Ch. 1. What’s a New York Girl To Do?

8600 words

Chapter 1
What’s a New York Girl To Do?

I had the shrewd theory that to put any radical idea across, it must be  in
the most conservative manner possible .
— Annie Nathan Meyer,  It’s Been Fun    [1]


It is in the nature of origin stories that they aspire to the mythic. Should the beginnings of Barnard be so rendered, the story would properly begin with the  College’s two  prime movers,  the admirable Frederick A. P. Barnard, who tried in 1879, at the age of seventy,  to open the male-only Columbia College to women,  and the estimable Annie Nathan Meyer, who, a decade later, at the age of twenty,  succeeded in creating a college  for women in New York City and  assured Barnard a  measure of immortality by naming “her college” after him.
The more prosaic  approach here begins with  an  account of  women’s higher education before Barnard College.  This is to specify and locate the particular challenge Barnard and Meyer took on, not to claim for Barnard a place among the American pioneers  in women’s higher education.  By Barnard’s  opening  in 1889,  some 50 institutions spread across 25 states provided collegiate  instruction to women.  Even among the women’s colleges that later came to be the “Seven Sisters,” Barnard College was the last to open. Barnard’s and Meyer’s claim to our attention  is  their taking up the more localized challenge of introducing collegiate education to the young women of New York City. The history of Barnard is very much a Gotham tale. [2]                                                 [i]


  1.   Before Barnard: Women’s Higher Education in the Gilded Age

    Historians of the American higher education of women  typically begin their account in the 1830s, two centuries after the founding of male-only Harvard College in 1636. Georgia Female  College  (later Wesleyan College) in Macon, Georgia, was chartered  in 1836 and opened shortly thereafter as a women’s college under the auspices  of the Methodist-Episcopal Church.  Oberlin College,  in northeastern Ohio, founded in 1833 by Presbyterian ministers, admitted women upon its opening  in 1837. That same year, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley,  Massachusetts.  Chartered as a “seminary” and focused on preparing women for careers in the foreign missions, Mount Holyoke most closely approximated in its setting, curriculum and ambitions  the leading men’s colleges of the ante-bellum period. Thus were the foundations  of American higher education for women laid. [3]Other women’s colleges  followed, including Mills College (1852) in northern California and Elmira College (1855) in upstate New York. The 1860s  witnessed a second surge in educational opportunities for women.  The decision of the brewer Matthew Vassar to commit his fortune to establishing a women’s college in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, led in 1861 to the chartering of Vassar College and its opening four years later. The college’s substantial financial backing, spacious campus, architecturally distinctive buildings and impressively credentialed faculty promptly put Vassar at the forefront of women’s colleges and on an academic par with all but a half-dozen of the two hundred-plus men’s colleges then operating.  [4]

The passage by Congress of the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act in 1862  advanced the cause of state-funded  higher education by allotting federal lands to the sixteen states of the Union for the support of colleges focused on agriculture and technology.  Among the states that moved aggressively to do so, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and California all admitted women to their  newly established “land-grant” universities, in some cases to achieve enrollment levels sufficient to satisfy state taxpayers.  A hybrid, Cornell University, founded in Ithaca, New York, as a private institution by telegraphy magnate Ezra Cornell in 1865, but the recipient of New York’s land-grant funding, also admitted women upon its opening in 1868. [5]

In 1875, two more women’s colleges in Massachusetts opened their doors.  Smith College, in Northampton, was founded with funds from the local estate of Sophia Smith (1796-1870) for “the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women… to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.” That same year in the Boston suburb for which it was named, Wellesley College, thanks to the support of founders Henry and Pauline Durant, admitted its first class of women.  Four years later, agitation by Arthur Gilman and the high-minded ladies of Cambridge, among them Elizabeth  Agassiz,  the widow of Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, persuaded Harvard’s President Charles W. Eliot to open an “Annex,” where local young women could receive instruction similar to but separate from that offered  the men of nearby Harvard.  [6]

In 1885, Bryn Mawr College  opened in the Philadelphia suburb of the same name, thanks to the benefaction of Joseph W. Taylor (1810-1880), a wealthy Quaker physician. His reasons for doing so mirrored those of Sophia Smith: “I have been impressed with the need of such a place for the advanced education of our young female Friends, and to have all the advantages of a College education which are so freely offered to young men.” In 1887, after five decades as a seminary, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary altered its charter name by adding “and College”.  [7]

In addition to these six colleges, women by the late 1880s had access to a dozen other women’s colleges.  While most were clustered in the northeast, coeducational institutions,  which enrolled a  majority of the 50,000 women attending college, represented the norm in other regions.   In New York State alone, colleges open to women included the afore-mentioned Vassar,  Elmira and Cornell University, but also the women-only Wells College in upstate Aurora, and the coeducational Colgate University and Syracuse University. [8]

What then of provisions for the higher education of women in New York City? By the 1880s it had been for seven decades the nation’s largest city, with a  population approaching 2,000,000 and with contiguous Brooklyn home to another 1,000,000. The city boasted five colleges, the oldest of which, Columbia College, was founded in 1754 by the city’s Anglicans as King’s College. The University of the City of New York (later New York University) came next, privately founded in 1831 by Presbyterians, to be followed by St. John’s (later Fordham), founded in 1841 by the Catholic archdiocese and located in the Bronx, The Free Academy (later City College of New York), founded in 1847, located on 23rd Street and supported by city taxpayers, and Cooper Union, in the East Village, founded in 1859 by the manufacturer and philanthropist Peter Cooper. All  were men-only and in the late 1880s collectively enrolled  upwards of  a 1000 young men. [9]

