5. Good Times: Barnard in the Twenties


                                                                       Chapter  5
Good Times:  Barnard in the Twenties

                             I found [at Barnard]  – and in some measure created – the kind
of student life that matched my dreams.

— Margaret Mead, BC ’23 [1]

  1. The Dean Gets a Life

American entry into the Great War marked Dean Gildersleeve’s  entry into the world of public affairs. Her appointment by President Butler in the spring of 1917 as chair of the Columbia University Committee on Women’s War Work brought her into contact with city officials, including renewing one with New York’s  Mayor John Purroy Mitchell, an 1899  Columbia classmate, who appointed her to the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense. Soon  came  calls from Washington, where she was asked to be a member of the Committee on War Service Training for Women College Students. In her autobiography,  Gildersleeve  recalled some frustration  with these committee assignments as  “fighting an armchair war,” but she also acknowledged their more lasting effect: “It committed me to international affairs as the principal work of my life next to my immediate task as Dean of Barnard College.” The Great War also became the occasion for her finding love.  [2]

    Gildersleeve had toured Europe as a school girl with her parents and  again with a Brearley friend after graduation. Both paternal ancestry – the Gildersleeves were from Suffolk — and her dissertation subject – governmental regulation of the Elizabethan theatre – made England a special place of interest. An invitation to visit followed Barnard hosting  a  delegation  of English women academics in the fall of 1918. It came from Caroline Spurgeon, Professor of English Literature, a Chaucer scholar and academic administrator at Bedford College, University of London.  Gildersleeve, who was still living with her parents (an arrangement Bryn Mawr’s  M. Carey Thomas took exception to on feminist grounds), put up her guests in Brooks Hall.   Eight years Gildersleeve’s senior, Spurgeon and the dean almost immediately established an intimate relationship that would define their personal lives for the next quarter-century.  [3]

Before  her guests  returned to England, Gildersleeve arranged for a visit  the following summer and initiated plans to establish an International Federation of University Women. The trip included a stay with Spurgeon and her women friends who shared a summer cottage in the Cotswolds.  Such reciprocal visits thereafter  became the norm, with Spurgeon spending three months every fall in New York, often as a visiting lecturer at Barnard. In 1925 Gildersleeve took up residence in the Deanery, private quarters at the north end of the newly opened Hewitt Hall, with Spurgeon joining her there, while  she spent  summers in a thatched cottage in Alciston, Sussex – The Old Postman’s Cottage –  with Lillian Clapham and her beloved “Cara.” From there they frequently travelled across the English Channel to France or elsewhere on the Continent, sometimes on business relating to the International Federation of University Women or Reid Hall, a residence for American students and artists, which beginning in 1922 was administered by the IFUW, but often simply for the  pleasure of traveling together. Upon Clapham’s death in 1936, the ailing Spurgeon moved to Arizona, where Gildersleeve became a regular visitor until her companion’s death in 1942.  [4]

Summers abroad became only part of a more comprehensive pattern of off-campus excursions by Barnard’s dean. With the adoption of the 19th Amendment,  American  politics lost its male-only  character and became an arena for women as well.  Several Barnard alumnae were among the first to become active in state and national party politics. Jessie Wallace Hughan  (BC ’98)  became a leader in the Socialist Party;  Sarah Schuyler Butler (BC’15)  was Vice-chairman of the New York Republican State Committee; Juliet Poyntz (BC ’07)  was active in the Socialist Party and later joined the Communist Party. But it was Gildersleeve’s involvement with successive New York  Democratic governors Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, and still later with New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, that received the most public notice for breaking with the studied apolitical stance of other college leaders of her day. [5]

This enlargement of Gildersleeve’s life followed on the almost simultaneous  loss of both her parents. In 1912, her mother’s increasing problems with vertigo prompted the sale of  the family brownstone on 48th St. and a move  into an apartment on 113th St. and  Riverside Drive. Judge Gildersleeve, who had retired from the bench at 72 but continued to practice law, died in February 1923. His wife followed six months later.

Gildersleeve needed only to look across  Broadway to Columbia’s President Butler for the very model of the interwar academic leader as public celebrity, as Michael Rosenthal’s spirited biography makes clear. Butler  served as  a New York delegate to every Republican national convention from 1888 to 1936 and twice came close to being the party’s vice presidential nominee. He was a force in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for four decades and its president  from 1925 to 1945.  While never as internationally recognized as “Nicholas Miraculous,” what Theodore Roosevelt called  his one-time political ally, Gildersleeve became in her middle years as Barnard’s dean the most frequently cited  woman academic in America. She was regularly called upon by the New York press  for her opinions on subjects of passing domestic moment, and later on the state of international affairs, especially with regard to the Middle East. [6]

The dean’s interest in global issues was another product of mid-career invention. In her autobiography she credits the Chicago-based businessman Charles Crane with first interesting her in the region of the world where Crane’s philanthropic, religious and commercial interests overlapped. Others of Gildersleeve’s New York acquaintances, including Barnard trustees George A. Plimpton and later Harry Emerson Fosdick, minister of the Rockefeller-founded Riverside Church, were actively engaged in matters relating to the Middle East, with Plimpton serving on the boards of the Presbyterian-sponsored all-boys Robert  College  and the American College for Girls in Istanbul.  In 1924 Plimpton and Gildersleeve had tried to arrange a joint appointment with The Museum of Natural History to bring to Barnard the Chicago-based Egyptologist James H. Breasted, author of Ancient Times: A History of the Ancient World,  Trips with Cara to North Africa in 1921 followed by an extended visit to Cairo in 1930  solidified Gildersleeve’s visceral connection with  things Arabic. This would later  complicate her already strained relationship with some of  Barnard’s Jewish alumnae. [7]

Of  Virginia Gildersleeve’s  four decades  as dean of Barnard, the 1920s was easily her  most enjoyable. By then she had established a good working relationship with the trustees, as more and more of the original trustees were succeeded by replacements that she had a role in selecting. While Annie Nathan Meyer continued to find occasions to criticize her,  Gildersleeve seems to have won over the succession of WASP lawyers who dominated the board, even as her dealings with Treasurer Plimpton became, if not warm, companionable. [8]

