Virginia Gildersleeve
Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve (October 3, 1877 – July 7, 1965) was an American academic, the long-time Dean of Barnard College
Barnard College
Barnard College is a private women's liberal arts college and a member of the Seven Sisters. Founded in 1889, Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia University since 1900. The campus stretches along Broadway between 116th and 120th Streets in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in the borough...

, and the sole female US delegate to the April 1945 San Francisco United Nations Conference on International Organization
United Nations Conference on International Organization
The United Nations Conference on International Organization was a convention of delegates from 50 Allied nations that took place from 25 April 1945 to 26 June 1945 in San Francisco, California. At this convention, the delegates reviewed and rewrote the Dumbarton Oaks agreements...

, which negotiated the UN Charter and created the United Nations
United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...



Gildersleeve was born in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, she attended the Brearley School
Brearley School
The Brearley School is an all-girls private school in New York City, New York, United States. It is located on the Upper East Side of the Manhattan borough of New York City. The school is divided into the Lower School , Middle School and Upper School...

 and following her graduation in 1895 went on to attend Barnard College
Barnard College
Barnard College is a private women's liberal arts college and a member of the Seven Sisters. Founded in 1889, Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia University since 1900. The campus stretches along Broadway between 116th and 120th Streets in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in the borough...

. She completed her studies in 1899 and received a fellowship to undertake research for her MA in medieval history at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

. She taught English part time at Barnard for several years, she declined a full-time position and took a leave of absence to undertake her Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia in three years. When she completed her studies in 1908 she was appointed a lecturer in English in 1908 by Barnard and Columbia; by 1910 she had become an assistant professor and in 1911 was made dean of Barnard College.

In 1918 Gildersleeve, Caroline Spurgeon
Caroline Spurgeon
Caroline Frances Eleanor Spurgeon was an English literary critic. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College, Dresden and at King's College London and University College London.-Life:...

 and Rose Sedgwick met while the two English women were on an academic exchange to the United States. They discussed founding an international association of university women, and in 1919 founded the International Federation of University Women
International Federation of University Women
International Federation of University Women is an international organization that was founded in 1919 to promote women's education.The organization was founded by Virginia Gildersleeve, Caroline Spurgeon and Rose Sidgwick....

.). She shared an "intimate" relationship with the British Spurgeon, with whom she annually shared a rental summer home (see - Our Story)

Following World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 she became interested in international politics. She campaigned for Al Smith
Al Smith
Alfred Emanuel Smith. , known in private and public life as Al Smith, was an American statesman who was elected the 42nd Governor of New York three times, and was the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928...

 and Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt , also known by his initials, FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States and a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States during a time of worldwide economic crisis and world war...

. During World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 she chaired the Advisory Council of the navy's women's unit, the WAVES
The WAVES were a World War II-era division of the U.S. Navy that consisted entirely of women. The name of this group is an acronym for "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service" ; the word "emergency" implied that the acceptance of women was due to the unusual circumstances of the war and...

 and following the war she was appointed to the United Nations Charter Committee. She was involved in the reconstruction of higher education in Japan. For this work she received France's Legion of Honor
Légion d'honneur
The Legion of Honour, or in full the National Order of the Legion of Honour is a French order established by Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of the Consulat which succeeded to the First Republic, on 19 May 1802...


Dean of Barnard College

Women had won the right to an undergraduate education with the founding of Barnard College (1889), but prejudice against female graduate students persisted and the professional schools remained closed when Gildersleeve became Dean of Barnard in 1911. Over the next four decades, she worked steadfastly to advance women’s rights. Determined that her students should be prepared to take advantage of whatever chance might become available, Gildersleeve worked steadily to open Columbia’s professional schools to them. The Schools of Journalism and Library Science admitted women when they opened in 1912, and the School of Business did the same when it opened in 1916. Winning entry sometimes took more, however, than a simple decree that women might take classes. The School of Journalism, for instance, required a course in government as a prerequisite. Barnard did not at that time offer government courses, government being a subject thought suitable only for the male students at Columbia. But taking advantage of the Board of Trustees' desire to win admission for Barnard women to Columbia professional schools whenever possible, Gildersleeve quietly hired a young Columbia instructor in 1914 to teach Barnard's first course in American government. The young man was Charles Beard, and his wife Mary was one of the city's leading young reformers. As one of the members of the University Council, Dean Gildersleeve met regularly with the deans of all the schools that comprised the university, and at every opportunity she mentioned the importance of extending greater educational advantages to Barnard students.

