Advocating for more women’s voices in the public arena, Annie Nathan Meyer and Katie Orenstein have given women opportunities to make themselves heard. Annie Nathan Meyer founded Barnard College to offer women the same quality of education that men received across the street at Columbia University, and advocated for more women to shape cultural discourse through writing. Katie Orenstein founded the OpEd Project to increase the number of women serving as expert commentators in major forums and news outlets to ensure that their ideas are part of the conversation.
Annie Nathan Meyer’s fight for women’s education began with her own struggle for the right to learn. Kept home to be a companion to her mother while her siblings went to school, Meyer was self-educated, organizing a reading circle with other women and enrolling in a correspondence course at Columbia University. After her marriage to Alfred Meyer in 1887 she had access to the Columbia library as the wife of an alumnus and began creating her own curriculum through the library’s collections. But she was keenly aware that most women didn’t have access to such resources. She wanted to create a women’s college that offered the same top-drawer education that men got at an institution like Columbia.
In a whirlwind campaign, she organized support for a women’s college affiliated with Columbia, naming the college after Columbia president Frederick A.P. Barnard in a savvy move to win support for her plan. The college officially opened its doors in 1889, and Meyer dedicated the rest of her life to finding donors for the school, serving on the board of trustees, creating scholarships for African-American students, and writing articles to highlight women’s accomplishments and abilities.
Over her lifetime, Meyer wrote hundreds of public opinion pieces calling for women not just to be educated equally, but to have expanded opportunities to voice their opinions. An early forerunner of Katie Orenstein, Meyer believed that writing for the public was an important means for women to gain respect and equal footing—and practiced what she preached. She proclaimed “women are writing a great deal today, and are doing some very good work. . . . One of our women writers tells us: ‘Once let woman wield the pen and thoughts will be put into books that have never been put there before.’"
Surprisingly, Meyer was anti-suffrage, claiming that the suffragists’ controversial efforts could actually backfire against the cause of women’s rights. She believed education would give women all the tools they needed to change the world through scientific discoveries, literary insights, and community organizing. While she was wrong about suffrage, her work advocating for educational equality and opportunities for women to participate in public discourse launched generations of talented, capable women.
It all began with a trip to Haiti in the early 1990s. Katie Orenstein had earned a fellowship to study local folklore, but when a coup threw the country into chaos during Orenstein’s stay, she became a witness to the political and social upheaval. After Haitians living in New York began protesting the New York Times’ coverage of the situation, Orenstein investigated and realized that the newspapers were mainly quoting diplomats and rich expatriates who had little in common with the protestors or their issues. She wrote her own account of the situation based on her experiences and interviews, and although her article was first published in a small Latin American journal, it was picked up by larger news outlets and turned her into a sought-after expert on Haiti.
The whole experience was a lesson to Orenstein in how media coverage shapes the public understanding of any situation. “Who is telling the story and how does that shape the results? How does that shape history?” she asked in an interview. At the same time, though, it showed her that even one person could make a difference and change the conversation.
In 2008 she launched the OpEd Project (OEP), which trains women in business, academia, and the government to serve as experts in their fields for outlets from the op-ed pages to TV panel discussions. Her goal is to bring women’s representation up to 30%, a proportion most experts see as a tipping point.
In the short time since she started the project, OEP has already changed the proportion of women opinion-makers across the board from 15% to 21%. And with that shift comes a greater focus on women’s health, women’s political priorities, and the portrayal of women in the media.
As Annie Nathan Meyer realized over a century ago, education is essential, but it isn’t enough on its own. For women to achieve true equality, they need to be fully represented across the disciplines. They need to be able to change the conversation. They need, in fact, to lead the conversation.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Editorial Advocates ." (Viewed on January 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/nathan-meyer-orenstein>.