Paulina Pinsky — Barnard’s Original Women Trustees

Original Women on the Board of Trustees

 Paulina Marie Pinsky
February 23, 2015

My initial research question originated around the women on the original board of trustees. I was curious as to why they were motivated to help start a women’s college. Were they themselves educated? Or was it their lack of an education that motivated them to give other women an opportunity to pursue what they never were able to? Or, as was discussed in class, were they trying to preserve a cultural elite in Manhattan? Also, how were they selected to sit on the board of trustees, whether it was because of election, power due to marriage, or merit.

The original female trustees are Augusta Arnold, Helen Dawes Brown, Virginia Brownwell, Caroline Choate Sterling, Annie Nathan Meyer, Laura Rockefeller, Clara C. Stranahan, Henrietta E. Talcott, Ella Weed, Alice Williams, and Francis Wood.

First I laid out all of their addresses, years on the board, maiden names, and if they were college educated. Adele Bernhard and I were both interested in the original board members, her focus was more on the social activities and social clubs that they belonged to, so we both went to the archive to research further.


Augusta Arnold: In the archives, I could not find anything on Augusta Arnold. Her maiden name is Foote, and she was on the board for 11 years (from 1889 to 1900). She lived at 101 W. 78 Street, which according the map that Gina made that we saw in class last week, is where most of the original trustees resided. Her husband, Francis Arnold, was not in the social directory. So it can be assumed that her involvement in the board had to do with the fact that she was involved in her neighborhood. She is cited as helping Helen Dawes Brown in decorating Barnard (which I will mention again below)


Helen Dawes Brown: Helen Dawes Brown was on the board for 17 years, from 1889 to 1906. She lived on 11 Street and University Place, which is farther downtown than most of the trustees. Brown was one of the few female college graduates on the original board members, graduating from Vassar in 1873. I was able to find a college news letter that quoted Brown in  1898:

“Miss Helen Dawes Brown of ’78, spoke about our nearest neighbor, Barnard. ‘Certainly nothing could be pleasanter,’ she said, ‘than to associate the two sister colleges upon the Hudson. Barnard has called not less than four of its trustees from Vassar. Two of these were members of ’73. Miss Ella Weed did most valuable service in systematizing and organizing the work of the first years, and her memory is cherished by alumnae and all connected with the college. For nine years of committee meetings, I have heard the example of Vassar quoted, studied and applied. The days of jealous comparisons are past. They belong to an earlier, lower stage of our development. Some one told Goethe that the Germans disputed whether he or his contemporary, Schiller, were the greater poet. His reply was, ‘They ought to be thankful that they have two such fellows to dispute about.’ Let us be thankful for what we have to dispute about.’ Miss Brown went on to give a brief biography of Barnard College and to show how man advantages— in New England parlance— accrue from its situation in a large city, from its free access to President Low’s library of two hundred and forty-five thousand volumes, and from the graduate course at Barnard.”


This chunk of the article, illustrates how desperately they were trying to place Barnard on the same caliber as Vassar, a well established and respected women’s college. I also can’t help but feel that this is Miss Brown writing to show that she has accomplished something with her degree, in a work of philanthropy and in the pursuit of preserving education. But still, she is showing how important and practical her education was to her, even quoting Goethe to prove her pedigree, and it seems as though she is trying to recreate her Vassar experience for the women in Manhattan. It all seems ostentatious. Also, it is funny that they got her graduation date wrong, I am sure this didn’t sit well with Brown.

The best part of the article is this quote, which helps answer my initial question: “‘Many of us,’ continued Miss Brown, ‘are working for no degree save the final ‘well done.’ For such, power lies in keen intellectual interests. The woman who has these has the best preservative of youth. Intellectual interests react on the family. I sometimes wonder which would make more for the intellectual life of a girl, to go to college, or to see her mother read. Lastly, we owe it to our college, never to let slip the ideals of the intellectual life which she has  raised before us.” Brown’s intent is to preserve intellectual integrity, in order stimulate intellectual curiosity in the family. So although it is in the support of educating women, it ultimately is the support of educating women so that the family can be better preserved.

In the archive, I found a personal note from Brown to Virginia Gildersleeve, where she writes to inform her that she cannot go to the fifty year anniversary celebration. She states, “My connection with Barnard in its earliest days is one of the happiest memories of my New York life.” She goes on to reminisce about “ when Mrs. Arnold and I went house-hunting,” and so on. Barnard was clearly an institution that she felt very passionately about.


Virginia Brownell: She was on the board for 17 years, from 1889 to 1906. Her maiden name was Swinburne, and she lived at 205 W 56th Street. Again, there was not much information on her.


