barnard -- 3/29/21

Today's selection -- from Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King. Barnard was started by a woman, but named after a man:

"Like most universities at the time, Columbia was built for the education of young men. But in the early 1880s, the board and deans instituted a special program that allowed women to sit examina­tions for undergraduate degrees -- even though they were not permit­ted to attend lectures to prepare for them.

"One of the program's early graduates was a woman named Annie Nathan Meyer. She was a descendant of one of New York's oldest Se­phardic Jewish families, whose many-branched tree included the poet Emma Lazarus and the jurist Benjamin Cardozo. A minority within a minority, the Sephardim had roots stretching back to the Spanish­ speaking Jews expelled by Spain's Catholic monarchy in the fifteenth century. Meyer's American credentials, though, were ... impeccable. ... Her great-grandfather, Rabbi Gershom Seixas, had presided over a prominent synagogue in colonial-era New York. When he refused to pray for King George III, the British authori­ties closed it down. He later assisted at the inauguration of George Washington.

"Married to Alfred Meyer, a respected Jewish physician, Annie Nathan Meyer turned her considerable connections -- and her status as a de facto Columbia alumna -- into a movement to create a brick­-and-mortar college for women. The idea was for the college to be for­mally part of the university but safely across the street, to shield the main campus from co-eds. 'I had a shrewd theory that to put any radical scheme across, it must be done in the most conservative man­ner possible,' she recalled. Once the college opened, in 1889, Meyer became its patron saint and guiding hand. Had times been different, the college might also have been her namesake. But her canniness, if not her name, was fully on display. It was her idea to call it after Frederick A. P. Barnard, a beloved former university president. That suggestion seemed to convince Columbia's trustees that women might not ruin the institution after all. Until 1983, when the university at last dropped its men-only policy, Barnard College remained the main route into Columbia for female applicants.

"For all her progressive views on education, Meyer was an out­spoken antisuffragist. She believed in improvement first and politi­cal voice second if at all. But that was not the kind of student -- or professor -- that Barnard tended to attract. After the First World War, instruction in the social sciences -- psychology, government, applied statistics, and anthropology -- was at least as good at Barnard as at the main university and often better. Virginia Gildersleeve, Barnard's visionary and long-serving dean, placed a premium on hiring the best professors from Columbia for additional lectures west of Broadway."



Charles King


Gods of the Upper Air


Anchor Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2019 by Charles King


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