President Butler remained  paternally disposed toward  Gildersleeve and she ever loyal to him.  Meanwhile  her dealings with various University  deans produced  outcomes favorable to Barnard’s students seeking professional  careers. The decision of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1920 to permanently lift the ban on women allowed admission of a handful of Barnard graduates  annually. Negotiations with Columbia Law School deans Harlan Fiske Stone  and Huger Jervey  led the school to first  admit women in 1927, although an earlier negotiated arrangement that the law school would only accept Barnard women was vetoed at the last moment. [9]

  1.   A  Faculty  of Its Own

        Getting an instructional staff in place back in the fall of 1889 had been one of the easier challenges the founders of Barnard faced. So, too, in 1900, Barnard’s physical proximity and the newly negotiated inter corporate agreement with Columbia  greatly facilitated the constitution of a free-standing faculty of considerable scholarly distinction. Here, as well, the willingness of Barnard to copy the undergraduate curriculum of  Columbia College simplified matters. What subsequently complicated them were two developments. The first was the gradual recognition that Barnard’s  curricular needs as a women’s college differed from those of a men’s college, especially one designed as Columbia College was as a feeder to the University’s professional schools.  But second and more immediate was the unresolved question of  what place, if any, were women to have in the Barnard College faculty.

During Barnard’s first eleven years, when  50 or so individuals offered instruction,  the botanist Emily L. Gregory was the only woman. Upon her death in 1897, she was succeeded by  Herbert Maule Richards. When President  Low underwrote the outside appointments of three senior scholars at Barnard, all  were men.  When the College’s first faculty was organized in 1900, it consisted of 16 men  of professorial rank,  and 13  “officers of instruction,” including two  women,  the 40-year-old physicist Margaret E. Maltby and the just- graduated Eleanor Keller (BC 1900) as an Assistant in chemistry. The fact that the 1900 intercorporate agreement contains the explicit statement that “Members of the Faculty of Barnard College may be either men or women” suggests  this had been negotiated. [10]

     By Barnard’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1914,  the  45-person instructional staff included  5  women of faculty rank:

Marie  Reimer (1903-1945), Associate Professor of Chemistry
Margaret E. Maltby (1900-1931), Assistant Professor of Physics
Gertrude M. Hirst (1901-1943),  Assistant Professor of Classics
Ida H. Ogilvie (1903-1941), Assistant professor of Geology
Mabel Foote Weeks (1907-1939), Assistant Professor of English

Only one woman of faculty rank had come and gone. This was the settlement house leader Mary K. Simkhovitch, who was appointed adjunct professor of sociology in 1907 but resigned in 1910. Men   chaired all but three of the College’s fifteen departments, the exceptions being  Margaret Maltby, chair of physics, Marie Reimer, chair of chemistry, and Ida H. Ogilvie, chair of geology. All three women were accomplished scientists  as acknowledged by  their inclusion successive editions of  James McKeen Catell’s  American Men of Science. [11]

These three scientists also reflect a discernible pattern of gender differentiation:   women who joined the Barnard faculty generally stayed, while half the men who did so eventually  moved on, some by transferring to Columbia and others by being hired elsewhere.  With no possibility of transferring to the all-male Columbia faculty  (its first female appointment occurred in 1938 and the first transfer of a Barnard woman faculty member to Columbia in 1949) and with  few  other academic institutions hiring women faculty —  even  most women’s colleges preferred  men —  Barnard’s  women faculty were occupationally  stuck. [12]

The effect  of these gender-differentiated  career trajectories became even more  evident in the next decade. By 1925 Barnard’s instructional staff had grown to 85, with  just over half of them women. Men, however, held three-quarters of the faculty-rank positions and all but one of the  22 full professorships. Still, the increased presence of women in the lower faculty ranks and their three-to-one majority among  the sub-faculty ranks suggested,  to some observers, that if  left to its own devices,  the Barnard faculty was on its way to becoming all-female.  Unless checked by administrative action, Barnard’s faculty seemed equally at risk of inundation as its student body, only here it was not the threat of city ethnics driving away country WASPs but female academics outlasting their male counterparts. And if so,  who better to address this “problem” of excess women faculty than a dean already addressing that of excess New Yorkers? [13]

One difference between the two “problems”  was that Dean Gildersleeve was later more willing to discuss the second than the first. “How many women teachers should we have at Barnard? That was a puzzling problem,” she recalled in her autobiography. She then specified the  “problem.”

When I was an undergraduate , there were none [women teachers] except one able lecturer
in botany  with whom I never came in contact. But women gradually drifted into the departments,
generally to the position of assistant or instructor, and then as they showed  themselves
able and useful got promoted. We could, as  a rule, secure for an assistantship a better
quality of woman than of man. Thus if we filled our higher posts only by promotions
from below, we tended to acquire a faculty predominantly feminine.

And then, still very much the interventionist Progressive and social engineer, she continued:

Was this a good thing? I was inclined to think it was not, and for this some feminists
blamed me, saying that there were so few collegiate posts in the country open to
women that a woman should be appointed at Barnard in every possible case.
It seemed to me , on the other hand, that it was our first obligation to provide the
best professors we could secure for our students irrespective of sex, but that we
should also try to preserve a balance between the sexes. We seemed sure to have
plenty of women in any event, as the unusually competent ones in the lower grades
were promoted to professorial rank.
How then to keep “plenty of women” from becoming “all women”?  The dean’s solution: “When we were bringing in a new professor or associate professor, we were likely to try to bring in a man. Perhaps this was discrimination against women, but it was, I am sure, for the good of the college as a whole.” [14]

The preferential hiring of men at the professorial level was an interwar fact of Barnard faculty life. Of the 21 initial faculty appointments between 1915 and 1939, all but one went to men. The only  woman hired at professional rank  was the French scholar Marguerite Mespoulet, in 1936. The distinguished classical archeologist, Margaret Bieber, who came to Barnard as an externally funded visiting lecturer in 1934 after losing her professorship in Germany because she was Jewish, became an associate professor three years later.  [15]

Another gendered fact of the period  was that men initially appointed to sub-faculty ranks either left shortly thereafter or secured faculty rank twice as quickly as did women. The average time for the 8 male instructors  to  achieve  professorial rank was  seven years; for the 34 women, thirteen years. At the other end of the academic lifespan, women who achieved faculty rank had careers at Barnard lasting 28 years, while the average for men was 20 years. They did so only after staying in sub-faculty ranks on average four time longer  than did their male counterparts.[16]

Could explanations other than gender discrimination account for these differences?  Might, for example,  the women hired be less academically credentialed than the men? This would appear not to be the case, neither in terms of the degrees held or the source of graduate training. That a majority  Barnard interwar faculty appointees of both genders received their professional training and advanced degrees from Columbia also implies  parity. [17]

What about differences in subsequent scholarly productivity?  It may be  that male faculty more often  achieved  scholarly prominence than women faculty.  But here, too, gender plays a role. One way male Barnard faculty got themselves transferred to Columbia or came to the attention of other universities is through regular publication of their research. They wrote their way across Broadway or to universities elsewhere.  But if the same opportunities  were not  available for women, their incentive to publish became less compelling.

