People often question the relevance and role of women’s colleges today. Now that most colleges and universities in the U.S. are co-ed, why do women’s colleges still exist? When Columbia College started admitting women in fall of 1982 a merger was proposed, but ultimately decided against because of bureaucratic complexities and the belief that Barnard College served the community well as a separate institution. And so it has.
Flashback to spring 1915, when Barnard administrators were preparing for the 25th anniversary celebration of Barnard College. Originally planned for November 1914, the event was postponed because, according to a write-up of the event from the Dean’s Office, “there was a common feeling that the grave issues before the civilized world did not permit the occasion to be commemorated with sufficient joy and enthusiasm.” Unfortunately, the events in Europe meant Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, had to send her regrets that she could not attend. As national chairman of the Women’s Peace Party, she was wanted at a conference in the Netherlands. This letter, typed up on Hull House stationery and signed by Jane Addams, is one of the many treasures held in the Barnard Archives.
Despite its characterization as “war-belated,” the celebration was a wonderful commemoration of Barnard College, what it stood for, and where it was going in the future. While looking through a box of the Dean’s Office Departmental Correspondence from 1914-15, I came across an article titled “Barnard College, 1889-1914” from the June, 1915 issue of the Columbia University Quarterly. In the left-hand margin of the first page someone wrote “President Butler,” indicating Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1901-1945, as the author, however, it is unclear whether this article is also the address he gave during the 25th anniversary commemorative exercises on April 29th. I expected the article to be a routine address: probably a brief history of the college and an acknowledgement of the trustees and administrators that made it all possible. Instead, it is a beautiful testament to the necessity of higher education for women and therefore the necessity of Barnard College. Butler includes a quote from November 21, 1890 by Rev. Arthur Brooks, Chairman of the Trustees of Barnard College. On that day, the trustees met to go over the events of the first year of the College and Rev. Brooks spoke on behalf of Barnard:
[…]to allow Barnard College to suffer or to languish would now mean the maiming of Columbia College, which, to the pride and glory of New York, is at the present time taking so many forward steps[…].We gladly believe that the bond between the two Colleges is so strong that the parent, old and yet young with new energy, would sadly feel the loss of this, its youngest and most promising and attractive child.
Characterizing Barnard College as a “most promising and attractive child” might seem a bit silly today, but as a Barnard student who has felt not quite welcome by the Columbia University community, these words are what I have needed to hear for a long time. Butler goes on to write a defense of Barnard College that celebrates its place as a unique institution, but also commends the awe-inspiring backdrop of Columbia University. I must admit the last paragraph of Butler’s piece gave me chills:
Barnard College is nothing so temporary […]. It is a serious and solemn human undertaking which conceives itself as bearing a grave responsibility toward womanhood, toward society, and toward the University whose traditions and unconquerable vitality it shares. […]if it [the College] continue catholic, large-minded, sincere and scholarly, it will increase with each year in power as a builder of character and a shaper of intelligence in that womanhood which is at once the glory and the hope of our civilization.
What a relief to know that these words will be preserved in the Barnard Archives, a humidity-controlled tribute to the rich history of Barnard College.
-Alice Griffin, BC ’15