6. Tough Times: Depression, War & Other Distractions

12/09/17 – at 8000 words

Chapter 6.

Tough Times: Depression, War and Other Distractions


  1. How Bad Did It Get?
    2. Students in the Storm
    3. The Graying of the Barnard Faculty
    4. Battle of the Books
    5. Calls Away
    5. Barnard and the Good War
    6. Do Not Go Gentle


At two points in her autobiography,   Many a Good Crusade, Virginia Gildersleeve  interrupted her narrative to mark  a crucial turning point in her life. The first occurred in 1891, when she was 14, upon 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.” What came thereafter, she allowed her readers 26 years later to infer,  turned out other than she would have wished.

This very much was the case with 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 Depression and  World War II,  which effected  a financial and demographic reversal of Biblical proportions.

  1. How Bad Did It Get?

The immediate effects on Barnard of the stock market crash in October 1929 were not all that worrisome. That year’s entering class of 247 members pushed total enrollments to an all-time high of 1076. All  were already safely enrolled and their fall tuitions in the bank. However disastrous for speculators, the College’s small endowment, 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.

The first hint of serious trouble  came in the fall of 1930 with a  smaller-than-expected entering class,  down  by 40 students. Another was a comparable drop in returning students and an increased call from those who did  for financial assistance.  These developments acting dean Mullins calmly reported to 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.

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 resulted in 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.

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 to find the room and board expenses now beyond their parents’ 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 In 1925, Gildersleeve’s social engineering had produced a graduating classsin which only half (51%) of the graduating  from New York City, in 1934 the percentage of New Yorkerss had climbed back to pre-World War One levels (61%). As she despondently told the alumnae in 1933, “We are receiving fewer students from a distance.”

  1. Students in the Storm

Helen Phelps Bailey – Father a self-educated pressman; mother first-generation Irish
Entered BC in 1929 à 1933
b. Bronx 1912; public high school in Palisades; commuted by ferry to 125th St.
Father paid first year – “at considerable sacrifice” à scholarships thereafter
French major à Blance Prenez (“autocrat”);  Chairman Louis Loiseaux (“a dear gent, not a scholar, in no way a scholar”); Henri Muller (also grad facs)
Aimed at becoming a teacher
Summer 1933 à Paris – Societe Francaise
Oral Histories of Depression Era students:
Esther Biederman BC 1931
Carolyn Agger Fortas  BC 1931
Nathalie Woodbury  BC 1939

Calls on the  student-loan fund  managed by the Alumnae Association for students in temporary need far outran the fund’s capacity to help. Requests for financial aid in 1932-33 were up 300% from the prior year. When  New Deal legislation extended relief support to students through the National Youth Administration, 140 Barnard women were eligible for student jobs. 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.

Little wonder that more Barnard students of the 1930s took up leftist politics  than those who preceded or followed them. Some soured on the capitalistic 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, others became involved in the American Student Union,  still others became Communists. Among the latter at least two, Judith Coplon and    ——                           were later convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. The Columbia anthropologist Gene Weltfish, BC 1925, was another avowed radical who later ran afoul of  the post-war efforts to rid American academe of Communists.    Some of these student activists were what were later called “red diaper babies,”  their radicalism acquired from their immigrant parents whose politics were either Marxist or Zionist or both. [More on this from Robert Cohen, When the Old Left was Young]


Support for Reed Harris April 1932 – editor of Columbia Spectator

VCG reprimanding Keyserling on BB

Barnard Bulletin  opposed Luther’s appearance – BB 10/27/1933

1936 ant-war strike/Oxford Pledge

Florence Dubroff  –Barnard Russian Jewish  ASU member – father a Jewish immigrant – dentist
WTOLWY p. 250

Helen Simon – 5th Avenue radical and NSL member [National Student League]

German ambassador to campus – Dr. Hans Luther November 29, 1933 CSpec
Barnard accepting German exchange students in 1936-37 and 1937-38
Ilse Dunst January 15, 1937
Ilse Wigand — December 10, 1937
Peter Riccio – an ardent Fascist CU disseratation à “On the Threshold of Fsacism” on Giuseppe Prezzolini – Director of casa Italiana
VCG on Germany and Italy – NY Times  7/16 9/11/1935
”VCG at October 1934 gathering at Casa Italiana – Riccio – Fascism best for Italy
Nancy Fraenkel Wechsler BC 1938

CU participating in Heidelberg’s 550th anniversary June 1936  à Professor Arthur F J Remy
Fall 1936 – Robert Burke expelled from CC for campus demonstration contra NMB

More typical were Depression era Barnard graduates finding  employment in government agencies identified with the New Deal,  where gender-based discrimination was less pronounced than in private industry and a facility with words and numbers  were needed.
Given Barnard’s Depression-Era reversion to a mostly commuting student body, the percentage of Jewish students likely increased  during the 1930s. 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  frequent publicizing  of such data by other Ivy and other Sister colleges. Princeton, for example, annually published the religious affiliation of its incoming classes. That the percentage of Jewish admits, dependably less than 10% of the class, was likely intended to be reassuring.

