In 1873, writer and suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake knocked on the president of Columbia University's office door and demanded that five women be admitted to Columbia College. It would be 110 years until that request came to fruition—but on that day, a six-foot-tall man, bearded and gaunt, took the first step.
He was Columbia's 10th president, the first to voice avid support for women's education, and his name was Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard. Yes, Barnard as in "Barnard College."
It may come as a surprise to learn that Barnard College was named after a man—that the collection of buildings west of Broadway, dedicated to the higher education of women, honors a man with each utterance of its name. Indeed, Barnard College sits atop a double irony: Not only is it a women's college named after a just any man, but a man who deeply believed in establishing gender-integrated schools rather than gender-segregated schools.
To reconcile this strange paradox, we must come to terms with Barnard's legacy. His unprecedented support for women's education, and his work in getting women equal education, explains the choice of Barnard College's founders to name Barnard, Barnard.
My image of him, those superficial reactions formed at first sight, coalesced into something more substantial when I began to investigate the circuitous path that brought him to Columbia, where many of the portraits I looked at were taken. Through his story, the tension between Barnard's lifetime and its aftermath emerges.
Born in Massachusetts in 1809, Barnard attended Yale University at the young age of 15 and eventually became a tutor there before losing his hearing. To make something of his loss, he left to teach deaf children at the Connecticut Asylum for Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Later, he moved to New York City to teach at the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in midtown Manhattan, which, serendipitously, occupied the site that had previously been Columbia's second home in 1857. Barnard then spent 18 years as a professor at the University of Alabama before coming to Columbia.
He was a mover and shaker, which became immediately clear upon his arrival at the University in 1864. In fact, Barnard had barely set his foot in the door when he began to revolutionize Columbia. He transformed the role of the president into one with agency and power—making consequential decisions such as merging the School of Mines, which preceded the School of Engineering and Applied Science, into the greater University, shifting the culture of the school away from the disciplining of students and fostering a culture of healthy competition and self-determination. Rosalind Rosenberg, former history professor and the author of a book on Columbia women's impact on feminism, Changing the Subject, writes that Barnard was praised for his efforts "to raise the moral tone of the undergraduates and bring 'vigor' to the college."
His ambition transferred to a confrontational approach with the board of trustees, a relationship that shocked many, since the board was used to presidents with less verve, but also allowed him to develop the tactics he would eventually use in his push for gender-integrated education. Barnard History professor Robert McCaughey, in his book Stand, Columbia, quotes Hamilton Fish, the chairman of the board at the time: "Our president, when he wishes anything—and he is always wishing something—wishes it at once and would like a new law for each action."
To trustees, Barnard offered a comprehensive vision of the University. He believed Columbia could be the prodigious, progressive, and monumental conglomeration of knowledge it is today—in no small part through increasing the diversity of the student body. McCaughey quotes Barnard as offering the prototype for the declaration, now frequently made by Columbia College Dean James Valentini of Columbia College, that we are the greatest university in the greatest city in the world: "We may assume it therefore as certain that Columbia College is to be the great university of this principal state in the Union, and this principal city of the western continent."
When trustees disagreed with Barnard's methods for getting Columbia to that point, they were not afraid to take their complaints to Barnard. But he was not easily persuaded, in part because persuasion was not easily heard. Rosenberg recalls in an interview that Barnard would place a horn in his ear for people to speak into so that those who wanted to communicate with him could be heard, owing to his deafness.
"When he went before the board of trustees," Rosenberg says to me, "he tended to put the horn down and read very slowly for several hours from his report. They would object but he couldn't hear them so he would just keep on reading."
But the trustees were angry about more than just these tactics. They were also confounded by his initiatives to promote gender integration, which were widely disputed.
As soon as Barnard arrived, he began an annual report that detailed the progress of the University, and then distributed it to the public. The board was in support of Barnard's reports, insofar as they summed up the progress of the college each year, showing the public everything Columbia was doing to improve both itself and the surrounding area.
He first considered the "Annex" style program that Harvard developed around the same time, offering women access to the faculty and the library without allowing them into the classroom. Barnard, however, felt that this was a waste of resources in comparison to full gender integration.
Critics who were hesitant to accept even an annex-style approach quickly responded with anger. Many men believed that female intellect was inferior to their own and would therefore lower the standard of the school. They felt that education would "destroy a woman's delicacy and reserve," Rosenberg writes. Some argued that it would be detrimental to a woman's health, building on a theory by Herbert Spencer that, according to Rosenberg, "the body is a closed energy system to make the case that mental training in women used energy needed for the proper functioning of reproductive organs."
Where peers believed admitting women would hurt the school's reputation, Barnard was convinced that women would raise classroom standards.
Citing their "quickness of perception" and "diligence," Barnard argued that women would make better students than men. He believed that a woman's presence in the school would bring a more amicable and civil atmosphere, and he was sure that any reasonable person would soon see that coeducation was the right decision.
