6. Tough Times: Depression, War and Other Distractions


Chapter 6.

Tough Times: Depression, War & Other Distractions


I want to thank this place for not pretending to be our parents, for not inviting
us to remember bright college days when we had no cares, and for insisting
instead on the value of the life of the mind. It was tough at times, and I think
almost every alumna has a little bit of resentment tucked away somewhere
for the fact that BARNARD was not, is not, and never has been a nest of
singing birds in a golden age of nostalgia. Instead, what we learned – I think —
was how to live in the world as it was becoming then and as it is now….
Back when we went to school, they gave us the straight stuff.
— Elizabeth Hall Janeway, BC ’35 [1]


At two points in her memoir,  Many a Good Crusade, Virginia Gildersleve  interrupted her narrative to mark  a crucial turning point in her life. The first occurred in 1891, when she was 14, with the death  of her older and beloved brother Harry. “At that moment a black curtain cut my life in two.” The second, when she was 51, involved both personal and global loss.  “For me,” she wrote,  “the last days of health unbroken – the last year of man’s assurance that his civilization moves ‘ever upward and onward’ … was 1928.” That year very much marked an inflection point in the case of her beloved Barnard, which in the 1920s enjoyed eight years of increasing enrollments and  accumulating surpluses, allowing her to advance her agenda of increasing the College’s  national recognition by attracting  residential students from outside  New York City. But then all her calculated distancing of the College from its urban setting was undercut by the stock market collapse in 1929, the ensuing Great Depression,  and  World War II,  which effected  a financial and demographic reversal of Biblical proportions. And with it came personal tragedy. [2]

  1. How Bad Did It Get?

The immediate effects on Barnard of the stock market crash in October 1929 were thought  to be manageable. That year’s entering class of 247 members pushed total enrollments to an all-time high of 1,076, with all  safely enrolled and their fall tuitions in the bank. However disastrous the crash may have been for speculators, the College’s small endowment of under $4 million ($59 million in 2019 dollars), almost entirely in railroad and utility bonds,  was spared the immediate  paper losses suffered by investors in equities. In the spring of 1930, the editors of the Barnard Bulletin assured graduating seniors that, temporary dislocations in financial markets notwithstanding, they would have their pick of jobs. [3]

The first hint of serious trouble  came in the fall of 1930 with a  smaller-than-expected entering class,  down  by 40 students. This was accompanied by a comparable drop in returning students and an increased call from those who did return  for  financial assistance.  These developments, acting dean George Mullins told the trustees, “may be attributed to business depression.” No one at the time could have known – or likely even imagined – that this was to be the first of five straight years of declining entering enrollments and smaller graduating classes.  [4]

The class entering in 1931 was smaller than the previous one by 48 students;  that entering in 1932 by another 50 students. By the spring term in 1933 evidence of a serious downturn was everywhere.  A growing majority of the first-year and transfer students were commuters, which by the spring of 1933 produced  a 20 percent vacancy rate in the College’s two dormitories and a corresponding drop in revenues. Nor did a cut in room rents that fall alter the fact that residence hall rooms were  again going to  junior female faculty as part of their compensation. [5]

Unlike the 1920s, many of the transfers now applying to Barnard were native New Yorkers  who had in more prosperous times gone away to college, only now to find the room and board expenses  of doing so beyond their parents’ reduced means. Much of the progress Gildersleeve  had made in nationalizing the student body in the 1920s was undone by the pressing need to keep enrollments from falling to levels that would force the College to close.   Whereas in 1925, Gildersleeve’s social engineering had produced a graduating class in which only half (51%) were  from New York City, in 1934 the percentage of New Yorkerss had climbed back to pre-World War One levels (61%). As she despondently reported to alumnae in 1933 of 65 vacant rooms in the dorms and the “reduction in the numbers of our students coming from a distance.” [6]


  1. Starting Out in the Thirties

The 16-year-old Helen Phelps entered Barnard as a freshman in the fall of 1929. Her mother was a first-generation Irish immigrant and her father a self-educated newspaper pressman.  Helen was born in the Bronx and attended public high school in Palisades, New Jersey.  An excellent student, having shown an early  talent for languages, she wanted to attend Vassar but family finances did not allow it. She learned of  Barnard from a high school friend that Barnard students became eligible for competitive tuition scholarships after their first year. She applied and was accepted  as a tuition-paying freshman. This one year “on family,” she later recalled, came “at considerable sacrifice.” [7]

Helen’s commute from Palisades involved a ferry across the Hudson to 125th Street and a short walk to campus. She did well enough academically in her first year to earn a tuition scholarship  as a sophomore and to keep it thereafter. She majored in French and, while lacking the funds for a semester abroad, managed to spend the summer between her junior and senior years at McGill University. Upon graduating, she hoped to find a job teaching French in a public school.  [8]

By the fall of 1932 calls on Barnard’s   student-loan fund  managed by the Alumnae Association for students in temporary need  outran the fund’s capacity to help. Requests for financial aid that year  were up 300% from the prior year. When  New Deal legislation extended relief support in the form of campus jobs administered by the National Youth Administration, 140 of Barnard’s 1,000 students were eligible. Nor did students who managed to make it through to graduate fare much better. Six months after graduation half the Class of 1934 had yet to find employment.  [9]

