Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron (1877–1965)

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Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron (1877–1965)

Outstanding educator and dean of Barnard College, during the years of its greatest development, who was also U.S. delegate to the UN conference held at San Francisco in 1945, thereby holding the highest political appointment then given to an American woman. Born Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve on October 3, 1877, in New York City; died in Centerville, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1965; daughter of Henry Alger Gildersleeve (a judge) and Virginia (Crocheron) Gildersleeve; attended Brearley School; graduated Barnard College, A.B., 1899; Columbia University, A.M., 1900; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1908; never married; lived with Elizabeth Reynard (a professor of English at Barnard); no children.

Was an instructor in English, Barnard College (1900–07, 1908–10), assistant professor (1910–11), and professor and dean (1911–47); served as U.S. delegate to United Nations conference on international organization in San Francisco (1945).

Selected publications:

Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Drama (Columbia University Press, 1908); Many a Good Crusade (Columbia University Press, 1954); A Hoard for Winter (Columbia University Press, 1962).

One December day in 1910, while riding on the uptown elevated train in New York City, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, chanced upon an old acquaintance. "Judge Gildersleeve," said Butler, "I have good news for you. I've decided to make your daughter dean of Barnard." Judge Henry Gildersleeve paused a moment, then commented, "I am not surprised." Though only after her tenure was the title changed from dean to president, one thing was certain: the appointment eventually launched Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve into the position of being an internationally known leader of women's education in the United States.

Virginia Gildersleeve was born in New York City on October 3, 1877, the youngest of five children born to Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve, for whom she was named, and to Henry Alger Gildersleeve. Her father was an eminent city jurist, serving successively as judge in the Court of General Sessions (a criminal court), the superior court, and the state supreme court. Raised in a brick house with brownstone trim just off Fifth Avenue, Virginia grew up amid upper-middle class comfort. "We were not 'in society' exactly," she would later write. "We were professional people." The household did, however, maintain two fulltime maids. Nonetheless, Virginia experienced personal tragedy when a brother died of typhoid fever as she was just turning 14. "At that moment a black curtain cut my life in two," she said.

Gildersleeve attended the Brearley School, whose headmaster, James Croswell, sought to turn adolescent girls into budding scholars. In 1895, she entered Barnard College, which occupied a shabby brownstone on Madison Avenue. She later referred to herself as "a shy, snobbish, solemn freshman" but soon found she was quite popular. Though Barnard was still small and poor, Gildersleeve claimed that its tie to Columbia University gave her an education without parallel. She was taught by a succession of renowned Barnard and Columbia faculty, including George Odell in English, Nicholas Murray Butler in philosophy, and Franklin Giddings in sociology. Emily James Putnam , Barnard's dean and professor of Greek, made a particularly profound impression on her, contributing what Gildersleeve recalled as "exhilaration of adventure, illumination of the mind, and great joy in beauty." She later termed historian James Harvey Robinson "by far the greatest teacher I have ever studied with."

Gildersleeve, who received her A.B. in 1899, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, graduated first in her class, and was class president. Winning the Fiske Graduate Scholarship in Political Science, in 1900 she received an A.M. in medieval history from Columbia. Robinson directed her thesis, a critical bibliography entitled "Some Materials for Judging the Actual Workings of Feudalism in France—Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries." Shortly thereafter, she began teaching English composition and argumentation at Barnard. Her salary: $250 a year.

In 1908, Gildersleeve was awarded a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia, having completed the doctoral program in three years. A leading Shakespearean scholar, Ashley Thorndike, directed her dissertation. That year, Columbia University Press published Gildersleeve's thesis under the title Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Drama. In 1908, she also joined the Barnard faculty as lecturer, directing the required sophomore program in English and teaching a course on Shakespeare at Columbia. In 1910, she was promoted to the rank of assistant professor of English and was elected secretary of the faculty. She held, she later said, a "magnificent teaching position, probably the best one held by any woman in the whole United States, or indeed the world."

