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Meyer, Agnes Ernst (1887-1970)

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Agnes Ernst Meyer

Agnes Ernst Meyer, the daughter of German immigrants who became an influential journalist, philanthropist, and education activist, was born and educated in New York City. She attended Barnard College over her father’s objections and paid for her education herself by piecing together scholarships and wages from odd jobs.

After her 1907 graduation, Meyer became one of the first woman reporters hired by the New York Sun. A year later, she resumed her literary studies at the Sorbonne, where she became friends with Gertrude Stein and Edward Steichen. She returned to New York in 1909 and married the multimillionaire financier Eugene Meyer and raised five children, one of whom, Katherine Meyer Graham, would make historic decisions as editor and publisher of The Washington Post.

In 1917, the Meyers moved to Washington, D.C., where for the next sixteen years Eugene held a series of influential financial positions within the federal government. When the Hoover administration ended in 1933, Eugene Meyer then purchased the struggling Washington Post to which Agnes Meyer frequently contributed articles criticizing the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal Programs.

World War II, however, radicalized Meyer’s politics as she traveled to Britain and the United States to investigate home front conditions and was stunned by the failure of the government to meet its citizens’ basic needs. She began writing stories examining the problems confronting veterans, migrant workers, students in overcrowded schools, and African Americans. She lobbied for integration, expanded social security benefits, and an end to racial discrimination in employment and relentlessly promoted the creation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and federal aid to education. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson later said that she was the person who most influenced his education policies.

In 1956, she supported Adlai Stevenson and, in 1960, she formally left the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat. Her philanthropic activities included extensive support for the New School for Social Research and the creation of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, which distributed millions of dollars to a variety of health and education projects. Throughout the 1960s she concentrated her intense energies on improving public education and created and financially supported the Urban School Corps and the National Committee for Support of Public Schools. She died of cancer at the age of eighty-three.

—By Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, from Notable American Women: The Modern Period.