Little wonder that many Barnard students of the 1930s took up leftist politics,  permanently souring on the capitalist system  and the liberal political institutions that, their critics insisted, allowed capitalists to run roughshod over underpaid workers and unemployed students. Others aligned themselves in the presidential campaigns of 1932 and 1936 with Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party, still others, among them Florence Dubroff, BC ‘40,  became active in the American Student Union. Some Barnard students  took the Oxford Oath against participating in future wars and still others became Communists. Among the latter, Judith Coplon, BC ’43, a member of the Young Communist League while at Barnard, was later convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Some of these student activists were “red diaper babies,”  their radicalism acquired from their immigrant parents whose politics were either Marxist or Zionist or both.  In the case of Helen Simon, BC ’34,  she belied her privileged circumstances on 5th Avenue to become a member of the National Student League. [10]

Barnard students joined in the political protests that roiled the Columbia campus in the 1930s. Theses included demonstrations critical of President Butler’s response to a strike by cafeteria workers in April 1932, which resulted in the suspension of Reed Harris, the editor of Columbia Spectator , or that following Butler’s welcoming on campus of German Ambassador  Hans Luther in November 1933, following the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. When the Barnard Bulletin joined in condemning both actions, Dean Gildersleeve pointedly reminded its editor-in-chief,  Mary Dublin Keyserling, BC ’33, that “many of the trustees will be very annoyed.”       More typical were the   Depression-era Barnard graduates who took up   employment and then pursued careers in government agencies identified with the New Deal,  where gender-based discrimination was less pronounced than in private industry and where a college degree had currency. [11]

Given Barnard’s Depression-Era reversion to a mostly commuting student body, the percentage of Jewish students almost certainly  increased.  No evidence found suggests it declined. In a singular nod to transparency, the Barnard Alumnae Magazine  in its fall 1935 issue provided data  on the incoming class that included reported religious affiliation.  It was likely prompted by the regular publicizing  of such data by other Ivy and Sister colleges. Princeton, for example, annually published the religious affiliation of its incoming classes. That of  Jewish admits, dependably less than 10% of any class, was likely intended to be reassuring.  [12]


Barnard Entering Class in Fall 1935 (and Transfers)  by Reported Religious Affiliation

Religious Affiliation   % All % with affiliation
Episcopalians 77 21% 24%
Presbyterians 48 13% 15%
Methodists 24 7% 7%
Congregationalists 15 4% 4%
Lutherans 11 3% 3%
Baptists 10 3% 3%
Other Protestants 29 8%
All Protestants 214 59% 66%
Moslem 1 0% 0%
Catholics 61 17% 19%
Jews 46 13% 14%
None Reported* 42 12%
All 364 100%
All with Affiliation 322

Two comments on these numbers.  The inclusion of 150 transfers  likely inflated the proportion of Protestant  students at  Barnard, on the assumption that most transfers in the middle of the Depression  consisted of non-Jewish New Yorkers who had originally enrolled  elsewhere but returned home as a cost-cutting measure. Second, the substantial number of  applicants either not providing their religious affiliation or claiming none likely included a disproportionate number of  applicants with Jewish backgrounds  wary of  acknowledging it.  Anecdotal evidence puts the percentage of both Jews and Catholics higher than these data, with Jews making up 20% of any given class and Catholics as much as a quarter. Comparable percentages were reported by Columbia College.

Still, I found no explicit evidence  that  Barnard officials in the 1930s sought  to help solve Columbia’s  putative  interwar “Hebrew Problem” by  discriminating against Jewish applicants simply because they were Jewish. The closest approximation to a “smoking gun”  is to be found at Columbia but almost certainly applied to Barnard. In 1934, Adam LeRoy Jones retired after 25 years as chairman of the University Undergraduate Committee , to be succeeded by Frank Bowles. Bowles’s report to President Butler on his first  incoming class of Columbia College specified  the role of  his committee in determining its religious makeup.  Whereas half of all non-Jewish applicants  to the Class  of 1938 were admitted, he reported, the admission ratio for Jewish applicants was one in six. Bowles did not suggest that these results represented a break from those produced by his predecessor, or that comparable ones did not obtain for Barnard. He simply sought  president’s endorsement for the committee’s  ongoing efforts to secure “desirable students of upper middle class American stock.”  Butler responded in kind:  ”Continue to build up the Freshman Class along the lines that have recently been followed.” Are we to assume that Gildersleeve would have responded differently? [13]

  1. The Graying of the Barnard Faculty

Of  the many areas of college administration during most of the long Gildersleeve deanship when Barnard made do without full-time staffing, that of faculty affairs stands out. Despite having secured in 1911 before accepting the deanship Butler’s assurances that her authority encompassed matters relating to the faculty, and that the newly created position  of Provost of Barnard College  was merely “a lieutenant to her,” she confirmed this arrangement in 1922 by securing the elimination of the provost position altogether. It was not until 1932 that Gildersleeve finally established the position of  Associate Dean of the College, to which she  appointed the zoologist Louise Gregory. Gregory’s duties were more secretarial than operational and focused on students.  While they also extended to administrative dealings with faculty, department chairs continued to report directly to Dean Gildersleeve. Even in her last decade as dean, with her health deteriorating and her absences from campus longer and more frequent, Gildersleeve retained full authority over her faculty, subject only to the consent of her relatively unengaged trustees and, of course, the approval of President Butler. Younger faculty found her manner  intimidating and imperious. [14]