The sole local recourse for New York City’s women in search of higher education was the Female Normal and High School, which opened in 1870 in lower Manhattan just east of Astor Place. Its purpose was  preparing young women for teaching positions in the City’s primary and secondary schools. Like the Free Academy and Cooper Union, the Normal School was tuition-free, but unlike its male counterparts, which offered  four-year programs  and an AB degree, it was a two-year program and provided only a certificate upon completion. [10]

This paucity  of educational opportunity had not gone  unnoticed by New York’s women.  In 1869, the 36-year-old Lillie Devereux Blake, a widow and mother of two, feminist and journalist, launched a campaign to open Columbia College to women. Her point of attack was the College’s law school, founded in 1857, where  she proposed enrolling her older daughter. She later sought permission for women to attend  lectures (and tacitly received it from two accommodating instructors) at the College’s School of Mines, which opened in 1864. In 1873 she presented a half-dozen young women for admission to the College. All these efforts were thwarted by the Columbia board of trustees, although one of its members, the lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong, while finding the prospect of mixing Blake’s “pretty little daughters” among our freshmen “shocks all my conservative instincts,” did not dismiss the idea that “strong-minded womankind” had a right to a collegiate education. [11]

Three years  later, in 1876,  a second petition calling for the admission of women into Columbia College was directed at its trustees. It came from Sorosis, a network of women’s clubs with a chapter in New York City under the leadership of  Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This, too, was summarily rejected by the Columbia board. Although there is no evidence that Columbia’s president Frederick A. P. Barnard dissented from the board’s action, it may have been the occasion for him to question the conventional wisdom as to the deleterious impact serious study had on women’s reproductive functions to which his colleagues on the board faithfully adhered. Columbia’s 10th president was by constitution and habit a contrarian and, with his wife’s urging, something of a feminist. [12]



  1.   The Admirable Frederick

In the spring of 1879, in his 15th year as president, the 70-year-old Frederick A. P. Barnard publicly launched his campaign to open the 125-year-old Columbia College to women. He could not have known then nor in the decade before his death in 1889  that the  failure of this quixotic effort would nonetheless gain  him a   place in posterity by becoming the namesake  of a women’s college whose gender-exclusiveness was  precisely what he had faulted about the all-male Columbia of his day.

Barnard was one of those rare people who grew more progressive  with age. Born in 1809 in the southwest corner of Massachusetts to Episcopalian parents, he entered the Calvinist-infused Yale College in 1824. In his  senior year Yale’s president Jeremiah Day, joined by his faculty,   published a spirited defense of the College’s prescribed classical curriculum,  to which most other colleges of the day  and for the next generation faithfully subscribed.  Barnard, however, in his subsequent  academic career favored  the “free elective”  system championed by Harvard presidents Josiah Quincy and Charles W. Eliot. Further evidence of Barnard’s openness to advanced ideas was his evolving views on race.  As a professor at the University of Alabama and president of the University of Mississippi in the 1850s, he owned at least one slave, but as the tenth president of Columbia College (1864-1889), he  urged the Columbia board to open the College to “every religious creed and race – and sex.” [13]

While Barnard’s championing  of women’s higher education came late , he readily acknowledged the outsized role  women had played in his life. They included his mother Augusta, and his older sister, Sally.    Another was Catherine Beecher, the feminist educator and founder of the Hartford Female Seminary, who hired Barnard after Yale dropped him (either because of his Episcopalianism or his deafness). Beecher also  secured him his next position at the co-educational   New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in New York City.  In 1838, intent on landing a collegiate position  and finding none in the northeast, Barnard  accepted a mathematics professorship at the new and decidedly raw University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  There he achieved modest success as a popularizer of astronomy and physics. In 1849, after several years as a bachelor and an acquired reputation as a drinker,  the 40-year-old Frederick married  the 24-year-old, Ohio-born  Margaret. The drinking stopped.   His wife  thereafter  never  left his side, helping him revive his stalled academic career even as his deafness became nearly total. After securing ordination as an Episcopalian minister (You never know), Barnard and his wife departed Tuscaloosa  for Oxford in 1854 when he accepted the presidency of the University of Mississippi. When the Civil War broke out seven years later, the Barnards quietly planned their escape from the Confederacy with their two young sons in tow. This they accomplished in 1862 on a diversionary visit to Norfolk, Virginia. Once behind Union lines they declared themselves admirers of President Lincoln and were welcomed to Washington DC by Frederick’s younger brother, John, a Union general  charged with the defense of  the nation’s capital. [14]

Barnard’s election as the 10th president of Columbia College  in 1864 was a fluke. Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Columbia announced a faculty opening in physics (the incumbent having  defected to the Confederacy) and Barnard’s scientific friends, who had seen to his election to the newly created National Academy of Science, submitted his name. While too late for the physics job, his application was passed to the trustee committee charged  with finding Columbia’s  next president. Anxious to fill the post and impressed with Barnard’s credentials as an Episcopalian and ardent Unionist at a time when the Columbia board was under suspicion of harboring Confederate sympathizers, the board elected him president sight unseen. [15]