Her first opportunity came as a direct result of World War I. To the dismay of Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler, many Columbia faculty not only opposed the war but said so publicly. He fired several of them, but he hesitated about firing the head of his anthropology department, Franz Boas. Professor Boas was a German Jewish immigrant and a Socialist. On account of his native roots and his politics, he objected to the war. His views distressed Butler, but Boas was the most famous anthropologist of his time and he was nearing retirement. Perhaps, Butler hoped, there might be some way out, a solution that would protect impressionable Columbia undergraduates from Boas's antiwar views, without forcing Butler to sacrifice his world-renowned graduate department of anthropology.

Gildersleeve saw her chance and worked out the following agreement: She would hire Boas to teach Barnard undergraduates, and Boas would confine his teaching Columbia to the older and less impressionable graduate students. Far from resenting his exile Barnard, Boas once remarked that he rather appreciated having had the opportunity to make the move, because he found the Barnard students to far and away the best he had ever taught. In due course he would find several of the century's most outstanding anthropologists among them, including Margaret Mead. ( and Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982) 213-214)

Dean Harlan Stone and his Law School faculty proved more resistant to Gildersleeve’s coaxing. In 1915, Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler lent Gildersleeve his support by calling a meeting at his home of the Educational Committee of the Columbia Board of Trustees and several of the more senior members of the law school to discuss the matter of women’s admission. Butler and the trustees favored the change, but the law faculty, fearful that admitting women would cause their best male students to flee to all-male Harvard, flatly refused. Gildersleeve’s wry suggestion that the two schools hold hands and take the dangerous step toward coeducation together did not receive a favorable reply. Indeed, in a letter the following week Dean Stone advised her that the majority of his faculty viewed coeducation as "unwise" and warned that further "agitation" on the matter would not be helpful. Although Yale Law School’s decision to admit women in 1917 drew favorable notices from the press, Columbia Law School refused to follow its example.

By 1924, the year Virginia Gildersleeve lay the cornerstone of a dormitory to help house Columbia’s exploding female graduate population, women’s enrollments at the university outpaced men’s by 18,000 to 15,194. But still Columbia Law School refused to open its doors. It took another two years of determined effort, including a Barnard faculty petition appealing to the law faculty’s sense of justice, before Columbia Law School grudgingly and narrowly agreed in December 1926 to admit not women in general but only those Barnard students who were particularly recommended by the Dean of Barnard College. Law School Dean Huger Jervey warned Dean Gildersleeve against giving any publicity to her victory. He did not want "the appearance created that the Law School had determined at this time generally to admit women equally with men." Gildersleeve complied, and sent only her best graduate, Helen Robinson, for admission in the fall of 1927. But word of the law school’s action got out, and two female Columbia graduate students, one with a master’s degree, the other with a doctorate, sought admission. Dean Jervey found them too well qualified to turn away. Margaret Spahr (Smith A.B. 1914, Columbia A.M. 1919, Ph.D.1926) was the first to graduate. She did so in two years, and in the process became the first woman to serve as an editor of the Columbia Law Review. In 1942, the last professional school hold-out, the School of Engineering, succumbed to the Gildersleeve treatment in the midst of World War II and admitted female students. (

Perhaps a sign of the times, Barnard had a few African-America students during Gildersleeve’s tenure, but Barnard’s tuition, high academic standards, and reputation as a college for the affluent barred most candidates from even thinking about applying. Pauli Murray, who would go on to be one of the outstanding civil rights lawyers and feminist leaders of her generation, was turned away in 1927 for want of funds and the inadequate preparation she had received in the segregated schools of Durham, North Carolina. The talented black novelist Zora Neale Hurston attended on a full scholarship provided by her literary mentor Fanny Hurst. ( In the 1930s, civil rights activists, including the Reverend James Robinson (whose church was at Morningside Avenue and 122nd Street) apparently persuaded Gildersleeve of the need both to recruit talented black students and to provide full scholarships to enable them to attend. Pressed by students in the early 1940s to do more, Dean Gildersleeve paid for the full scholarship of at least one African-American student from Harlem out of her own pocket. But by the time Gildersleeve retired, Barnard had only eight students in its student body of 1400. Despite these obstacles, women of every background capitalized on the efforts of Gildersleeve and others to open opportunity in Columbia’s graduate and professional schools. Between 1910 and 1950 Columbia dramatically outpaced other universities in the production of female Ph.D.’s, both in raw numbers and in the percentage of degrees awarded.