Gildersleeve turned down the offer of an associate professorship from the University of Wisconsin because she did not want to leave her parents, with whom she would live until their deaths in 1923. In December 1910, when she was only 33, Nicholas Murray Butler—then Columbia's president—offered her the deanship of Barnard as well as the rank of full professor. Reluctant, she accepted only on the ground that she receive autonomy in hiring and fiscal matters. Indeed, Gildersleeve turned the Barnard dean-ship into the equivalent of a presidency. She possessed much freedom, dealing with a separate board of trustees and drawing up the budget. Having held office in Barnard's alumnae association, she had a working knowledge of the school's graduates.

During the 36 years she held the college's highest office, the name of Virginia Gildersleeve was synonymous with that of Barnard. "Miss Gildersleeve was Barnard," Barnard faculty member, Joseph Gerard Brennan, once noted to contemporaries, "just as de Gaulle was France." According to The New York Times, Gildersleeve was sparely built, of medium size:

She had startling dark and brilliant eyes gleaming out under heavy curved eyebrows. Her nose was finely chiseled, her lips restrained and thin, and her voice was rich, her hair dark.… She moved briskly about in English tweeds and Queen Mary-like hats, like "a well-oiled steam engine," as one officer of Barnard once said of her.

Author Alice Duer Miller , whose friendship with Gildersleeve went back to undergraduate days, wrote, "Everyone knows that the Dean is a good executive, a magnificent speaker, a wise woman, an intellectual, but not everyone knows she can lose her temper over examples of stupidity and spite, and that, therefore, her tact and calm are the more to be admired, since they are achieved and not wholly innate."

It was under Gildersleeve's direction that Barnard gained an international reputation. Always working closely with Butler, she modernized the curriculum. Compulsory Latin was dropped. In the 1920s, Barnard required students to take courses in each of the broad areas of human knowledge and pioneered in the practice of substituting the first year of professional school for the final undergraduate year. Moreover, she added physical education, home economics, and political science to the program and instituted a freshman course that included sex education, a move quite radical at the time. In 1938, acting on the conviction that students should understand the way of life they would soon be called upon to defend, she introduced the budding field of American Studies. During World War II, Gildersleeve saw to it that Barnard became one of the first colleges to establish practical war courses, particularly those centering on mathematics.

During the Gildersleeve administration, Barnard had a number of distinguished faculty members, including Edmund W. Sinnott in botany, Raymond J. Saulnier in economics, Frederic G. Hoffherr in French, Douglas Moore in music, and Mirra Komarovsky , William F. Ogburn, and Robert MacIver in sociology. Raymond Moley, later one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's brain-trusters, headed Barnard's government department. History was particularly strong, possessing such names as René Albrecht-Carrié, Basil Rauch, David Saville Muzzey, and Edward Meade Earle. Prominent visiting scholars included British medievalist Eileen Power and Tudor specialist A.F. Pollard. The services of distinguished Columbia professors were utilized, including Douglas Moore in music, Allan Nevins in history, and Hoxie Fairchild in English.

As a matter of policy, Gildersleeve promoted only those female junior faculty whom she saw as "unusually competent." At the same time, she would reserve most senior positions, which required Columbia approval, for males. Only by such means, she maintained, would there be a needed balance between the sexes. Fully aware that militant feminists were accusing her of betraying "our cause," she replied, "In one sense perhaps they were right, for I would always, I think, have placed the welfare of the whole institution above the present advancement of our sex." At the same time, she successfully fought to have Barnard graduates admitted to all of Columbia's professional schools. Architecture and journalism opened their doors quickly, though opening the schools of Medicine, Law, and Engineering took a carefully designed strategy that combined prodding with patience.

During the 1920s, Gildersleeve put Barnard on a healthy financial footing. Even during the Great Depression, the college experienced just a modest retrenchment. Only during her last years was its financial status shaky.

Under her tenure, Barnard pioneered in undergraduate services. Campus facilities were enlarged, a placement office established, and academic advising instituted. An elaborate student center, Barnard Hall, was constructed. Sororities were abolished. The unique Greek games, combining

athletic contests with originally created performances in the fine arts, became a major event.