Caroline Choate Sterling: She was on the board for for 41 years, from 1889 to 1930. Her maiden name was Dutcher, and she was a painter. She was married to New York lawyer and Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Joseph H. Choate, and they lived at 50 W 47th. She was born in Connecticut and grew up in Cleveland, but then moved to New York City in the late 1850’s to study art (  She was introduced to her husband by a mutual friend, and she had to be convinced to give up her career as an artist when she married him, since she was equally as dedicated to her art as Sterling was dedicated to law (according to him). She was able to keep her interest in art, by insisting that her children had art lessons during their summers at Naumkeag, which is where their summer home resided (which is a summer destination that Adele found a document about).

Choate was publicly a public advocate for women’s education. In 1882, she helped create the Association for Promoting the Higher Education for Women. In 1883, she was one of the people who petitioned Columbia in order to admit women. During that first attempt, the board of trustees at Columbia declined the petition, but they did allow women to the “Collegiate Course.” This allowed women to take columbia exams, but they were not allowed to attend Columbia classes. She carried on, and was eventually named vice-chairman of Barnard’s board, which she served as until her death. Choate was also involved in the founding of Brearly School in 1884.  The first class consisted of Choate’s two daughters, Josephine and Mabel, and two of her nieces. As is evident, education mattered to her. I think that it is easy to assume that she helped create these spaces for women to be educated because she was trained in art, which is a form of education. It can also be assumed that she was motivated to be involved because she wanted a place for her children and nieces to be educated— not only for college, but for high school as well.

I was interested to see where Mabel and Josephine went to college, and all I could find is that Mabel became very invested in Naumkaeg (, and I could not find anything for Josephine. Clearly, the creation of Barnard did not keep the Choate girls close to home.


Annie Nathan Meyer: Meyer served on the board for 62 years, from 1889 to 1951. She was the one of the few Jewish members on the Board. She lived at 749 Madison, as she was prominent figure in New York’s elite.

The Meyer’s were one of the colonial-era Sephardic families. She was self-educated, since her mother chose to withhold her from the public. She tutored herself in order to enroll in Columbia’s Collegiate Course for Women in 1885. She soon married prominent physician Alfred Meyer, and within weeks she was organizing a committee to fund a women’s college at Columbia, which is a privilege that she had not enjoyed herself. She wrote an essay to the Nation in 1888, arguing that New York City lacked culture when compared to other major cities, because there were no liberal arts colleges for women. She created a committee with fifty New Yorkers, and out maneuvered the opposition of the Columbia board by suggesting to name the new college after the recently deceased president, F. A. P Barnard. Meyer’s considered herself one of the, if not the, founder’s of Barnard, along with Ella Weed.

Of course, the Barnard archives are full of information about Annie Nathan Meyer. I found a newspaper clipping that cites Dr. Alfred Meyer as the “only living man ever to study at Barnard College,” who of course, is Annie Nathan Meyer’s husband. After graduating from Columbia in 1874, he studied botany under Dr. Emily Gregory at Barnard. This information is not pertinent to the original board of trustees, but I found it to be a fun fact.

There was another newspaper clipping that cited Meyers explaining how it was commonly believed that boys needed high backed chairs while girls did not, because boys would be more prone to cheating at school. Meyer’s makes it clear that “a girl is expected to cheat as much, or as little, as a boy. ‘And… I’m am glad of it.’” The article goes on to explain that this “indicates the changed viewpoint towards women. The situation today is one of ‘normality’ as opposed to the self consciousness of former years. It continues to discuss the idea that liberalness is shifting, because before “Girls who went to college were considered, even by ‘liberals,’ to be those who were ugly and fated to remain unmarried, or those who needed to earn  living.” This clip helps contextualize how radical educating women was. But in the same vein, another newspaper article ties her to the domestic sphere and to the duties of a good wife.

In another article clipping, Meyer is quoted defending her immigrant students. “Is it not time that America wakes up to its indebtedness to its foreign born?… When will the average American become sufficiently educated correctly to appraise the culture, the integrity and, finally, the patriotism of those who are often Americans by personal choice, not, as some, merely by accident of birth, about which they obviously had nothing to say?” It is commendable that she is defending this constituency, but at the same time she is advocating for their education so that they can officially assimilate. It’s well intended, and perhaps a strong political move in order to preserve Barnard’s reputation, but it definitely has an elitist air to it. She finishes the piece by stating that she was “a member of a family that has lived in America for eight generations and which is proud of descending from fighters in the American Revolution, and particularly from one who assisted in the inauguration of our first President.” In this final section, she is identifying with the immigrant population, while simultaneously asserting her “Americanness” and cultural power among New York. It’s a convenient sort of identification, rather than a genuine understanding. But then again, it’s a way to remind her readers that she, a well educated woman who is among New York’s elite, is jewish and once descended from Jewish immigrants.


Laura Rockefeller: Rockefeller was on the board for one year, from 1889 to 1890. Her maiden name is Spelman, and she was Baptist. She lived at 4 W 54th street, so again, she lived among many of the other board members. Rockefeller was likely one of the wealthiest, as her husband was Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller. She was an American abolitionist, philanthropist, schoolteacher, and education advocate. Superman College was named after her, so it makes sense that she would help fund a women’s institution within the city she lived.


