Weed, Ella (1853–1894)

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Weed, Ella (1853–1894)

American educator who played a leading role in the development of Barnard College. Born on January 27, 1853, in Newburgh, New York; died on January 10, 1894, in New York City; first of four children of Jonathan Noyes Weed (a banker) and Elizabeth Merritt (Goodsell) Weed; attended Miss Mackay's School in Newburgh; graduated from Vassar College, 1873; never married; no children.

Taught in Springfield, Ohio (1875–82); taught at Miss Mackay's School (1882); became head of the day school at Anne Brown School in New York City (1884); recruited by Annie Nathan Meyer to assist with founding of Barnard College (1888); named chair of the academic committee of the newly founded Barnard College (1889); set the standard for the college, both in curriculum and in entrance standards, while overseeing the college's early development (1889–94).

Born in 1853 in Newburgh, New York, Ella Weed was the eldest child of Jonathan Noyes Weed, a banker, and Elizabeth Goodsell Weed . Both parents were well known in the community, where her father's family had lived for generations. After receiving her early education at Miss Mackay's School in her hometown, Weed attended Vassar College. She was a talented writer, and before graduating with honors in 1873 helped the school's publication, Vassar Miscellany, achieve a high reputation among college periodicals of the time.

Two years after graduating, Weed began teaching at a girls' school in Springfield, Ohio, where her duties centered on helping to prepare students who wished to attend Vassar. At her family's request, in 1882 she returned to Newburgh and a less demanding job teaching at Miss Mackay's School. In 1884, having recovered her strength, Weed obtained the position of head of the day school at the stylish Anne Brown School in New York City. The strong reputation she earned there caught the attention of Annie Nathan Meyer , a wealthy New Yorker who briefly had attended Columbia University's Collegiate Course, the all-male school's version of higher education for women. The Collegiate Course required women to study on their own, without the benefit of lectures that were open only to men, despite the fact that both female and male students were expected to meet the same standards and pass the same examinations. The injustice of this situation brought about a movement, led by Meyer, to replace the Collegiate Course with a women's annex. Weed's experience at the Anne Brown School had brought her into the acquaintance of many socially prominent people, and in 1888 Meyer sought her assistance in selecting 50 important individuals to sign a petition, to be presented to Columbia's trustees, advocating the establishment of a women's annex to the university. The petition proved successful, and the following year saw the founding of Barnard College for women, complete with lectures provided by Columbia faculty. While the college was distinct both physically and financially from the men's university, its students received a comparable education and their degrees were granted by Columbia University.

Weed continued in her job at the Anne Brown School while also serving as a member of the first board of trustees and chair of the academic committee for Barnard College. In the latter position, she was responsible for all of the academic duties of a college dean, with minimal supervision from Arthur Brooks, chair of the board of trustees. Among her responsibilities were overseeing the college's first location at 343 Madison Avenue and negotiating with Columbia's faculty. She was also active in public relations and fund raising for the college.

While Meyer was a strong presence at the college (and would remain a trustee for five decades), Weed's involvement was vital in helping to establish Barnard as one of the foremost women's colleges. She did not approve of the educational standards of many colleges for women, which like finishing schools emphasized those skills necessary for a wife and a woman of society, and Barnard's policies reflected her conviction that women could gain full intellectual status only by having access to an education equal to that offered to men. She also imposed strict standards upon Barnard's entrance requirements. Despite the limited availability of preparatory Greek instruction for women, Weed insisted on Greek as an entrance requirement since it was a requirement for Columbia University. In addition, she was adamant with regard to insisting on breadth of learning as opposed to specialization and refused special students in all areas but the sciences. In the school's early years, she also refused transfer students so that the measure of the college would be based on students who received their entire education at Barnard. She further guaranteed high standards by requiring Columbia's supervision of all instruction at Barnard.

Weed was described as good humored and possessed of a winning personality, and her personal style contributed highly to her success. She often exhibited such faith in students who were deemed unlikely to succeed that she inspired them with an enthusiasm for learning. Considering women's education to be her personal cause, she largely put her own literary talents and ambitions aside, although she did write a satirical novel, A Foolish Virgin (1883), about a Vassar graduate who denies her own good sense and education in an effort to meet society's low standards for female behavior. Pearls Strung by Ella Weed (1898), published posthumously, contains selections from some of her favorite authors. Weed's career, however, was cut short when she was just 40. She died in 1894 in New York City, of "nervous prostration" which may have been caused by overwork, and was buried in her hometown of Newburgh.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Susan J. Walton , freelance writer, Berea, Ohio

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