Notes for a Gildersleeve Biography

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Gildersleeve?:
Preliminary Notes for a Biography
Bob McCaughey — January 2015


VCG the single most notable person in Barnard’s history??
Involvement with Barnard extended over eight decades (entry in Fall of 1895 – death in 1965)
Student (1895-99), instructor (1902-10), dean (1911-47), chronicler
“my thirty-six and a half years as dean’
A four-decade force for the advancement of women within Columbia University
A leader in the interwar world of women’s higher education;
co-founded International Federation of University Women (1919);
organizer of “The Seven Sisters College Conference” (1927)
A prominent Democrat in interwar years; campaigned for Al Smith and FDR
Active in American/pro-Allies preparations for World War II; co-founder of the WAVES
One of the first American women to achieve international standing in the world of diplomacy
only woman US delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations, 1945
involved in the post-war oversight of Japan
active in the movement opposed to American recognition of Israel;

Assigned a place in the history of American anti-Semitism, for her efforts to limit the number of Jews admitted to Barnard and her imputed prejudice against Jews; in the history of lesbianism, for her relatively open and extended co-habitation relationships with two women, the English scholar Caroline Spurgeon, until her death in 19xx, and later the younger Barnard instructor, Elizabeth Reynard, with whom she lived in retirement on Cape Cod.

And the history discrimination against African Americans….

Early biography

b. 1877, NYC
Both sides of family with extended American lineages :
Gildersleeves eight generations back to 16xxs; Crocherons to the Huguenots….
Such details important to VCG, as per her autobiography’s opening xx pages
account included a non-judgmental reference to the Crocherons being invested in an Alabama cotton plantation in the 1840s, with 200 slaves held as property.
Mother a powerful force in family; devastated by death of her son Harry when VCG 12; mother
transfers her ambitions for her son to daughter??
Father a politically active lawyer (CU Law         ) whose involvement with veterans organizations secured him first election and then appointment as a NY state judge – well known in NY legal community; a Centurion among his other club credentials

Family socially and economically secure;
VCG – “we were not in ‘society’ exactly; we were professional people.”
Listed in Social Register
Lived on W 48th Street, just off 5th; 4 stories, basement, stoop in fronti;
“They were inhabited by solid American families. I recall the names of the Griswolds, the Prestons, the McGees, the Whitfields, the Rhinelanders, the Frelinghusens. Afew of them were wealthier and more socially prominent than we were.”
A cook, a chambermaid-waitress and a washerwoman who came by day…invariably Irish

“From my third-story rear bedroom I could often hear fiddles playing Irish jigs as maids in neighboring kitchens danced at night. I grew up with the rather vague and preposterous idea that domestic servants were the only variety of persons produced by that brilliant race.”

and lived across the street from Andrew Carnegie’s future wife. Where VCG continued to live into she was 35 (1912) ; later moved into the north wing of Hewitt Hall, when it opened in 192x.
Three family trips to Europe while growing up

Older brothers Alger and Harry; both went to Columbia; the xx year old Harry died of typhoid fever in 1891 (VCG 14)

“At that moment a black curtain cut my life in two.”


At 14 sent by her parents to NYC’s most socially respectable private day school, Brearley, then located on                     , on the recommendation of her father’s legal colleague(and Columbia trustee), Frederick Coudert. Brearley’s founding in 1881 had been one of many social projects undertaken by Caroline Choate, the wife of NYC’s leading attorney, Joseph Choate, and another professional and club acquaintance of her father. Created to prepare students for the Harvard entrance exam (for admission to the “Annex”?)

In the fall of her senior year at Brearley, VCG decided that if she were to go on to college it would be to Bryn Mawr, where most of her college-bound classmates were headed. But her mother decided differently. “There is a perfectly good college here in New York?” – by which she meant Barnard College, which, in 1895, then in its seventh year of operations in a brownstone at 343 Madison Ave, four blocks below the campus of Columbia College, with which it was affiliated and from which it drew most of its instructional staff.

Among the 22 members of the Barnard board that year were seven NYC lawyers; among the spouses another five, most undoubtedly known to Judge Gildresleeve, if not at the bar, then at the Century, where six trustees and seven spouses of trustees were members. Small world.