Clara C.Stranahan: Stranahan was on the board for 16 years, from 1889 to 1905. Her maiden name was Harrison, and she lived at 169 Union, in Brooklyn. She lived the farthest away from everyone else on the board. In her obituary, ( ) it states that she she “long identified with higher education for women in this country.”  She was well known in Brooklyn for her work with the private women’s seminary before her marriage. She had a “historic rank in the social life of Brooklyn” (, so it can be assumed that she helped spread the word about Barnard in Brooklyn. She also authored, “A History of French Painting,” which is a testament to the fact that she is well educated.

It can be assumed that she was involved in the Barnard experiment because she was prominent in the community of Brooklyn as an advocate for women’s private education. Also, her husband had a hand in a lot of the city’s planning and vision for the future of the city. Even though he was the the President of the Union Ferry Company, he helped fund and organize the building of the Brooklyn bridge. The Union Ferry Co. was not only a good source of revenue, but created connections within the city. Both Mr. and Mrs. Stranahan had a vision for bettering the city, even though they were farthest from Manhattan than the rest of the trustees on Barnard’s board.


After Stranahan, the information I could find on the remain trustees was sparse.


Henrietta E.Talcott: Talcott was on the board for 33 years, from 1889 to 1922. Her maiden name was Francis. She was likely one of the wealthiest, and she was one of the board members with strong religious commitment to Judaism.



Ella Weed: Weed was on the board for 4 years, 1889 to 1893. She lived on 45 E 60th Street, and she was 1873 from Vassar, with Dawes Brown.


Alice Williams: Williams was on board for 7 years, from 1889 to 1896. She lived on 106 E 38th street, and she graduated form U Michigan. It can be assumed that since she herself was educated at a school that wasn’t typical for New York’s elite (Vassar, Bryn Mawr, etc), that she was a part of this board because she understood the value of education, rather than for preservation of a cultural elite. But then again, she did live in midtown, meaning that she had considerable wealth.


Frances Wood: Wood was on the board for 6 years, from 1889 to 1895. Her maiden name was Fisher. She lived on 22 E 41st street. She was married to Dr. William Benjamin Wood, and she had a son, Eric Fisher Wood. Her husband was a member of the University Club, the Lotus Club, the Williams Club of New York and the Society of Colonial Wars.  She had graduated from Vassar College, and she had founded the Hathaway Brown School for Girls in Cleveland before she sat on Barnard’s board ( She was a woman who understood the importance of education, like Stranahan and Williams.


Silas B. Brownwell: Although he is obviously not a female trustee, I found his family history to be the most fascinating thing I found in the archives. He was a graduate from Union College and a prominent lawyer. Although he was understood to be“conservative,” he was seen as “liberal” about education because he was such a strong advocate for the education of women; he was seen as “progressive, if not liberal.” Brownwell had five daughters, Louise, Sylvia, Matilda, Eleanor, and Grace. He wanted an “education of learning, or at least of training” for all of them.

Louise was very clearly the favorite, just from her description it is evident: “she was brilliant, a natural student, capable of very hard work, highly sociable, witty and lovable. A very strong determined personality with a good deal of fortitude.” Louise went on to be the “Warden of Sage College, the women’s part of Cornell.” It is clear that Louise continued in her father’s footsteps, in terms of her dedication to the education of women.

Even though Silas helped establish Barnard, none of his daughters went there— they all went to Bryn Mawr. Louise was in it’s fifth class in 1893, and all of her younger sisters followed the precedent set by their eldest sister (Even all of their grandchildren went to Bryn Mawr).

Matilda was a painter, but she was highly successful in her field. She was described as a “painter’s painter,” and she spent time abroad pursuing her art.

Eleanor had religious “tendencies,” so after graduating Bryn Mawr in 1897, she joined the Y.W.C.A for a few years. There she met Alice Howland, who she had a long partnership with. I found this daughter to be the most fascinating, because she clearly was living the most unconventionally. Together, Alice and Eleanor ran the Shipley school, after Silas helped them purchase it.  In 1923, they adopted two baby girls “when they saw that they would probably be very well-to-do, and their nieces and nephews were all provided for.” Together, the two raised two children. I find that to be so progressive for the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. And especially since her father supported her of her and Alice in buying and running Shipley. I am assuming that they were in support of Alice’s lifestyle since they were willing to fund her pursuits, but that is only a guess. Perhaps I am prescribing more meaning on the relationship by assuming that they had a romantic relationship. But conversely, perhaps everyone was in denial about the fact that they were more than likely more than just friends.

Grace was in the class of 1907 at Bryn Mawr, and loved it. She also admired her eldest sister Louise, who was 14 years older.


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