This is not to argue that interwar Barnard women faculty published  less than their male counterparts. By recent norms, neither gender published all that much, with the majority having as their principal publication their doctoral dissertation. Interwar science faculty of either sex lacked the  laboratories and graduate students available to university-based scientists,  making it almost impossible  to maintain an active research program, except as staff members of projects led by Columbia professors..  Among  women  in the social sciences, however, the anthropologist Gladys Reichard,   political scientist Jane Perry-Clark Carey  and  sociologist Mirra Komarovsky  all achieved national standing through their publications and professional activities. That none of them was ever offered a faculty appointment at Columbia, although all three were Columbia PhDs and  while two of Komarovsky’s male departmental colleagues, Robert M. MacIver  and Willard Waller, were, speaks to their occupational condition. [18]

Outside faculty hires initiating instruction in a new field went exclusively to men.  These included Raymond Moley in government in 1923  and Douglas Moore  in Music in 1926. Only after two successive males hired to start a program in fine arts, Ernest De Wald in 1923 and Norman W. Haring in 1925, went elsewhere  did Barnard secure  the long-term services in 1929 of Marion Lawrence, a specialist in early Christian art. Meanwhile,  Eleanor  Keller  in Chemistry, Ethel Sturtevant  in English, Grace Langford  in Physics and  Grace Goodale  in Classics spent between 17 and 19 years in sub-faculty ranks before being promoted to assistant professor, in Sturtevant’s case only on the eve of her retirement. [19]

Another possible exculpatory  explanation for the different treatment of men and women faculty might be that the latter were made  less mobile by marital circumstances because of a spouse whose career required New York residence. While this would  limit  mobility for many  after World War II, nearly all interwar  Barnard female faculty  were single. But this then subjected them to yet another form of discrimination.

Income disparities resulting from the systemic lag in female promotions  were exacerbated by salary determinations by  marital status. Married faculty, which  included most of the male faculty,  were assumed to be principal breadwinners with  family responsibilities (and stay-at-home  wives) that necessitated higher salaries, while single faculty were thought to be able to survive on lower ones. There were  instances of single women  of independent means, the geologist Ida Ogilvie a case in point, or married  women faculty  with high–income husbands, like Mirra Komarovsky,  who acknowledged their financial independence and forewent raises.  But  there were also instances of single women faculty with financial responsibility for parents or unemployed domestic partners.  [20]

Similar discriminatory compensation policies existed at other interwar institutions. They remained  in place at Columbia and other universities into the 1970s. What is unusual, and for an historian refreshing, about their  functioning at interwar Barnard was that nobody  made any bones about them.[21]

  1. A Curriculum of Their Own

Unlike Cornell, where its founders in 1865 promised “instruction in all subjects,” or Harvard  at the outset of the  presidency of Charles W. Eliot in 1869, who set about to reinstall  a “free elective system,”  Barnard began with no plans for disrupting the standing curricular order.  Its founders simply sought to make the classics-heavy curriculum of  the all-male Columbia College available to  women. That meant a curriculum largely of required courses  for the first two years, with a few choices in the last two years, but even these heavily weighted in favor of classical languages and light on science.  [22]

      An unintended consequence of Barnard acquiring its own faculty in 1900  was that it acquired ownership of its curriculum.  Unlike President Barnard, who unsuccessfully sought  trustee support to junk its traditional and fixed classical curriculum in favor of an elective system, Seth Low succeeded in implementing  his favored curricular reforms.  Rather than opt for Harvard’s  elective system, Low took Columbia College in the opposite direction with an undergraduate curriculum that could be completed in two or three years consisting mainly  of required and broadly conceived courses akin to those that later came to be designated  “general education.”  In the 1920s these courses coalesced into  Columbia’s hallmark “core curriculum.”  This decidedly non-specialized curriculum was taught mostly  by faculty  permanently assigned to Columbia College or by junior faculty on loan from one of the three graduate faculties, thereby freeing most senior faculty for graduate instruction.  Low’s successor,  Butler, essentially endorsed this arrangement even as he  proceeded to remove first  Greek and then Latin courses from the required  curriculum, while further  isolating those teaching in the College from the privileged disciplinary specialists in the graduate faculties. Successive deans of  the College,  Frederick Keppel and Herbert Hawkes, maintained the commitment to non-specialized learning. [23]

However well this pre-professional,  unspecialized  curriculum served Columbia College’s many profession-bound and  its few learning-for-learning’s-sake men, it presented several problems for Barnard students.  Not least was that many  of Columbia’s professional schools did not accept women, college graduates or not. The exceptions  were the graduate  programs in the arts and sciences, where early Barnard graduates beginning in the 1890s could and did pursue advanced degrees in the humanities, social sciences and sciences at a rate higher than that of any American college. This was also the case with Columbia’s Journalism School , which at the direction of its patron, Joseph Pulitzer, admitted women from its  opening in 1912. The College of Physicians & Surgeons began admitting a handful of women in 1917; the law school in 1926; engineering in 1943. Meanwhile, there were other medical, law and engineering schools that earlier accepted women,  NYU being a local instance,  and professionally aspiring early Barnard graduates availed themselves of them. But for most  Barnard students an undergraduate curriculum that fed into Columbia’s professional schools or was otherwise occupationally irrelevant made little sense. [24]
Most of the interwar Barnard students  who went on after graduation to take a master’s  degree in one of Columbia’s three graduate faculties  did so to enhance their job prospects as high school teachers. For most of the rest, securing a level of competence in an academically recognizable field – mathematics, zoology, history, Spanish  – as undergraduates made them more likely to find the employment that for all but the few trust-fund-blessed  Barnard students  necessarily followed on graduation. That proportionally more interwar Barnard graduates pursued advanced and professional degrees than the women of any other colleges (with the possible exception of Hunter College graduates) speaks  to both their intellectual ambitions and the quality of the instruction they received as undergraduates, but also  to the occupational imperative that had prompted their matriculation.. [25]