Jews played a central role at Barnard from the beginning. Annie Nathan Meyer led the campaign to found Barnard, and banker Jacob Schiff served as the first treasurer of the Board of Trustees. Barnard students, led by future Nation editor Freda Kirchwey '15bar, abolished sororities on campus in 1915, because of their undemocratic spirit, secrecy, and attitude toward Hebrew members. Gildersleeve, herself, disdained religious exclusivity and refused to categorize her students in any explicit Compared to most of the other elite women's colleges of the time, Barnard appears to have been relatively open; by the mid-1930s the proportion of Jews was roughly 20 percent compared to 6 to 10 percent at most other women's colleges. Barnard looks less open, however, when one considers that Jewish enrollment at Columbia College had reached 40 percent before World War I. At that point, both Columbia and Barnard began recruiting students from outside New York City and by evaluating all applicants on the basis of psychological tests, interviews, and letters of recommendation, as well as academic criteria. In the two decades before World War II, this process of selective admissions had reduced the percentage of Jewish students at both Columbia and Barnard to 20 percent. way. (

Politics and foreign affairs

At a time when the Barnard College Board of Trustees opposed students planning to participate in a suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue, in an era when some believed "marching in a parade would be a shocking and shameful thing" for female students to do, and when school administrators considered political activism "unladylike" and "too sordid for a refined woman," Gildersleeve encouraged faculty and students to engage freely, not only in the fight for suffrage, but in all the political movements of the day. (

During World War I, Gildersleeve contributed vigorously to wartime civil defense activities in New York City. She became a member of former President Taft's League to Enforce Peace. On May 27, 1916 she sat just below the podium in Washington at the League's second conference where she observed close up Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and President Woodrow Wilson as they spoke in favor of postwar international organization. On February 22, 1918 Gildersleeve gave a major address calling for "some ordered system of international government, backed by power enough to give authority to its decrees" (Gildersleeve, MANY A GOOD CRUSADE, 124) She argued that no world federation could come about without supportive public opinion. She spent the rest of her life trying, precisely through rousing public opinion, to build a climate supporting peace and international cooperation.

After the Senate rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations in 1920, Gildersleeve still held high her internationalist torch. She was in the Shotwell-Eichelberger League of Nations Association. She was also appointed a member of the American national Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. (

In beginning of World War II, in September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, there was great polarization on the campus. There were those who felt very strongly that the U.S. should stay out of the conflict and there were others led by Gildersleeve, who were strong interventionists. ( an interview with Ken Hechler, Assistant to Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State in West Virginia, on November 29, 1985 by Niel M. Johnson)

In 1942, early in World War II, Professor Gildersleeve was instrumental in founding the WAVES ("Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service"). The WAVES, under Gildersleeve's leadership, became a military branch of the Seven Sisters. Gildersleeve served as President of its advisory board. Its highest-ranking officer was the much younger President of Wellesley, Mildred McAfee; its second in command was Gildersleeve's companion, English Professor Elizabeth Reynard; and all of its members - 90,000 in all-were college graduates. ( As Chairman of the WAVES Advisory Council, she influenced 80,000 women serving in the U.S. Navy. A grateful Navy was proud to loan her a staff of WAVES to help her at the San Francisco Conference where she found 20,000 letters from concerned Americans awaiting her on arrival in April 1945. (

In 1945, Franklin Roosevelt named Gildersleeve – the only woman named – to the U.S. delegation to write the United Nations Charter. They were instructed to address two issues: 1) the need to prevent future wars through the creation of a Security Council; and 2) the need to enhance human welfare, which they accomplished through the establishment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Gildersleeve sought and received drafting responsibility for the work of this second Council -- the one, as she put it, in charge of "doing things rather than preventing things from being done." Gildersleeve was able to insert into the Charter the following goals for people around the world: "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development." She also persuaded the delegates to adopt the following aim for the United Nations: "universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." She was advocating nothing less than an international Works Progress Administration for educated women. To carry out its work, the Council was given the power to appoint whatever commissions it deemed necessary, but Gildersleeve insisted that the Charter require the appointment of one in particular: the Commission on Human Rights. This was the commission that, under the direction of Eleanor Roosevelt, would write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights three years later. This declaration, in turn, has served as the basis for all of the United Nations' work on behalf of women throughout the world over the past two generations. (

