History of Barnard College: A Prospectus

A History of Barnard College, 1889 to the Present


The Historiographical Setting
I propose to write the first interpretive history of Barnard College since Marian Churchill White’s narrative account, A History of Barnard College, one of the school histories edited by Dwight C. Miner and published by Columbia University Press on the occasion of the Bicentennial of Columbia University in 1954. It covered the first 65 years of what is now the College’s 125 years of operation. Since then aspects of the Barnard story have been ably told by others, notably Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz on Barnard’s architectural beginnings in Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (1986) and on its intellectual contributions to the women’s movement by my Barnard colleague Rosalind Rosenberg in Changing the Subject: How The Women of Columbia Shaped The Way We Think About Sex and Politics, published by Columbia University Press in 2004. Neither Horowitz or Rosenberg sought to provide a comprehensive history of the College. A journal article by Lynn Gordon in 1986 on “Annie Nathan Meyer and Barnard College: Mission and Identity in Women’s Higher Education,” and an edited book in 1999 by M. Elizabeth
Tidball , Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Educating the Majority , both informative and suggestive, pretty well exhausts the recent secondary literature directly focused on the history of Barnard College.

The Comparative Contexts
I propose to set my history of Barnard within three comparative contexts:

— Nationally — within the history of women’s education, with major attention to how Barnard’s
history fits and departs from those of its near contemporaries and members of the “Seven Sister
Colleges” (Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr), but also those of
Pembroke, Agnes Scott and Sophie Newcombe. Here the comparisons will include founding
circumstances, governance, finances, faculty composition and scholarship, curriculum, campus life
and the occupational outcomes of graduates. Comparisons will also be made in terms of campus life
and student outcomes with such traditionally co-educational universities as the University of
Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan and Cornell University.
In the area of faculty composition and scholarship, comparisons will be made with such traditionally
men’s (and only since the 1970s co-educational) colleges such as Amherst, Williams and Bowdoin.

— Regionally — within the history of women’s higher education and the professions in New York City,
by making comparisons in the areas of trustee composition, faculty composition, student
characteristics and occupational outcomes will be made with NYU, Hunter College and


— Locally — within the context of the history of Columbia University’s many constituent and affiliated
schools that have either traditionally or only recently enrolled women, particularly by comparisons
with Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, General Studies and Teachers

While not pretending to write a comprehensive history of women’s higher education in the United States, I do hope through these multi-layered comparisons between the Barnard situation and those of different types of academic institutions that offer collegiate instruction to women to take up most of the issues such a history would be expected to address.

I intend to organize the book’s narrative in chronological order, but allow myself considerable freedom in locating consideration of major topical issues. Accordingly, governance, finances, Columbia relations, student composition, the curriculum will not be addressed in every chapter but at different points in the narrative when they are particularly salient or are undergoing significant change.

The chapterization as currently and incompletely imagined:

Chapter Subject Matter Working Title Time Span
1 Women’s Higher Education before Barnard “Remember the Ladies” 1777-1888
2 The Founding and Early Years Blackberry Winter 1889-1910
3 The Gildersleeve Era, I A Place in the University 1910-1929
4 Barnard in the Depression and War Hard Times 1930-1946
5 The McIntosh Era & and Post-War Challenges Women in the American Century 1947-1967
6 Columbia ’68 & Feminism Emboldened To the Barricades 1968-1973
7 Barnard-Columbia Relations Is Barnard Necessary? 1974-1980
8 The Futter presidency — Survival “Sailing Close to the Wind” 1981-1993
9 The Shapiro presidency — Recovery Indian Summer? 1994-2006
10 The Spar Presidency & the Globalized College Modern Times 2007-2016




Thematic Thrust
Too early in my research to specify at this point, except perhaps to point out five distinctive features of the College’s history that will be considered at length:

