated (albeit amid strong opposition), and a number of single-sex schools including Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), and Smith (1875) were founded to train women on a classical curriculum. But many American women felt these single-sex schools played second fiddle to men’s education and were often barred from certain classes or majors in coed environments. They pined for the holy grail of professional status and cultural capital: the German PhD.


Germany became a goldmine for the resourceful and bold aspiring female academic. Not that imperial Germany was a land of gender blindness, equity, and freedom. Such scholars at the University of Berlin as Friedrich Paulsen and Heinrich Treitschke were notorious for their exclusion of women who were, according to the Culture Minister, “worse than social democracy” and believed women a threat to what the historian Patricia Mazón has called “academic citizenship.”


Women’s education evolved on a state-by-state basis in the German Lands. Though women did not gain the right to earn degrees at German universities until 1900 (the state of Baden was first and Prussia the final holdout), they could acquire status as Gasthörer to audit lectures with the professor’s permission on a case-by-case basis. Thus pockets of inclusion opened up—art history in Leipzig and math in Göttingen—and through this “back door,” women could get a world-class education and occasionally degrees.


One of the many American women who charged through this back door was Martha Carey Thomas, whose personal ambition and determination changed the course of educational opportunities in America for subsequent generations of women. What she achieved—and didn’t—sheds light on the emergence of meritocracy as an ideology in the solidifying hierarchy of American higher education.  


Born in Baltimore and steeped in the East Coast world of Orthodox Friends, Thomas took advantage of the Quakers’ growing interest in educating women. Fortunately for Thomas, her mother’s family was wealthy enough to support a townhouse, servants, and a country estate, as well as participation in charities, and she eagerly drained every penny to pursue her professional goals. Privileged, ambitious, beautiful, and persuasive, she allowed herself to be courted by male suitors, while she played female lovers off one another to support her causes. Not permitted to attend courses alongside male students at the first research university in America, Johns Hopkins, founded in 1875, Thomas departed for Germany and joined a growing group of American women who aimed to use access to a German graduate education to pressure their American institutional counterpoints to make similar concessions at home. 


Armed with a dissertation on medieval philology and a degree earned in Zurich (often the last stop for women who were denied degrees in Germany), Thomas made the case to her Quaker relatives that she should be the first president of the new women’s college that would soon be founded in Bryn Mawr. Though sexism denied her the founding presidency, she became dean and eventually president through a ruthless strategy of “coercive philanthropy”—her lover Mary Garret bribed the board with a donation. P. T., or President Thomas, as she was known, then transformed this new institution over the course of three decades into a “women’s Johns Hopkins.” 


 P. T.’s rise coincided with the explosion in women’s education in the US, and she remained a fierce advocate of single-sex education. But when she spoke to Germans at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1904, Thomas sang a different tune. “As I happen to be the President of one of the four largest and best- endowed separate colleges for women in the United States, you will not think me unduly biased, if I say that, as women, we should throw all our influence in favor of unrestricted co-education of the sexes from Kindergarten through the university.” Anticipating an as-of-yet continuing debate as to whether equity and excellence are best achieved for women in separate or coeducational institutions, it is significant that the foremost president of one of the leading women’s colleges seemed to advise coeducation—at least when out of earshot from the Americans—as the wisest strategy. At home P.T. worked within the bounds of what was possible to change from within. Bryn Mawr reflected the unique possibilities of transatlantic exchange for creating an opening for altering—if not fully disrupting—the established all-male tradition in America.


Within this new system there was only so much that was possible to change. Thomas’s creation of an elite women’s institution reflects what sociologists call hybridization. Joining the elite male-centered tradition of the German graduate school with the new women’s college she created an American hybrid: an elite women’s graduate school. 


