1867: Founder of Barnard College, and So Much More, Is Born

Annie Meyer had no schoolin' but had read all of Dickens by age 7. It was an auspicious start.

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Barnard College, N.Y.
Barnard College, N.Y.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

February 19, 1867, is the birthdate of Annie Nathan Meyer, a writer, philanthropist and woman of so much action that summing up her life concisely is a daunting challenge.

Her greatest distinction is having been the founder, in 1889, of Barnard College in New York, which remains today a women’s school and one of America’s finest colleges.

Annie Nathan was the fourth child of Robert Weeks Nathan, a descendant of Gershom Mendes Seixas, Revolutionary-era patriarch of one of America’s oldest Sephardi families, and the former Annie Augusta Florance. Born in New York, she moved with her family to Green Bay, Wisconsin after her father’s business failed during the crash of 1873.

During the few years the family spent in the Midwest, her parents divorced and Annie’s mother died, at age 36.

Annie did not attend school, and was largely self-educated: She bragged of having read all of Dickens’ works by age 7. When, in 1885, she announced that she wanted to participate in a correspondence course for women offered at New York's Columbia University, her father objected, telling her men didn’t like intelligent women, and she would be unmarriageable.

In fact, two years later, she married Dr. Alfred Meyer, a second cousin she had met at a piano-playing club. She and Meyer, a pulmonologist specializing in tuberculosis, were together until his death, at age 96, in 1950. Alfred was of German-Jewish background and nonobservant; after their marriage, Annie left the Sephardi Shearith Israel synagogue and began attending the Ethical Culture Society.

The couple had one daughter, Margaret, who died mysteriously in 1923 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In 1888, Nathan Meyer decided that Columbia University needed a full-fledged women’s college. Opening her campaign with a long essay in The Nation magazine, she had, within a year, convinced a reluctant board of trustees, and raised enough money from friends, to open Barnard College. (The school is named for a late president of Columbia, F.A.P. Barnard, an advocate of women’s education.)

A woman of many causes

When Annie Nathan Meyer had a cause, she would write about it – in novels, stories and nonfiction books, plays, newspaper articles, and many, many letters to the editor. Her causes included support of Barnard, on whose board she served until 1950, the year before her death; African-American rights, opposition to anti-Semitism; and the fight against women’s suffrage.

It has been suggested that the latter conviction was related to Annie’s jealousy of her sister Maud Nathan, a leading suffragette. Annie herself was not necessarily against women having the vote – when the 19th Amendment passed, she joined the League of Women Voters – but she objected to the naïve claim of suffragists that women’s participation in political life would cure society of all its ills.

Nathan Meyer wrote two novels and 20 plays, three of which were produced on Broadway. One of them, “Black Souls” (1932), dealt with lynchings and other aspects of racism in the South. Nathan Meyer is remembered, too, for her friendship and support of Zora Neale Hurston, the black novelist, for whom she helped secure a scholarship to study at Barnard, as well as for revoking her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution for its support of segregation.

She died on September 23, 1951, at the age of 84, three days before the publication of her autobiography, “It’s Been Fun.”

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