Who was Virginia Gildersleeve

Who was Virginia Gildersleeve?

virginiagildersleevePresented here is a pen sketch of the remarkable woman who helped found the International Federation of University Women. In this she was a practical visionary, as well as being a fine student, teacher, educator, administrator and diplomat who walked the world stage.


Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve was born in 1877 in her parents’ comfortable New York home where she lived for the next 36 years. It was not far from Columbia University, which in 1889 opened Barnard College for the “University Education of Women”. So when the time came for Virginia to enter the halls of academe her mother insisted she enrol not at fashionable Bryn Mawr but at Barnard, a perfectly good college in her own home town.


She graduated MA in Medieval History in 1900. Then followed a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. Later, her doctoral thesis Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Drama was described in a scholarly French periodical as “a wonderful university thesis.” She continued her association with Barnard as Tutor and Lecturer in English until 1911 when she accepted the position of Dean, a role she graced for the next 36 years.


She was never a militant feminist, but quietly and, as she believed, reasonably, over nearly three decades paved the way for Barnard women to share in every aspect of Columbia life – first in the Medical School, then Law and finally Engineering, when events leading up to the bombing of the American base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands caused America to enter World War II and virtually catapulted women into positions traditionally held by men.


If Virginia’s years at Barnard were trail – blazing, her influence on the world stage was spectacular. In 1918, while still fighting for survival in World War I, Britain had the courage and foresight to send a British universities mission to the United States and Canada to develop closer relations with universities across the Atlantic. As an afterthought, two women were added to the five men in the mission: Rose Sidgwick, Lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Caroline Spurgeon of the University of London, the first woman ever to occupy a university chair in Great Britain and already well known for her remarkable work Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion.


Their first hostess in America was the Dean of Barnard. They must have “clicked”, for in between tours to different parts of the United States, the two Englishwomen always returned to New York and Barnard. In her autobiography 1 Virginia paints a touching picture of their last meeting. She was sitting on a steamer trunk in Dr Spurgeon’s room in the University Women’s Club when the talk turned to the war. Said Dr Spurgeon, “We should have an international association of university women, so we shall have done what we can to prevent another such catastrophe.”


Sadly, Rose Sidgwick fell victim to the influenza that claimed so many lives in 1918. Her funeral service was held in St.Paul’s Chapel at Columbia. Professor Spurgeon returned to Britain to take up the cause which she and Rose Sidgwick had planned together. She soon enlisted the help and huge enthusiasm of Professor Winifred Cullis of the London School of Medicine. Within months they issued an invitation to Virginia and her friends to a meeting in Bedford College (then a women’s college of the University of London) in July 1919. It was gladly accepted.


At this quite informal meeting Professor Cullis and Dean Gildersleeve became joint chairmen of the new enterprise and so began the teamwork that continued for nearly thirty years. After this first meeting Virginia visited Cara (as Caroline was known to her close friends) in her Surrey cottage and there prepared the first draft of the Constitution of IFUW.


A year later in 1920, the first Conference met at Bedford College with delegates from not only the United States and Great Britain, but from six other voting National Associations: Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, with representatives from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, India, Norway, South Africa and Sweden. Virginia Gildersleeve’s Constitution was adopted, the aim being “to promote understanding and friendship between university women of the world, and thereby to further their interests and develop between their countries sympathy and mutual helpfulness”.


Professor Cullis presided at this first Conference in 1920, and continued in the chair at the second in Paris in 1922 (when New Zealand was first represented by Miss Kate Hogg) and at the third in Oslo in 1924.


Virginia wanted a truly international organisation, with no one nation predominating in voting power. To this end, she encouraged the American Association to agree to five votes only, at any Conference, emphasising riot size but the individuality of each nation. “In this way”, wrote Virginia, “IFUW was a significant forerunner of the General Assembly of the United Nations.”


Virginia was equally insistent that the Federation was not to be a separatist ultra-feminist movement, nor a propagandist organisation. Rather the great underlying purpose was world peace. On this she observed wisely, “We did not talk much about it. We early found that peace is a subject which can stimulate almost any meeting to great belligerency.”


Virginia was elected President at the Amsterdam Conference in 1928. “I took it very seriously read up the history of the Netherlands, and had nine lessons in the Dutch language so that I could pronounce the opening sentence of my Presidential speech in Dutch with some degree of accuracy.” A significant step forward for IFUW came with the admission of the German Federation. “Almost at once we realised that a great people had come among us.”


She was twice President of IFUW, 1924-26 and 1936-39. Her account of the work of IFUW in the difficult late thirties, during the World War II and in the post-war years makes one proud of the efforts university women made to ensure the organisation survived, even though at war’s end half the European membership had disappeared, first under political pressure and then from the tragedy of war itself.


Dean Gildersleeve’s work for the Federation, as well as her remarkable leadership of Barnard College, was not unknown to the United States Government. In 1945 President Roosevelt appointed her as the only woman in the seven-member delegation to the San Francisco Conference which drew up the Charter of the United Nations. The Secretary of State included in his tribute: “…great stature and proven statesmanship …the objectivity of the scholar…deep convictions and a warmhearted interest in the betterment of the conditions of human life”. For a greater insight into this fascinating woman read here.


The New York Times called her “Our Academic First Lady”. Today the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund focuses on women’s education in developing countries.

A wry comment from America’s “Academic First Lady” 

In her autobiography, Virginia Gildersleeve had this to say about some of the male delegates at the San Francisco Conference:

Though the British and American men hated being lectured to on the virtues and the rights of women,

some of the men of other nationalities felt differently about it.

This article by Dame Dorothy Winstone, Auckland originally appeared in the NZFUW Bulletin

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