Barnard’s faculty had their own problems with the Columbia College curriculum. The  privileging of  “general education”  and pre-professional  subjects meant that teaching these courses would leave them at still further remove from the intellectual issues engaging  their disciplinary specialties.  This may have been an acceptable trade-off for those few Morningside faculty who, like John Erskine or Irwin Edman, saw themselves primarily as teachers,  but self-identified scholars who wished to stay abreast of and contribute to their fields – and occasionally make contributions to them – needed  to  teach their subject.  And not just at the introductory level. This was especially so for Barnard faculty  with few  or no opportunities to work with graduate students. [

The cumulative effect of these  consideration led Barnard to develop a curriculum that encouraged immediate exposure of  students to a  variety of disciplines followed by early specialization in a given one. The difference between  students “majoring” in a subject  pursued in depth through  electives  – the Barnard way – and having them “concentrate” in a set of  prescribed  courses – the Columbia way – became even more pronounced in the 1920s when Columbia College gave over  the first two years of its curriculum to an  increasing number of required courses of no specific discipline which constituted its fabled “core.”  So long as the occupational prospects of male and female college graduates  favored men, colleges such as Columbia could afford to be  disdainful of job-readiness considerations and focus instead on what the godfather of Columbia’s core curriculum John  Erskine called “the obligation to be intelligent.” Not so women’s colleges, or at least not one  serving the “aspiring crowds.” [26]

Subjects added to the Barnard interwar  curriculum included studio courses in theater and dance  and, in 1939, interdisciplinary programs in Medieval Studies and American Studies, the latter arguably the first such undergraduate program in the country. Other subjects taught on both sides of Broadway — anthropology, botany, mathematics, music and fine arts — generated more faculty and undergraduate interest at Barnard than at Columbia. Overall, however,  it was the unique combination of student emphasis  on acquiring competence in a specialty, access to advanced courses in these specialties taught by Columbia’s three graduate faculties, and the preference Barnard faculty had for teaching within their disciplinary specialty that produced the  extraordinary number of interwar Barnard graduates who went on to earn PhDs and  take up academic careers.    When Barnard’s discipline-centered curriculum was put in place in 1927, Columbia College’s Dean Hawkes  patronizingly described it as “certainly not one which I should wish to have in any college of which I was Dean,” before going on. “But if the Barnard Faculty wants it, then, on behalf of Columbia College, I have no objection.” Left unmentioned by Hawkes was that Barnard women under their new curriculum were more likely to major in one of the sciences than were his Columbia men. [27]

  1. Interwar Admissions: New Yorkers Need Not Apply

Dean Gildersleeve was a latitudinarian when it came to curricular matters, giving her faculty a free hand to determine what should be taught. In her autobiography she allowed that “personally I came to believe that it did not matter greatly which subjects a student studied.” Not so, when it came to which kinds of students should be admitted to Barnard, an issue  she cared deeply about and where her views aligned  with those prevailing across Broadway. [28]

Enrollments in Columbia College dropped sharply in the fall of 1917.  Administrators initially attributed it to previously enrolled undergraduates going off  to  military service.  But when applications from students seeking to transfer to Columbia in the spring of 1918 spiked,  they became concerned. The increase came  mostly from students at the City College of New York, seeking admission to Columbia after three tuition-free semesters and willing to pay for  two or  three semesters in Columbia College to enhance prospects of  admission to one of the university’s professional schools. That the admission of transfers to the College was still determined wholly by Regents test results or College Boards and high school grades meant that most of these applicants were admitted. And when it was estimated  that as a result  Jews made up a third  of the Class of 1919 (some estimates had it at 40%), alarms went off. [29]

Whatever the number, the incoming  Dean of the College Herbert Hawkes  complained  to  Butler that his inherited class of career-focused sons of immigrants “have no use for college affairs and regard Columbia less as an Alma Mater than as an Efficens Pater.“    This was an instance of preaching to the choir.  Butler had already  pronounced on the quality of the class entering in the fall of 1917 as “depressing in the extreme,”  where “boys of old American stock” were in shorter supply than the “foreign born and children of those who have recently arrived in this country.” [30]

Hawkes and Admissions Director Adam Leroy Jones, with the active support of Butler and concerned trustees,  now instituted sweeping changes in the admissions process.  Among them was an application form that for the first time required the following information: the birthplace of the applicant’s parents; the family’s religion; the language spoken at home; the father’s education; the mother’s education; the father’s occupation; the family’s previous last name if it had been changed.   A photograph of the applicant was also required, as was a psychological test, the results of which would inform the decision to admit. Finally, and most bizarre, a physical exam was now required, along with a swimming test,  for the ostensible purpose of weeding out those afflicted with diseases thought to be prevalent among newly arrived immigrants. [31]

Because these changes applied equally to Barnard applicants, no longer would Bursar N.W. Liggett be left to guess the religion of applicants by their names or neighborhoods.  Henceforth, as President Butler had earlier urged Dean Keppel, admission could turn on  “treating  the candidate for graduation as one treats a candidate for admission to a club, that is, having his personal qualifications examined.” If the club Butler had in mind was his and Keppel’s  Century Association,  both knew Jews and women were systematically excluded.

The effect of these changes was immediate enough for Dean Hawkes to boast to  Keppel after admitting his first class for the fall of 1919:  “The like of [it] you have never seen in this place. I would like to have you read a list of the Freshmen. You could pronounce every name without tying a double knot in your tongue.” [32]

Beginning in 1920 Columbia College placed an upper limit on the size of entering classes of 550 students. This cap allowed  the admissions staff to refuse admission to academically eligible applicants because the class was  filled, presumably but not necessarily (as in the case of athletes or legacies)  with more academically  qualified applicants,  but also with those whose social profile suggested they would make a “better fit.”