It took the 55-year-old Barnard little time to make clear his presidential agenda. His first act was to champion the newly opened  School of Mines by enrolling his two sons there, rather than the School of Arts,  the classics-oriented  college to which five generations of New York Knickerbockers  had sent their sons. In identifying with Columbia’s brand new School of Mines – and with its seven-year-old law school – Barnard aligned himself with the handful of faculty and trustees who saw Columbia’s future as a multi-schooled university, not just another undergraduate college in a region  overrun with colleges.  His university-making efforts were unceasing. In 1875 he oversaw the School of Mines awarding Columbia’s first PhDs; a year later he helped  hire  John W. Burgess away from Amherst College for the  purpose of transforming Columbia into a university along the lines Burgess had encountered during studies in Germany and which the Amherst trustees had summarily rejected. [16]
Both Barnard and Burgess were New York  outsiders who identified with Columbia’s university future, not its church-college  past.  Both  expressed doubts as to whether Columbia should maintain an undergraduate program. Might it not cede undergraduate instruction of adolescents to  the multitude of “country” colleges, letting Columbia focus on advanced instruction to older and more professionally focused students then available at only a handful of “true” American universities? Where they differed , however, was that Burgess was an elitist, a male supremacist, a racist and an anti-Semite, whereas Barnard was none of these. [16]

Barnard’s open skepticism about the ongoing utility of Columbia as an undergraduate institution put his trustees, most of them  loyal graduates of the College, on critical alert. But what drove a majority into open opposition was Barnard’s  conclusion  that if Columbia were to continue providing undergraduate instruction for the children of the families of Gotham’s upper class, it ought not  limit such instruction  to their sons. Fifteen years into his presidency, Barnard declared himself in the most public way available to him as favoring the admission of women into Columbia College. As Columbia trustee the Rev. Morgan Dix concluded, Barnard had  joined forces with the City’s “little knot of persevering women.” [17]

However late to co-education,  Barnard brought personal experiences to support of the cause. As a Yale undergraduate, he had observed the quieting effect the presence of women at Professor Silliman’s public lectures on astronomy had on his rowdy male classmates. His teaching at the Hartford Female Seminary had impressed him with the academic seriousness girls brought to their studies, while his stint at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb directly exposed him to co-education. During his years teaching in Tuscaloosa and Oxford he allowed women to audit his public lectures, to the same good effect that Silliman experienced back in New Haven.  Once installed at Columbia, he  permitted two instructors in the School of Mines to allow women to audit classes until the trustees objected.  In 1879 he aligned himself with New Yorkers of both genders who had a decade earlier begun calling on Columbia to open up its doors to the academically prepared and  intellectually  ambitious young women of his adopted city. [18]

Barnard joined the cause for higher education for women at the urging of his wife, whom some trustees believed exercised an undue influence on him. But the timing of his intervention suggests another factor: attentiveness  to the competition. Although a son of Yale, he saw Harvard as Columbia’s principal rival. In an earlier  presidential report to his trustees, he applauded  President Eliot’s reintroduction of the elective system, while dismissing  President  Noah Porter’s defense of Yale’s prescribed curriculum.  His  efforts to displace the required classical curriculum he inherited only  partially overcame trustee  resistance.   But it was almost certainly Eliot’s response in 1879 to calls upon Harvard to open its doors to women by  creating a separate “Annex” that moved Barnard to call upon Columbia  to do what Harvard would not: award women degrees. The opportunity for stodgy Columbia to upstage the ever- reforming Harvard by doing it one better must have been irresistible. [19]

Barnard chose  as his  bully pulpit  his annual President’s Report,  which while addressed to the College’s twenty-four trustees, was circulated widely. His 1866 report, which made the case against the continued proliferation of under-capitalized colleges in the northeast in the face of declining enrollments, had attracted national attention.    His 1879 President’s Report  joined the issue in its opening sentence: “The condition of the College is now such as to justify the suggestion of the question whether its advantages should not be open to young women as well as to young men.”  (The referred to limitation  was spatial, which with the completion of Hamilton Hall in 1878 had been eliminated.) He then launched into a comprehensive overview of the educational institutions  in  Britain and the United States that offered women instruction at the collegiate level. This was immediately followed by his recommendation that Columbia join them. But when, as he later put it, “the question failed to attract the serious attention of the Trustees, but it is believed that it did not fail to excite interest,” he doubled down. [20]

Barnard used his next two annual reports to delineate  the three institutional arrangements where advanced instruction of women existed in the United States. The first was at private women’s colleges, among them Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley.    The second was “an Annex,” or coordinated education, the best known instance of this was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, beginning in 1879, Harvard instructors provided instruction to women two blocks from Harvard Yard. Finally,  Barnard described the handful of denominationally controlled private colleges, such as Oberlin, Grinnell and Carleton in the Midwest, where men and women were enrolled on equal terms and  instruction was provided to both sexes simultaneously. In New York State,  the non-sectarian Cornell and the Methodist-controlled  Syracuse University already operated on this  coeducational basis, as did  Boston University and Wesleyan University in New England. Among state institutions outside the East and South, especially those receiving support from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, such as the University of Michigan and the University of California (1870), coeducation had become the norm. [21]

Barnard made clear that it was the third arrangement — full coeducation —  that he favored.  In support of this choice, he described his own exposure to instances  of coeducation,  with positive outcomes for both men and women. As for the latter, he preemptively assured his readers, coeducation would not  turn “the girl who enters college a modestly shrinking maiden” into “a romping hoyden, or a self-asserting dogmatist.” [22]