The decision to keep Virginia at home and send her to Barnard did not sit well with her. Among Barnard’s admission requirements, identical with those of Columbia College, was three years of Greek, which Brearley had not previously offered. This required a cram course in the subject on top of her regular program and produced much anxiety about the entrance exam when it was administered in the spring. Officially accepted for admission, the still-not-reconciled Virginia appeared at 343 on October x x, 1895, along with seven(21?) other entering students, by her own account, “shy, snobbish, solemn.” She was the only girl in her class from Brearley and none from or from the City’s still newer private school favored by the City’s elite families, the Spence School, which was founded in 1892 by Barnard trustee, CU which opened in 1892.

[Information on her classmates –All were commuters, most of whom had come from newly opened public schools of Manhattan, northern new Jersey, Brooklyn, or Westchester. The only out-of-region student came from upstate New York.]
Of her 20 classmates –“All were more or less on the same social level.”

Yet within a year, Virginia became a star of her class, as evidenced by her stellar academic performance and her election as class vice president. How and why the turnabout? She succeeded in making friends among her classmates and those classes ahead of her, a process facilitated in her case by the existence on campus of an intercollegiate fraternity, Kappa Kappa Delta, to which Virginia pledged in the spring of her freshman year. KKG was the first fraternity (sorority) formed at Barnard in 1891 and remained at the time of Virginia’s pledging the only sorority.

Subsequent classmates and sorority sisters:

Alice Duer [Miller] – joined class as a junior — daughter of John Gore King Duer, the great grand daughter of William A. Duer, president of Columbia College (1829-42) and great great granddaughter of Rufus King, a signer of the Constitution. Her father went bankrupt the year she was to be presented to society; she then delayed going to college until being able to pay her own way through Barnard through journalism and fiction writing for magazines. Three years older than her classmates, financially on her own, and strikingly beautiful, as photographs of her in middle age attest, she was greatly admired by VCG, who in her autobiography acknowledged Alice as “my first romance.” Five months after graduating she married a young broker, William Miller, and became a full-time journalist, feminist and active supporter of the suffrage movement. During the interwar years her husband’s success on Wall Street allowed her to devote herself to writing fiction and poetry, as well as screen writing for Hollywood. Remained a friend of VCG through life

VCG on Alice Duer – She was beautiful and she was brilliant and she was charming. She brought into our classrooms a glamour from the outer world and her friendship gave me the romance of my youth.”
Miller had been proposed by Trustee Anderson to fill the vacancy in the Barnard deanship in 1910, but was vetoed by President Butler. Later herself a Barnard trustee and chief writer of Barnard’s first authorized history (1939), likely commissioned by VCG to counter Annie Nathan Meyer’s self-referential Barnard’s Beginnings. As did Gildersleeve, she played an active role in the campaign to aid Britain before US entry into World War II, most movingly with her long poem “The White Cliffs of Dover,” which ended with the lines “A world without England is not a world I wish to see.” She died in 1942.

Marjorie Jacobi [McAneny] – Another joiner of class as a junior — The daughter of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, one of the first women physicians in the United States, and the German-born son of a poor Jewish shopkeeper, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, professor of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (which was integrated into Columbia University in 1892) and the oft described “father of American pediatrics.”
Grace Goodale – Potsdam, NY —

Edith Striker

Alte Stilwell

VCG at Barnard – 2 years at 343 Madison 1895-96; 96-97
2 on Morningside – 1897-98; 98-99

A campus incident in 1897-98, VCG’s junior year
– When KKG fraternity declined to admit Stella Stern, a popular senior from New Orleans, to its membership, reportedly because she was Jewish, Stern and several classmates in protest founded their own fraternity, becoming the first chapter of Alpha Omnicron Pi, with a charter that explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of religion. Fifteen years later, in 1914, when student, faculty and public sentiment all pressed for the elimination of the eight fraternities then at Barnard because they were, according to Barnard Bulletin editor Freda Kirchwey, 1914, socially exclusive and closed to Jews, the then still new Dean Gildersleeve chaired the committee that decided on their elimination. She did so not without second thoughts.[Her letter to Swarthmore dean.] Two years after their elimination, the ever-vigilant-to-Jewish-slights Jacob Schiff wrote to George Plimpton upon hearing that VCG was open to their restoration. A student referendum in 1916 reaffirmed their elimination. But again, rather than look back on this incident as a proud moment in Barnard’s history and its opposition to discriminatory practices, she recounted it in her autobiography as

Pals among CCers – Frederick Keppel; Hans Zinnser; John Erskine….


