// essays //
Making it Through the Gates: Jewish Influence and Exclusion During Barnard’s Founding
The year was 1887, and Annie Nathan Meyer was unsatisfied: after several months of partaking in Columbia University’s Collegiate Course for Women, Meyer was finishing a term that required only syllabi and final exams. Throughout her semester, not once was she granted permission to enter a lecture hall.
Since the founding of the collegiate course four years prior, in 1883, approximately thirty women had applied for admission. The small number of applicants was due not to lack of interest, but to the fact that the program offered no serious academic instruction. Meyer and a group of friends, who together formed the “Certain Committee of Friends of the Higher Education of Women,” turned to the University trustees for permission to establish a Columbia women’s college that was entirely self-sustainable. In 1888, Meyer looked for support outside Columbia, publishing a 2,500-word essay in The Nation asserting that New York City was culturally incomplete because it lacked a liberal arts college for women. Two years following Meyer’s first efforts, the doors of Barnard College opened to the public.
Founded in 1889 in NYC, Barnard represented an early twentieth century stronghold of modernity in NYC. Barnard’s story includes many instances of bravery, both by those who were allowed to receive credit for their actions and those who were not, which in this narrative are the Jews who were involved in the grassroots project. The stories of Jewish influence and exclusion at Barnard’s beginning recount two simultaneous greater stories: the early twentieth century experience of New York Jews in academic institutions, and the construction of a grassroots women’s college.
The question of who founded Barnard has several answers, depending on whom you ask. There was Ella Weed, the chairman of the academic committee, Virginia Gildersleeve, an early Barnard dean, and Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia University when Barnard was founded. But it was Annie Nathan Meyer, a Jewish woman from New York, who is the unsung hero of Barnard’s beginning.
Lifelong activist and pioneer of Barnard College, Annie Nathan Meyer is hardly a ubiquitous name around campus today. In fact, most people erroneously believe that Frederick A.P. Barnard, University president from 1864 until his death in 1889, was the person to spearhead the creation of the institution. President Barnard was, in fact, an early supporter of women’s education, writing his first report to the trustees in 1879 arguing for women to be educated alongside the men of Columbia College. In President Barnard’s eyes, the creation of two single-sex institutions would be an unfortunate compromise. However, when Annie Nathan Meyer began her fight for an independent women’s college alongside Columbia, Barnard himself was old and infirm, and at the time of Barnard’s opening, President Barnard was already deceased. His wife continued to protest the establishment of a separate women’s college even after her husband’s death, but eventually stopped “because she could not well fight a College named in her late husband’s honor,” as Meyer recounted in a letter in 1915. Despite the ideological discrepancies, Meyer proceeded to name the college after Barnard because she perceived the benefit of branding the institution with a recognizable name of an advocate for women’s education. Meyer herself wasn’t as wealthy as some of Barnard’s first donors, but her husband, Dr. Alfred Meyer, a Columbia graduate, was the first contributor to Barnard’s endowment.
Immediately after its founding, Barnard’s affiliation with Columbia University and its location in New York City attracted the applications of the daughters of wealthy German Jewish businessmen, as well as middle-class Jewish women of Eastern European descent. Although the different groups of Jewish women were distinguished based on their familial descent and socioeconomic backgrounds, they remained united in subverting the WASP mold that many early supporters of the college had in mind for the student body. As N.W. Ligget, Barnard’s first registrar, wrote in a 1906 letter to George Alfred Plimpton, a prominent Barnard trustee, the large population of Jews at Barnard would be acceptable only “if we had plenty of the children of the well-to-do New York families also, for the affiliations would do much to neutralize race limitations.”
Enter Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, an essential participant in Barnard’s formative years both as a women’s college and a racially conscious institution. A graduate of Barnard’s class of 1899 when the college was still located in a brownstone on 343 Madison Avenue, Gildersleeve graduated with top honors in history and went on to pursue a PhD in English literature at Columbia. After teaching at Barnard for several years, and after the college experienced a succession of unsuccessful dean appointments, Gildersleeve was appointed to the position in 1911. She served as dean of Barnard for the next thirty-six years.