Barnard’s 1880 Report also included a discussion of recent developments at Oxford and Cambridge,  suggestive of  the increased attention male-only British institutions were now paying to the instruction of women. His 1881 Report began with a description of the mail his previous reports had generated. “From many quarters, during the past few years, the anxious inquiry has been coming in upon the undersigned: Will not Columbia College do something for the higher education of our girls?” Barnard then tried appealing to his trustees’ ever-present financial  concerns:
Opening the College to women would be an early and very material increase  in the
number of our students, which would be attended by an augmentation  of the revenue
from tuition fees, amounting, in the course of about four years, to not less than $10,000
per annum  and probably more than $15,000 per annum. [23]

All to no avail. With the appearance in 1881 of Barnard’s third annual Report,  the Columbia trustees slashed  the president’s budget line for publishing.  A majority of Columbia faculty and students (including the College junior Nicholas Murray Butler) similarly rejected the president’s call for coeducation. Professor of Political Science John W. Burgess led the faculty opposition. Fifty years later, Burgess still thought well enough of his clinching argument to repeat it in his autobiography:

I suggested that New York parents preferred to keep their girls in school in the city,
the tendency would be, in case coeducation were adopted in Columbia, to make the
college a female seminary, and a Hebrew female seminary, in the character of the
student body, at that. [24]

Barnard stayed on as president for another seven years, but  his call for coeducation cost him whatever capacity he earlier had to move Columbia away from its sleepy past and embrace the future. His announced resignation in 1888, after twenty-four years as president, was met with universal relief. He died six months later.   A coda he attached to his 1881 report  attests both to his steadfastness and prescience:  “Columbia College may not, in our own day, be opened to the admission of women; but that it will be so in that better coming time which awaits another generation appears to the undersigned to be as certain as anything yet beneath the veil of the future can be.” [25]

However unpopular on his own campus,  Barnard’s campaign for coeducation attracted a wide audience among New Yorkers sympathetic to the local cause of women’s higher education, if not necessarily to coeducation. A gathering of like-minded New Yorkers assembled at  the Union League Club on April 22, 1882, to form the “Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women.” Its organizers included  Sorosis veterans  Caroline Spurgeon Choate, the wife of New York attorney Joseph H. Choate,  the Rev. Henry C. Potter, Rector of the Church of the Incarnation, the Rev. Arthur Brooks, and the editor of the New York Evening Post, Parke Godwin. A petition calling on Columbia to admit women secured  1352 signatures, among them those of President Chester A. Arthur and ex-president Ulysses S. Grant, and the wives of Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. Pierpont Morgan. Barnard’s wife  Margaret  was a signatory. [26]
Receipt of “this monster petition” found the chair of the education committee of Columbia’s  board of trustees, the  Rev. Morgan Dix, rector of Trinity Church, in a decidedly unreceptive mood.  “The thing seems to have been engineered from the beginning by a little knot of persevering women, most of whom are Unitarians of the Boston type.” He must also have  chafed at seeing two fellow Episcopalian clerics among the signatories. Nor did it put him in a more placatory state when his annual Lenten lectures, “The Calling of a Christian Woman,”  delivered at Episcopal churches throughout Manhattan, were roundly criticized as being patronizing to women by co-religious Lillie Devereux Blake. Undeterred, Dix used the Columbia board’s  March 5th meeting  to urge his colleagues to reject the petition. They did so unanimously but for Barnard’s lone dissent. [27]

Persistent public criticism likely kept Dix from objecting when  Dr. Cornelius Agnew introduced at the next board meeting, on June 8, 1883,  a conciliatory proposal whereby Columbia would entertain the idea of a “collegiate course” for women along the lines of Harvard’s “Annex,” should a reputable group come forward to propose such. [28]

In the fall of 1884, the Columbia board rolled out its own “Collegiate Course for Women,” intended to quell charges of misogyny. Women  admitted to the Collegiate Course by examination  would be allowed  to sit for the same  examinations taken by Columbia College men, but administered separately.  They would not allowed to attend classes. Should a woman pass enough of these examinations, she was to receive a Columbia degree. In the summer of 1885 six women  took the entrance exam  and  enrolled that fall. The following year, a second batch of home-bound but academically ambitious young women signed up,  among them the 18-year-old, Annie Florence Nathan.  [29]

3.There’s That Child Again”

Annie Nathan’s experience in the Collegiate Course was brief and dispiriting. While enrolled, she complained of faculty openly hostile to women and of exam questions not covered in the assigned texts, but  discussed  in classes from which women were excluded. She dropped out in February 1887 after one semester upon her marriage to the 35-year-old Dr. Alfred Meyer, a distant cousin.  However unedifying,  the experience  instilled in the now Annie Nathan Meyer a lifelong, proprietary and sometimes off-putting  commitment to the general cause of higher education for women and specifically to  the women’s college she more than anyone else was to bring  into being. [30]

The Nathans numbered among the first Jewish families to locate in New York City, coming up from the Caribbean in the 1650s, following their move there from Portugal,  when the town was still under Dutch rule. Her husband’s family, the  Meyers,  came  later. By the time of the Revolution, the Nathans had been in America for four generations, a fact that Annie  made known  to  genealogically focused  New Yorkers  inclined to flaunt their own less lengthy American  lineage. Both  she and her daughter Margaret belonged to the New York chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her ancestors  included  Gerson Mendes Seixas (1745-1816), the first rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, an outspoken patriot during the Revolutionary War and trustee of Columbia College from its  rechartering in 1787 until his death in 1816. (He was to be the only Jew  to serve as a trustee of Columbia until the election of  Annie’s cousin, jurist Benjamin Cardozo,  in 1928.). [31]

