Virginia Gildersleeve: Opening the Gates
-Virginia Crosheron Gildersleeve
Many a Good Crusade (1954)
Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve '99BAR '00 '08GSAS, dean of Barnard College and Adviser to Columbia Women Graduate Students from 1911 to 1947, did more to advance the cause of women at Columbia University than any other person of her time.
In 1911 undergraduate education for women had been available for only two decades and many graduate courses and professional schools remained closed to them. By the time Gildersleeve retired 36 years later, Columbia was granting more advanced degrees to women and hiring more female faculty than any other university in the United States. This achievement had much to do with Columbia's situation in New York City, long the country's most ethnically diverse metropolis, its economic heart, its media capital, and its principal haven for ambitious, rebellious, heterodox women. New York's opportunities enabled women to make important advances in all of the city's colleges and universities. Their achievements were greatest, perhaps, at Columbia, and Gildersleeve's successful use of Barnard College as a staging ground for her campaign on behalf of female graduate students and faculty goes a long way toward explaining why.
Born in 1877, the daughter of Judge Henry Alger Gildersleeve and Virginia Crocheron, Gildersleeve grew up in a town house on West 48th Street near Fifth Avenue. "We . . . were not 'in society' exactly," Gildersleeve later recalled, "we were professional people." She prepared for college at the Brearley School and upon graduation in 1895 thought of attending Bryn Mawr, but her mother preferred that she stay closer to home. Her father had attended Columbia Law School, and her older brother Harry graduated from the College in 1890. She had once accompanied Harry to the College's library on 49th Street, where the shaded green lights and rows of books had deeply impressed her. So she enrolled at Barnard, which had just opened its doors a few blocks away on Madison Avenue. Gildersleeve followed the College when it moved uptown to elegant new quarters alongside Columbia on Morningside Heights a couple of years later, and there she studied European history with James Harvey Robinson, sociology with Franklin Giddings, and history of philosophy with Nicholas Murray Butler. She graduated first in her class in 1899, and the offer of a graduate fellowship prompted her to stay on at Columbia, where she received a master's degree in history in 1900. After five years of teaching first-year composition at Barnard, she returned to Columbia for a Ph.D. in English, which she earned in 1908. Her dissertation, "Government Regulation of Elizabethan Drama," signaled a lifelong interest in interdisciplinary studies. Not wanting to leave home, she turned down an associate professorship in English at the University of Wisconsin, despite being warned that academic advancement required a willingness to move from school to school at the beginning of one's career. Instead, she pieced together teaching assignments at Barnard and in Columbia's graduate program in English, until an assistant professorship in English opened at Barnard in 1910. She assumed the position of dean of Barnard College and Adviser to Women Graduate Students at Columbia in 1911.
New York in the 1910s fairly burst with political, cultural, and economic energy. For women this energy produced unprecedented opportunities in journalism, publishing, education, retailing, law, medicine, and social work. Determined that her students should be prepared to take advantage of whatever chance might become available, Gildersleeve organized a Committee on Women Graduate Students, to which she recruited Barnard Professor of Geology Ida H. Ogilvie and two male colleagues, James Harvey Robinson from Barnard and John Dewey from Columbia. Together they worked to advance women's interests in the graduate faculties and open Columbia's professional schools. The School of Journalism admitted women when it 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 any such course, 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 one of Robinson's students, Charles Beard, to teach Barnard's first course in American government.
As most of her listeners would have been aware, "feminine energy" had been a matter of obsessive concern among academics for many years. Back in 1873, Dr. Edward Clarke of the Harvard Medical School had published a book in which he claimed that the higher education of women would kill off the middle class. Basing his dark prophecy on a view, widely held among physicians at the time, that the body is a closed energy system, he explained that energy available for one task-the development of a woman's mind-would not be available for another: the development of her reproductive organs. In short, the mental strain of higher education would inevitably render women students infertile. The prospect of infertility raised, in turn, the specter of "race suicide," which was the belief that middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were marching toward extinction as a consequence of their declining birth rate. According to President Theodore Roosevelt, there would soon not be enough sons to go to Harvard. Angry, but undaunted, talented young women had been flooding the colleges ever since, distinguishing themselves academically and, in due course, maternally. However, concern about the limits of feminine energy lingered, especially in the minds of male academics. Could women really be expected to excel academically, given the reproductive and domestic demands on their energies? This was the question that Gildersleeve was implicitly addressing in her speech.