By no means did Barnard monopolize Gildersleeve's talents. In 1919, with Bryn Mawr president Martha Carey Thomas , Gildersleeve helped organize the International Federation of University Women, a body that sought to elevate educational standards through personal contacts. Serving twice as its president, she presided at sessions in Krakow (1936) and Stockholm (1939). She also chaired the American Council on Education and was instrumental in the founding of the Seven College Conference of Women's Colleges. Her francophile sympathies inspired her to become board chair of Reid Hall, a center for visiting scholars in Paris.

Given her many involvements, Gildersleeve was one of America's leading advocates of higher education for women. She once said:

There seems to survive in some quarters the antique idea that a woman who is a graduate from college is thereby necessarily and inevitably a portentously learned and scholastic person, quite removed from the ordinary run of human beings, an inspirer of awe in the rest of the world. Yet, I have never discovered that the young man graduated from Columbia or Yale or Harvard is looked upon as necessarily a paragon of learning, rather the opposite.

Gildersleeve opposed the "double curriculum," by which high school girls who were headed for college were separated from those who were not. Such practice, she believed, could discriminate unjustly against those "late bloomers" who discovered themselves fully capable of education beyond high school. Wives and mothers, she further maintained, needed college training just as much as working women.

Early in her career, Gildersleeve undertook major civic tasks. During World War I, she coordinated activities of several women's war-work organizations. Appointed by New York mayor John Purroy Mitchell to the city's Committee of Women on National Defense, she devised a program whereby urban young women would serve as farm volunteers. Under her leadership, nearly 80% of Barnard's student body devoted spare time to the war effort. She chaired the University Committee on Women's War Work and was a member of the Committee on War Service Training for American Women, in which capacities she traveled frequently to Washington. Always a strong advocate of international cooperation, she spoke on behalf of the League to Enforce Peace and later the League of Nations Association. A Democrat, she campaigned for Al Smith and later Franklin D. Roosevelt for president.

During the 1940s, Gildersleeve's internationalism became even more visible. In the fall of November 1939, Columbia historian James T. Shotwell appointed her to the Commission to Study the Organization of the Peace, a 28-member research body that met weekly for five years to study world organization. In the late spring of 1940, she joined William Allen White's Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. That June, in a radio broadcast, she warned that the U.S. faced great perils if Britain and France fell.

World War II found Gildersleeve more active than ever. Although many Barnard faculty engaged in some form of war employment work "for the duration," she was able to manage a greatly increased student body with a skeletal staff. Even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she attended national meetings in Washington on women and defense. From 1942 to 1945, she chaired the advisory council of the women's reserve of the navy. Called the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the unit involved some 80,000 women.

Gildersleeve visited England in 1943, where she witnessed the British system of army education. Upon her return, she urged the United States to adopt some form of adult education for the armed forces. Noting their prominent role in wartime Britain, she accused the U.S. Congress of treating females as though they were "perishable dolls rather than sturdy, respectable citizens." Indeed, she favored conscription of women, believing it "hard for our young women to expect all the rights and privileges of citizenship without owing any required service in exchange."

During the war, Gildersleeve repeatedly urged the American people to avoid hatred. Towards its end, she called for exiling Hitler and claimed that all Germany should suffer a hard peace. "After all, " she said, "this is the third time that Germany has behaved like this. It isn't all Hitler. The German people must take some responsibility."