The Nathans were part of a tight network of  Sephardic Jewish families, including the Cardozos and the Lazuruses,  who conceded nothing to the City’s more numerous Knickerbocker families in terms of ancestry or social standing. Meyer once referred to  New York’s  Sephardim as  “the nearest approach to royalty in the United States.”  Stephen Birmingham, a chronicler of Jewish life in New York, calls them   “The Grandees.”  [32]

The “Grandees”  differed from  New York’s  later-arriving and often wealthier German Jews, those  Birmingham’s refers to as  “Our Crowd.” The latter included the Altschuls, Guggenheims, Lehmans,  Lewisohns , Schiffs,  Seligmans, Strauses and  Warburgs, all of whom moved to New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century, some after stopovers elsewhere in the United States.  These families lived on Manhattan’s East Side, attended Temple Emanu El on 5th Avenue and sent their children to the Sacks School, conveniently located at East 39th St. But not the Nathans. “I do not like the atmosphere of the Sacks School,” Annie Nathan Meyer told Barnard’s  second dean, Laura Drake Gill in 1902,  who in her innocence of  the City’s intra-tribal matters  suggested it for Mrs. Meyer’s 10-yearold daughter  Margaret,

simply because the girls there come almost exclusively from a wealthy class
– one which has not had the stability of generations of wealth – and which is
unfortunately an intensely materialistic class. Margaret comes from a family
in America since the 17th century…. [33]

Annie’s distinguished lineage did not spare her a traumatic childhood. Her father Robert was profligate, a philanderer and regularly absent. In 1875, having squandered the family’s resources on Wall Street,  he fled  New York just ahead of his creditors, relocating his family in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Annie’s mother suffered from depression and drug addiction; she died in 1880. Two years earlier she had attempted suicide, only to have eleven-year old  Annie intervene. About that time Annie developed a sibling rivalry with her older sister Maud, which later put them on opposite sides of many of the issues of their day, most famously women’s suffrage, which Maud actively campaigned for and Annie actively campaigned against, even as each sought to establish herself as a writer. [34]
For two years Annie and her brother Harry lived  with maternal grandparents.  “I remember only,” she later recalled, “that Harry and I never felt at home. We were conscious in some way that Papa had made a failure of his life and that Grandpa felt … that he had to look after his daughter’s children.” The sharpest memory she had of those days, recalled a half century later, was of her grandfather complaining, “There’s that child again!”  In 1882  “a small, inexpensive flat was found for us on Third Avenue”. It was there that Annie, whose schooling to that point was virtually nonexistent, became an inveterate reader. [35]

Annie’s father returned to New York City and Wall Street in 1882. He managed to come up with the funds to send Annie’s older brother Robert to Columbia, but showed no interest in Annie’s education. He specifically objected to her going off to college, arguing that doing so would make her unfit for marriage. That Annie not quite 20  during her only semester in Columbia’s Collegiate Course for Women proceeded to meet and marry a  cousin fifteen years her senior after “a courtship of less than a fortnight,” allows the inference she did so in some measure to prove Papa wrong. [36]

Marriage to Alfred Meyer, a respected physician and medical researcher, provided  Annie’s subsequent life with previously absent security and companionship.   But no measure of domestic harmony eliminated her acute sensitivity to social affronts, real or imagined, especially if she suspected an anti-Semitic dimension to them. She was equally alert to any account of Barnard during her 62 years  as a trustee that slighted  her role  in its founding.  [37]
Meyer, in her own accounting in Barnard Beginnings,  shared credit for the idea of founding a college for women in New York City  with Melvil  Dewey, who came to New York in 1883 from Wellesley College as director of Columbia’s new library.  They met when the teenage Annie, a regular user of the library (to which she had access as sister of an alumnus), asked Dewey for a  reading regimen to compensate for her spotty schooling.  After  enrolling in the Collegiate Course, she found Dewey receptive to her complaints.  He had his own problems with  Columbia, especially  trustee opposition to his plan for a school of library science, which would have been certain to attract women in numbers. For their part, the trustees  viewed the  soon-to-be-gone young  librarian and his Wellesley-trained wife much as they viewed their aged  president and wife:  co-conspirators in a feminist plot to hand over Columbia to the “women of the Boston type.”  [38]

As she recounts the story,  Annie informed  Dewey in early 1887 that she had withdrawn from the Collegiate Course and despaired of the  prospects  for New York women like herself  to secure  a proper college education.  Dewey was more hopeful:  “Of course there should be a college for women in New York; there must be!  We must obtain one!”  “To all of this I  wholeheartedly  agreed,” Annie responded.  “But what was to be  done about it? What could I do about it?”  To which she answered: “Why, start a college for women myself. That was all.” Dewey soon thereafter decamped from Columbia, he and his library school  idea dispatched to Albany in 1888, to the relief of Columbia’s trustees. But for the newly wed 20-year-old  Annie Nathan Meyer, their discussions led directly to finding the great sustaining cause of her life. [39]

  1. Getting To Yes

A key to Annie Nathan Meyer’s success in implementing the idea  for a women’s college in New York City was that she understood why others had earlier failed. From their mistakes she derived three “lessons”:
I:  Contra Lillie Devereux Blake – do not promote the cause of women’s higher education as part of a larger radical feminist agenda identified with “wild women” and  men-haters.

II: Contra Frederick A. P. Barnard – do not  insist on coeducation as the only acceptable way of achieving women’s access to higher education.

III:  Contra the Union League petitioners —  do not try to intimidate the Columbia trustees with sheer numbers, but instead respectfully win them over to your cause for their own reasons.

