Meyer, Annie Nathan
MEYER, Annie Nathan
Daughter of Robert Weeks and Annie Florance Nathan; married Alfred Meyer, 1887
Born in New York City, the youngest of four children, Annie Nathan Meyer proudly claimed her heritage in a prominent Jewish family that dated to the revolutionary era. After the 1875 stock-market crash, her family moved to the Midwest, where Meyer lived until just before her mother's death in 1878, when the three youngest children were sent to New York to live with Meyer's grandfather. Later Meyer lived with her father until her marriage; she spent the rest of her life in New York City.
In 1885 she secretly studied for and passed the entrance examinations for Columbia University's collegiate course for women. At that time women were not allowed to attend Columbia's classes but could be admitted to the collegiate course for women and allowed to study independently for the same examinations taken by men. When her father learned of her activities, he warned, "You'll never marry" because "men hate intelligent wives." Undaunted by his criticism, she decided "to forego all chances of winning a husband." This potential sacrifice, described in her autobiography, It's Been Fun (1951), and in her account of the founding of Barnard College, Barnard Beginnings (1935), proved unnecessary. She described her husband, Dr. Meyer, as sympathetic to her literary ambitions.
Although Meyer felt continuation of the Columbia course no longer necessary for her literary ambitions, she did begin campaigning for a women's college affiliate of Columbia that would allow women the full advantages of a collegiate education comparable to that available to Columbia's male students. As an incorporator and trustee of Barnard College, Meyer continued throughout her life to support the college she had helped found in 1889.
Meyer also pursued her own literary career, writing novels, plays, and short stories; articles on education, art, and feminism; and frequent letters to the editors of various publications. Her stories and articles appeared in such periodicals as Bookman, Critic, Harper's Bazaar, North American Review, Putnam's, and Century.
Many of Meyer's works deal with the special problems resulting from women's search for new roles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After expressing her concern for the improvement of education for women in the late 1880s, she turned to the special problems of the women who entered the professions in Woman's Work in America (1891), a collection of essays by prominent women, such as Mary Putnam Jacobi, Frances Willard, and Clara Barton.
In 1892 Meyer anonymously published Helen Brent, M.D., a novel about the special problems of a woman doctor. The heroine refuses to surrender her career to marriage and insists that she has as much right to ask a man to give up his ambition as he does to demand such a sacrifice from her. Until she can find a man willing to accept a wife who will continue her career, she will forgo marriage. Of all of Meyer's works, this one stirred the most controversy among reviewers.
Several of Meyer's plays also addressed complexities faced by the new woman. Meyer did not, however, maintain any consistent prowoman philosophy. In The Dominant Sex (1911), she satirizes the club woman who ignores her own child while she campaigns for child-protection legislation. This play also satirizes the tendency of some women to assume that they are the superior sex. Eventually chastened by the knowledge that her husband represents the dominant sex, the club woman gives up her club work and returns to her proper role at home.
The Dominant Sex dramatizes the strong antisuffrage views Meyer presented in "Woman's Assumption of Sex Superiority" (North American Review, Jan. 1904), which rejects both the ideas that women could combine marriage and career and that women represent a morally superior group. Although Meyer claimed in her autobiography that Helen Brent, M.D. and The Advertising of Kate—a play about the "delicate adjustment of the claims of sex to the work of the business woman," written in 1914 and produced on Broadway in 1922—were ahead of their times, other works seem very dated in their opposition to the new woman.
Among her approximately twenty-six plays, several addressed other social issues. In The New Way, a comedy directed by Jessie Bonstelle at the Longacre Theatre in New York in 1923, Meyer treated humorously the complexities of marriage and divorce. Her more serious Black Souls (1932), directed by James Light in 1932 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York and including members of Zora Neale Hurston's choral group, dealt with the horrors of the lynching of blacks and the hypocrisy of white attitudes toward blacks.
In addition to numerous published works, Meyer's unpublished manuscripts and correspondence reveal both her wide-ranging social interests and her occasionally contradictory convictions about the issues of her day.
My Park Book (1898). Robert Annys, Poor Priest (1901). The Dreamer: A Play in Three Acts (1912). P's and Q's: A Play in One Act (1921). The New Way: A Comedy in Three Acts (1925).
The papers of Annie Nathan Meyer are at the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Askowith, D., Three Outstanding Women: Mary Fels, Rebekah Kohut, and Annie Nathan Meyer (1941).
AW. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States.
Harper's Bazaar (4 June 1892). NY (23 Oct. 1943, 30 Oct. 1943). NYT (2 April 1911, 9 May 1922, 31 March 1932, 24 Sept. 1951, 25 Sept. 1951).
—JEAN CARWILE MASTELLER