In February 1945, Gildersleeve was one of the six American delegates, and the only woman member, to the San Francisco conference convened to draft the charter of the United Nations. "For some weeks," she said, "I was the most conspicuous woman in the United States." Once the plenary sessions had ended, she did not play a leading role in such controversial matters as the veto and the seating of Poland and Argentina. Rather, she was assigned to two technical committees, one dealing with the actual charter draft and the other focusing on economic and social cooperation. It was Gildersleeve, with her aide Elizabeth Reynard (1897–1962), who drafted the opening of the preamble which read:


Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which in our time has brought untold sorrow to mankind…

Gildersleeve also had a hand in the very name of the organization: the United Nations. When most of the Latin nations called for a collective noun—such as league, union, or association—she formally advanced the American position, declaring that it had been the term favored by the late President Roosevelt:

As I look back over the years, Mr. Chairman, to some of the darkest moments of this war, when it seemed as if victory for the cause of all of us was perhaps impossible, I begin to feel that perhaps some particular good fortune, some talisman of good luck, is attached to the name of the United Nations.

One of the creators of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Gildersleeve pushed to have the word "educational" as part of the title. She drafted Article 55 of the UN Charter, dealing with economic and social cooperation. In 1947, she was appointed an alternate delegate to the General Assembly but was too ill to serve.

In March 1946, Gildersleeve was a member of the U.S. Educational Mission to Japan. In helping the Japanese design a restructuring of their educational system, she vigorously opposed those delegation members who sought to impose far more egalitarian American practices. She was particularly critical of any desire to eliminate a merit system, warning that "in a democracy it was absolutely essential that there should be able, trained, highly educated leaders."

For many years, Gildersleeve took an active interest in Middle Eastern affairs, being long influenced by such figures as diplomat Charles R. Crane, archeologist James Henry Breasted, and historian George Antonius. In 1924, she became a board member of the American College for Girls in Istanbul and in 1944 became its chair. She was also a board member of the Near East College Association, an organization that included American institutions in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Baghdad, and Beirut.

Strongly critical of the Zionist movement, in 1945 she warned against massive Jewish immigration "to a section of the world where they will have as neighbors many millions of enemies." Though attacked by many Zionists for her stand, she found a kindred spirit on Palestinian-Jewish matters in Rabbi Judah Magnes, president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In that same year, she made her own proposal for alleviating the plight of homeless Jews. Every member state of the UN, she said, should accept a proportionate share of such refugees. The U.S. quota, she claimed, would possibly come to 200,000.

In 1948, Gildersleeve became chair of the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land, an organization that opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Leaders included Henry Sloane Coffin, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Moses Lazeron, a leading member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In her memoirs, she wrote that she considered the proposed formation of the nation-state of Israel as "directly contrary to our national interests, military, strategic and commercial, as well as to common sense."

Gildersleeve always remained single, forming intense friendships with Caroline Spurgeon (1869–1942), a prominent British expert on Chaucer, and later Elizabeth Reynard, a professor of English at Barnard and her longtime personal assistant. On the eve of her retirement, which took place in 1947, Gildersleeve sought to have Reynard succeed her as dean. The proposal met with strong opposition from Barnard's trustees and faculty as well as from Columbia president Butler. Upon retirement, Gildersleeve—accompanied by Reynard—moved to a refurbished mansion in Bedford Village, New York, 40 miles north of Manhattan. Here she wrote her memoirs, Many a Good Crusade (1954), and edited a collection of articles entitled A Hoard for Winter (1962).

During her lifetime, Virginia Gildersleeve received so many honorary degrees that in 1936 the Literary Digest claimed she possessed "enough caps and gowns to fill an ordinary New York apartment closet." In 1947, France bestowed its Legion of Honor upon her. In 1969, the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund for University Women was established. On July 7, 1965, Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve died of a heart attack in a nursing home in Centerville, Massachusetts.


Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron. Many a Good Crusade. NY: Columbia University Press, 1954.

suggested reading:

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. "Barnard: Gildersleeve & Mrs. Mac," in The Education of a Prejudiced Mind. NY: Scribner, 1977.

Miller, Alice Duer, and Susan Myers. Barnard College: The First Fifty Years. NY: Columbia University Press, 1939.

White, Marian Churchill. A History of Barnard College. NY: Columbia University Press, 1954.


Gildersleeve's papers are in Special Collections, Columbia University.

Justus D. Doenecke , professor of history, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

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Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron (1877–1965)

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