Law and medicine
As a member of the University Council, Gildersleeve met regularly with the deans of all the schools that composed the university, and at every opportunity she mentioned the importance of extending greater educational advantages to Barnard students. The dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Samuel Lambert '23P&S, seemed sympathetic, but insisted that change must await the school's move to larger quarters. New York women had been pressing the medical school to open its doors ever since1873, when suffrage leader Lillie Devereux Blake petitioned the Columbia Trustees on behalf of a group of women, including one who wanted to attend the medical school, that Columbia's charter made the institution available to the "youth of the city," a group that should be read to include women. Unwilling to wait any longer, Gildersleeve told the dean in 1917 that "a brilliant young Swedish woman, Gulli Lindh," was about to graduate from Barnard and attend the Johns Hopkins Medical School, but that she would rather stay in New York. The dean responded that he would be happy to have her and others, but that, at a minimum, he had to provide additional laboratory space and a woman's rest room. Gildersleeve, assisted by the American Women's Medical Association, offered to raise the necessary $50,000, and the medical school took Lindh, as well as five others to keep her company. Four years later, Lindh graduated first in the class, and two of the other women graduated third and fifth.
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 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 '27BAR '30L, 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. Jervey found them too well qualified to turn away. Margaret Spahr '26GSAS '29L, who already had received master's and doctoral degrees from Columbia, was the first woman to graduate from the law school. 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 holdout, the School of Engineering, succumbed to the Gildersleeve treatment and admitted female students.Creating the WAVES
Gildersleeve did everything she could to keep her students in school, to dissuade them from quitting to take a job in a factory-no matter how glamorous wartime propaganda made the job seem. She also did everything she could to keep from losing her students to marriage. She seems to have accepted the fact that, given the wartime pressures, marriage to departing soldiers would occur; she simply drew the line at students following their new husbands to wherever they might be sent. In her view young wives were far better off at Barnard, completing their education, than they were staying near some military camp on the other side of the country.
Gildersleeve had no illusions about what would happen to women's opportunities after the war: they would shrink, perhaps even disappear. But, she insisted, where opportunity remained, her students were going to have as big a competitive advantage as she and the educational resources at her command could assure.
"We the People of the United Nations"
The opportunity to build on the accomplishments of the war came in February 1945 when Franklin Roosevelt named Gildersleeve to the U.S. delegation to write the United Nations Charter. The only woman named to the delegation, Gildersleeve won her spot through both her war work and her reputation as an internationalist. That reputation dated back to1916 when, influenced by Nicholas Murray Butler, Gildersleeve had begun speaking to Barnard students about establishing an international organization, even before America entered World War I. A "league to enforce peace," she called it. She thought it should include an international court, but she also advocated establishing an organization that would foster contact among nations, even when there were no outstanding disputes. Many women leaders of her day, including most notably Jane Addams, were pacifists. Gildersleeve was not. But she strongly supported the League of Nations and worked on postwar committees to lobby the American public on its behalf. That work failed, but Gildersleeve enjoyed greater success within academia. When the 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 Shakespeare scholar. 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. She twice served as president of the IFUW, became a trustee of the American College for Girls in Turkey, as well as the Near East College Association, and traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. When war came again, Gildersleeve joined the Commission to Study the Organization of the Peace, headed by Barnard History Professor James T. Shotwell. Longtime colleagues and friends, Shotwell and Gildersleeve had taken the same seminar on medieval Europe taught by James Harvey Robinson in 1900. During World War II they met once a month with fellow commissioners, who included Owen Lattimore, an Asia specialist for the Office of War Information who would later be falsely charged by Joseph McCarthy as a Russian spy; John Foster Dulles, a Wall Street lawyer who would go on to be Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of State; and Max Lerner, a syndicated columnist for the New York Post, to plan America's participation in a world organization following the war. The committee's recommendations influenced the work undertaken at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, which in turn became the basis of the UN Charter proposals she and the world's delegates took up in 1945.
The delegates were charged with writing a charter that addressed two issues: to prevent future wars through the creation of a Security Council and to enhance human welfare through the establishment of an Economic and Social Council. Gildersleeve was assigned to the committee responsible for creating this second council-the one, as she put it, in charge of doing things rather than preventing things from being done. She took particular pride in helping insert into the charter's statement of purpose the following goals for people around the world: "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development." Moreover, she persuaded the delegates to adopt the following aim for the UN: "universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." Gildersleeve endorsed these goals not only for their importance to the enhancement of human welfare, but also because she saw them as providing job opportunities for all the women who had been training to be health professionals, research scientists, lawyers, teachers, and social workers. She was advocating 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 commission, under the direction of Eleanor Roosevelt, would write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights three years later. This declaration, in turn, was to serve as the basis for all of the UN's work on behalf of women throughout the world over the next two generations.