The effect of this arrangement was that responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the faculty devolved upon a half-dozen senior faculty members on the dean-appointed Committee of Instruction, to which Associate Dean Gregory was not invited.  Faculty meetings were largely informational sessions and limited to officers of instruction of the rank of assistant professor or higher. Maybe just as well. During the Depression and on into the war years, with no money to appoint new faculty or promote continuing faculty, with instructional salaries frozen and curricular renewal similarly limited by financial exigencies, there was not all that much faculty business to transact.   Keeping to their posts, while fending off the specter of salary cuts and the massive layoffs occurring on other campuses, pretty much constituted the faculty response to those downbeat times. With each passing year, not just individually but collectively, the Barnard faculty got a year older. In 1931 the median age of the Barnard instructional staff was 43; eight years later it was 49. [15]

By 1934, when the Depression touched the first of its two bottoms, the 58 women teaching at Barnard made up a  majority (54%) of its  107-member  instructional staff. They remained, however,  a minority (40%) among those of  faculty rank and held only one of the College’s 21 full professorships (5%). This last had been filled since 1927  by the chemist Marie Reimer (1903-1945).  By 1939, two years after  the Depression hit its second bottom, women had increased their majority among Barnard’s instructional staff to 59%,  their percentage of faculty positions to 44%,  and occupied four of the 17 full professorships.  In addition to Reimer, they now included the classicist Gertrude Hirst (1903-1941), the geologist Ida Ogilvie (1903-1941) and the philosopher Helen Parkhurst (1917-1952). [16]

Perhaps more telling of the state of the Barnard faculty than the numerical  advances made by its long-serving  women members  was its ongoing retrenchment. Between 1934 and 1939,  while the size of the instructional staff declined by only one member, faculty ranks had declined by eight (from 54% of all ranks to 50% ) and the number of professors from 21 to 17. Not a single promotion from below into the professorial ranks occurred between 1930 and 1940. This freeze  allowed Barnard to stave off  the massive faculty cutbacks occurring on other campuses during the Depression, with both  Butler and Gildersleeve rejecting the strategy  of Harvard’s President Conant to use  the economic crisis to impose an “up or out” system that allowed for new  faculty appointments in an era of no-growth. [17

A major contributing factor to the changes in the gender composition of the Barnard faculty had to do with male departures.  With Columbia committed to avoiding the kinds of faculty cuts occurring elsewhere, transfers to it of mid-career Barnard male faculty slowed. Still,  Hoxie Fairchild, who joined the Barnard English Department in 1927, and the mathematician Paul Smith who came the same year, both transferred to Columbia, Fairchild in 1939, Smith a year later. The botanist Edmund Sinnott, who had come to Barnard in 1927 as chairman of the botany department, also transferred to Columbia in 1939, before making a more permanent move to Yale. [18]

More numerically significant were the resignations of five male professors to take up better paying positions elsewhere. These included the historian Edward Mead Earle leaving for Princeton in 1935 and the economist Harry  Gideonese’s departing after a single year at Barnard for the presidency of Brooklyn College. In 1939, the newly opened Queens College hired away both the economist Arthur Gayer and the psychologist Anna Anastasi,  the only woman I have found on the Barnard faculty in the 1930s to leave to take an academic position elsewhere.  Although they maintained ties to Barnard, both the political scientist Raymond Moley and the musicologist Douglas Moore  shifted most of their teaching and administrative duties to Columbia during the 1930s. [19]

Yet even in these straitened circumstances, Dean Gildersleeve’s dealings with prospective faculty allowed  some observers to detect bigotry.  As the Columbia Business School economist Eli Ginzberg told the story a half century later, sometime in the late 1930s (likely upon Gideoneses’s departure)  Dean Gildersleeve  asked the chairman of the Columbia economics department to recommend a possible appointee to the Barnard teaching staff. Dispatched  was Moses Abramovitz, one of the department’s most promising recent PhD students and a friend of Ginzberg.  Abramovitz came away from his interview with Gildersleeve, “who did not even ask him to sit down,” convinced that she had dismissed his candidacy out-of-hand because  he was Jewish.  He later became a founding member of the Stanford University economics department. To her credit, Gildersleeve did take in the art historians and intellectual emigres Margarite Beiber and Julius Held, whose hiring in the mid-1930s was made possible by outside funding. Beiber, one of Europe’s leading classical archaeologists, was appointed an associate professor upon arrival, but in Held’s case, his appointment only became permanent after Gildersleeve’s retirement twelve years later. [20]

