Meyer, Agnes (1887–1970)

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Meyer, Agnes (1887–1970)

American writer, social reformer, and newspaper publisher. Name variations: Agnes Elizabeth Ernst Meyer; Agnes Ernst Meyer. Born Agnes Elizabeth Ernst on January 2, 1887, in New York, New York; died of cancer on September 1, 1970, in Mt. Kisco, New York; daughter of Frederic H. Ernst and Lucy (Schmidt) Ernst; Barnard College, B.A., 1907; attended the Sorbonne (Universite de Paris), c. 1908–09; attended Columbia University, 1911–12; married Eugene Meyer (a financier, presidential adviser, and later newspaper publisher), on February 12, 1910; children:Florence Meyer Homolka ; Elizabeth Meyer Lorentz ; Katharine Graham; Ruth Meyer ; Eugene Meyer III.

Hired as a reporter (1907); lived in Paris (1909); became involved in charity work (1912); was a delegate to Republican National Convention (1924); husband purchased Washington Post (1933); became part-owner of the paper (1935); traveled to wartime England as a reporter for the Post (1942); began agitating for creation of cabinet department for social services (1944); federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare created (1953); widowed (1959).

Selected writings:

Chinese Painting as Reflected in the Thought and Art of Li-Lung-Mien, 1070–1106 (1923); Journey Through Chaos (1944); Education for a New Morality; Out of These Roots (autobiography, 1953).

Although Agnes Meyer achieved prominence and power through the traditional ways for women of her era—inheritance and marriage—the manner in which she wielded that influence marked her as an iconoclast. Her involvement in the family business, the Washington Post, helped make it one of the most influential newspapers in the nation; moreover, the determination and will she passed on to her daughter, Katharine Graham , made both the Post and Graham herself, as its publisher, a significant force in Washington and the nation's politics.

Meyer was born Agnes Elizabeth Ernst in 1887 into a wealthy New York German family, and grew up in both Manhattan and Pelham, New York. Her father was an attorney who for much of her young life encouraged her to pursue her intellectual interests, but opposed her when she expressed a desire to earn a college degree. Meyer was thus forced to pay her own way

though Barnard College in New York City, and though she found the school stultifying in structure and intellectual atmosphere, she graduated with a B.A. in 1907. She was later named a trustee of Barnard and actively worked to rectify some of the more mediocre aspects of the women's college. After graduation, Meyer obtained a job as the first woman reporter for the New York Sun, but quit the following year to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. There she came to know many prominent expatriate and European figures of the era, including photographer Edward Steichen, writer Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo Stein, and sculptor Auguste Rodin. She and German emigré writer Thomas Mann enjoyed a lifelong friendship as well. Meyer's research while in France as a fledgling art scholar would eventually result in her first book, Chinese Painting as Reflected in the Thought and Art of Li-Lung-Mien, 1070–1106, published in 1923.

Meyer returned home and married financier Eugene Meyer in February 1910. For a time, she took classes at Columbia University, but quit with the birth of her first child in 1911. She became involved in charity work, helping to establish maternity centers for New York City's disadvantaged along with a group of similarly well-heeled and reform-minded women. In time, her growing family—she and Eugene would become parents to five children in all—relocated to Seven Springs Farm, located in the Westchester County village of Mount Kisco. Meyer was active in the county's recreation commission from 1923 to 1941, but she and her husband were also ardent Republicans and soon entered a larger social arena. In 1924, Meyer served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. After the 1932 election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House, Meyer wrote articles critical of his planned "New Deal" projects, especially the massive Works Progress (later Works Projects) Administration that was designed to provide jobs for the millions unemployed due to the Depression.

Meyer's financier husband had been active in several presidential administrations in varying capacities. In 1933, at the "suggestion" of Roosevelt, he retired from his post as chair of the Board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and then bought a minor D.C. newspaper, the Washington Post. He named his wife vice-president, and she became part-owner in 1935. Over the next 15 years, the Meyers vastly improved the newspaper's focus and fortunes, quadrupling its circulation by 1949. Meyer played an active role in the paper's editorial content and wrote numerous features and series herself: in 1942, for instance, she traveled to wartime England and sent back stories about how the civilian population was coping with food shortages, evacuations, and the Blitzkrieg. Beginning in 1943, Meyer traversed the wartime United States and wrote a series of articles for the Post about the shocking conditions in war plants, where workers and families were housed in sometimes abominable conditions. The reportage caused such an outcry that the Pentagon took steps to rectify the situation. The accounts were all reprinted in pamphlet form in 1943 as America's Home Front, and the following year in a book titled Journey Through Chaos.

After the war, Meyer was active in promoting veterans' issues, and was also a champion of desegregation. In 1945, she organized the Woman's Foundation, an all-purpose social service organization, and though she had been anything but a stay-at-home mother herself—she had often traveled to Europe alone, and had left her children in the care of hired help for much of their early lives—Meyer decried the social ills which she believed stemmed from the "average" American woman's neglect of her duties of motherhood. She also actively solicited the federal government to create a cabinet post for "health, education, and security"; Meyer's dream was to have small neighborhood community centers as the locus point from which citizens could learn about health issues, improve their minds, and receive forms of government-funded assistance. After several years of Congressional debate, Meyer finally saw her idea take form with the 1953 creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Meyer continued to play a role in the Washington Post throughout much of her life, but also wrote for numerous other publications, including Collier's, The New York Times Book Review, and the Atlantic Monthly. Eugene Meyer died in 1959, having in 1946 made daughter Katharine Graham's husband, Philip Graham, his successor as publisher. When Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963, Katharine Graham stepped into the job she would hold until her retirement in 1991. Agnes Meyer died in 1970.


Current Biography 1949. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1949.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Meyer, Agnes (1887–1970)

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