In many ways, Gildersleeve was incredibly progressive in her policies and politics. She served as a forerunner in the fight for women’s education, won the battle to open graduate faculties for women in Architecture, Journalism, and Music, paid out-of-pocket for the tuition of African American students, and became the only woman on the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization. But she was not uniformly progressive in all of her politics, as is evident in her attitude towards the admission of Jewish students to Barnard. Gildersleeve believed that Jewish women had an “intense ambition” for education, which led to a disproportionate number of qualified Jewish applicants to Barnard, and that they diluted the otherwise high-society status of Barnard students. To help rectify this Jewish problem, Gildersleeve began to assess applicants based on “personality,” as opposed to exclusively academic standards.
In the early 1920’s, Barnard experienced a surge of Jewish applicants of Eastern European decent, who were also from more modest socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of Barnard’s relatively inexpensive tuition in comparison to other women’s colleges, the school began attracting a wider socioeconomic base of applications. New York state grants and a generous donation from Joseph Pulitzer helped pay the way of thirty-nine students, keeping Barnard tuition at a low cost of approximately $150, in comparison to Mount Holyoke tuition, which cost $425. (One hundred years later, Barnard tuition has multiplied by 400.)
Jewish students from all backgrounds, however, faced certain problems with anti-Semitism, and there is evidence that Gildersleeve was not wholly dismissive of their plight. By 1912, eight sororities were established on Barnard’s campus, none of which Jewish students were allowed to join. Freda Kirschwey, a Jewish woman from the class of 1915 who later went on to become editor of The Nation, was the first to speak out about this problem. In an editorial published in the Barnard Bear, she wrote, “Without secrecy and petty regulations, without exaggerated loyalty and artificial bonds, without social distinctions and the snobbery that inevitably accompanies them, without a certain unavoidable amount of politics … no fraternity can exist.” Gildersleeve was responsive to this complaint, and established a committee to examine the membership rules of Barnard’s sororities. The committee decided that no new members would be allowed to join Greek organizations, effectively dissolving these institutions over the course of three years.
Gildersleeve believed that Jews are to be classified as a race, which rationalized her belief that there was a particular Jewish behavior from which individuals would generally not deviate. She believed Jewish women exhibited substantially different behavior than their gentile counterparts, and that they would dilute the pool of proper Barnard students with their unfavorable backgrounds and unrelenting ambition. At the turn of the 20thcentury, Gildersleeve initiated an expansion of the geographic diversity of Barnard’s student body: a scheme to increase the WASP population and decrease the Jewish population on campus. Throughout her career, Gildersleeve made strides to connect Barnard with the other women’s colleges with elite student bodies; in fact, she founded the Seven Sisters conference in 1926 for the purpose of allying Barnard with socially elite institutions, or “country schools,” such as Vassar and Smith.
The most prominent example of Gildersleeve’s clear anti-Semitism is still evident on campus today: Hewitt Hall. Brooks Hall had existed since 1907, but it only accommodated around 200 students and was always filled to capacity. If Barnard was to attract non-Jewish students from around the country, a new dormitory was urgently needed—which is precisely why Hewitt Hall was constructed. The dormitory was completed by 1925, and allowed for one-third of the student population to live on campus. Although Hewitt was built in an effort to “diversify” the student body, it also completely changed the nature of the Barnard student experience. The increased number of students who were able to live on campus enhanced the quality of college life, since on-campus housing reduced commutes and allowed for a more immersive college experience.
The story of architecture and its connection to anti-Semitism at Barnard does not end with Hewitt Hall. The construction of Barnard’s most prominent building, Barnard Hall, also has deeply contentious roots. In the 1910’s, Barnard’s trustees decided a new facility was needed on campus. The trustees concluded that the new building would serve “all the social sides of the student life and also the care of the physical health.” It was to host academic facilities such as a library and classrooms, athletic facilities such as a gym and a pool, a dining hall, and spaces for student meetings. The initial challenge, of course, was finding a donor.