  1.                                            Starting Out in the Thirties: A Faculty Version
         While serving as a student teacher at the Lincoln School of Teacher’s College in the spring of her senior year, Helen Phelps, BC ’33,  was offered by Dean Gildersleeve an assistantship in French for the following year, with a salary of $1,400 and a room in Hewitt. She married in 1934 and the following year began studies at Columbia for an MA in French. Her intention, she later recalled, “was not to be a professor – but a teacher.” The now Helen Phelps Bailey earned her MA in 1938 and divorced two years later, all the while teaching at Barnard, first as a tutor and then instructor. During the war she taught French to naval officers attending the Military Government School housed on the Columbia campus,  and started work on a dissertation. Upon completion of “Hamlet in France” in 1950, for which she was awarded her PhD, she was promoted in her 17th year of teaching to the rank of assistant professor. Further promotion was blocked by the fact that her dissertation research had been done in the United States and that it went unpublished for fourteen years. (It was only in 1950 that Columbia waived the requirement that all dissertations had to be published before the degree was conferred, a stipulation that carried with it a considerable price tag.) Her teaching program involved 12 hours of classroom  instruction  per week. [21]Bailey’s subsequent career speaks to both the possibilities and the limits for members of her interwar generation of Barnard graduates – and of the era’s women college graduates more generally — who entered academe.  In 1955 President McIntosh appointed Bailey the  Dean of Studies upon the retirement of Lorna McGuire, the administrative  post in  which she served until her retirement in 1977.  Asked by a junior faculty member in 1979 whether she ever regretted giving up her scholarly agenda by going into administration in the mid-1950s, she initially acknowledged that she sometimes “felt exploited,” before saying she did as she was asked  because “I felt I owed Barnard an awful lot.” [22]In the fall of 1931, at the first signs that the economic turndown prompted by the stock market’s collapse would have long-term consequences for the College, Dean Gildersleeve announced that the trustees had ordered  a freeze on all faculty salaries, a moratorium on faculty hiring and promotions, and warned of likely pay cuts. At least two senior faculty of independent means, William P. Montague and Ida Ogilvie, offered to forego their salaries altogether if the money saved went to junior faculty. In the event, faculty salaries were not cut and the redistribution idea went unimplemented. The moratorium on hires and promotions, however, was vigorously enforced and included involuntary thinning throughout the sub-faculty ranks.   This decade-long stoppage of hiring, combined with few resignations and even fewer retirements, resulted a significant graying of the Barnard faculty.  Whereas in 1929 the median years-of-service of a Barnard faculty member was 20, by 1939 it had lengthened to 29. [23]

Other budgetary economies included the closing in 1933 of the Barnard Summer School for Women Workers in Industry.  But such measures could not prevent annual budget deficits beginning in 1931 and continuing  for all but one of the next eight years. The reported deficit for 1938-39 was $68,000, which treasurer Francis P. T. Plimpton called “staggering.” Some of these annual deficits were covered by the trustees borrowing from the College’s modest endowment,  but as the Depression deepened, the market value of the railroad bonds making up most  of the endowment  had so depreciated that they could be sold only at a fraction of their book value. The only other alternative  was adding to the College’s long-term debt through successive and increasingly hard-to-come-by  bank loans. [24]

The only significant gift received by Barnard during the 1930s came from the Rockefeller-directed General Education Board, which in 1936 gave the college $250,000, half the amount needed to acquire one of the last vacant properties on Morningside Heights, the block  immediately west of Milbank and south of Riverside Church, running from Claremont Avenue to Riverside Drive and from 119th to 120th Street.  However generous the gift , it did nothing to ease the College’s cash flow or chronic budgetary squeeze. The property remained unbuilt upon  for another 17 years before being bought back in 1953 to be the site of the Rockefeller-sponsored Interchurch Center. [25]

The death of George A. Plimpton in 1936 cost Barnard its most effective fundraiser and, next to Mrs. Meyer, most senior trustee.  Although Plimpton was succeeded as treasurer by his son Francis T.P. Plimpton, fundraising was  effectively stalled by the Depression and would not resume until after the war and the installation of a new dean. Meanwhile, the current dean informed the alumnae in 1935, “In the past two years, our problem was to keep the college alive – keep our students in college, maintain salaries without cutting….” What made the Great Depression so emotionally draining on those dealing with it was its duration. After five years of only dismal numbers to present, Gildersleeve managed  in her 1935-36 report to the trustees to express some optimism that “conditions were improving.” This followed on a modest uptick that year in student enrollments, though the increase was almost entirely in  “unclassifieds,” students who seldom stayed on for more than a semester.. “We did not lack students,” Gildersleeve told her trustees, “but a great number of them could not pay the fees.” [26]

The  perceived upturn in the College’s fortunes in 1935 coincided with a temporary one in national economic indicators attributable to the deficit spending underwriting governmental relief efforts. This “recovery” promptly sputtered when  an economy-minded Congress cut back on such spending and induced  a second slump.  In 1937 Barnard enrollments were down again. Two years later, in 1939, the ninth year of the economic crisis, Gildersleeve was back to declaring “the financial situation very grave.” [27]