Guiding his actions was a belief that, in order to become a leader in academia, he would need to increase diversity in the classroom. He was convinced that including women in the classroom was a step in that direction.
McCaughey quotes Barnard as saying that "Columbia College is destined in the coming centuries to become as comprehensive in the scope of her teaching as to be able to furnish to inquirers after truth the instruction they may desire in whatever branch of human knowledge … without distinction either of class or sex."
Not enough men at Columbia, however—not even those beyond the board of trustees—were willing to find out whether he was right. Editorials published in 1882 by the Spectator described the possibility of coeducation as "disastrous to all college feeling and order." They felt that the decision was "for the Trustees to decide, and not for an association of charitable but misinformed ladies."
While students expressed that they did not take issue with higher education for women, they had no interest in that taking place at Columbia, writing: "We call the attention of our readers to the article on this subject, which is published in this issue, and we hope that prospective co-eds will not try to violate the sanctity of our campus, but will take the SPECTATOR'S advice and go to Vassar!"
The future looked grim for Barnard. His annual reports were not convincing the board.
Once again frustrated by stalling efforts, Devereux Blake came knocking in 1882, bringing seven more female suffragists with her. This time, she wanted to create a petition, a plan to which Barnard readily agreed.
Between the reach of the suffragists and signatures from the many liberal acquaintances Barnard and his wife entertained at their home, the group collected 1,352 signatures, one of which came from former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. The fierce opponents to Barnard and the suffragist movement named it "the monster petition," a name that referred to the number of signatories but also painted the objective at hand, women in the Columbia classroom, with snarling teeth.
Their angered reactions come as a surprise, because the petition was actually quite modest in its requests when compared to Barnard's earlier calls for full gender integration. Women who passed tests in Greek, Latin, math, and natural history would be allowed access to the syllabi and the library, but not the classrooms. They would then be expected to teach themselves the material in order to pass the final tests. At the end of four years, they were promised a certificate to demonstrate their achievement.
The petition worked, and women students began to attend Columbia, at first without incident. Annie Nathan Meyer was one of these students. She was dedicated and passed all her exams, until one fateful Greek examination. Meyer immediately protested that the material on the exam was not the material she was given to learn—the professor had changed the syllabus without telling the female students.
"Meyer left in a huff," Rosenberg tells me. "And she began a campaign to open a separate college for women. That college was Barnard."
Women lined up to support Meyer's cause to open a woman's college. She had collected a board of trustees, made up of half men and half women—but not Barnard himself. "This was a very big deal back then," Rosenberg says. "This is what we call diversity in the 1880s."
Barnard, however, was still devoted to the admission of women into Columbia. "Barnard disavowed this arrangement, insisting on full coeducation and nothing less," McCaughey writes. Though he allowed his name to be used, he was absent from the resolution that named the college in his honor.
Barnard College opened in 1889. Frederick Barnard died just three weeks later, without ever publicly responding to the initiative.
His death inspired some reflection on one of the greatest ironies of his legacy. The man who fought hardest to integrate women into a male college was honored by an exclusively female college. Rosenberg tells me that, for this reason, Barnard's wife was initially furious with the idea of honoring her husband with something for which he was no longer fighting.
However, Barnard's broader commitments to equality have helped generations accept the name choice, and his comments even in the heat of his campaign speak to his commitment to the ideal of equality over the methods used to achieved it—the incidental situation in which that happened was far less important to him than educating minds effectively.
Alumnus Thomas Vinciguerra, a graduate of the Columbia College class of 1985, quoted Barnard in Columbia College Today in 1989: "When I demand for women admission into our colleges, I am demanding for them education, and not the privilege of being educated along with men."
As Rosenberg says, "[the naming of Barnard College] was a way to call attention to the fact that Barnard represented the high academic aspirations that Frederick Barnard had for women."
One could argue that Barnard College would have more aptly been named Meyer College, as founder Annie Nathan Meyer made the most significant move in the construction of a place for women to learn. But her decision to honor a man so adamant about integration with a separate and exclusively female college reflects Barnard's unprecedented work and influence.
The namesakes of two other buildings, and two other famous presidents of the University, agreed on that much: Low Library after Seth Low, and Butler after Nicholas Murray Butler. They, too, were inspired by Barnard's actions. Low traces back the entirety of his mission to Barnard in a letter he wrote to Butler, writing that he was "only watering, in most cases, the seed which he [Barnard] had the sagacity to plant."
What these leaders recognized was crucial: Barnard was not simply trying to educate women, but rather, to educate minds. All his efforts sprung from the fundamental belief that the modern university was grounded in equal opportunity. This belief inspired many to come, Low and Butler among them, despite his opposition to the creation of Barnard College.
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