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Ideal Women: How Women at Columbia Changed the World
Rosalind Rosenberg is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History at Barnard College.

Lillie Devereux Blake, Lillian Feinstein Hausman and Marie Maynard Daly. Their names do not appear frequently in history books, but these women are part of the story of Columbia. In her most recent book, Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, Barnard Professor of History Rosalind Rosenberg weaves an engaging tale of how a determined group of women fought to change the educational mission of Columbia and helped ignite the feminist movement in the United States.

The post-Civil War United States was charting new territory socially and politically. In an atmosphere of new-found egalitarianism, Rosenberg writes, women began to push the limits of traditional gender roles with greater intensity. Lillie Devereux Blake was one of them. In 1873, she petitioned Columbia College to admit five young women, including her oldest daughter, Elizabeth. Heavily influenced by Morgan Dix, the rector of Trinity Church, the Board of Trustees rejected her petition. "Coeducation, Dix implied to his fellow trustees, was a passing fashion," a remnant of the Civil War and Reconstruction, reports Rosenberg.

Perhaps even more important -- and disastrous -- at least for Dix, the women who would apply for admission might not be Episcopalian. Many of them would also come from the increasing number of poor, immigrant families pouring into New York and might not be white. Such women, and strong-minded women like Blake, Rosenberg contends, were less than ideal in Dix's estimation.


An Ideal Woman

Blake was undeterred. She was intent on finding a place where her two daughters and other young women could receive a college education.

She found an unexpected ally in Columbia President Frederick A.P. Barnard, who would champion her cause with the Board of Trustees. He, too, was rejected; but as Changing the Subject notes, "Women, Barnard firmly believed, would thrive at Columbia." The University president set out to help fulfill what he considered an inevitable outcome. "More than 70 colleges and universities had decided to admit women by 1873," writes Rosenberg. It was a tide Barnard hoped he could help Blake ride.

And ride it she did. Blake and Barnard sought help from the wives of prominent businessmen in New York, including Mrs. J.P. Morgan and Mrs. Henry E. Pellew, and also enlisted the efforts of well-known suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Jennie June Croly.

Their struggle took decades. But after first convincing the trustees to allow women to attend lectures, then classes, the movement faltered, failing to realize its goal of full admission of women to Columbia College. As a compromise, the Trustees approved the founding of Barnard College in 1889.

An Academic Beachhead

Named for the University President who had fought for the inclusion of women, Barnard became a sort of academic beachhead, says Rosenberg, a place "from which women would make incursions into the large university."

A number of milestones quickly followed. In 1893, Barnard graduated its first class of eight undergraduates. In 1898, Teachers College, under the leadership of James Earl Russell, became affiliated with Columbia University and embarked on an aggressive campaign to admit women and African Americans. Women also fought for the right to attend graduate-level classes. A number of prominent women scientists trained at Columbia began to make their mark in the world.

Lillian Feinstein Hausman became manager of Columbia's prestigious computing laboratory in 1936. And in 1948, Marie Maynard Daly earned a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia, becoming the first African American woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu would participate in research that won the Nobel Prize, but only her two male partners would be recognized. Thanks in part to such women, Columbia was no longer thought of as a small, Protestant college, but rather as a major international research institution.

Decades of work on women's rights were paying off. " Columbia's graduate facilities produced more female Ph.D.s than any other university in the country between 1920 and 1974," Rosenberg notes. Other, more well-known women were also making contributions to reform. Ruth Benedict, Maragret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston were tracing a path begun by early suffragists. Columbia women were making their mark, and the world took notice.

"The accomplishments of women during World War II, at Columbia and across the country, prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to include a woman in the United States delegation to the conference to write the United Nations charter in 1945," Rosenberg writes. He chose Barnard Dean Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve.

" Columbia women," says Rosenberg, "remain an important force in American life." Their influence continues through graduates such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, noted feminist author Kate Millett, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and dozens of other writers, scientists and artists who are eminent in their fields. But perhaps their greatest legacy isn't in any one area of study. Offers Rosenberg, "In persuading others of the connection among gender, sex, race and rights, the women of Columbia achieved something of lasting value; they ensured that what was once a local story would become a national, and even an international, undertaking -- one in which anyone could join."

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Published: Mar 07, 2005
Last modified: Mar 04, 2005

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