  1.                                                    Battle of the BooksThe economic strains of the Depression years were exacerbated by  quarrels within the Barnard family.  Unlike  Gildersleeve’s relationship with Plimpton, which warmed over the years, the Dean’s dealings with the last original trustee,  Annie Nathan Meyer, remained frosty.  Early efforts to find common ground in their standing as Daughters of the American Revolution  or in their shared discomfort in the company of what Mrs. Meyer called “new people,” never  quite worked. The death of Meyer’s only daughter, Margaret BC ’15, in 1925, likely by suicide,  proved another missed opportunity for the two women  to bond in their common  loss of a young family member. One  clash occurred when Gildersleeve casually referred to Jews as a race (she applied the same term to the Irish), to which Mrs. Meyer objected,  insisting that they constituted a religion with no distinctive racial aspect.  Gildersleeve dutifully apologized; she also remembered to include the incident in her autobiography and allow  that “as the years went on, Mrs. Meyer’s dynamic energy became a bit crabbed.”  [28]
    As the only Jewish member of  the board from 1896 upon Jacob Schiff’s resignation to the election of Sarah Straus  Hess (BC 1900) as Alumnae trustee in 1919,  Meyer  resented her  quarter-century as the  board’s “token” Jew. Nor did the coming of  Mrs. Hess, a member of the City’s wealthy German-Jewish  clan  who got on so well with the board’s WASP leadership that at the end of her alumnae term she was elected to life membership,  provide much  company.  What Meyer  especially resented were the recurrent  celebratory retellings  of  the College’s early history in which she figured as only one among many “founders.”  Such  refusals to acknowledge her singular role  by College and University officials,  she seems to have concluded,  reflected  a determination to minimize  the role played by Jews in Barnard’s beginnings. The board’s announced plans  to rename Students Hall in honor of the College’s namesake, F.A. P. Barnard, brought these resentments into public view. [29]That no one else on the board objected to the building renaming  persuaded Meyer that the decision reflected  the  “gentleman’s agreement” reached in 1904 between the Columbia trustees and the German-Jewish mining entrepreneur Adolf Lewisohn when he  offered to make a gift of $200,000 for a  building to house the School of Mines. The board accepted the gift, but not before specifying that the building not bear  the donor’s name. This stipulation, which Lewisohn accepted,  was said to comport with a tradition that no University building should be named for someone still living; its real purpose, others said,  was to keep the University from attaching a Jewish name to one of its buildings. With Schiff  dead and the building he paid for up for renaming, Meyer argued that the rule no longer applied and its donor should be appropriately acknowledged .  To no avail.  Students’ Hall became Barnard Hall. [30]

Sometime in the early 1930s Meyer decided that  the  story of Barnard’s beginnings could only  be told by telling it herself.  An accomplished writer, journalist  and assiduous keeper of documents, including a journal of her early years,  she was singularly equipped for the role of Barnard’s first in-house historian.  With Plimpton the only other participant in the early doings of the College still alive, she might well have been commissioned  by her fellow trustees to write such a history. She was not.

Barnard Beginnings  appeared in the spring of 1935, under the impress of Houghton-Mifflin, the  publisher of  two of Meyer’s earlier books. It drew almost entirely on the author’s own memory of events and on relevant documents in her possession. There is no  indication that she interviewed anyone else about events leading up to or following immediately upon the College’s founding. Nor does it appear that she shared drafts of her history with those who at the time of her writing had an interest in the College.  The result was decidedly one person’s account, with  almost everything that transpired in the making of Barnard either beginning  with or ending back with the author. Self-referential and opinionated to be sure, aggrandizing on occasion, and possibly slighting of the role of others also present at the creation,  but as institutional histories  go (a modest  threshold), Barnard Beginnings  is eminently readable and factually reliable. [31]

Early reviews of Barnard Beginnings in the general press were respectful and generally positive. The chief exception was the  three-paragraph review  that appeared in the November 1936 issue of   Barnard College Alumnae Monthly . Unsigned, it was likely written  by  the Monthly’s editors, Helen Chamberlain and Helen Erskine, both devoted admirers of  Gildersleeve and in the employ of the College. To add insult to injury,  the review appeared side-by-side with a glowing review of Caroline Spurgeon’s  “remarkable” and just published Shakespeare’s Imagery , written and signed by Dean Virginia Gildersleeve.  After complimenting  Mrs. Meyer for pulling together materials relating to Barnard’s founding, the review took  exception to the publisher’s dust jacket comment that it is the story of a “one woman fight for an idea.” “It is one woman’s story of the fight,” the review allowed, “but certainly not ‘a one woman fight’ as Mrs. Meyer should be the first to insist.” [32]

Warming to the task, the reviewer(s) turned the second paragraph into  an all-out assault:

The chronological sequence of events is confused by the author’s many digressions,
digressions which make of the book a complete autobiography, an intensely
personal picture of the author, her activities and her opinions in the 1880’s and 90’s.
For this reason the book is in no sense a complete or altogether accurate history of
the early days of Barnard. [33]

The review concluded with a call upon the Alumnae Monthly’s readers to produce  just such “a complete and accurate history,” one, unlike that  under review,  would  make more room for the roles of Ella Weed,  Dean Smith and Treasurer Plimpton, but also for “our present dean [NB: twelve at the College’s founding!],  whose influence on the lives and thoughts of Barnard students for the past twenty-five years has been incalculable. It is a great story crying to be written.” [34.]

