Changing the Subject

Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Changing the Subject
    Book Description:

    This remarkable story begins in the years following the Civil War, when reformers -- emboldened by the egalitarian rhetoric of the post--Civil War era -- pressed New York City's oldest institution of higher learning to admit women in the 1870s. Their effort failed, but within twenty years Barnard College was founded, creating a refuge for women scholars at Columbia, as well as an academic beachhead "from which women would make incursions into the larger university." By 1950, Columbia was granting more advanced degrees to women and hiring more female faculty than any other university in the country.

    In Changing the Subject, Rosalind Rosenberg shows how this century-long struggle transcended its local origins and contributed to the rise of modern feminism, furthered the cause of political reform, and enlivened the intellectual life of America's most cosmopolitan city. Surmounting a series of social and institutional obstacles to gain access to Columbia University, women played a key role in its evolution from a small, Protestant, male-dominated school into a renowned research university. At the same time, their struggles challenged prevailing ideas about masculinity, femininity, and sexual identity; questioned accepted views about ethnicity, race, and rights; and thereby laid the foundation for what we now know as gender. From Lillie Devereux Blake, Annie Nathan Meyer, and Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve in the first generation, through Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston in the second, to Kate Millett, Gerda Lerner, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the third, the women of Columbia shook the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50114-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-7)

    This is a book about the women of Columbia and the changes they made as they took their place within the university. The story begins in the years following the Civil War, when women first established a series of beachheads on Columbia’s periphery, and it unfolds over the course of the century that followed, as new generations fought for inclusion. In the course of their struggle, women turned Columbia into a uniquely structured research university, one in which they were able to challenge prevailing ideas about sex, as well as accepted views of ethnicity, race, and rights. In doing so,...

    (pp. 8-47)

    On october 4, 1873, the writer and suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake escorted her two teenage daughters and a friend to Columbia College, then located at Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue. Intent on a meeting with President Frederick A. P. Barnard, she believed she had “an especial claim” to be heard. Samuel Johnson, her maternal great-great-grandfather, had served as Columbia’s first president (1754–1763), when it was still Kings College, and William Samuel Johnson, her great-grandfather, had led the college after the American Revolution, from 1787 to 1880. Their portraits hung in the college library. In common with each of those...

    (pp. 48-92)

    Annie nathan enrolled in the Collegiate Course in 1885. The daughter of Robert and Annie Florence Nathan, she represented the advance guard of what John W. Burgess most feared, an incursion of Jewish women. A member of New York’s Sephardic community, which had played an important role in New York’s commercial and cultural life since before the American Revolution, she was descended from Rabbi Gershom Seixas, the only Jew ever to have served on the Columbia College Board of Trustees. This world of privilege and influence was marred for her in childhood, however, by her father’s business reverses and philandering,...

    (pp. 93-129)

    The population of New York City more than doubled in the final third of the nineteenth century, reaching 3.5 million in 1898 with the consolidation of the five boroughs. In the process, Gotham became the American capital of female workers. One in every three women over sixteen years of age—344,509 women in all—qualified as a breadwinner. Chicago, New York’s nearest competitor, provided employment to fewer than half as many. New York’s largest industry was garment manufacturing, which employed 70,000 women. Book, newspaper, and magazine publishing engaged thousands more. The banking houses, corporate towers, and dazzling emporiums that radiated...

    (pp. 130-178)

    Early in 1917, as the entry of the United States into the war in Europe began to look inevitable, Elsie Clews Parsons drafted an article entitled “Patterns for Peace or War.” Why was it, she wondered, that a country dominated by a pacifist mood in 1914 could so quickly swing to militarism? Taking her cue from anthropology, she suggested that America, like all cultures, was composed of fairly stable patterns into which alien beliefs and practices are incorporated only if they fit within prevailing systems. Many reformers, she noted, and particularly feminists, had struggled over the previous two decades to...

    (pp. 179-216)

    The battle of Britain, the desperate aerial clash that saved the British from Nazi invasion in 1940, forced the British, and later the Americans, to reconsider some of their most settled assumptions about women’s place in public life. As the struggle to defend the island nation exhausted all available sources of “manpower,” government officials began to speak of the need to press “womanpower” into service. Exploiting their leverage to the fullest, British feminist leaders warned that the country could count on its women only if the government promised to grant them better pay and more responsible positions than it had...

    (pp. 217-267)

    For women at Columbia, the 1960s seemed filled with promise. The Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik led both the federal government and private foundations to fund higher education as never before and in the process made unprecedented levels of fellowship money available. Moreover, the demographic bulge produced by the baby boom guaranteed that student demand would soon outstrip the available supply of male faculty.¹ This Cold War combination of political and demographic pressures seemed to ensure that Columbia’s women would strengthen their position in the years ahead. And they did. In 1960, women at the university earned 40 (11 percent)...

    (pp. 268-310)

    As women at Columbia demanded greater opportunity within the university, the question of Barnard’s separate existence reemerged. The civil rights movement in the South, which had drawn many recruits from northern college campuses in the mid-1960s, already had brought the subject of single-sex education under heightened scrutiny. A century after the suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake found inspiration in the Civil War–era struggle for racial justice to demand equal rights for women, veterans of the modern civil rights movement renewed the question Blake that had so insistently posed: Was not the separate education of women, like the separate education of...

    (pp. 311-316)

    By the turn of the twenty-first century, the influence of Columbia’s women had spread far beyond Morningside Heights to colleges and universities across the country. By virtue of their numbers alone, these women had a significant impact. No other university supplied as many female scholars to the country’s institutions of higher learning as did Columbia in the century following Lillie Devereux Blake’s effort to open the university’s doors to women. But the influence of Columbia’s women exceeded their numbers. In Blake’s day, the academy was a male enclave in which theories of evolutionary hierarchy reigned supreme. A century later, those...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 317-362)
    (pp. 363-374)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 375-396)