Caroline Lange — What Was Expected of Early Barnard Alumnae?

Caroline Lange
Professor Robert McCaughey
Making Barnard History

February 23, 2015



What Was Expected of Barnard’s First Alumnae?

By 1914, 25 years into Barnard College’s existence, nearly 1500 students had graduated from the college (“Barnard Degrees, 1893-1920”) and entered the world as college-educated women. But what was their intent — their goals — as they left college and their families? I’d like to think about the question “For whom was Barnard first intended?” from the angle of Barnard’s first alumnae. What was expected of these first graduates of Barnard College?

I believe this question has as much to do with these young alumnae as it does Barnard itself. What were Barnard’s goals for its first graduates? What did it hope and expect these women would do with their degrees? Become society women? Become teachers, like the graduates of the two-year Normal College teaching certificate program? Marry and have children? Enter academia? What were the desired results of their four years of study at Barnard?

The most helpful piece of archival material I have found for considering these questions are the biographical questionnaires that Barnard’s alumnae association sent out in the 1950s. They received answers from members of every class; as a result, the amount of information these questionnaires give is both vast and extremely illustrative of its early alumnae’s lives. I looked primarily at questionnaires from some of Barnard’s very first alumnae, classes 1893-1900, and from alumnae from the classes of 1910-1915.

The questionnaires posed questions about the alumnae’s current address, their marital status, the education and profession of their husband, their and their husband’s political affiliation, whether or not they had children, and whether those children were boys or girls. It asked whether the children were being educated, and if the daughters were attending Barnard. There are sections that ask for information about present occupations, organizations the alumnae belonged to and whether or not they held leadership positions, their engagement with the Barnard alumnae network, and what they enjoy doing in their leisure time. It also asked about their extracurricular involvement when they were at Barnard, what they studied, where they lived as students, whether they received scholarships, and what their general opinion about Barnard was now, as alumnae.

These questionnaires give us a deeply personal glance at Barnard’s alumnae’s lives. They give us data, but perhaps even more significantly, since they are handwritten, they give us the voices of these first alumnae. This is most apparent towards the end of the questionnaire, when the alumnae are asked what their present opinion of Barnard is; the questionnaire encouraged alumnae to use the blank pages included at the end of the pamphlet to expand upon their thoughts.

The alumnae association was, in effect, pursuing the same question that I am: what are our alumnae doing? What does it mean to be an alumna of this particular women’s college, to have attended college in affiliation with Columbia University, and to have attended college in New York City?

Two major patterns emerged as I read through these questionnaires. The first I observed is with regard to marriage: the women who did not marry were more than three times as likely to be employed and to pursue graduate degrees than the women who did marry. The “Class of 1910 Data Set” backs this observation up numerically. Of the class of 1910, of which there were 88 graduates, 82 alumnae responded to the survey from which the “Class of 1910 Data Set” was collected. There was equal representation from married and unmarried women: 41 each. Of all of the alumnae, only 38 identified as employed when the data was collected — 71 percent of the unmarried alumnae, or 29 women, were employed; and 22 percent, or 9, of the married alumnae reported being employed (“Class of 1910 Data Set”). The same pattern is echoed in the listings Register of the Associate Alumnae of Barnard College 1893-1925: which gave the current address as well as information on “marriage and children, present study, present paid occupation, [and] present volunteer work” of all of Barnard’s alumnae through 1925. From this, we can learn a number of things; namely, we are given a rough outline of the life Barnard seemed to expect from its alumnae: the listings suggest that the alumnae listed either married and had children, or worked — but rarely did both (though both were typically involved in some kind of volunteer work).

One particularly interesting demonstration of this is a pair of New York-born-and-bred sisters that attended Barnard: Alice Kohn Pollitzer and Lucille Kohn, who graduated in 1893 and 1903, respectively. In terms of their Barnard experiences and engagement, and the paths that they took, the sisters are day and night.

In Alice’s questionnaire, she notes that at 23 she married a college-educated dermatologist and shortly thereafter had two daughters. While at Barnard, she studied history, English, Greek, Latin, and mathematics. She was an active alumna, serving as the president of the alumnae association. For the question that asked, “What is your general attitude toward Barnard as a whole?” she checked “somewhat favorable.” She pursued some graduate education at Columbia University from 1915-1916, while both of her daughters were attending Barnard (classes of 1915 and 1917), but never received a graduate degree. Alice did not indicate have a job before her daughters were in school, but following their graduations, she took three different full-time jobs between 1918-1936 helping women find employment and then as a secretary at the Walden School, a (now defunct) private school in Manhattan.

Lucille, attending Barnard 10 years after her sister, never married and had no children. At Barnard, she studied primarily Greek and went on to graduate school at Columbia immediately following her time at Barnard. By 1909, she had received both her MA and PhD in Greek. While her sister was the president of the alumnae association, Lucille was not an active Barnard alumna and indicated that she stayed in touch with few friends from her time at Barnard, though her general attitude towards Barnard was “very favorable” as a whole. From 1934-1953, she became a teacher of classics and history at the Walden School, where her sister was a secretary, and was its head. She also published two academic books on Greek studies and “various articles on workers’ education.” She noted in her questionnaire that she was a passionate Democrat, and was very involved in the labor movement, serving as chairwoman of the board at the American Labor Education Service.

