Annie Nathan Meyer

Annie Nathan Meyer (1867 – 1951)

  1.                                                The Estimable Annie Nathan MeyerAnnie Nathan’s experience in the Collegiate Course was disappointing. While enrolled, she complained of faculty openly hostile to women and of exam questions not covered by the assigned texts but  discussed in classes she was not allowed to attend. After one semester she dropped out in February 1887 upon her marriage at 20  to the 35-year-old Dr. Alfred Meyer, a distant relative.  Yet however brief and unsatisfying,  the experience  sparked in the young Annie Nathan Meyer a lifelong, indeed proprietary and sometimes off-putting,  commitment to the cause of higher education for women and specifically to  the women’s college she brought into being.

    The Nathans numbered among the first Jewish families to locate themselves 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 a bit later.) By the time of the Revolution, the Nathans had been in America for four generations, a fact that Annie quickly made known  to other New Yorkers  inclined to flaunt their own less lengthy  American  lineage. (In 1918 she and her daughter Margaret joined 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 second rechartering in 1787 until his death in 1816. (He was also the only Jew ever to serve as a trustee of Columbia until the election of Annie’s cousin, Benjamin Cardozo,  in 1928.) The Nathans formed part of a tight network of  Sephardic Jewish families (which included the Cardozos and the Lazuruses), who conceded nothing to the City’s more numerous Knickerbocker families in terms of ancestry or their own sense of their social standing. Stephen Birmingham, a chronicler of Jewish life in New York, called them “The Grandees.” Meyer once called  New York’s  Sephardim as “the nearest approach to royalty in the United States.”

      Nor did the “Grandees”  welcome, much less defer to,  the often wealthier but more recently arrived German Jews, Birmingham’s “Our Crowd.” These included the Altschuls, Lehmans, Strauses, Warburgs, Schiffs, the Lewisohns and the Guggenheims. Such families, who by the turn-of-the century lived on Mahattan’s East Side and sent their children to the Sacks School, directed by      Sacks and conveniently located at East 39th St. But not the Meyers. “I do not like the atmosphere of the Sacks School ,” she 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….

  For all her  lineage, Annie had an unstable and traumatic childhood. Her father was profligate and regularly absent, at one point having so squandered the family’s resources on Wall Street it had to leave New York City just ahead of his creditors and relocate to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her mother was early on given to depression and drug addiction; she died in 1880. Two years earlier she had attempted suicide, only to have eleven-year old  Annie intervene. Around that same time Annie developed a sibling rivalry with her older sister Maud. This 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.

Marriage to Alfred Meyer, fifteen years her senior and  already a respected physician and medical researcher,  imbued Annie’s subsequent life with a measure of security and wellbeing heretofore absent. He supported her efforts to make her way as a writer.  But no measure of domestic harmony was  enough to wear away her acute sensitivity to social affronts, real or imagined, especially if she suspected they had an anti-Semitic dimension. She was equally alert to any description of Barnard during her 62 years of service as a trustee that slighted  her role  in its founding.    Lest posterity do so, she took it upon herself in 1935 to publish a highly self-referential  account of the founding in Barnard Beginnings, only to have it critically reviewed  in the Barnard Alumnae Magazine, the anonymous writer ending her review with a call to alumnae to produce a truer account. While four such semi-official histories have since appeared,  Meyer’s  remains by far the most engaging and revealing.
Bob McCaughey
July 24, 2017
[email protected]
[From McCaughey entry in Dictionary of American Biography, 1977]

  • AnnieNathanMeyer

Meyer, Annie Nathan (Feb. 19, 1867 – Sept. 23, 1951), writer, antisuffragist, and a founder of Barnard College, was born in New York City, the daughter of Robert and Annie Florance Nathan, members of the Sephardic community, which had figured prominently in the commercial and cultural life of New York since the Revolution. Her childhood, however, was less sheltered than membership in this extended cousinage, which included Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus, implies. Her father’s fascination with Wall Street was never matched by success; ill-advised speculations more than once brought him to the edge of bankruptcy. In 1875 he went to the Middle West, where for four years he directed the affairs of a small railroad. There his philandering drove his wife to despair, drugs, and an early death. The most lurid scenes of this marital tragedy were played out before their four children. Annie, when only nine, had thwarted one of her mother’s attempts at suicide.

Reading, for solace and pleasure, came naturally to Annie Nathan. Having exhausted her family’s library and those of relatives by the age of fifteen, she decided to prepare herself for the collegiate course for women, an extension program inaugurated by Columbia College in 1883 to provide examinations and tutoring for women in lieu of admitting them to college lectures. In 1885 she was duly enrolled. A year later, as if to disprove her father’s warning that academic pursuits would render her unmarriageable, she announced her engagement and discontinued her formal studies. “The truth was,” she later explained, “having married a man who was entirely sympathetic with my literary ambitions, it was no longer necessary for me to read and write under cover of the Columbia examinations.” Her husband, Dr. Alfred Meyer, a second cousin and thirteen years her senior, was a leading New York physician who later became an internationally renowned specialist in tubercular diseases. They had one daughter.

