GWI History Presentation

GWI History Presentation

Dr Elizabeth M.E. Poskitt, GWI Past President

GWI 80th Anniversary Celebration – Geneva, March 2000


It has been said that Organisations exist to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things. I would say yes, but extraordinary people are needed, in the first place, to create the organisations. Our Federation has never been short of extraordinary people – nor of the extraordinary coincidences which help things happen.


Most of you have heard of Virginia Gildersleeve. Dean of Barnard College in New York, she was the only woman involved in writing, and signing the UN Charter, creating the words: ‘We, the Peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…’ Less familiar to you may be Caroline Spurgeon, the first woman professor in an English University, a renowned scholar of medieval English, working at Bedford College, London. These two, Virginia Gildersleeve and Caroline Spurgeon, were the true founders of our Federation. But they were helped by coincidence.


In October 1918 a British Universities Mission went from Britain to the United States to develop closer ties between universities on both sides of the Atlantic. At the last minute two women were added to the mission: Caroline Spurgeon and a younger woman Rose Sidgwick, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. Virginia was in New York to welcome the women in her position as Chair of the International Committee of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. She described Caroline Spurgeon at that first meeting as of ‘medium height, stout and with extraordinary bright brown eyes’ but also commented ‘the stout one, Miss Spurgeon, eyed me coldly’. Thus it is surprising that the two women developed such a lasting friendship. For much of the rest of their lives, they lived together either in UK or in the US. Without the strength of this friendship, would IFUW have existed? Would IFUW have flourished?


It was Caroline Spurgeon who, during that US trip, after an evening spent discussing the World War that was ending, made the famous comment: ‘We should have an international association of university women so that we at least shall have done all we can to prevent another such catastrophe’. At which Virginia said: ‘then I guess I must rally the Association of Collegiate Alumnae’ and Rose Sidgwick added ‘and we must go back and talk with the British Federation of University Women’. Caroline Spurgeon was clearly one of those people so beloved of our own Mary Purcell, someone who ‘makes things happen’, since Virginia remarks that Caroline ‘had the ability not only to inspire people with a vision but to make them work for its fulfilment’’.


This bit of history had a sad end. Both English women developed ‘flu in the pandemic of late 1918. Rose Sidgwick died but Caroline survived, nursed back to health by Virginia. In those terrible circumstances the friendship between our two founders cemented and the determination to form the Federation, perhaps as a memorial to Rose Sidgwick, increased.


All that was in late1918. In the summer of 1919 the British Federation invited the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and a group of university women forming in Canada, to work together to create IFUW. The first meeting was in 1919 and a year later the first Conference was held at Bedford College in Regent’s Park London – Caroline Spurgeon’s college. Representatives of 16 countries were present.


‘There are two natural and inevitable questions which occur to everyone who hears of the International Federation of University Women. The first: What is it? The second: What does it do?’ How many times have you been asked these questions? But I am quoting from a pamphlet dated 1923!


The answer to the first question was ‘the Federation is a league of those women scattered throughout many different countries who have the common experience of a university education’. And later: ‘the day is in sight when the educated women of the entire world will be members of this great society’. (So far this has not been achieved except in one country for a brief period. The Icelandic Federation had 51 members in 1960, a membership that included every qualified woman in the country).


The pamphlet lists the federation’s aims as ‘promoting understanding and friendship between university women of the nations of the world. To further their common interests and develop between their countries sympathy and mutual helpfulness’. Activities were listed as: assistance for travelling members (please note this was assistance through information, not financial assistance); the establishment of international clubhouses; the endowment of international fellowships; and co-operation with other international organisations.


Although the emphasis has changed, apart from the establishment of international clubhouses, our purposes are still embraced by these activities.


Whilst today we celebrate the first IFUW Conference in 1920, it was the Third Conference in Christiania (now Oslo) in Norway in 1924 when IFUW really ‘took off’. That conference was unique. The four Nordic countries came together to run the Conference jointly…something very unusual since relations between the Nordic states had not always been good. Finland had only become an independent country in 1917.


It was at this Conference that the Fellowships Fund was launched – in a very interesting way: It was the custom for Norwegian students to meet together on the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the day they entered the university. In 1913 a group of old men came together in Christiania for their jubilee. Incredibly, they decided to fund a research fellowship for a woman. The war intervened but the money remained intact. One of the men, father of a Norwegian IFUW member, contacted his fellow students and together they agreed to donate the money to the newly formed IFUW Fellowships Fund.


The Norwegian donation was immediately followed by a gift of £50 from a Scottish member. Another member described how she was collecting money for the Fund by asking for an extra shilling in dues from every member of her federation.


It seems very appropriate that this meeting copies that Norwegian tradition and celebrates our 80th Anniversary by raising money for our historic Fellowships Fund.


The IFUW badge with the lamp was also created for that Third Conference. It was designed by members of the Norwegian Federation and adopted by delegates as the permanent badge of IFUW. The antique lamp, representing the light of learning, is on a blue background broken with the letters IFUW. Round the central disc is an interlinked chain symbolizing the bonds of friendship which the Federation exists to create and strengthen.


My remit was really to tell you about past leaders and their ideas…but I cannot do them justice in the time allotted. Two can serve as examples of the later periods of IFUW development – the troubled period during and around the Second World War, and the phase of expansion into newly independent Third World countries and of work with United Nations bodies.