To this revisionist task was assigned Gildersleeve’s college classmate and friend, the poet, author and screenwriter Alice Durer Miller (BC 1899), and another College pal and the dean’s longtime personal secretary, Susan Myers (BC 1898). Their brief Barnard College: The First Fifty Years duly appeared three years later on the occasion of the College’s semi-centenary in 1939.  The two subsequent official histories published in 1954 and 1962 adhered closely to the Miller-Myers handling of Barnard’s founding, wherein Meyer’s role is as one of many.  None of these histories  directly challenged anything claimed in Barnard Beginnings. Along with a retelling in  It’s Been Fun, her autobiography published posthumously with no mention of what she called in her journal “the sly, hateful review,”    Meyer’s remains the fullest and most human telling of  Barnard’s origins. [35]

  1.   Calls Away
         Second only to  the perennially galavanting  President Butler, Dean Gildersleeve may have been the most traveled American academic of the interwar period. In addition to  annual summer visits to England, she regularly  managed trips to the Continent and parts farther south and east .  In the early 1930s Italy became a favorite repeat destination. There, again second only to Butler,  whose position as head of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace assured him visits with Pope Pius XI  and  Il Duce, Gildersleeve, as a representative of the International Federation of University Women, was shown every consideration  by leading university administrators and government officials.  Reports on these visits regularly appeared in  Barnard  Alumnae and  occasionally touched on Italy’s political situation with not criticism of  Mussolini’s  Fascist regime, which Butler had on several occasions in the late 1920s and early 1930s extravagantly praised.  Gildersleeve did in 1930 report approvingly to alumnae that “the strong arm of the fascist government has finally made inland Sicily safe for foreign travelers.” When an editorial in April 1934 in the Barnard Bulletin criticized President Butler for his failure to criticize Hitler, Gildersleeve defended him in a letter to the editor as “a brave, sincere, and tireless worker for peace.” [36]

A Gildersleeve visit to Germany in the summer of 1934, officially on IFUW  business  and within months of Hitler’s coming to power,  garnered more attention. The New York Times  had a reporter at dockside when the dean disembarked in September to seek her reactions to the new order in Germany . Her remarks allowed the impression that she sympathized with Germany’s need for “natural expansion” and that German restrictions on Jewish admissions to universities were economically justifiable because “professions were apparently overcrowded.”  A follow-up interview by a Barnard Alumnae Magazine staffer came away with a somewhat different account but  not sufficiently different to satisfy subsequent critics. [37]

Closer to home, calls came regularly all through the 1930s  from City Hall, where the Dean had  become a particular favorite of mayor Fiorello LaGuardia,  as well as from Albany from governors Roosevelt and Lehman for her to head up one committee or another, to sit on one commission or another. She seldom declined her services,  accounting them as keeping Barnard in the news.  A backer of the League of Nations and a certified  New Deal Democrat, having campaigned for FDR in 1932 and again in 1936, she was also on call for all manner of national service. Some of these assignments could be carried out from her  Barnard office,  but others required her to away from campus for days or weeks at a time.  Time away was also committed to periodic visits to Arizona, where Caroline Spurgeon had moved upon retirement in hopes of finding the dry climate restorative. New York seems to have lost its hold on her. [38]

  1. Barnard and the Good War

Gildersleeve’s  availability for public service only increased when war broke out in Europe in September 1939. She soon made her  interventionist views public by joining, along with her friend  and classmate Alice Duer Miller,  the Committee to Aid the Allies. In sharp contrast to her  position  before American entry into the Great War, but very much in line with President Butler, she was especially anxious in 1940 to have the United States come to the immediate aid of Britain, since 1920 her  second home. The sentiments of the concluding stanza of  Alice Duer Miller’s poem, “The White Cliffs of Dover,” were also the Dean’s:

I am American bred,
I have seen much to hate here— much to forgive,
But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live. [39]

When  American entry into the war came with  the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941,  the now 64-year-old dean was at her nation’s call for the duration. As adviser to the Navy’s efforts to recruit women to serve in non-combat roles, she recommended  Elizabeth Reynard, a member of the Barnard English Department and soon-to-be her companion, for a commission in the WAVES. She  also  encouraged Barnard alumnae to sign up for government service as cryptographers, translators and intelligence operatives.  With victory in sight  in the spring of 1945 and only days before his death,
President Roosevelt  asked Gildersleeve to be a delegate to a conference planned for August to found the United Nations. She was to be the only woman asked to so serve and so agreed, despite the extensive preparation required leading up to the conference. Once in San Francisco, she took an active role in shaping   the Charter of the United Nations. Nor did her national service end there.  President Truman asked her to serve on a commission to occupied Japan  to advise the Japanese and the Occupation on educational reforms.    Meanwhile, at least a dozen members of the Barnard faculty joined the military or served the war effort in some civilian capacity. And unlike the Great War that preceded it and all America’s wars to follow, campus sentiment throughout World War II was united as to the righteousness of the cause.  [40]                                                         

  1. Do Not Go Gentle

      Dean  Gildersleeve had long planned to retire when she reached 65 in 1942. In recurrent  ill health since 1931, she subsequently   experienced  two heart attacks and was emotionally drained by the lingering illness and death in 1941 of her companion of 24 years. When she informed  Butler of her intentions, the then 83-year-old president, himself deaf and partially blind, insisted she remain in place until he left office. Ever the dutiful daughter, she agreed. In staying on for what turned out to be another five years  (Butler was forced into retirement in 1945), she made  less likely a quiet  departure. Instead, her last years in office saw her entangled in four different controversies, none of which added to her legacy.  [41]