1. The absence of a founder at its founding
No founder on the order of Ezra Cornell, John D. Rockefeller, the Stanfords, or Matthew Vassar, Sophia Smith or the Durants at Wellesley, all of whom underwrote and had a hand in the launching of the institutions that typically bear their names. As for Barnard’s namesake, Columbia College president Frederick A. P. Barnard had favored making Columbia co-educational and opposed the creation of a separate women’s college. The closest claimant to “founder” at Barnard was Annie Nathan Meyer, certainly the College’s first and most outspoken proponent, but she neither underwrote or provided early administrative direction. Two offsetting consequences follow on this singular situation. Barnard started without the financial resources enjoyed by the aforementioned institutions and thus has throughout its history had, in the words of a president of much richer Bryn Mawr president, “to sail close to the wind”. Its endowment today ranks it dozens of laces below those of colleges it considers its peers. But absent a founder, Barnard got underway without the religious, pedagogical, philosophical or reputational baggage that founders typically left behind, only to be shed later on.


2. No dominant early leader
Certainly no one on the order of Andrew Dickson White at Cornell. William Rainey Harper at Chicago or M. Carey Thomas at Bryn Mawr. Barnard’s first and durable strong administrative leader was Virginia C. Gildersleeve, who assumed the deanship in 1911 and remained in that position until 1947. But in several aspects, including her selection,   Gildersleeve was obliged to adhere to the often autocratic dictates of Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler, whose presidency preceeded Gildersleeve’s deanship by a decade and ended only months before hers. (He insisted she stay on until his retirement in 1945.) What she managed to accomplish during her 33 years as dean, however impressive, was almost always at the sufferance of Butler. All subsequent successful Barnard presidents have accepted the need to secure the support of their Columbia counterpart through ongoing negotiation to advance Barnard’s institutional agenda.

3. No distinctive curricular signature
Although at its outset, Barnard offered a curriculum front-loaded with required courses in Greek and Latin, it quickly expanded its offerings in science (botany, chemistry, geology, physics and zoology), social science (anthropology, economics, history, politics and sociology), and the humanities (English, modern European languages, philosophy). Greek ceased to be required in 1900 and Latin in 1910. When Columbia College in the 1920s and thereafter pioneered in general education with its “core curriculum,” Barnard continued to encourage early specialization and departmental majors. And unlike Columbia College, which provided little instruction in the arts before the 1970s, Barnard had much earlier offered extended curricular opportunities in music, fine arts and theatre. Barnard also pioneered in such interdisciplinary subjects such as American Studies and Medieval Studies, both begun in 1939, and Women’s Studies, in 1971.

4. An Unusually Productive Faculty
As the faculties of liberal arts colleges go, Barnard’s has long been an outsized contributor to the scholarship in many academic disciplines. Some of this productivity can be attributed to individuals whose academic careers have straddled Broadway, such as the historian James Shotwell, the anthropologist Franz Boas, the English literary scholar William Haller, the sociologist Bernard Barber, the art historian Barbara Novak , the South Asianist Barbara Miller, the neuroscientist Rae Silver. Some to faculty who were at Barnard only a short time before moving to Columbia or to some other research university, such as the historian James Harvey Robinson, physicist William Hallock, zoologist Raymond Osburn , economist Robert Lekackman, sociologist Rene      , the Early Church scholar Elaine Pagels. But some, too, must be attributed to the fact that many “lifers” on the Barnard faculty interact on an almost daily basis with University colleagues fully attuned to the productivity expectations of an elite research university, some of which rubs off. And finally, formally since 1973 and informally from the formation of the Barnard faculty in 1900, some of this productivity must be credited to the fact that Columbia has had an important role in the determination of who among Barnard’s junior faculty should be tenured and who should not. The cumulative effect of these considerations has been a liberal arts college faculty that in terms of its scholarship resembles more closely that of its Morningside neighbor than the faculties of its collegiate peers.

5. A Singularly Impactful Body of Alumnae
Barnard graduates have gone on to play important, often pioneering roles in opening up and expanding opportunities for women in sectors previously closed to them. Whether it is was early on by their infiltration of administrative positions in New York City school system early in the century, of the federal and state civil service in the interwar years, by their securing footholds in the law and medicine by mid-century and then enlarging their footprint since, by their presence in academe as faculty and administrators, by their place in the arts, in journalism, in public advocacy and recently in finance and banking, Barnard women are c

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