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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 454

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This is the grave of Mary Elizabeth Garrett.

Born into an elite Baltimore family in 1854, Garrett grew up in wealth. Her father was president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and good friend of Abraham Lincoln, they lived in a big mansion, etc. She was also ambitious. Even as a girl, she was uninterested in the traditional elite life of a minor education in subjects intended to produce conversation and marriage instead of what she was interested in. She went to a finishing school, but her and two friends, unable to take science classes, started their own underground class that included dissecting a rat. She quit school when she was 17 and taught herself a series of languages and other topics. Her family was extremely conservative in that Victorian middle-class way. She hated that no one would teach her about her own body, including in puberty, and that any discussion of sex, broadly defined, was strictly forbidden.

As an adult, Garrett dedicated herself to women’s rights, especially women’s education. Her family had long been involved in philanthropy and this is how she defined her activism work. She and her friends taught each other in reading and discussion groups. They started the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore in 1885; named for the famous college, it was a place for elite young women to get a real education for the modern world. She also gave money for that college. Garrett had long wanted to attend Johns Hopkins University, but was denied admission because she was a woman. Instead, she spent her time as her father’s personal secretary. When he died, she inherited a large fortune. So when Johns Hopkins came skulking around looking for donations, Garrett was happy to give money to the new medical school–on the condition that women be admitted, as well as that the medical students also have to learn a foreign language. The school accepted the offer and Hopkins became one of the first places women could study medicine in the country and the first institution where men and women truly had equal admission standards.

Garrett was also deeply committed to women’s suffrage. Being rich, she funded much of that movement, working with Susan B. Anthony among others. The 1906 National American Woman Suffrage’s Association convention took place in her home and she was the financial chair of the National College Equal Suffrage League between 1908 and 1914.

Alas, Garrett would not live to see the Nineteenth Amendment. Leukemia took her in 1915, at the age of 61. She did not marry or have children and left her sizable fortune to her suffragist friend, Bryn Mawr president M. Carey Thomas. Garrett was living at Bryn Mawr in her last years, estranged from her family. Given Thomas’ own extreme racism and anti-Semitism and her work in keeping Bryn Mawr lily white, I poked around to see if Garrett shared in these ideas, but I didn’t find much and obviously deep research is too much for a project like this. But it is at least worth noting how exclusive the suffrage movement could be.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions, which as always, I highly appreciate. I am currently planning grave trips to North Carolina and Virginia later this spring so consider allowing this series to continue into the future. If it is suffragists you want more of, Carey Thomas is at Bryn Mawr and Alice Paul is in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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