The first was racial in substance. Between 1925, when at the urging and with the funding of Annie Nathan Meyer, the 30-some year old Zora Neale Hurston enrolled as a junior transfer, and 1942,  Barnard  admitted  12 African American students. Of these, 8  stayed on to graduate, two of whom, Belle Tobias BC ’31, and Vera Joseph BC ’32, were elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  This was substantially fewer black women then attending either Wellesley or Smith.  At no time during these 18 years were there more than two blacks in any Barnard class. None were allowed to live on campus.  Given Barnard’s location abutting Harlem, by 1920 already the largest African American community in the United States, and the fact that dozens of black girls graduated every year from Harlem high schools and went on to Hunter  College, the record is at least suggestive of intentional discrimination. [42]

In 1943 the Rev.  James Robinson, pastor of a Harlem congregation, at an interfaith  conference held at Teachers College,  publicly charged Barnard with maintaining a quota for Black women, admitting no more than four every two years.  Gildersleeve immediately denied the accusation. “This is quite untrue,” she wrote in a letter reprinted in the Barnard Bulletin. “We have no Negro quota. We never receive many applications for admission from Negroes. If we are going to have a quota, we certainly would not have such a foolish one as that reported in the strange rumor which seems to have reached you.”  She then  went beyond the historical record in assuring the Reverend Robinson and  Barnard Bulletin readers that “We always have some Negro students in Barnard.”  [43]

Privately, however, Gildersleeve informed Robinson that Barnard was prepared to offer a full tuition scholarship to a deserving black student, which Robinson then proceeded to produce in the person of Charlotte Hanley , a graduate of Yonkers High School who was preparing to attend Hunter College. Hanley entered Barnard in the fall of 1943, graduating with her class in 1947. An economics major, she later became the first African American hired at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago as an economist, later becoming assistant vice president. Yet the historical judgment on Gildersleeve’s treatment of African Americans, if equivocal, has not been exculpatory. “The primary reason Barnard had so few Black students,” historian Linda Perkins has written,  “was that Black women believed the school did not welcome them.” [44]
The second controversy in which the about-to-retire Gildersleeve became embroiled  was over the future place of  the world’s displaced and persecuted Jews. Zionists had argued since the 1880s for that place to  be what  the Arab world knew as Palestine. But it was only with the revelations about Nazi atrocities against Jews  during World War II that American political leaders aligned themselves with the Zionist cause.  All through the 1930s, the New York Times, owned by the husband of Barnard trustee Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger,  had opposed the creation of a Jewish state.  Other Americans known for their support of various philanthropies in the Middle East, including Barnard trustees George A. Plimpton and the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, actively opposed the creation of Israel.  But many of these, in light of the compelling evidence that Hitler had killed millions of Jews and concerned that continued opposition would be interpreted as anti-Semitism , either muffled their criticisms of the plan or subscribed to it.  Not so Barnard’s dean. A letter she wrote to the New York Times in  October 9, 1945, even as Congress was taking up the issue,  both made clear  the  reasoning  behind her anti-Zionism  and undercut whatever latter-day progress she might have  made convincing Barnard’s Jewish constituency that she was not an anti-Semite.  [45]

The third controversy  at the end of Gildersleeve’s deanship combined elements of the first two:  charges of discrimination and insinuations of anti-Semitism.  While more directed at and  played out  on the Columbia side of Broadway, legislative  efforts led by Jewish organizations in 1946 to have Columbia’s state charter revoked because of past discrimination against Jewish applicants applied to Barnard as well.  Both Butler in retirement and Gildersleeve in her last months  as dean denied that their institutions had practiced discrimination. (Butler simultaneously directed a selective   purge of relevant  University records.) Legislative censure of Columbia and Barnard was avoided by a deal brokered by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York between the private universities and Governor  Thomas Dewey whereby the state would not press its discrimination case if the universities agreed to drop their  opposition to the governor’s  proposed expansion of the State University of New York. Meanwhile, by common accord, whatever discriminatory practices might have been used by private universities and colleges in the past against Jews  were to end. [46]

The last controversy  was arguably the most personally demeaning.  It involved the selection of her successor.  In 1942, a delegation of Barnard trustees in anticipation of the dean’s  retirement had identified a possible successor in the headmistress of the Brearley School,  Millicent Carey McIntosh, the wife of Dr. Rustin McIntosh, dean of the Columbia Babies Hospital. As the  seasoned head of an East Side private girls school  favored  by the City’s wealthy families, she impressed the trustees with her administrative experience and fundraising potential. At the time McIntosh showed little interest in the job and, when Gildersleeve decided to stay on, the search was suspended.  Four years later, with Gildersleeve set to leave, and McIntosh  still uncertain she wanted to leave Brearley, her candidacy was reactivated. [47]