In March 1946, having been invited by General MacArthur, Virginia Gildersleeve flew off on her last major assignment for the United States. She was a member of the U.S. Educational Mission to Japan. In Japan she found great attention given to the new United Nations Organization. The 68 year old Dean of Barnard College was respected in Japan for having been the only American woman Delegate at the San Francisco founding conference. (

Some historians consider Gildersleeve to have been "the most influential leader" of the Christian "anti-Zionist lobby
Anti-Israel lobby in the United States
The anti-Israel lobby is a term used by some who criticize those groups and individuals that oppose Israeli policies or United States foreign policy which they consider to be too favorable towards Israel. Those opposed to such policies state that they seek a more "even-handed" U.S...

" of her era. Gildersleeve wrote that "after (her) retirement from the Deanship at Barnard, (she) devoted (her)self mainly to the Middle East," describing herself as "struggling ardently against" the creation and, later, the continued existence of the Jewish State. She blamed her failure to prevent the creation of the State of Israel on "the Zionist control of the media of communication." Gildersleeve repeatedly testified before congressional committees and lobbied members of Congress and President Harry Truman to deny American political, military, and financial support to Israel.

Gildersleeve was a trustee of the American University of Beirut
American University of Beirut
The American University of Beirut is a private, independent university in Beirut, Lebanon. It was founded as the Syrian Protestant College by American missionaries in 1866...

 and a leading figure in the Christian opposition to Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...

's statehood in 1948. She helped found and chaired the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land
Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land
The Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land, was an organization founded in February, 1948 by Virginia Gildersleeve and Kermit Roosevelt, Jr...

, which merged into the American Friends of the Middle East
American Friends of the Middle East
-History:In 1951, columnist Dorothy Thompson, together with 24 American educators, theologians, and writers including Harry Emerson Fosdick founded the American Friends of the Middle East. Kermit Roosevelt, Jr...

. According to historian Robert Moats Miller, of the University of North Carolina
University of North Carolina
Chartered in 1789, the University of North Carolina was one of the first public universities in the United States and the only one to graduate students in the eighteenth century...

, the group was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

  and ARAMCO. Miller states that Gildersleeve's "sympathies were indeed overwhelmingly with the Arabs."

Women’s Equality

In the 1910s, when the New York Public Schools still barred married women from teaching, Gildersleeve insisted that a woman’s marital status was entirely her own business. In 1931 her faculty mothers were suddenly much on her mind. At about the same time that she agreed to grant a paid leave of absence to a male professor who was in the hospital, a female member of the staff asked for the usual leave of absence without salary because she was going to have a child. "It suddenly struck me as unfair that you should receive full salary if you went to the hospital because of illness but that if you went in order to provide another citizen for the community, you should lose all your pay." She raised the matter with President Butler, who "looked a little startled." But when Gildersleeve mentioned to the Francophile president that France was providing such a benefit to its female teachers, Butler readily agreed. "We should have women teachers with fuller lives and richer experience, not so many dried-up old maids," he opined. Gildersleeve recorded this remark in her memoir without comment. Her victory, evidently, trumped the implicit insult from her boss and old friend. With the help of Barnard Trustees and staunch feminists Helen Rogers Reid and Alice Duer Miller, Gildersleeve persuaded the Barnard Board of Trustees to enact a maternity policy that provided one term off at full pay or a year off at half pay for all new faculty mothers. In the first year three women took advantage of this new policy. (

In 1915, the Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa asked her to be the first woman ever to address them at their annual convocation. After reviewing several male-centric speaking topics suggested to her, Gildersleeve opted for one of her own: "Some Guides for Feminine Energy." Gildersleeve's address was a genteel, but nonetheless clear, declaration of war on the male-led university. She challenged the commonly held belief that the education of women was a detriment to society, that the female body is a closed energy system, and that energy available for one task -- the development of women's mind -- would not be available for another -- the development of women's reproductive organs. In short, the mental strain of higher education would inevitably render women students infertile. At a time when men wondered, could women really be expected to excel academically, given the reproductive and domestic demands on their energies? Her answer: Yes. A learned woman could read by an electric light, rather than having to devote winter afternoons to making candles. Improved public health and the declining infant mortality made it unnecessary to breed as many children as once had been the case. Technological advances had removed the great bulk of domestic work from the home. In the modern world women could have the same ambitions as men. (