Postgraduate studies

Among Virginia’s academic prizes in her senior year was a Fiske Graduate Fellowship for a year’s graduate study in history at Columbia under guidance of Robinson.
MA June 1900 —
September 1900 – offered an assistantship in English at Barnard – a section of freshman English — $250

1901-1905 – assistant and then tutor
Spring 1905 – told by Brewster she would have all sections of required Sophomore English – 100 essays a week! VCG resigned

ANMeyer intervenes with NMB and gets VCG graduate fellowship for PhD – three years hard work à1908
PhD topic – Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Theatre

Summer 1905; summer 1908 – travelling in Europe with classmate Mary Eaton

By her own admission, she was not so much a dedicated scholar as someone seeing herself unlikely to “drifting into a profession.”

Spring 1907 – Gill ending VCG teaching at Barnard in spring of 1907 – one of her last acts as dean
VCG à offer of an associate professorship at Univ. Wisconsin—“I could not leave New York”
Not teaching at BC 1907-08

Fall 1908 – with PhD done – requests of acting dean Brewster (Gill gone that spring) a Barnard job
Trent (in charge of Barnard section)offered her a lectureship at $800
Then $500 more to teach Shakespeare on CU salary as part of Columbia BC faculty exchange
1908-1909; 1909-1910 –member of CU English Dep’t — had a graduate course at Columbia, too
July 1, 1910 – promoted to assistant professor


VCG – no fan of Gill – out mid 1907 — had crossed Liggett and Butler; lacked tact
Had invoked “our great benefactorist — EMAnderson and BC trustees against NMB

Deanship offered to Linda Shaw King, Brown administrator, at BC trustees’ insistence
1908 – CU makes Brewster provost – wanted BC trustees to see him as chief academic officer, with dean as external relations; proposed statute changes; BC trustees resisted

December 10, 1910 – NMB offered deanship to VCG—accepts when assured “the provost is just the lieutenant of the dean” and that she would have authority over academics and budget

BC trustees wanting a full-power dean and not answerable to provost – not clear they had secured it.

“What finally decided me was my reluctance was to have another stranger come in as Miss Gill had done and mess up my College again.” I accepted.
[895 BC alumnae at her appointment]

February 1, 1911- becomes dean – possible conflicts avoided – VCG

[She and Brewster worked in tandem until 1919, when Brewster resigned as provost…]

Dean’s office – northwest corner of Fiske Hall

1911-12 budget — $200,000 with projected deficit of $33,000
Meanwhile, Barnard’s early problems holding on to chief administrators continued. The third, Laura Gill, installed in 1901, was almost immediately at cross purposes with both administrative leaders at both Teachers College, with whom Barnard exchanged students, and Columbia University, where Low’s successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, took a harder line on Barnard’s future, openly doubting its capacity to attract and retain competent faculty. In 1905 he singled out Barnard as the only one of Columbia’s x schools unable to advance as rapidly as the University overall. A year later he made the following offer to Barnard board treasurer George A. Plimpton:

Lest Plimpton think this was Butler on his own, the president added that, with reference to the chairman of the Barnard board, “this is Brownell’s wishes as well.”

Gill resigned in 1907 and her duties were assumed by the Adjunct professor of English William Tenney Brewster, who had taught at Barnard since 1899, as acting dean., A Columbia PhD, Brewster seems to have gotten along well with his Columbia administrative counterparts, who appeared more than agreeable to his being appointed to the deanship. This possibility did not sit well with the vice chair of the board and Barnard’s most generous benefactor, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, who wanted a woman to head up Barnard and someone less compliant with Columbia’s views. Plimpton agreed, assuring Mrs. Anderson that “Barnard should get someone who serves Barnard’s purposes, not CU’s.” Easier said than down, when, after the proposal from Mrs. Anderson that Alice Duer Miller (Barnard 1899) be considered was rejected, that ”the Angel Gabriel…..