Upon hearing  who her successor might be, and ignoring the academic convention that outgoing administrators  not involve themselves in selecting their successor,  Gildersleeve  proposed an alternative candidate. Her choice was Elizabeth Reynard (BC  1920) a member of the Barnard English Department since 1922, a founder of Barnard’s American Civilization program in 1939 and during World War II  (at Gildersleeve’s nomination) assistant director of  the WAVES. She had also been,  since shortly after Caroline Spurgeon’s death in 1942, although 23 years her junior, Gildersleeve’s live-in companion.  [48]

Both the search committee  at the time and McIntosh later  regarded  Gildersleeve’s intrusion into the selection process as inappropriate. They thought Reynard unqualified,  on the score of administrative abilities, which as program director and naval officer had proved deficient. She also had demonstrated no talent for or interest in fundraising. Her appointment would also undercut the search committee’s determination to come up with  a wife and mother who would counter Gildersleeve’s public image as a critic of marriage and champion of the single life.  Shortly after McIntosh accepted the deanship, Reynard  resigned  from Barnard and spent the rest of her life with Gildersleeve, first in Bedford, New York, and then on Reynard’s native Cape Cod.  She died in 1962, pre-deceasing  Gildersleeve by three years.  (A photograph of Reynard in her naval blues  appears in  Many a Good Crusade, published in 1954, along with a moving attestation of their love) Only once in retirement did Gildersleeve ever return to Barnard. She did allow, however, upon the selection of the then single  and scholarly Rosemary Park to succeed Millicent McIntosh in 1962, that Park was in keeping “with Barnard tradition.” Millicent did not miss the dig. [49.]

A contra-factual speculation:  What if Gildersleeve in 1931, instead of staying on for another fifteen years, had resigned when she first became  seriously ill? Her departure would have been received by the Barnard community as  regrettable but understandable, and her accomplishments, especially in securing Barnard a greater measure of national recognition,  would have been duly acknowledged. She might even have received credit for what was at the time Barnard’s stable finances.  Her standing as the most recognizable woman in higher education would have been universally  acknowledged.    After two decades as dean, but only 54, she could have permanently settled in with Cara on one side or the other of the Atlantic, instead of them continually shuttling back and forth. Had her health permitted, and depending on where they took up residence, she could have kept her hand in  Democratic politics and Middle East affairs when  in the United States,  or, when abroad,  in the business of the International Federation of University Women. And best of all, she would not have had to oversee Barnard during the Great Depression, when  so much of what she seemed to have  accomplished in her first two decades as deanship  slowly unraveled.

She might as well have been spared the critical assessments of her personality that attended her later deanship. Emma Stecher BC ’25, who returned to Barnard in 1946 as a member of the chemistry department in 1946 later recalled how Gildersleeve “held aloof from most students and most faculty.” An entering freshman in 1943, Barbara Valentine Hertz, BC ’47, agreed. “She welcomed you all to Barnard and I think that was the last time I ever saw her. She was very busy.” John Kouwenhoven, who joined the English Department in 1946 following four years of wartime service in 1975 described Gildersleeve as “a quite  terrifying person, really…. A rather dark and ominous figure.” He recalled her handshake technique to discourage guests from holding up the procession that “turned me through two quadrants of a circle and quite unsettled the  grace of my exit from her office.” Kouwenhoven’s department colleague Eleanor Rosenberg remembered her as “respected, admired, somewhat feared, and seemed almost completely detached.” The art historian Julius Held, a refugee from Hitler’s Europe who taught under five different Barnard administrative heads, allowed that “none … were ever as much a ruling figure as was Dean Gildersleeve.” [50]

So why didn’t she pull the plug? It bears noting she seriously considered doing so. As the full impact of the Depression first revealed itself, Gildersleeve  in 1931 seems to have experienced something of a personal crisis of confidence.  Akin to  Butler’s pronouncement that same year on the collapse of the American financial system, that maybe Mussolini’s was  the better way, Gildersleeve worried aloud  about the fallout from “the hectic flush of the twenties” and “whether there has not been  some dire deficiency in the education provided the last 20 or 30 years in our secondary schools.” At other times in her later years as dean she appeared to take less interest in the day-to-day management of the College, gradually turning over  functions to a still small (by subsequent standards) but  growing cadre of administrative assistants.  [51]
Keeping herself at the wheel may well have been in keeping with the example set by the three most important men in her life. Her father, Henry Alger Gildersleeve, worked well into his 70s; her academic mentor, Nicholas Murray Butler, did so into his 80s and then had to be told to retire;  her treasurer and latter-day friend, George A. Plimpton,  died at 78 still in the service of Ginn & Co., Barnard, Amherst and a string of  philanthropies. And then there was the negative example of her beloved brother Harry, whose life ended at 21 before his life’s work began.

In the end what likely kept Gildersleeve in the Barnard deanship is what  prompted her to take it on. However  later generations  judge  her personal  shortcomings and ideological blind spots,  her commitment to Barnard College was lifelong and unconditional. Her college pal and lifetime friend, Alice Duer Miller, on the occasion of the College’s 50th anniversary in 1939, admonished Barnard alumnae:  “Don’t ever dare to take your college as a matter of course – because, like freedom and democracy, many people you’ll never know anything about have broken their hearts to get it for you.” None who  labored  for the college did so  as assiduously and none for so as long as Virginia Gildersleeve, “this flower from Barnard’s own garden.”