Through her work Gildersleeve and other pioneers like her provided the essential conditions necessary to winning for women full equality with men in American society and throughout the world. In gaining for women access to Columbia medical school, she helped change the face of American, and later world, health care. In gaining for women access to Columbia Law School, she helped open the way for women's full participation in politics, a calling for which a law degree, if not essential, has nonetheless become the single most important qualification. In broadening women's scholarly horizons, Gildersleeve laid the groundwork for some of the most innovative scholarship of the twentieth century. And in helping to draft the charter of the UN, Gildersleeve assured that the issues to which she had devoted her career on Morningside Heights would be addressed throughout the world in the decades that followed. By insisting that women have the right to every educational opportunity open to men, and by fighting her whole life to secure that opportunity, she helped establish the bedrock on which feminists have been building ever since. (


In her 1954 memoir, Gildersleeve poignantly protested the "particularly cruel and unwholesome discrimination against unmarried women," like herself, who chose to spend their lives living with other women. She attributed this trend to "the less responsible psychologists and psychiatrists of the day," who voiced "disrespect for spinsters in the teaching profession as ‘inhibited’ and ‘frustrated.’" Gildersleeve never identified herself as a lesbian, preferring instead the adjective "celibate." Many students recalled her as "austere" and "aloof," although some thought her simply very shy. Since she spent about half of every year on international work, which culminated with her serving as the only woman among the American delegates at the 1945 United Nations Charter Convention, she was not well known to students in her later years. And as American culture became increasingly sexualized, she found that she ceased to fit in, even at Barnard. For several decades she lived with companion Professor Caroline Spurgeon. Later she lived with Barnard English Professor Elizabeth Reynard. She was hardly lonely, or, as Barnard President Butler would have it, a woman without a full or rich life. Indeed, her freedom from conventional family life gave her enormous freedom for her international work. To the end, however, she tried to create opportunity at both Barnard and Columbia for women, whatever the condition of their private lives might be. (

Women Collaborating - IFUW

Gildersleeve and Spurgeon had met just after the First World War ended. A delegation of British educators came to the United States in search of innovations that might be usefully transplanted to England. One of these educators was Caroline Spurgeon, a highly respected Shakespeare scholar who published many books and papers about both Chaucer and Shakespeare. She taught at Bedford College for Women, part of the University of London. Meeting Spurgeon allowed Gildersleeve to broach the topic most on her mind: the need to establish an organization that would foster international cooperation among like-minded academic women. Gildersleeve imagined an organization built on the model of the American Association of Collegiate Alumnae; Spurgeon had in mind her own British Federation of University Women. In 1919 they created the International Federation of University Women (IFUW), housing it in London with a second home in Paris at Reid Hall. For two decades, between World War I and World War II, Gildersleeve worked through the IFUW to keep alive the spirit of international understanding, even as isolationism gripped her country. ( They believed that the women of the world could make change by talking to and learning from each other. (
Gildersleeve and Spurgeon bought a cottage in Alciston in 1925 and every year spent the summer months there and the autumn months in New York. Their visitors’ book at the cottage shows a number of IFUW women coming to stay and savor the peace and tranquility of the Sussex countryside, among them Meta Tuke, Principal of Bedford College. Also living at the cottage was high-ranking civil servant Lilian Clapham, who was awarded the MBE for her services to the Ministry of Labour, mainly promoting job opportunities for women and girls. When Lilian died in 1935, Caroline erected a gravestone reading, “This stone is placed here by Caroline F.E. Spurgeon in grateful remembrance of forty years of steadfast friendship and of happy life together.” Caroline died seven years later, in America, in the middle of World War Two – her dying wish was for her ashes to be buried alongside Lilian's in Alciston churchyard, which Gildersleeve carried out when the war was over. (


In 1969 eleven members of the International Federation of University Women founded the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (VGIF).(See The Fund to date has awarded more than 250 grants for a total project aid disbursement of over $1 million USD to women’s groups in low per capita income countries. Priority is given to income generation and community development projects which enhance and utilize women’s educational, vocational, and leadership skills. Project activities range from seminars, conferences, and training workshops to community-action projects.

External links
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