That donor was to be Jacob Schiff, a successful businessman and prominent member of New York City’s German Jewish elite. Schiff was a prolific philanthropist who helped causes Jewish and non-Jewish, as specific as Russian pogrom victims and as broad as the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, and the Harvard Semitic Museum. In order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his moving from New York from his birthplace Frankfurt, Schiff donated $500,000 for the proposed new building. In a 1915 letter to Plimpton promising his donation, he wrote, “The building is to serve as a centre for the social and ethical activities of the entire female student body … It must be once forever understood that there shall at no time be any preferment in favor of the religious and ethical activities of any class of the students.” Schiff’s explicit agenda of religious tolerance for the Jewish students at Barnard caused suspicion amongst anti-Semitic trustees. In another 1915 letter to Plimpton, Chairman of the Barnard board of trustees Silas Brownell wrote, “the donor’s well known general intent and purpose to promote and exploit the equal opportunities of the Jewish race … This will require very careful handling of the action and expression of Barnard’s Trustees in receiving the cost of the building.” Despite this skepticism, Barnard accepted Schiff’s donation.
The new building was constructed between 1916-1917. Schiff selected prominent New York architect Arnold Brunner, a Jewish man who also designed the first home of the Jewish Theological Seminary (which Schiff also sponsored) and several prominent synagogues around New York City. Following the construction, the building was referred to as Students’ Hall until 1925 when the trustees instated a new policy that “Buildings hereafter erected on the grounds of the College shall be designated by the name of a person connected with the history of the Nation, State, City, or University, or by words descriptive of the use or purpose of that building.” One year later, in 1926, the new building was named Barnard Hall—a decision against the will of the donor and his family, who wanted the building to be named Schiff Hall. The trustees argued that naming the building Barnard Hall was a necessity, claiming that Barnard was a difficult place to locate and that the huge inscription on the building would be a clear indication of the college’s whereabouts. But Annie Nathan Meyer knew better: the administrators didn’t want the most prominent building on campus to display a Jewish surname.
The only remaining testament on campus to the contributions of Jacob Schiff is a circular plaque on the floor of Barnard Hall that reads: “This building is the gift of Jacob H. Schiff to Barnard College to promote the welfare of women students of Columbia University, 1917.” For years afterwards, the building was colloquially known among students as “the Jake,” but by today the name has been completely forgotten.
The Barnard that was being formed one hundred years ago is the same Barnard that exists today. But remembering what was is not always that easy, because sometimes traces are not left over from the past. There is no obvious reminder on campus of the innumerable contributions of Annie Nathan Meyer to the formation of Barnard. At the time, administrators feared the consequences of having a Jewish woman be the face of the college. Now, her name has already been forgotten. One hundred years ago, Barnard’s identity may have felt more malleable than it seems to be today. But Barnard’s formation is not yet complete, and many of the anecdotes recounted in this essay are being revisited. Barnard Hall—or as its donor would have preferred, Schiff Hall—was constructed from 1915-1916. The college is currently in the process of raising funds for its new library, to be constructed from 2015-2016. Both of these buildings began with generic names and presumably waited for a donor: in the early 20th century Students’ Hall was dubbed Barnard Hall, and it can only be imagined that the Teaching and Learning Center, the proposed name for Barnard’s new library, will prominently display another family name, perhaps even a Jewish one. At the turn of the 20th century, Barnard was deciding to become a national institution; at the turn of the 21th century, Barnard is deciding to become an international institution. All of these decisions presented, and continue to present, challenges of diversity and tolerance. The Barnard of then and the Barnard of now may feel like two different institutions, but that is far from the truth. Barnard is young, and we are all part of its history in the making.
Special note from the author:
I am immensely thankful for the Barnard Archives librarians, Shannon O’Neill and Martha Tenney. My visits to the archives were some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in the entirety of my time at Barnard. When I entered the archives, I had no desire to look at my cellphone or check my email; I was transported into a world where none of that existed yet life was vibrant and rich and real. During my first visit, I turned the delicate pages of a scrapbook meticulously constructed by a Jewish Barnard student in 1910, and came upon a real dried flower she had carefully placed there, eventually to be found by another Jewish Barnard student over one hundred years later. Writing this piece has made me understand in a material way what it means to be connected with the past. And for this, I could not be more grateful.
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Photo courtesy of Barnard College Archives.
\\ RIKKI NOVETSKY is a junior at Barnard College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.