Opinion | Columns

A history of women at Columbia

In case you missed it, this past month was Women’s History Month. Commemorative days, weeks, or months always seem contrived and forced, with the easy argument being, “shouldn’t we celebrate the accomplishments of [insert group here] whenever, not just because someone randomly decided [insert month] was theirs?” We should, but we don’t, and as artificial as they might be, such events draw attention to groups that are often left out of textbooks and syllabi.

As I argued in my column a few weeks ago, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking sexism is dead on our campus. By alarming coincidence, the top search on Google for “will feminism…” is  “die.” That should give you an indicator on where the country stands on this issue, if you didn’t already know.

But in honor of this frustratingly necessary commemorative month, it’s worth looking back on how we’ve gotten to this point—how it is that a woman can now call herself a Columbia University graduate.

Let’s start with the obvious: A lot of people didn’t want us here.

In 1876, a women’s group petitioning for admission to the University approached Columbia. They were turned down immediately. It would be easy to paint the picture of stuffy old white dudes as women’s education’s principal opponents—and that would be true. But frustratingly, a lot of women were equally skeptical of their prospects of education.

In his memoirs, former University President Frederick A. P. Barnard, a vocal proponent for women’s education, described a conversation with a respected woman who opposed the education of women in order to “preserve the bloom on the peach as long as possible.” Barnard’s response? “I would favor no measure which would leave the slightest trace upon the delicacy of the bloom; but I would have the peach valued for something more than its bloom merely.”

Sadly, Barnard was unable to convince his colleagues that beauty and education are not mutually exclusive. Trustees and faculty alike argued that having women on a college campus could not only damage their “delicacy,” but also endanger the unmarried male students by distracting them. Dr. Morgan Dix, former trusteee and then head of Trinity Church, said that women become “offensive and detestable” when “the clamor for rights appears to be taking the form of competition with men on a field which God has reserved for men only.”

But in the mid-1880s, they finally conceded and created a Collegiate Course for Women—a degree that conveniently prevented women from actually attending classes with their Columbia peers. One participant in the farce, Annie Nathan Meyer, wanted more. In her book, Barnard Beginnings, Annie explains that when she passed her first exams, her father hugged her and warned her that she would never be married, for “men hate intelligent wives.” 

But Annie did get married. She also helped found Barnard College by going door to door among New York’s finest neighborhoods, imploring their residents to support higher education for women. 

In 1889, when Barnard opened its literal doors, it also opened the doors to real education for women on Columbia’s campus. In the intervening 125 years, so many more milestones have been reached and so many amazing women have passed through our doors: Virginia Gildersleeve, Barnard’s third dean, fought for women’s admission into Columbia’s graduate schools; Zora Neale Hurston, BC ’28, was Barnard’s first African-American graduate and one of America’s greatest novelists; Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Law ’59, was Columbia’s first female tenured law professor and America’s second female Supreme Court Justice.

Every now and then—particularly during shitstorms like Obamanard in 2012—the ugly vestige of higher education’s institutionalized sexism rears its head. But look around our campus: This year, three of the four undergraduate councils are headed by women, as have the Columbia University College Democrats, Columbia University College Republicans, Bwog, and this very publication.

Perhaps all of this nostalgia and historicizing is born of my impending graduation. But last night, like countless other Columbia and Barnard students, I sat in the Lincoln Center to watch some amazing women speak at the Women in the World summit. The last speakers were two women who could, quite possibly, run the world in a few years: former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde.

When moderator and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asked about Clinton’s oft-quoted statement that “women’s rights are human rights,” Clinton referenced Friedman’s popular book, saying, “You are well known for your writing about The World is Flat, but it can’t really be flat if you have half the population either discouraged from or discriminated against.”

Though on a larger scale than Annie Nathan Meyer and her bicycle, Clinton and Lagarde described the constant struggle to make others understand why women’s contributions matter—and why we need to be included. With such examples to look to, it is impossible not to feel indebted to those on the front lines and hope for continued change by those willing, in Clinton’s words, “not just to score a point, but to change a mind.”

Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Fridays. 

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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