In 1922, when press criticism of these new policies put Columbia on the defensive,  Hawkes defended them in a letter to  MIT  Professor Edwin  B. Wilson. After a prefatory disclaimer that “I have no desire whatever to eliminate the Jew from Columbia College,” he got down to numbers.

Situated as we are in New York we ought to furnish the best education we can
to a good many of them and as a matter of fact the cream of the Jews constitutes a
very fine body of people in my opinion. I believe we ought to carry at least 15%
of Jews and I do not think that 20% is excessive for Columbia College. [33]

To the allegation Wilson passed along that “our Intelligence Examinations are intended to discriminate against the Jew and are judged  with that idea in mind,” Hawkes declared it to be “an absolute perversion of the truth.”  To the anticipated follow-up question, “What, then, is the rationale for the mental examination,” Hawkes demonstrated the usefulness of  an enrollment cap: “What we have been trying to do is to eliminate the low grade boy. We had 1200 applications for admission last fall and could accommodate only 550. This meant that somebody had to lose out. We have not eliminated boys because they were Jewish.” [34]

The concerns of Barnard  administrators  are less a matter of record than those of Columbia. But what we do know is that the same admissions procedures  operative at Columbia obtained at Barnard and were administered by some of the same staffers. We also know that the social composition of the Barnard  classes were, in terms of their religious character, strikingly similar, that is with Jews making up  between 18% and 22%  of entering interwar classes. [35]

No evidence has been found  to indicate that Dean Gildersleeve had any problems with these new admission procedures.  In November 1920, she wrote to Butler of Barnard’s intention  to adopt the psychological test  in place at Columbia, seeing it as giving Barnard more “elasticity” in putting together future classes. Anticipating some resistance from her faculty, the Dean was careful  to describe the desired effect of these new procedures as aimed at attracting  more students of the “conventional middle class” from beyond the New York region rather than a conscious  effort to limit the number of Jewish New Yorkers at Barnard. The use of the psychological test was approved as an experiment and helped shape Barnard entering classes into the 1930s.  [36]

Barnard also joined Columbia in announcing  a cap on the size of entering classes, setting it between 250 and 275  for any given class once overall enrollments reached 1000.  Finally, the new policies allowed Barnard to  admit a socially attractive applicant who came up short on her entrance exams by establishing  categories such as  “admit with conditions” and “admit/irregulars.”   In 1922 these categories encompassed half the admitted class.  Getting away from their earlier and heavier reliance upon New York City  public schools as the source of preparation became  a cross-Broadway competition, with Columbia declaring itself the early winner in 1926 when 66% of the Barnard girls still came from public high schools,  but only 57% of entering Columbia boys. [37]

Admission practices  further privileged  private-school applicants  by waiving personal interviews for those  with a recommendation from the head of a recognizable private school. New York City public schoolers were only  admitted after  a personal interview.  Together these practices placed a double burden on  applicants from New York City public schools,  where well into the 1930s Jewish boys and girls  were six times as likely to stay on and graduate as the children of the City’s two other  major immigrant populations, the Irish and the Italians.  With New York City in 1930 home to three quarters of America’s Jews and  making up 30 percent of the City’s population,  one does not have to accept the notion that “New Yorker” was  code for “Jew” to conclude that the cumulative negative impact of such policies on Jewish applicants was not collateral but intended.

And it worked.  Although Eli Ginzberg, the son of a university professor and later a Columbia business school professor and distinguished economist,  managed in 1926 to secure admission to Columbia College as a Jew from DeWitt Clinton High School, he estimated the  cap on admissions for applicants like himself to be 25 members of his 500-member class. His equally  bright sister, he later recalled,   refused  to  risk almost certain rejection in 1931 by even applying to Barnard. [38]

Columbia’s admissions policies in general and its  use of a psychological test in particular attracted considerable negative press, including in the Nation, where Barnard alumna Freda Kirchwey (BC ‘15)  of anti-fraternity fame as an undergraduate,  was  editor and writer. In successive issues in June 1922, Kirchwey laid into Columbia for procedures that privileged  extra-curricular activities  that she  believed unfairly discriminated against “the boy from an immigrant family who is excluded from some of the social life of his fellows by prejudice and the need of earning his own way.”  [39]

Kirchwey did not mention Barnard in her June articles. On October 4, 1922, however, the Nation  published  a  letter from  Rebecca  Grecht headed  “Anti-Semitism at Barnard.” The  writer, identified only by name, the New York State Census data described  as 18 years old and the only daughter of Russian-born parents (her father Adolph made ladies’ hats) residing in a tenement building along with other Russian immigrant families at 304 East 5th Street when in 1918 she applied to  and was rejected by Barnard. In her letter she described herself as  one of three Jewish girls from her  unnamed New York City high school to apply and be rejected. In her case, having finished 14th on her Assembly District’s Regents Scholarship Exam and  gone on to Hunter and  graduate from  NYU cum laude, she subsequently wrote to Barnard asking why she had been rejected.  Her persistency  extracted three different explanations:
— her high school was considered “not high enough”;
— Barnard preferred applicants who submitted College Board scores over those who
submitted Regents Exam scores;
— the class was already filled by the time her application was reviewed.

Rebecca Grecht  was clearly dissatisfied with these explanations, proposing  instead that she had been rejected because she was Jewish, a discriminatory practice that she contended  had become so widespread that “several prominent Jewish women who had in previous years assisted Barnard financially now refused a contribution.” [40]

Six issues later, on December 6, 1922, the Nation published a response from Dean Gildersleeve, under the banner “Class and Creed at Barnard”.

— To the question why was the applicant in question rejected?
VCG: “She did not seem as promising a student as the others whom we accepted.”

— To the insinuation that the applicant’s academic achievements were ignored:
VCG: “The mere ability to pass a certain set of examinations with high marks is not
necessarily the most important evidence.”

— To Barnard’s inferred discrimination against New York City applicants, a partial admission:
VCG: “We are particularly anxious to have Barnard a college where New York girls, of every
class and creed, can meet girls from other parts of the country and from other nations.”

