Feb. 19, 1867 -- Sept. 23, 1951
Meyer, 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 viewsand 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 19o4 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 feministbut 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.
[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 (18gi); Helen Brent, M.D. (1892); Robert Annys: Poor Priest (1901); The Dominant Sex (19 11); 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, 1951.1
ROBERT A. MCCAUGHEY