Meyer on her strategy:  “I had the shrewd theory that to put any radical idea across,” she explained seven decades later in her autobiography, It’s Been Fun.  ”It must be done in the most conservative manner possible.” [40]

Meyer began  learning all she could about women’s colleges by seeking out those with relevant experience, including Arthur Gilman, the prime mover behind the Harvard “Annex.”  He  advised her against  starting  a college in the absence of a major benefactor.  Closer to home,  she picked the brains of Thomas  Hunter, the president of  the Female Normal and High School, plus the heads of several New York private girls’ schools, including Ella Weed, the headmistress of Miss Annie Brown’s School, about whom more later. She also met with President Barnard, but privately,  to avoid being identified with his single-minded commitment to coeducation.  Writing to Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler more than two decades later,  she explained her reasoning:  “I never considered coeducation for a moment. And in that lay my strength with the trustees of the University.” [41]

On January 21, 1888, Meyer launched her campaign  with a 4500-word letter published in  The Nation under the title, “The Higher Education for Women in New York”. She began  by identifying  four already existing clienteles for a women’s college in New York City. The first were New York women currently attending  colleges outside the City. If these, by her count, 67 girls were prepared  “to leave their homes and encounter the discomfits  of an independent life for the sake of pursuing a collegiate education,” she reasoned, would not even more likeminded young women  “attend college gladly , enthusiastically, were it not necessary to face the obstacle of leaving home?”  [42]

Her second prospects were the 69 New York  women currently enrolled,  “for lack of better, ” in  local correspondence programs. The third were the 28 women attending what she dismissed as “an apology  for a collegiate course for women held out by Columbia College.” [43]

Her fourth and last set of prospects were  a select portion of the 1600 girls currently attending  the City’s tuition-free Female Normal and High School (later, Hunter College), which offered  a two-year curriculum designed to turn out teachers for the City’s public schools. “It is commonly supposed that only parents who could not afford to pay tuition fees send their children to Normal College,” Meyer wrote. ”On the contrary,” citing the Normal School’s President Thomas Hunter as her authority, “a very large percentage of the parents could easily afford it, and would gladly send their daughters to a private college where a higher curriculum  and degrees could be procured.” Everywhere she looked, Meyer found local instances of an unmet and growing demand for a New-York-based women’s college. [44]

The letter included  an upbeat rendering of the prospects  for the trustees of  Columbia College approving a variation of  the  Harvard Annex model.  But lest  her Gotham readers  think she was merely proposing to copy the arrangement in Cambridge, she pointed out that whereas women completing the Harvard Annex course of studies received only a certificate, not a Harvard degree,  the Columbia trustees had  agreed to awarding those completing its Collegiate Course  a Columbia degree. “In Cambridge, they have an Annex and are praying for certain conditions that will insure its permanent existence and success.  In  New York we have the conditions that would bring permanent existence and success, but we have no Annex.”  She closed  with another bit of hometown  bravado,  quoting Longfellow “In this ‘dark, gray city,’ this huge, growing, starving , ambitious city with its many means of satisfying life’s demands, there is one lack – the lack of a college  where women may attain a complete education without leaving their homes and families.”  “Ought we not, therefore, to begin at once to organize an association for the collegiate instruction of women by the professors and other instructors of Columbia College?” [45]

Already underway was  the drafting of a memorial to Columbia’s trustees seeking an annex arrangement.  In the writing thereof,  Meyer again  acknowledged the role of Melvil  Dewey, along with that of Mary Maples Dodge, editor of the popular children’s magazine, St. Nicholas.  The selection of  the  memorial’s 50 signatories, however, she reserved for herself. The target number followed on an exploratory visit with Columbia board chairman Hamilton Fish, arranged by her uncle Jonathan Nathan,  a one-time political associate of the retired Republican statesman. Fish, who had supported Agnew’s 1883 resolution allowing for a separate collegiate course for women, urged Meyer to seek quality  over quantity in signatories and Annie took his advice to heart.    Hers,  she proudly recalled a half century on, included:

thirteen ministers, four lawyers, an ex-Judge of the State Supreme Court , five doctors ,
five educators, including the presidents of the two City Colleges, four editors, four men
of importance in the world of finance, the president of the Board Of Education, one
representative  of an old, distinguished New York family, one railroad president, two
women who led in important philanthropic work, four literary women, and three women
who were important as being the wives of influential men. [46]

Among those intentionally missing from the memorialists were Lillie Devereux Blake or any of  New York’s other feminist firebrands and assorted “wild women”  who  would  have set the likes of Dr. Morgan Dix against  it. This also involved rejecting  the “excellent sister of President Cleveland,” who wore her hair too short to be countenanced. Board chairman Fish, upon receiving the memorial, complimented the 21-year-old  Mrs. Meyer,  calling her  list of signatories  ”the best he had ever seen for its intended purpose.” [47]

Meyer spent the six  weeks between her letter  in The Nation   and the submission of the memorial in March lobbying the twenty-four members of the Columbia board. She saved her  visit with  Dix  for last, given his reputation as an outspoken opponent of women’s higher education and the recent object of  Lillie Devereux Blake’s ridicule.