Within weeks of her wedding (Feb. 15, 1887), Meyer set about the creation of a women’s college in New York City. It was the Columbia trustees’ stated opposition to coeducation, rather than her own ideological preference for separate instruction, that prompted her to call for the establishment at Columbia of an “affiliated” women’s institution, modeled after the Harvard “Annex” (later Radcliffe). She published an article on the subject in the Nation and circulated a petition among New Yorkers whose views–and financial resources–were likely to impress skeptical trustees. Among her signatories were the railroad tycoon Chauncey Depew, the editor Richard Watson Gilder, and fifteen of New York’s leading ministers. Even before Meyer secured trustee approval and the necessary funds, she, on her husband’s signature, leased quarters at Madison Avenue and Forty-fifth Street. In September 1889 Barnard College opened its doors.

Meyer’s decision to name the institution after Columbia’s recently deceased president, F. A. P. Barnard, nicely illustrates her political acumen. Barnard, while an enthusiastic proponent of coeducation in the face of his trustees’ opposition, had always dismissed compromise proposals such as the one Meyer championed. Accordingly, Barnard’s widow was prepared to oppose the creation of an affiliated institution as contrary to her husband’s wishes; but she could hardly do so when it was to be named for him.

Meyer’s interest in Barnard College never slackened. A member of its first board of trustees, she remained active in trustee affairs until her death. During those six decades she actively recruited among New York’s society matrons, ever assuring them that their daughters might profitably spend four years in serious study at Barnard without risk to their health or marriageability. Her book Barnard Beginnings (1935) is an engaging chronicle of the college’s early years and an important document in the history of American higher education.

With the successful launching of Barnard, Meyer turned her energies to the campaign against woman suffrage. She was an outspoken opponent and seized every opportunity to dispute the suffragist case–short of accepting a challenge to debate Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst. Writing in the North American Review in 1904 on “Women’s Assumption of Sex Superiority,” she attributed much of the movement’s motivation to sex envy and sex hatred. Her opposition was not to women wanting to vote–she was not a political reactionary and was very much a feminist–but to the notion that their doing so would purify American politics. She was never persuaded that her skepticism had been unfounded.

Above all else Meyer wished to succeed as a writer. Encouraged early by Edith Wharton and supported throughout by her husband, she wrote two novels, twenty plays (three staged on Broadway), and a dozen short stories published in such magazines as Harper’s, the Smart Set, and the Bookman. Her thematic preoccupations were the conflicting claims of career and marriage upon professional women. She also wrote and saw published countless letters to the editor, a literary subgenre in which she had few rivals and in which she enjoyed the critical acclaim that eluded her more extended efforts. Meyer’s last book, an autobiography, was published three days after her death in New York City. The title was apt: It’s Been Fun.

Further Readings

[Meyer’s manuscripts are located in the Barnard College archives. Her other publications not already mentioned by name in the text include Woman’s Work in America (1891); Helen Brent, M.D. (1892); Robert Annys: Poor Priest (1901); The Dominant Sex (1911); The District Attorney (1920); The Advertising of Kate (1921); and Black Souls (1932). See also Robert Lewis Taylor, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief (1948); and New York Times obituary, Sept. 24, 1951.]

Source Citation

“Annie Nathan Meyer.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. Biography in Context. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Annie Nathan Meyer and Her Jewish Co-Religious

ANM – 8th generation New Yorker – Nathans  to New Amsterdam in 1655
member of Daughters of the American Revolution  “with family back before the Revolution”

Dealings with Mr. Solomon Guggenheim [his father Meyer died in 1905] January 6, 1906 [copy to NMB]:

“Whatever small social restrictions the Jews of America suffer (and while often unfair, many times you and I must admit they are entirely justified) after all it is only social and curtails in no way the essential satisfactions of life.”
“The wealthy Jews of New  York do owe it to the College to support it generously.”
“At Barnard, I can honestly assure you that considering all the wiping away of prejudice must be accomplished within four years…. Certainly if prominent Hebrews give Barnard a dormitory it needs so much, it cannot help but make the feeling better, and taking all in all I think the Hebrews of America can well afford to be generous.”

Dealings with NMB 10/9/1905 – ANM complaining about her daughter’s rejection by Miss Keller School {CU faculty on its board]:

“No school need accept more than a certain proportion – no Hebrew objects to that…. The loud or coarse or those who are too German or Russian to affiliate with the students may with justice be rejected….

A common, unrefined brewer may send his boy or girl to these schools (Miss Keller; Collegiate; Hensinger School) but a cultured Hebrew with American traditions, and even if they belong to the oldest families of the country is not permitted the same liberty.”

NMB to ANM 1/08/1906 – “We are much more often charged with favoring Jews than discriminating against them.”

RMc 8/8/2017|[email protected]


1 thought on “Annie Nathan Meyer

  1. “It was the Columbia trustees’ stated opposition to coeducation, rather than her own ideological preference for separate instruction” –I think this is interesting given that we talked about Barnard’s similar feelings on the matter. While it seems that the founders of Barnard College were individuals who would have preferred coeducation, the refusal of the Columbia trustee’s made them turn to the idea of a separate institution.

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