— To the  accusation that Barnard was anti-Semitic, a categorical denial:
VCG: “Personally I am deeply interested in the problem of getting Jew and gentile to live
together helpfully as useful fellow-citizens in our country.” [41]


Meanwhile,  Gildersleeve made certain that any success she had in  nationalizing the Barnard student body received public notice.   In 1921 she informed the faculty and alumnae that  the proportion of residents of New York City in the entering class had dropped from 90% a decade earlier to 50%.  “Clearly the College has been relatively losing in the City,” she noted of her decade as dean,  “and gaining in the country.” This shift, she indicated,  was  ongoing and that the Barnard student of the future “will become cosmopolitan in type.” [42]

I have found only two other  statements by Gildersleeve on Barnard’s  admissions policies, both framed to emphasize  the  positive end of advancing Barnard as a national institution, while sidestepping  negative consequences this had on academically qualified applicants  from  New York City public schools. The first  in 1939 in the Barnard College Alumnae:
Of course we always want a generous proportion of New Yorkers;
but we want to be a national and not merely a local college…. So we
are fairly generous in admitting girls from Alaska or Hawaii. [We want]
a variety of economic, social, racial and national backgrounds. [43.]

The other statement appears in her 1954 autobiography, Many a Good Crusade:

From what I have been saying it must sound  as if a Barnard class was excessively
cosmopolitan and a polyglot mixture, but as a matter  of fact the vast majority
were just plain Americans, whatever their descent, and though  half were from
New York City or its neighborhood  they generally represented almost every
state in the union.
Neither statement   counters the anecdotal evidence that  this “Old New Yorker” shared the social anti-Semitism that was endemic to her class and time, nor gainsays the damage it has done to her historical standing. [44]


  1. Flappers & Dead End Kids

Whatever temporary success Gildersleeve had in her social engineering efforts to nationalize the student body in the 1920s, Barnard retained much of its local and decidedly urban character. As enrollments overall increased, with the proportion  of Jewish students limited to around 20 percent, the percentage of Catholics  grew to comparable levels. Most of these students came from the City’s Irish and Italian immigrant communities, along with others  from New Jersey and upstate towns.  Catholics do not seem to have been the object of discriminatory practices in the application process. Their problem, particularly if prepared in a parochial school,  was securing permission to apply to a “heathen college”.   Many of those Catholics  attending  Barnard maintained their religious ties through membership in the Craigie and later the Newman Club, and through services provided by Corpus Christi Church on 121st St., where Father George Barry Ford acted as Catholic chaplain to Columbia University. By the mid-1920s Barnard, founded primarily  by mainline Protestants and employing a faculty and administration dominated by Protestants, had, along with Columbia, become one of the first American colleges to have a student body in which Protestants were in the minority. [45]

Catholics matriculating at Barnard in the 1920s  included Anna Anastasi who  entered Barnard in 1924 at 15, the daughter of Italian immigrants living on Fordham Road, the Bronx. While completing her doctorate at Columbia, she taught psychology at Barnard from 1930 to 1939, before accepting a professorship at Queens and later at Fordham, where her work on psychological testing led to her election as president of the American Psychological Association in 1972. Another Catholic attending Barnard in the 1920s was Theresa Carbonara, BC ’27, whose parents were Italian immigrants living in Brooklyn and who stayed on at Barnard as an instructor in Italian from 1929 to her death in 1951. [46]

       Barnard’s Jewish students represented a mix of rich and poor, the former including  those whose ancestors were German-speaking and came to the United States in the post-Civil War era. Among them were the occasional legacy, Ruth Strauss, Class of 1923, the daughter of Hilda Newborg Strauss, ’00 and  Josephine Sperry, Class of 1925, the daughter of  Rosalie Bloomngdale Sperry, Class of 1900, and resident of upscale 345 Park Avenue. Other Jewish  students came  from families recently arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia. Esther Biederman entered Barnard in 1927, the daughter of parents born in the Ukraine who arrived in New York only months before her birth. Esther grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx and attended Girls High School. A Girls High School scholarship and a Regents scholarship made it possible for her family to send her to Barnard. For 2 ½ years she commuted  three hours a day from Brooklyn, before winning a residence scholarship that allowed her to live on campus.  Six decades later she recalled that while “there were also some very wealthy girls,” at least  three in her class had fathers “who were either firemen or cops.” [47]

Among the former were Mirra Komarovsky, BC 1926, whose wealthy parents fled Russia in 1917, alighting first in Wichita, Kansas, before establishing themselves in Brooklyn. There Mirra attended public high school before coming to Barnard.  Following graduation and despite the warning  of her Barnard professor, Robert MacIver, that an academic career was not possible for a woman and a Jew, she took up graduate studies in sociology at Columbia.She commenced her teaching career at Barnard in 1935 and remained twenty years beyond her retirement in 1968. In 1972 she was elected president of the American Sociological Association.  [48]

Somewhere in the middle of the family-income interwar spectrum was Eleanor Rosenberg, BC 1929, who attended Hunter College High School. Her parents could not afford to send her to an out-of-town college so Eleanor spent all four years at Barnard as a commuter. She later recalled a rivalry between the “dorm girls” and the “city girls,” declaring the latter “more intellectually ambitious.” [49]

Two other Barnard students in the 1920s speak to the variety of circumstances from which they came. The Pennsylvania-born Margaret Mead entered Barnard in 1920 as a transfer after one year at DePauw College in rural Indiana. Her parents were both college graduates, her father an academic who taught at Wharton, and Episcopalians. Margaret attended a mix of private and public schools and spent some years being home-educated by a grandmother. Why she went to DePauw rather than Wellesley or Bryn Mawr, her autobiography leaves unstated. But it is clear why she left.
It was a college to which students had come for fraternity life,
for football games, and for establishing the kind of rapport with
other people that would make them good Rotarians in later life
and their wives good members of the garden club. [56]

Although finding the DePauw faculty committed and engaged, her literary aspirations and a Gotham-based boyfriend sent here back east to New York and  Barnard. There, she later wrote in Blackberry Winter, “I found – and in some measure created – the kind of student life that matched my dreams.” [50]

That life involved three years of cooperative living in apartments on West 116th St. and Claremont Avenue  with a group of  young women from varied circumstances,  “half Jewish and half Gentile.”  Successively designated by disapproving overseers of the residence halls as a “mental and moral muss”  and “Communist morons,” or, and  the label they took up as their own, the “Ash Can Cats,” the group included  Leonie Adams ’22, poetry editor of Barnard Bulletin, a Catholic, Viola Corrigan, and Mary Anne “Bunny” McCall, ”the perfect flapper.” Their apartment became a refuge for likeminded commuter students. “We belonged to a generation of young women who felt extraordinarily free – free from the demand to marry unless we chose to do so.” A psychology major until her senior year, when courses  were open to Barnard students taught by Franz Boas (with Ruth Benedict his TA) redirected Mead to a storied career in anthropology. [51.]