On a question that asked, “Do you believe that Barnard could have trained you better for life than it did?” Alice indicated yes while Lucille indicated no. Both, however, wrote that they were “uncertain” that they would choose to attend Barnard again, and each cited the city as being the primary reason for this. “I believe in getting away from New York,” wrote Lucille.

The second pattern that emerged while looking at the biographical questionnaires was that nearly all alumnae seemed to take on a leadership role within their place of work or volunteer organizations. For many Barnard alumnae, this seemed to take the form of being the principal or the educational director of a high school, an executive secretary, the president of an organization, or the chairwoman of a board, suggesting that Barnard women were high-achieving within their social circles.

Barnard alumnae tended to be liberal, cosmopolitan, socially aware, and engaged in their communities. After graduation, it seemed that most stayed in New York City or settled elsewhere in the tristate area. Once settled, alumnae generally became very involved in social organizations. Between the questionnaires received from alumnae from the class of 1893 — only two, from Laura Levy Jackson and Alice Kohn Pollitzer — there were nearly fifteen organizations listed, including a Unitarian church board, the League of Women Voters, the Museum of Natural History, the Society for Ethical Culture, the Encampment for Citizenship, a community center, a daycare center, the Kappa Kappa Alumnae Association, and Americans for Democratic Action.

Professions were also very myriad. The Bulletin of the Associate Alumnae was the first alumnae newsletter, published monthly beginning in May 1912. It lists various newsworthy items about the college and about the alumnae, with subheadings like “Gifts,” “Fellowships and Prizes,” “Marriages,” and “Alumnae Notes,” which listed what Barnard’s living alumnae were doing, whether in an occupation or in volunteer work.

The “Alumnae Notes” section in Volume 1: Number 1 of the Bulletin spans three pages, with a paragraph denoting each variety of work: “Among Barnard’s many teachers are…” “Philanthropic work is increasingly popular.” “Churchworkers among us are…” “We have several physicians…” “In art, we are represented by…” “Reporters, editors, and magazine writers are numerous.” “Among girls who have gone into business houses and secretarial work…” “The law has attracted few…” A section listing alumnae whose dissertations and novels have been “well reviewed”; “Studying abroad are…” and “As for the workers for suffrage—they are too numerous to mention.”

The most popular occupation by far was teaching. This is emphasized in the “Class of 1910 Data Set”: 20 of the 81 reporting alumnae identified themselves as teachers — mostly in high schools in New York or New Jersey. A few, however, went to teach at colleges, at Goucher and Mt. Holyoke. The second most popular occupation was secretarial work at business, nonprofit organizations, and federal organizations.

A few of the alumnae of 1910 went on to pursue more specialized work. Of the unmarried alumnae, there was a lawyer and a nurse. Of the married alumnae, there was a bond saleswoman and a woman who owned and managed a cafeteria, the Geranium Cafeteria. Seven women, all married, self-identified as volunteers (“Class of 1910 Data Set”).

It seems that regardless of the occupations Barnard’s alumnae pursued, there are a few shared trends that unite Barnard’s first alumnae: they all seemed to be driven and high-achieving in their chosen pursuits, whether professionally, philanthropically, politically, or parentally. Further, they all seemed to value being engaged in their communities, as we can see with their enormous commitments to social organization. There also seemed to be an expectation that these alumnae would help Barnard grow by telling others about it, either as teachers, school administration, or mothers. Indeed, even some women who said that they were uncertain if they themselves would attend Barnard again if starting the college process over sent their daughters there (Alice Kohn Pollitzer’s biographical questionnaire). Many sisters, like Alice and Lucille Kohn, also attended Barnard. Though the biographical questionnaires indicate that many of Barnard’s earliest alumnae might choose either a coeducational college or a college outside of New York City, all of them seemed to value the education they received at Barnard — including the alumnae who wrote that they believed Barnard could have trained them better for life than it did. One alumnae from the class of 1911, Agnes Frisbie, wrote in response to that question, “Women’s education was a very different thing fifty years ago.” Based on the liberalism and engagement in the suffrage movement among alumnae, it seems as though Frisbie and others came to understand that there were things that had been left out of her education by virtue of it being a women’s college — but believed in Barnard’s ability to change and to do better. As Alice Kohn Pollitzer wrote in her questionnaire, “In my day, Barnard ignored the important areas of sex, religion, and politics, including the issues of the times. I gather this is not true to-day.”


Sources Cited

“Barnard Degrees, 1893-1920.” Making Barnard History. Robert McCaughey. Feb 20,            2015. Web.

Biographical Questionnaires. Barnard College Archives, Record Group 9: Associate Alumnae. BC 9.1.

The Bulletin of the Associate Alumnae. Vol. 1, No. 1. May 1912.

“Class of 1910 Data Set.” Making Barnard History. Robert McCaughey. Feb 20, 2015.


“Class of 1910 Profile.” Making Barnard History. Robert McCaughey. Feb 20, 2015.


Register of the Associate Alumnae of Barnard College: 1893-1925. Columbia University:

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