Establishing the Commission on Human Rights may have been Gildersleeve's most enduring accomplishment at the conference, but the achievement that most cheered her English professor's heart was her success, with her aide, Barnard English Professor Elizabeth Reynard, in drafting the opening lines of the United Nation Charter's Preamble. In place of the version suggested by Marshall Smuts of South Africa, which read "The High Contracting Parties, determined to prevent a recurrence of the fratricidal strife which twice in our generation has brought untold sorrow and loss upon mankind. . . ." she offered the simpler, more democratic, and more American, "We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which in our time has brought untold sorrow to mankind. . . ." The Smuts version rounded off the preamble, much to Gildersleeve's distress, but at least she and Reynard had succeeded in crafting the opening lines.
Gildersleeve's contributions to women's rights and international peace owed much to her experience on Morningside Heights. Though born and raised in the comfortable confines of New York's Episcopalian upper crust, she gained a far broader perspective on the world as a student. She later credited her mentor, historian James Harvey Robinson, for teaching her tolerance and the capacity through careful scholarship to put herself in the place of others from very different cultural backgrounds. Robinson's influence shaped her career.
Signs of the times
While opportunities for women blossomed during Gildersleeve's administration, minority admission figures at Barnard continued to reflect the wider realities of her time. Barnard had only a few black students while Gildersleeve served as dean, most notably novelist Zora Neale Hurston '28BAR, who entered Barnard in 1925 on a full scholarship arranged by Annie Nathan Meyer. 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. In the 1930s, civil rights activists apparently convinced 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, Gildersleeve paid for the full scholarship of at least one black student from Harlem out of her own pocket. But by the time Gildersleeve retired, Barnard still had only eight black students in its student body of 1,400.
Making Columbia a vanguard for women
However uneven Gildersleeve's record may have been with respect to advancing the interests of minorities, she deserves much of the credit for the fact that, during her tenure as dean of Barnard College, Columbia dramatically outpaced other universities in the advanced degrees it awarded to women, both in raw numbers and in the percentage of degrees awarded. Under her leadership, Barnard had one of the highest ratios of female to total faculty in the country, and that faculty prided itself on offering opportunity to talented women not available even at most other women's colleges. This concentration of women scholars gave many Barnard students the confidence to think that they too might pursue academic careers. To keep faculty standards high, a 1922 agreement reiterated the right of Barnard professors to teach in the graduate faculties and gave Columbia departments an important say in Barnard tenure decisions. This policy increased the status of those women professors on the Barnard faculty who won promotion to tenured positions, but at a price. Gildersleeve was perfectly frank in keeping women relegated, disproportionately, to the lower ranks. To maintain close relations with Columbia she needed to be able to attract top-flight male scholars and pay them more. She knew that given Barnard's situation in New York City she would always have an ample pool of talented women to fill the lower ranks. Sociologist Mirra Komarovsky '26BAR, a Russian immigrant, had published two books before she could persuade Gildersleeve to promote her to assistant professor.
A new generation of American women
Barnard's relationship with Columbia, together with Columbia's situation in New York, helped produce an unusually high concentration of female academics on Morningside Heights, compared to the numbers of faculty elsewhere in the country. This concentration helped fuel a revolution of rising expectations that insured that Columbia women would play a pivotal role in the 1960s movement to protest the limits on the opportunity available to them both at the University and in the society beyond. The concentration of women at Columbia also facilitated research over many decades that was then considered outside the mainstream of scholarly endeavor: research on women, families, and children, as well as interdisciplinary research on a wide variety of fields. This research created the distinctive point of view from which the modern women's movement would eventually develop, at the same time as it gave women academics fields of research in which they encountered virtually no competition from 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.
Courtesy of Barnard College Archives: Gildersleeve Photo Portrait, White; Barnard Class of 1899, Amé DuPont; Gildersleeve with WAVES, U.S. Navy Photo; Gildersleeve with Reid and Butler; Gildersleeve at signing of U.N. Charter; Gildersleeve with her dogs, White; Gildersleeve in 1944, Paul Parker; Gildersleeve with White, Crampton, Shotwell and Follett.
University Archives, Columbiana Library, Columbia University: Barnard Hall; Three Barnard leaders; Milbank Hall.