Yet another exotic appeared among Barnard’s incoming students in the fall of 1925 in the person of Zora Neale Hurston.  In her early thirties by then, having earlier attended Howard University, the already published Hurston was the first black student to attend Barnard. Her admission  had been engineered by Annie Nathan Meyer, whose involvement with Harlem theater people had brought them  together, and who took responsibility for her tuition and fees.  Gildersleeve went along with the arrangement, once it was confirmed that Hurston would  be living off-campus and that no precedent be set by her admission. In the event, Hurston stayed three semesters before graduating with the Class of 1927, having accumulated a strong academic record in anthropology.  In her Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography, she recalled the experience:
I have no lurid tales to tell of race discrimination at Barnard. I made a few friends
in the first few days. The Social Register crowd at Barnard soon took me up. And I
soon became Barnard’s sacred black cow…. I set out to maintain a good average,
take part in whatever went on, and just be part of the college like everybody else. [52]

The Hurston “experiment” passed without incident but did not produce  a more welcoming stance toward black applicants.  In the decade after 1927, only three black women graduated from Barnard – Belle Tobias in 1931, Vera Joseph in 1932, and Jean Hutson in 1935 – and all lived off campus. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the case of black applicants, unlike Jewish applicants,  a hard quota obtained,  such that no class would have more than two black members. In 1934, when a black transfer from the University of Michigan, Jeanne Blackwell, appeared on campus to register, she was stopped from doing so on the grounds that her race had not been disclosed in the admissions process and that her admission would exceed the two-per-class quota. A compromise was then effected by which Blackwell was allowed to matriculate if she gave up her assigned room on campus and instead boarded in Harlem. She graduated in 1935 and twenty years later was appointed curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. [53]
For  Gildersleeve  the problem in the 1920s was less how Barnard might provide low-cost cooperative living arrangements for students of limited means and long commutes than  how it might properly provide for the kinds of students attracted to Vassar and Smith, Wellesley and Byrn Mawr. Her solution was a second dormitory, to be built along the same generous lines as Brooks. It was on the occasion of first proposing such a project  to her trustees in 1920, that the dean  indicated her long-term goal  to reduce  the proportion of Barnard’s commuting students from the  current  75% to 50%. [54]

The trustees, in the absence of funds, deferred action on the dean’s  proposal, but four years later, with steadily increasing enrollments producing budgetary surpluses, they  approved  the construction of a  250-bed extension to Brooks Hall dormitory.  Named for Abram S. Hewitt, Barnard’s second board chairman, the project was unusual  in that it went ahead without a capital campaign or a naming gift to help pay the $1,000,000 cost.  Clearly much  of the impetus behind the second dormitory was to  increase  out-of-town enrollments. [55]

That the cost of living in Hewitt was comparable to Brooks, which  made the  cost of attending Barnard for those who did so substantially higher than any of the “country colleges,”  seems not to have been  a problem. More likely it was viewed in many quarters as  a solution.   With Hewitt’s opening in  1925, its 250 beds added to the 100 in Brooks and the 50  in the John Jay apartment building on adjacent Claremont Avenue,  Gildersleeve’s  goal of ending Barnard’s days as a commuter’s school for the daughters of  New York’s “aspiring crowds”  seemed within her grasp.   The impact of the second of three tuition increases during the 1920s, this from $250 to $300 in 1925, she assured her trustees was negligible. “The great majority of our students do not seem to feel any burden in paying the additional sums.”  As for “the comparatively small number who are burdened,” the allowable inference  was that they should seek out less costly educational opportunities. Meanwhile, all that was needed to confirm Barnard’s transformation was gaining  public assurances  of the nationally recognized elite women’s colleges that Barnard belonged in their company. [56.]


  1. Inventing the “Seven Sisters”

    Barnard stopped admitting “specials,” or non-degree students in 1927, thereby bringing itself into conformity with the prevailing admission practices among the other northeastern women’s colleges. Indeed, that may well have been what prompted the decision. Doing so fit the ambitions  of Virginia Gildersleeve to have Barnard considered  in the public mind  one with the half-dozen northeastern women’s colleges that had preceded it.  Barnard’s relations with these colleges into the 1920s were limited  to  occasional correspondence between  college heads  over specific issues,  such as the treatment of married women faculty or the admission of black students.  Barnard athletic teams occasionally scheduled games with nearby Vassar and Bryn Mawr, as did its debating team. But when the leading women’s colleges were mentioned collectively in the national press into the 1920s, Barnard seldom numbered among them.

    In the early 1920s  the Massachusetts-based Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke and Radcliffe  formed the “Four College Conference.” Nearby  Vassar  was thereafter informally  included in some of their meetings, and on occasion, Bryn Mawr.  The absence of Barnard  is readily understandable. Differences in the mix of residential and commuting students, the Protestant-denominational  circumstances of their founding and ongoing character, the absence (for all but Radcliffe) of a university affiliation,  their larger endowments, their locational circumstances – small town or suburban as opposed to inner city – all set Barnard  apart. [57]

When  Dean Gildersleeve set out to alter this situation, she brought several advantages to the task. First was Barnard’s unmatched access to the national press,  in the case of the New York Herald Tribune through Helen Rogers Reid, BC 1903, and in the cases of the Washington Post and The New York Times, through  Agnes Ernst Meyer (BC 1907) and Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, BC 1914. With the retirement of  President  M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr in 1922, and with the presidents of Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Vassar all men,  Dean Gildersleeve was already better known than any of the country’s women college presidents. A possible exception, Wellesley’s Ellen Fitz Pendleton, was included in Gildersleeve’s   early strategizing.  A third advantage was Barnard’s location in New York City, giving it direct access to the nation’s leading foundations, including the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board and the Carnegie Corporation, which by the 1920s had become the two most  important underwriters of private higher education. [58]