If the results of Thomas’s efforts were ambiguous; they were also difficult to replicate. Not all women (or men) could share in the success enjoyed by white women from elite backgrounds. Travel to Germany required funds, or access to networks, like the newly-founded philanthropic organization of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), which provided grants to aspiring women academics. Racial, ethnic, class, and religious barriers still loomed large. Despite being Jewish and working-class, Ida Hyde received one of the first grants from the ACA to study in Germany and eventually was elected to the American Physiological Society. African-American women would have to wait even longer; the first three African American women to receive their PhDs all did so in 1921. 


W. E. B. Du Bois also attended university in Germany through the help of the Slater Foundation and (despite being denied the final semester of funding to finish his PhD) used this education to propel his career forward. His Atlanta seminars became the site of early and innovative sociological methodology, but he was systematically excluded from the wider white sociological school and only “visible,” as Aldon Morris argues, belatedly. His peripheral and subordinate status was even more insurmountable than that of Thomas.


In offering opportunities for the upwardly mobile, meritocracy also unleashed anxiety among those whose privilege was granted by birth. P. T.’s oft-reported (though perhaps unreliable) statistic that at least half of Bryn Mawr graduates married and had children responded to the threats posed by the “feminization” of the academy. Fears of being replaced by those on lower rungs of the ascribed-status ladder was fast becoming a feature of the American meritocratic system. And the implementation of quotas of women at Stanford and the University of Chicago foreshadowed similar tactics that would be used against other rising groups—namely Jews.


Thomas’s life and career reveals another disturbing feature of meritocracy—she would come to bear a certain responsibility for the fact that higher education would remain the preserve of the elite. Since those on the edges of the traditional academy wanted desperately to be insiders, they often shared and performed the elitism of the establishment: Thomas, for her part, imbibed antisemitism, racism, and classism. Her embrace of German Bildung was part of a vision of a select class who had access to this cultural and scientific tradition. 


In the last few years we’ve seen the celebration of the historic coeducation of elite schools, including 50 years at Yale University. We engage in dangerous and false self-congratulatory analysis, however, if we assume that the inclusion of white women into the American academy led to a “cascade” of rights to others (to use Lynn Hunt’s phrase). In fact, the shortcomings of social mobility and racial integration even in Thomas’s time suggest otherwise. Moreover, today these universities remain deeply masculine places, as the alarming statistics of rape and sexual harassment on campuses reveal. And a spate of recent tenure cases suggest that other features like race are harder to diversify. 


To be sure, not all of the problems of American meritocracy can be attributed to the German tradition. But the transatlantic exchange must be the background for any analysis of the modern research university, which emerged from it. 


Chris Newfield has argued that mass Bildung, or self-cultivation, is the ultimate non-pecuniary good for all. But is it possible to have this without the elitism and exclusivity? Even when it helped educate, and thus raise the status of Americans outside the white, male, Protestant elite, the German university system ended up reinforcing the role of American higher education in preserving elites. Bildung, a core element of its university model, was always elitist, and to the extent the German model migrated to the United States, the elitism traveled with it.


The American equivalent of the German Bürgertum would also be based on intersecting gendered, racial, ethnic, and class hierarchies. The difference was that in America, a perpendicular ideology of meritocracy emerged, and with it the promise of social mobility. The gates would be more or less open at various points in American history, making it difficult to tally meritocracy’s successes. For many of those who made it through, the logic of the system dictated that once they did, they must close the door tightly behind them. 


If we want to see true meritocracy in the academy those who have made it need to fight for it.



This blog post is adapted from Emily J. Levine’s forthcoming book, which offers a transatlantic history of the modern research university.  


For further reading see: Evans, Stephanie Y. Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850–1954: An Intellectual History. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007; Johnson, Joan Marie. Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870–1967. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Caroline Press, 2017; Mazón, Patricia M. Gender and the Modern Research University: The Admission of Women to German Higher Education, 1864-1914 Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003; Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982; Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985; Synnott, Marcia Graham. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970. Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1979; and Thomas, Martha Carey, The Making of a Feminist: Early Journals and Letters of M. Carey Thomas. Edited by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1979.


Photo Credit: John Singer Sargent, Miss M. Carey Thomas, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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