On February 9, 1888, she was received at the Trinity Church rectory by the 60-year-old Dix, who immediately put her at her ease by warmly mentioning  her cousins, the Harmon Nathans, as his summer neighbors at Rye Beach.  When she  broached her plan for a women’s college affiliated with Columbia, Dix quickly gave it his support and told her how to proceed. “Somewhere among the Minutes of our Board,”  he assured her, “you will find a resolution to the effect that if an appeal comes to us for a separately financed College for Women, manned by the instructors of Columbia College, and with proper safeguards as to the dignity and responsibility of its sponsors, it would be approved.”  This was the resolution that Agnew had secured following the board’s repudiation of the Union League petition.  On leaving rectory, the 21- year old Meyer allowed: “I knew the battle was won.” [48]

The Columbia board at its March 5, 1888 meeting  took up the Meyer-engineered memorial,  referring it to a select committee that included  Dix and Agnew. At its May 7th meeting, the whole board, on the recommendation of the select committee, voted to give the memorial provisional approval, conditioned on their receiving “reasonable security that, once established, the institution will be permanent.” This meant the memorialists could proceed to put together their own  board of trustees to take full fiduciary responsibility for the college.  Unfortunately,  the absence of a Board clerk at the  May 7th meeting kept the resolution from being communicated  to the memorialists until late fall. Otherwise, Meyer later recalled, the college  might have opened for business in the fall of  1888! [49]

An 1888 starting date is hard to credit. A board of trustees had yet to be formed; a provisional charter had yet to be submitted to New York State for approval; and a name for the college  had yet to be determined.  The third task either fell to, or more likely,  was commandeered by Mrs. Meyer, but either way shows her at her most Machiavellian.

At the same May 1888 meeting where the Columbia trustees approved the annex proposal,  the 79-year-old  President Barnard, now blind as well as deaf,  announced his plan to retire in 1889. He remained opposed to the idea of a separate women’s college, as did his wife.  Eleven months later, at the  April 1889 meeting, with Barnard absent and terminally ill (he died three weeks later),  the board approved   the  provisional charter, which for the first time identified the  institution as “Barnard College.” This had been at Meyer’s instigation,  hoping thereby to prevent  the proposed namesake  and his about-to-be widow from objecting from his death bed  to what was transpiring. The stratagem worked .  “I cannot very well fight a College which bears his name,” Margaret Barnard  told Meyer upon hearing of the board’s action.  So “Barnard College” it became,  just another of  the necessary, albeit ironical, steps in the shrewd  Mrs. Meyer  getting to yes.  [50]


  1. Of New York’s “Very Earnest, Philanthropic, Public-Spirited Class”

       Barnard College became the  great sustaining cause of Annie Nathan Meyer, but it was not at its founding her cause alone. Nor was it solely  the doing of a small group of  like-minded women. Barnard was in its beginnings a collective effort of a multi-tribal social class distinctive to turn-of-the-century New York City. For one of its members, Edith Wharton, the class consisted of   “the rich, the well born, the best educated.” An English visitor to New York in 1888, James Bryce, famously labelled  its male members as  ”the best men….eminent in rank, wealth, and ability.” Not everyone belonging to this class participated in Barnard’s beginnings, but the 22 New Yorkers who formed Barnard’s original board of trustees all had certifiable claims to membership in a privileged circle that another English visitor, Charles Philip Trevelyan, mischievously called New York’s “very earnest, philanthropic, public-spirited class.” [51]

In the selection of the original board of trustees, Mrs. Meyer  admitted  “knowing nothing whatever of the ramifications of New York society,”  and relied  on the wider social networks of women she had enlisted in her cause.  Ella Weed, the headmistress of one of the city’s fashionable private girls schools, and Caroline Dutcher Choate, the founder of the even more exclusive Brearley School for Girls, whom Meyer met during canvasing for petition signatories among the earlier Union League petitioners, proved crucial. But even in this instance, Meyer had very definite views as to the board’s composition. One was to reject the urging of one of Weed’s nominees, Frances Fisher Wood, then the president of the Vassar Alumnae Association, that the board be made up exclusively of women.  Meyer insisted instead the board be evenly divided between men and women and to do so by inviting “certain well-known, more or less impecunious, literary women as well.” Here, as with the earlier selection of signatories to the Columbia trustee petition,  Meyer later recalled, she was determined  to “steer her way safely between the Charybdis of ultra-conservatism on the one hand, and on the other, the even more dangerous Scylla of radicalism or queerness, or whatever term was used in those days to express advanced vision and a spirit too independent to be harnessed.” [52]
Meyer was also committed to having a Barnard board broadly representative of the religious composition of the upper reaches of contemporary New York society. This would be in pointed contrast with Columbia’s board,  which was dominated by Protestants of  the Episcopalian, Dutch Reformed  and Presbyterian persuasion.  On  Barnard’s original board there was to be, in addition to herself, a daughter  of the City’s Sephardic community,  a second Jew, Jacob H. Schiff, head of the merchant banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., and  leader of the City’s German-Jewish community. The City’s Catholics were  represented  in the person of the attorney  Frederic Rene Coudert, its Baptists in  Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, and the  Unitarians by Mrs. Choate and the publisher George Hoadley. Few New York  governing boards of the day could match the original Barnard trustees in their ecumenism. [53]

Perhaps because her own were skimpy, Meyer sought out  board members with impressive educational credentials. In an era when few women had attended college, four of the original  eleven women trustees were Vassar graduates:   Ella Weed (Class of 1873), Virginia Brownell (1873), Frances Fisher Wood (1874) and Helen Dawes Brown (1878).  A fifth, Alice Williams, was an alumna of the University of Michigan (1876).  Three others, Meyer,  Laura Rockefeller and Clara Stranahan , had some college experience. Two of the other three women trustees were  married to college men.  Of the eleven male trustees, only Schiff, who migrated from Germany to America at age 17, was not a college or law school graduate. The others included two Harvard and two  Williams graduates, plus one each from Amherst, Western Reserve, Union, Princeton and Columbia,  plus two graduates each from the Harvard Law School and the Columbia Law School.  [54]
Six of the eleven original male trustees were lawyers, two were ministers, and one each a publisher, banker and journalist. Three of the women were teachers or school administrators, two others had founded girls’ schools, and three  were professional writers. Only three might be called, as Meyer acidly later did,  “important as being the wives of influential men”.    [55]