So if it was publicity that women’s colleges needed  to gain the attention of foundations, Barnard, Gildersleeve suggested, needed to be in the room. In 1927 the heads of the seven colleges jointly published an article in the Atlantic Monthly  laying out the case for supporting women’s colleges. This was followed by the setting up of a committee of alumnae from the seven colleges in New York to publicize their collective cause. The money  raised  was never great and after a few years the collaborative fund-raising aspect of the relationship  gave way to annual meetings focused  on common challenges. Meanwhile, Barnard had secured itself a place among the “Seven Sisters,” one of higher education’s most elite  clubs, second only to the “Ivy League,” another of the  decade’s academic inventions. [59]

  1. Prosperity Decade?

          If the key to an institution’s  financial wellbeing is to minimize the negative impact of bad times and take full advantage of good times to increase solvency, Barnard failed in  the prosperous 1920s to do the latter and thus left itself unprepared for the tough times that followed. The decade did represent  a relatively easy patch in Barnard’s financial history. Enrollments increased from 700 to 1100, while three tuition hikes, from $250 to $300 in 1922, to $350 in 1925, and to $400 in 1927, produced  substantial increases in revenues. Financial aid outlays increased only moderately during the period.  Surpluses were used to  cover some of the $1,000,000 cost of Hewitt Hall, with borrowing for the balance. Hewitt went to full occupancy much faster than had Brooks but with comparable room rates, allowing the dormitories to operate on a break-even basis. [60]

The tuition increases were all accompanied by assurances  to the trustees from  Gildersleeve that  families of current students could  accommodate them. In the case of the 1929 increase, she  estimated that the  33 % hike  “will apparently be no burden to at least three-quarters of our student body.” She then proceeded  to describe the kind of students she thought Barnard, as a member of the Seven Sisters,  should be using its financial aid funds to attract:
The group  we are most concerned about is the daughters of professional men
and women with modest incomes – teachers, professors, clergymen, country doctors
and similar professional workers. The women’s colleges have found that in the long run
their best students come  from this class. [61]

She then added:  “In such families there are likely to be brains, some tradition of culture and intellectual interests, and not enough money to make life too  easy for the children. To this end,  Gildersleeve announced  the introduction of new “open scholarships, especially intended for the daughters of professional families.” The Dean appended  a coda in which she lamented  the practice of “working your way through college,” which brought to Barnard “students who are entirely or almost entirely penniless.” Better,  she advised, “to borrow.” From whom she did not say. [62]

Even as the Dean was securing a coveted place among the wealthier, more rustic  and  WASPyer Sisters, and reserving spaces at Barnard for the daughters of country doctors, while privileging those from families with “some tradition of culture and intellectual interests,”  another initiative of the 1920s  squared more with Barnard’s urban locale and the social makeup of its student body. ”The Barnard Summer School for Women Workers in industry.” was established in 1927.to provide six weeks  instruction to  women the from all segments of the labor movement. When Bryn Mawr allowed its own  summer outreach program to the labor movement  to lapse the year before,  Gildersleeve was given formal credit for bringing it to Barnard at part of Columbia’s regular summer session.. More likely the move  came about at  the urging of Emilie Hutchinson, BC ‘05, then an assistant professor of economics with a scholarly interest in the female work force, who became the School’s director. Only four of the first 26 women were American-born, with others immigrants from Russia, Poland, Rumania, Czecho-Slovakia and Germany. A group photograph includes at least one black woman. They received six weeks of instruction in economics, English and general science, much of it provided by members of Barnard’s teaching staff. This early experiment in labor education continued for four summers, accommodating more than 100 industrial workers drawn from the garment trade, millinery, upholstery, electrical, many of them selected by their local union, until  terminated after 1932 when funding from the Carnegie Corporation ran out and the school was closed  [63]

The prosperity that seemingly  attended Barnard in the 1920s was not only short-lived but at least in part illusionary. Two aspects of the  decade should  have given the trustees concern. One was the absence of any major gifts after those  coming from the Carpentier estate in 1918, they  remaining the largest  received through the next quarter-century. (The only exception occurred in 1926 when the estate of Mrs. Adrian Joline gave Barnard $100,000 to endow a chair in music, Barnard;s first and for the next 25 years its only endowed chair.) Another  was Gildersleeve’s disinclination to involve herself personally in fundraising, leaving the task to the College treasurer. “Mr. Plimpton was so wonderful at money-raising, “ she later wrote, “that everybody else tended to sit back and let him do it.” Everybody included herself.  [64.

A larger problem relating to fundraising involved the College’s failure to follow the lead of  other colleges in hiring one of the professional fund-raising firms that had sprung up during the war.  Here the reluctance is traceable to Columbia and President Butler’s hesitancy in doing so. Unlike Gildersleeve, Butler was personally comfortable asking for money, especially among his trustees, friends and social acquaintances.  But deep into the 1920s he remained resistant to approaching  members of the German-Jewish community, including Columbia alumni,  lest their support confer a measure of  control over university affairs.  In 1928 he only reluctantly agreed to engage the services of the fundraising firm  John Price-Jones, which by then had managed fourteen college and university campaigns  and raised nearly $68 million for endowments and buildings.  He also dutifully  arranged for the requisite election of a Jew to the Columbia board, in the person of the jurist Benjamin Cardozo, a cousin of Barnard’s Annie Nathan Meyer.    Too little, too late.  Ten months after Cardozo’s election to the Columbia board the stock market collapsed and all plans for a massive fundraising campaign were shelved. [65]

Meanwhile, Dean Gildersleeve and her board eschewed the services of Price-Jones that   Smith, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr  employed  to mount campaigns that yielded $4 million, $2.7 million and 2.2 million respectively. Mount Holyoke engaged the services of Tamblyn and Brown to conduct a 1923 campaign that added $2.6 million to its endowment. If the 1920s marked the decade that Columbia, once the richest of American universities,  fell behind three of its Ivy  competitors,  for Barnard, always the poorest of the Sisters and now  even more so, the decade was a missed opportunity to make provisions against lean times ahead. [66]