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

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

Two comments on these numbers.  First, the inclusion of the 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 and returned home as a cost-cutting measure. Second, the substantial number of  applicants not providing their religious affiliation or claiming none likely included a disproportionate number of  applicants  with Jewish backgrounds  wary of  acknowledging it for these purposes.  Anecdotal evidence puts the percentage of both Jews and Catholics higher than here, 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 direct evidence  that  Barnard in the 1930s persisted in its earlier efforts to solve Columbia’s  putative  interwar “Hebrew Problem” by  discriminating against Jewish applicants simply because they were Jewish. The closest approximation of a “smoking gun”  for the 1930s 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, the admission ratio for Jewish applicants was one in six. Bowles did not imply that these numbers 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?



  1. The Graying of the Barnard Faculty

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%) of those with  faculty rank and only one of the College’s 21 full professorships (5%), that since 1927 held 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.  Besides  Reimer, they now included the classicist Gertrude Hirst (1903-1941), the geologist Ida Ogilvie (1903-1941) and the philosopher Helen Parkhurst (1917-1952).

Perhaps more telling of the state of the Barnard faculty than the modest  advances made by its long-serving  women members  was its overall and 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. While such actions allowed Barnard to stave off  the massive faculty cutbacks occurring on other campuses during the Depression, neither did Dean Gildersleeve  follow the example of Harvard’s President Conant in using  the economic crisis to impose an “up or out” system that allowed for new appointments in an era of no-growth.

A major contributing factor to the changes in the gender composition of the Barnard faculty had to do with continuing 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 biology department, also transferred to Columbia in 1939 before making a more permanent move to Yale a year later.

More 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 departing for the presidency of Brooklyn College after a single year at Barnard. 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 their ties to Barnard, both the political scientist Raymond Moley and the musicologist Douglas Moore  shifted most of their teaching and administrative labors to Columbia during the 1930s.


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 mid-1930s Dean Gildersleeve  asked the chairman of the Columbia economics department to recommend a possible addition to the Barnard teaching staff. Dispatched  was Moses Abramowitz, one of the department’s most promising recent PhDs and a friend of Ginzberg.  Abramowitz came away from his interview with Gildersleeve convinced that Gildersleeve  had dismissed his candidacy out-of-hand because  he was Jewish.


Income disparities that resulted from the systemic lag in women promotions  was exacerbated by salary determinations influenced by  marital status. Married faculty, a category that included most male instructors,  were assumed to be principal breadwinners with  family responsibilities (i.e.,  a non-employed wife) who required higher salaries,  while single faculty, a category which included  most female instructors, were thought able to survive on lower salaries.. Some single women faculty had f independent means, the geologist Ida Ogilvie a case in point, and some married women  had high–income husbands.  But there were also instances of single women faculty with financial responsibilities for relatives or unemployed domestic partners.                                                                  




A case-in-point of surviving the Thirties. The 16-year-old Helen Phelps Bailey 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 and 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.”

Her 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. While serving as a student teacher at the Lincoln School of Teacher’s College in the spring of her senior year, she was offered by Dean Gildersleeve an assistantship in French for the following year, with a salary of $1400 and a room in Hewitt.

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.  Two years after graduating from Barnard and two years into teaching there she began studying for her Masters degree at Columbia.  Married in 1934 and out of the dorm, the following year she entered Columbia’s Masters Programs in French. Her intention, she later recalled, “was not to be a professor – but a teacher.” She 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 CU waived the condition 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 instruction per week.

In 1955 President McIntosh appointed her Dean of Studies upon the retirement of Lorna McGuire, an 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.”

For many other women faculty of Bailey’s generation, the Depression left permanent scars that those who came later  could fully appreciate. Few  escaped unscathed. 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 could go 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.  The only significant faculty  hires made in the 1930s were that of the art historians Marguerite Beiber and Julius Held, whose salaries were  initially covered by a relief agency helping displaced European (mostly Jewish) academics secure positions in America.  This decade-long stoppage of hiring, combined with almost no resignations and few 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.

Other budgetary economies included the closing in 1933 of the Barnard Summer School for Women Workers in Industry.  But even these effected economies could not prevent annual budget deficits beginning in 1931 and 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 and 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.


