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May 13 2014

The Tireless Jewish Feminist Who Opposed Women’s Suffrage

By at 9:45 am

meyer-jwa

Meet an energetic and thoughtful woman who opposed the suffragist movement: she’s the tireless writer, advocate, activist, fundraiser, author, playwright, and art critic who founded Barnard College, New York City’s first liberal arts college for women. Historian Myrna Goldenberg tells her story:

Annie Nathan Meyer, born in 1867 and a descendent of Gershom Mendes Seixas, a Jewish Revolutionary War patriot, received less than six months of formal schooling. She educated herself, later boasting she had read all of Charles Dickens by age 7. As a young woman, she enrolled in the newly established Columbia College Collegiate Course for Women. In 1888, Annie begin her campaign to build Barnard with a passionate 2,500-word letter to The Nation, arguing that New York could make no real claim to culture without a women’s liberal arts college. What started as a seven-year plan, she accomplished in two.

Along the way, she developed a “separate spheres” ideology about women’s roles: she did not believe the suffragists’ claims that social and political change would ensue when women could vote and opposed their pacifism, and she wrote extensively about her views. Turns out she was also intensely jealous of her sister, Maud, a progressive activist and well-known suffragist. However, after the 19th Amendment passed, she joined the League of Women Voters.

Until her death in 1951, Annie promoted women’s higher education; campaigned against anti-Semitism in the higher echelons of NYC society; chronicled women’s work; dramatized women’s status in plays, novels, and short stories; published art, drama, and music criticism; and championed physical activity and the outdoors. Sincerely interested in minority rights, she raised funds for Jewish and black students. She found donors to support Zora Neale Hurston at Barnard, breaking the color barrier, and they became close, corresponding for years. Hurston dedicated “Mules and Men” (1935), “To my dear friend Mrs. Annie Nathan Meyer, who hauled the mud to make me but loves me just the same.”

Read more about Annie Nathan Meyer in her entry by Myrna Goldenberg in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” from which this introduction is adapted, and discover hundreds of inspiring stories in the Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org.

Jewish Women's Archive

As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.

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