If you have stood in the IFUW Office and studied the portraits of Past Presidents, you must have been struck by one very austere portrait, that of Stanislawa Adamowicz. She was the President who barely reigned even though her presidency lasted 8 years. A Polish medical doctor and an academic from the University of Cracow, she was described as ‘a slight frail person who looked as though she might snap in a breeze but nevertheless showed she could withstand hurricanes’.


Within a month of becoming President in 1939, Lector Adamowicz was out of touch – and remained so for the next six years in Nazi-occupied Poland. The period around the Second World War showed the true value and strength of IFUW friendship through the Federation’s work for refugee women; for, and by, those, in occupied countries; as well as relief efforts in the post war years. Some contact was established with the President during the occupation of Poland. She was hungry, but otherwise coping. The occasional food parcel found its way to her. At the end of the war the Second Vice President Karen Koch brought Stanislawa to Stockholm to recover. Despite the Iron Curtain falling she was determined to return to Poland: commenting: ‘I don’t believe in exiles: if we who believe in freedom leave our country, it is finished’.


The first post war Conference was in 1947 in Toronto (the first IFUW Conference outside Europe). There Lector Adamowicz pledged the Federation to take a fair share in the world’s common burdens making the memorable comments: ‘our hands accustomed to using weapons are very clumsy in their attempts to collect the delicate threads of peace. Our minds concentrated for such a long time on destruction, have lost their flexibility and are moving at a very slow rate towards constructive ideas’. She recognised that flexibility of mind is one of the greatest attributes of real intelligence – something which needs nurturing if we are to enact a better future.


Personal integrity – the ability to have a vision and retain that despite the vicissitudes of life – is, to me, one of the greatest human virtues. Sincerity and clarity of vision were shown by many of our leaders. Jeanne Chaton, President 1956-59, was another leader where life circumstances formed, strengthened, but also threatened her vision.


Jeanne Chaton was 14 when the First World War broke out. As a French national in Lorraine, she was interned. She and her father were condemned to death, as hostages for a violent French bombardment. Happily the sentence on both was commuted and Jeanne was confined to a very inhumane prison camp. Since she spoke some German she was given responsibilities for a group of 79 women of various nationalities. This was one of the formative periods in her life. In 1917, in very poor health, she was exchanged for a German prisoner and spent the rest of the First War working with the Red Cross. These experiences inspired her vocation as a political historian and as a lifelong worker for disarmament and peace. Between the wars she worked for reconciliation between France and Germany and was a strong supporter of the League of Nations.


Jeanne was not a conventional pacifist. To her, liberty was a fundamental condition for peace. And for liberty she worked courageously and impressively with the French resistance during the Second World War.


For many years after the war Jeanne represented IFUW at UNESCO. In 1964 she was unanimously elected President of the Non-governmental Organisations Committee. Through her IFUW came to cooperate with Unesco programmes for the advancement of women, the eradication of illiteracy, for youth, and to comment on the draft Declaration on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Active with IFUW in Africa.


As someone who was born with the century, mature at the creation of IFUW, and who devoted her life to peace through international friendship, Jeanne Chaton represented in her life the belief of our founders – that greater understanding between nations is the foundation of peace. Jeanne Chaton was well known to many of you as someone of great distinction. Charismatic. Creative. Courageous. Kind. Always ready to learn and to communicate. I remember seeing her at a Council meeting: distinguished in appearance, but (Romey reminded me), showing striking individualism in the blue and white trainers on her feet despite, on that occasion at least, otherwise immaculate couture.


Jeanne Chaton brings my history up to your memories. I have determined not to enter the dangerous territory of reporting modern times or living members. I have not given much of a picture of IFUW issues from the past. But what is extraordinary is how familiar so many of the discussions seem:


Equal pay for equal work at the first Conference in 1920, by Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr college in America (There was an extraordinary woman – but there is not space to talk about her).


The need and value of international fellowships for research, by Ellen Gleditsch, 3rd President 1926-29. The desirability of opening up careers for educated women in the higher branches of industry, trade and finance, by Caroline Spurgeon in 1924.


Also, in 1924, the excitement expressed by Winifred Cullis (President, 1929-32) that the North and South Irish Federations were going to join in one Federation…at the time when Ireland was splitting up. ‘It would be splendid if a big paving stone in the way of conciliation were put down by the University Women of Ireland’.


Perhaps this patchy history gives you an impression of missed opportunities. …what we might have achieved – but somehow did not. This would be a sorry – and wrong – conclusion. Look today at the worldwide involvement of IFUW members; at the enormous amounts of money given to women and girls across the world to further their education; and the presence of friends here today and the greetings from others. What has impressed me in our past is the determination and vision of our leaders. Now, too often, we seem inhibited by concerns about money or creating rules and structures.


There never has been any money. At the 50th anniversary in 1968, Meribeth Cameron, President 1959-62, commented that she was tempted to call her history of IFUW ‘the short and simple annals of the poor’. Yet, lack of money did not stop the Federation acting in the past. Visionaries said: This is what we want to do. Let us see how we can accomplish it. And people, situations, money, came to their aid.


I am reminded of the wonderful comment from the famous British economist Barbara Ward: ‘Never underestimate the capacity of a few determined people with a shared vision to change the world. In fact, looking at history, nothing else has ever changed the world’.

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