  1. Lift Off!
    With a name and board now in place, next came securing a state charter.  Here again, Melvil Dewey, recently relocated to Albany, provided useful assistance. A provisional charter was issued by Regents of New York to the 22 members of the board on August 8, 1889.  Final  details again fell mainly to Mrs. Meyer and Miss Weed. The former, with her husband as co-signer,  leased a  brownstone  at 343 Madison Avenue, the second building on the east side of Madison Ave. between 44th and 45th Streets, as the first site for the college. One of hundreds of brownstones throughout the City, the building had four floors, was 25-feet wide by 52 feet deep, with buildings abutting both sides. The back looked out on the backsides of  yet another row of  eastward-facing attached brownstones.  The lease was for four years, the rent of $3250 for the first two years, with the owners allowed for the first year to reside on the top floor, and  $3500 for the next two years. [56]

Hiring an instructional staff  fell to Miss Weed. Here the brownstone’s location, five blocks south of the Columbia College campus,  simplified the task. By 1889, Columbia College, if not yet in name a university, consisted of  five schools, three of which, the College proper, the School of Political Science and the School of Mines,  were  located on Madison Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets. The  law school was downtown in the court district and the loosely affiliated but soon-to-be integrated College of Physicians & Surgeons across town at 59th St. The three schools on the Madison Avenue campus employed some 50 professors, a junior teaching staff of twice that number, and another 100  graduate students pursuing PhDs in the arts and sciences.  All  but the professors could be hired for stipends that ranged from $600 to $800 for a four-course teaching program.  The fact that Barnard’s curriculum would be identical with that of Columbia College meant that those already teaching required courses at Columbia could simply repeat them four blocks away to a classroom of young women. The services of seven instructors for the opening year were quickly secured. [57]

All that was needed now were students. Public notices went out in the early summer that entrance exams, identical with those used by Columbia College, were to be administered to interested women on September 30th and October 5th.  Of the women taking them, fourteen were  enrolled in the Class of 1893, along with 22 “specials,”  non-degree students who enrolled for one or two courses,  all  appearing  at the scruffy brownstone at 343 Madison Avenue on Monday morning, October 7, 1889, for the start of classes. Lift Off! [58]




  1. Done In Haste?

Much about the founding  of Barnard College has a provisional, patched-together, on-the-fly  quality.  Its gestation period of  30 months —  from February  1887 when Meyer and Dewey hatched the  idea of a women’s college  in New York City to Barnard’s opening in October 1889 –  surely ranks  among  of the shortest in the history of college  foundings.   It happened fast because many aspects of the normal process were simply  skipped  or left for later.  Vassar opened with rooms for 400 students, Wellesley could house 300 students and 30 fulltime faculty.  Barnard began without either a proper campus or a faculty; in place of the former  was  a rented brownstone  with a four-year lease; in place of the latter a handful  of  moonlighting young men hired on a course-by-course basis.

More fundamentally, unlike most private colleges established in the late 19th century, Barnard had no single driving personality  — no Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell, Sophia Smith, Leland Stanford, no Henry and Pauline Durant — behind its creation. Clearly its namesake did not so qualify,  Frederick A. P. Barnard having favored a  very different solution to the problem of providing college-level instruction to the young women of New York City.  Nor does Annie Nathan Meyer, who, while deserving  credit for the idea and for rounding up support for an affiliated women’s college,  lacked many of the attributes generally ascribed to a “founder”. [59]

Chief among Meyer’s absent attributes was disposable wealth  sufficient to endow a college and provide land for its  site.  Vassar, Cornell, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr,  Stanford and the University of Chicago all had wealthy backers, who in every  case except that of John D. Rockefeller and the University of Chicago, made these institutions  the principal beneficiary of their estates. [60]

When Meyer and her husband signed the lease for 343 Madison Avenue, it was more an act of faith than evidence of deep pockets. To be sure, several of the original trustees were men and women of substantial wealth, with Laura Spelman Rockefeller married to America’s richest man at the time, but none of the board’s wealthy members was committed to being or later became, as Matthew Vassar  ($768,000), the Durants ($500,000), Joseph Taylor ($1,500,000) and the Stanfords ( $20,000,000) did, underwriters of first resort. Nor did Meyer or any of Barnard’s other prime movers, unlike the Baptist Matthew Vassar or the Presbyterian Durants  or the Quaker Joseph Taylor or the Baptist William Rainey Harper at University of Chicago, have strong denominational connections that could produce  both tuition-paying students and financial assistance. Barnard’s independence from any religious affiliation, however liberating,  came at a cost. [61]

The result was that Barnard was from its start seriously undercapitalized, a fact that Meyer seems not to have fully grasped, despite Arthur Gilman’s warning her that no college could survive without a steady infusion of gifts. (She later acknowledged that arithmetic was not her strong suit.) Fifty years after its opening a Barnard memorialist proudly stated that the College “started with nothing except that most irresistible and indestructible thing, an idea.” True enough. But at its founding  and for  two more decades the prospects of the idea that brought Barnard into being taking permanent root remained in doubt. [62]