Meyer, Annie Nathan (1867–1951)

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Meyer, Annie Nathan (1867–1951)

American author and a founder of Barnard College. Name variations: Annie Nathan; Annie Florance Nathan. Born Anne Nathan in New York City on February 19, 1867; died in New York City on September 23, 1951; youngest of two daughters and two sons of Robert Weeks Nathan (a stockbroker and later a passenger agent for a railroad) and Annie Augusta (Florance) Nathan (d. 1878); younger sister of Maud Nathan (1862–1946); home-schooled; attended Columbia College, 1885–1887; married Alfred Meyer (a physician), on February 15, 1887; children: Margaret Meyer (1894–1923).

The younger sister of Maud Nathan , a prominent suffragist and social welfare leader, Annie Nathan Meyer is best remembered as a founder of Barnard College, the women's affiliate of Columbia University. She was also a prolific writer, turning out novels, plays, short stories, and essays in which she often extolled women's strengths and abilities. In a lecture on "Woman's Place in Letters" given in Chicago in 1893, she took on assumptions of male superiority in the art of literature:

I heard the other day that Mr. Brander Matthews [professor of literature at Columbia] so keenly misses the sense of humor in woman that he has resolved the next time he marries to marry a man. No, I am not going to get angry about it, it hits Mrs. Matthews so much harder than it hits me; nor am I going to assist Mr. Matthews to prove his cause by taking his skit too seriously. But I cannot resist just a reference to the delightful quality of the humor of Agnes Repplier, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mrs. W.K. Clifford , and Mrs. [Pearl] Craigie , who is generally known by her pen name of John Oliver Hobbs. The humor of the last is so subtle, so whimsical, and so utterly pervasive that I have a suspicion in my mind that Mr. Matthews, in his ignorance of the nom de plume, was thinking of taking a certain Mr. John Oliver Hobbs as that second wife.

However, Meyer's feminist views, unlike those of her sister, did not extend to the vote, however, and her anti-suffrage stance somewhat clouded her message. "Her career remains intriguing as an unresolved amalgam of encouragement for the full development of women's talents and distrust of those who would restructure women's roles," writes Linda K. Kerber in Notable American Women: The Modern Period.

Meyer, who descended from a prominent family of Sephardic Jews, had a difficult childhood. Her father Robert Nathan, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, failed in business in 1875, and the family moved from New York City to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where a friend found him a job as a passenger agent for a railroad. The Nathan marriage did not survive the reversal of fortune, and Meyer's mother Annie turned to drugs and became suicidal. She died in a Chicago hospital in 1878, after which Meyer was sent to live with her grandparents back in New York. As a child, Meyer had been home-schooled by her mother, and she attended public school only briefly while the family was in Chicago. From 1885 to 1887, she was enrolled in the Collegiate Course for Women at Columbia College (an extension reading course), but withdrew in February 1887 to marry Alfred Meyer, a prominent physician.

Following her marriage, Meyer began working to establish a fully accredited women's college to be affiliated with Columbia. She circulated her ideas for the venture in an article in the Nation and prepared a support petition which was signed by 50 prominent New Yorkers. She also secured independent funding for the project, receiving her first substantial contribution from her husband. In an attempt to broaden support for the venture, she proposed naming the college after Columbia's late president Frederick A.P. Barnard, who had been a strong advocate of education for women. Modeled after Harvard's Annex (later Radcliffe College), Barnard College opened its doors in September 1889, occupying quarters that Meyer had leased in anticipation of success.

Meyer remained a trustee of the institution from 1893 to 1942, although there was lingering resentment over her assumption that she had been the sole creator of the college. During her trusteeship, she continued to raise money for the school, and took particular pains to assure a Jewish presence among the student body. She also played a role in recruiting black students and was instrumental in securing independent funds for Zora Neale Hurston , who was accepted at Barnard without an adequate scholarship.

Meyer's extensive writings included three novels, an autobiography (first published in 1935 as Barnard Beginnings, but revised into a chattier version, It's Been Fun, published in 1951), several books of nonfiction, and 26 plays, one of which, The Advertising of Kate, had a brief life on Broadway in 1922. (Another of her plays, Black Soul, written in 1925, was mounted at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1932, in a production subsidized by Meyer.) She also contributed numerous articles and short stories to the popular journals of the day, including The Bookman, World's Work, Century, Harper's, Smart Set, and North American Review. Meyer's writings reveal her deep ambivalence about the value of women's work outside the home. While she was often sympathetic to working women and praised their capabilities in such books as Women's Work in America, Helen Brent, M.D, and her play The Dominant Sex, she also believed that only the most extraordinary married women should attempt a career outside the home. "Bitter complaints that women who were active in reform politics neglected their families appeared repeatedly in Meyer's work," writes Kerber, citing Meyer's essay "Woman's Assumption of Sex Superiority." Meyer saw particular danger in giving women the vote, and gave numerous anti-suffrage speeches. When the vote was won, Kerber says, Meyer, in frequent letters to the editor, "reminded her readers that votes for women had not ushered in a new era of social responsibility."

The Meyers' marriage was described as happy. The couple had one daughter, Margaret Meyer (b. 1894), who graduated from Barnard in 1915. Shortly after her marriage in 1923, Margaret died in what her mother called "an accident with a pistol." Meyer, who was always considered eccentric, grew more so following her daughter's death. She died of a heart attack in 1951.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

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


Annie Nathan Meyer's papers are held at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Meyer, Annie Nathan (1867–1951)

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