The only significant gift received by Barnard during the 1930s came from the Rockefeller-directed General Education Board, which in 1936 gave Barnard $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 (a cynic might see  it the means by which this property was taken off the market and yet remain  available to the Rockefellers for other uses in more prosperous times), it did nothing to ease the College’s cash flow or chronic budgetary squeeze. The property remained unbuit upon  for another 17 years before being bought back in 1953 to be the site of the Rockefeller-sponsored Interchurch Center.

The death of George A. Plimpton in 1936 cost Barnard its most sedulous and successful fundraiser and, next to Mrs. Meyer, its most senior trustee.  Although succeeded as treasurer by his son Francis T.P. Plimpton, fundraising had been effectively ctailed by the Depression and was to resume only after the war.


“In the past two years,” Dean Gildersleeve told the alumnae in 1935, “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 both its duration and its unrelentingness. After five years of  only dismal numbers to present, Gildersleeve in her 1935-36 report expressed some optimism that at Barnard “conditions were improving.” This followed on a modest uptick that year in student enrollments, though the increase was almost entirely in the enrollment of “unclassified,” students who seldom stayed on for more than a semester or two. “We did not lack students,” Gildersleeve told her trustees, “but a great number of them could not pay the fees.”

The Dean’s  perceived upturn in the College’s fortunes coincided with a modest  and temporary one in national economic indicators  in 1935. Attributable to the deficit spending that underwrote governmental relief efforts and which, this “recovery” 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.”

  1.                                                         The Battle of the Books

    The 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 Annie Nathan Meyer, remained frosty.  Early efforts on the part of both to find common ground in their standing  as pre-Revolutionary  New Yorkers or in their shared discomfort in the company of what Mrs. Meyer called “                                  ,“ never  quite worked. The  suicide of Meyer’s only daughter, Margaret BC ’15, in 192x, proved another missed opportunity for the two women  to bond in their common  loss of a young family member. One early clash occurred when Gildersleeve casually referred to Jews as a race (she applied the same term to the Irish), and Mrs. Meyer objected,  insisting that they constituted a religion with no distinctive racial aspect.  Gildersleeve dutifully apologized.
    As the only Jewish member of  the board from 1896 upon Jacob Schiff’s resignation and the election of Sarah Straus  Hess (BC 1900) as Alumnae trustee in 1919, Meyer  almost certainly resented her  quarter-century as the  board’s “token” Jew. Nor did the election 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 in 1924 she was elected to life membership,  provide much  company.

    What Meyer  most resented were the recurrent  celebratory tellings  of  the College’s early history in which she figured as only one among many prime movers.  Such repeated refusals to acknowledge her singular role  by College and University officials,  she seems to have concluded,  reflected  their  reluctance to acknowledge the role played by Jews in Barnard’s beginnings. The board’s announced plans  in 1926 to rename Students Hall in honor of the College’s namesake, F.A. P. Barnard, brought these resentments into public view.

    That no one else on the board objected heightened  Meyer’s suspicion that  the building renaming  followed on on a  “gentleman’s agreement” reached in 1904 between the Columbia trustees and the German-Jewish mining entrpreneur Adolf Lewisohn who 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 it  named after its donor. The agreement was said to comport with a tradition that no University building should be named after 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. To no avail. Students’ Hall became Barnard Hall.

    Sometime in the early 1930s Meyer decided that  the real 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. It bears noting, however, that  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 upon the author’s own memory of events and on relevant documentsin her possession. There is no  indication that she interviewed anyone else involved in any of the 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.

Early reviews of Barnard Beginnings in the general press were respectful and generally positive. The chief exception was the critical three-paragraph review  that appeared in the November 1936 issue of   Barnard College Alumnae Monthly . Unsigned, it was likely written  by one or both of 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.”  Warming to the task, the reviewer(s) expended the second paragraph in 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.


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.”

To this task was set 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 historiespublished 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 her 1951 autobiography, It’s Been Fun, 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 the Barnard’s origins.                      ,

  1. Calls Away
    Next only to  the perennially galavanting President Butler, Dean Gildersleeve may have been the most traveled American academic of the interwar period. In addition to her 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 the 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 ; they occasionally touched on Italy’s political situation without making any direct criticism of  Mussolini’s  Fascist regime, which Butler had on several occasion in the late 1920s and early 1930s extravagantly praised.

A visit to Germany in the summer of 1934, officially on IFUW  business  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 .


A follow-up interview by a Barnard Alumnae Magazine staffer came away with a somewhat different account. [Details]

Closer to home, calls came regularly all through the 1930s  from City Hall, where she became a particular favorite of mayor Fiorello LaGuardia,  and  from Albany from Governors Roosevelt and Lehman for the Dean 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 the 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 Cara had moved upon retirement in hopes of finding the dry climate restorative.

  1. Barnard and the Good War

Gildersleeve’s  availability for public service only increased when war broke out in Europe in 1939 and 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 toh her  position back before American entry into the Great War, she was especially anxious in 1940 to have the United States come to the immediate aid of Britain, since 1920 her  second home. The sentiment of concluding stanza of  Alice Duer Miller’s poem, “The White Cliffs of Dover,” were 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.
American entry into the war brought on by  the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, made the now 64-year-old dean at her nation’s beck and call for the duration.

The WAVES – sent in her place Elizabeth Reynard

Wartime service
With victory in sight in the spring of 1945, President Roosevelt  asked Gildersleeve to serve as a delegate to a conference planned for August to found the United Nations. She was to be the only woman being asked to so serve and so agreed, despite the extensive preparation leading up to the conference. Once in San Francisco, she took an active role in shaping                    .  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.


Faculty service


Henry Boorse
Helen Bacon

Alumnae service


Barnard during the war
Enrollments holding pretty steady – less affected by the draft than men’s colleges
Finally access to engineering school in 1943
Anna Kazanjian Longobardo BC 1949
Faculty in uniform
Elizabeth Reynard
Henry Boorse
David Robertson
Alumnae into the WAVES?
Barnard sympathizers with Soviet Union – Judith Coplon
Barnard Zionists?
Chinese graduates



  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 all the less  likely that her departure might have been quiet. Instead, her last years in office saw her entangled in four different terminal controversies, none of which added to her legacy.

Between 1925 and 1942 Barnard  admitted  a grand total of  12 African American students, 8 of whom stayed on to graduate.   This was substantially fewer than attended any of the other Sister colleges – Wellesley had during that same period  admitted  xx.  At no time during these 18 years were there more than two blacks attending Barnard at the same time.  All were commuters.   Given Barnard’s location abutting Harlem, by 1920 the largest African American community in the United States, and the fact that hundreds of black girls graduated every year from Harlem high schools and went on to Hunter  College, its record was suggestive of discrimination.  In 1943 the Rev.                             , pastor of the                          , publicly charged Barnard with discriminating against qualified members of his congregation.     He called upon the state of New York to revoke the College’s charter. (Columbia College was less susceptible to similar charges of racial discrimination against African Americans because of the number of black athletes it recruited all through the 1930s.)

Gildersleeve’s reponse was twofold. First,  she denied  that Barnard ever discriminated against any racial or religious  group. But second,  she appears to have lifted  what had  been a ceiling on the number of blacks in attendance so as to accommodate at least one black student per entering class. One of the first under this new arrangement was one of        congregants,                              .          [Quote Gildersleeve]


The second controversy in which the late Gildersleeve became embroiled  was over the future place of  the world’s displaced and persecuted Jews. Zionists had argued since the 1880s that that place be what  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. As  late as 193x, 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 similarly opposed the creation of Israel.  But many of these, concerned that opposition would be interpreted as anti-Semitism , muffled their criticisms of the plan. Not so Barnard’s dean. A letter she wrote to the Times in      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.

The third controversy coming at the end of Gildersleeve’s deanship combined elements of the two other ones: 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 the 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 was avoided by a deal brokered by the Archdiocese of New York between the private universities and Governor  Thomas Dewey wherein 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 and  African Americans were to end.

The last controversy  at the end of Gildersleeve’s 36 –year deanship  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.

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.

Both the search committee  at the time and McIntosh later  regarded  Gildersleeve’s intrusion into the selection process 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 od ER in her naval blues  appears in VCG’s Many a Good Crusade , published in 1956, 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.   Gildersleeve died in 1964.


Coda: What if Gildersleeve, instead of staying on for another fifteen years, had resigned back in 1931 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 universally 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 duly 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 kept her hand in  Democratic politics and Middle East affairs if 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 and rendered permanent earlier in her deanship  slowly unraveled.

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 193x seems to have experienced something of a personal crisis of confidence  Akin to  Butler’s 1931 pronouncement with 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 appeared to have 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. Both graduates and new faculty from those years later remarked on her both her unavailability and otherwise-occupied countenance.

Keeping her at the wheel may well have been the example of  the four most important men in her life. Her father, Henry 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. Whatever as later generations properly judge them  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.” Few among those who have so labored did so  as assiduously and none for so as long a time Virginia Gildersleeve, “this flower from Barnard’s own garden.”