The three-year impasse was surmounted in 1910 when the 33-year-old assistant professor of English Virginia Gildersleeve came under consideration. She met Anderson’s requirements as to gender and not being especially beholden to Columbia , while Butler seems to have regarded what he called when the choice was made, “this flower from Barnard’s own garden” as a reasonable compromise. The daughter of his fellow Centurion, who was also a graduate of the Columbia Law School, Butler might well have viewed her as a reasonably safe bet. The appointment of Brewster to a newly created position of provost in June 1910 at the same time as Gildersleeve came under serious consideration, may have been an attempt by Columbia to limit the next Barnard dean’s responsibilities to the ceremonial and student-related functions, leaving provost Brewster in charge of the academic side of the College. That’s certainly what Mrs. Anderson thought and she was having none of it. “My mother,” Samuel Milbank wrote to Plimpton the day after Dean Gildersleeve was formally installed, “

Brewster’s views on Barnard and the City….

In the event, Brewster resigned as provost two years later, saying there was no need for the position. Though never throughout her 36-year deanship without strong oversight from her trustees, as Butler was for much of his 45-year presidency, Gildersleeve nonetheless enjoyed considerable agency as dean, especially when her agenda and that of many trustees coincided.

While fundraising remained an important challenge facing under-endowed Barnard throughout her deanship, it was not a challenge that the dean took up personally. For her first 25 years as dean she left most of the fundraising and financial planning to the board treasurer, Gearge A. Plimpton. Even much of the personal cultivation of potential donors and foundations fell to Plimpton, at a time when it had become at other colleges and universities a primary presidential responsibilty.  When Plimpton died in 1936, his son Francis T.P. Plimpton became treasurer and, while not the eager and tireless mendicant that his father was, nor as successful, it still being the Depression, his assuming the role spared Gildersleeve from having to take it up. (When VCG retired in 1947, she informed her successor that the College was in immediate need of $5,000,000, but had no suggestions how that sum might be come by.)

Gildersleeve’s principal ambitions for Barnard throughout her deanship were twofold: a local ambition — that Barnard’s best students become welcome at (even sought after by) all of the University’s professional schools; a global one — that Barnard become – and become seen as – a women’s college of national and international prominence, every bit the academic equal of the half-dozen other older and better endowed women’s colleges of the Northeast.

Her first ambition was fully if incrementally realized, with the School of Journalism admitting its first Barnard graduate in 1914; the College of Physicians & Surgeons doing so 1918; the Columbia Law school in 1927; the School of Architecture in 19xx; and finally, The School of Engineering in 1944. During Gildersleeve’s deanship, Barnard also distinguished itself by the numbers of its graduates who went on to earn PhDs, many at Columbia but also at other American universities, in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. She deserves recognition as a committed and successful promoter of “equal access” in the realm of higher education, and, by extension, equal access for women to the professions.

But what of her views on hiring women faculty?? Paid men more, advanced them through the ranks more quickly, gave them departmental responsibilities…




Her second ambition, to raise Barnard’s national and international profile, was at least as energetically pursued as her first, but seems in retrospect more problematic.
Founding of the Seven Sisters Conference (1927)

Achieve international recognition by Dean developing an international presence – and by welcoming/publicizing growing presence of international students at Barnard.

It required, or so Gildersleeve and others believed, that Barnard become less reliant upon an applicant pool made up mostly of publicly schooled New Yorkers and that it become more attractive to the sorts of private- school prepared young women who went to Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Vassar and Radcliffe. One way to shift the mix at Barnard was to favor applicants from outside the metropolitan New York area over those from within; another was to look for reasons why to reject an applicant from a New York City public high school so as to hold that place for someone “not from here.”

In so far as many if not most of those female New York City public high schoolers applying to college throughout Gildersleeve’s deanship were Jewish, the “not from here” preference adversely affected the prospects of Jewish applicants, even those deemed “eligible” for admission based on the test scores. That these same applicants were less likely to financially able to afford the “country colleges” that attracted the daughters of New York’s leading families there was an imputation of class bias, not limited to Jews but extended more broadly to all “aspiring” immigrant communities in the City, operative as well.

Here, too, because Columbia College, the engineering school and Barnard College saw themselves similarly pressed by an imbalance of applicants, they had adopted as early as 1909 a similar set of protective responses, overseen by a joint University Committee on Undergraduate Admissions. They included: setting a cap on the size of any entering class, which when reached allowed them to reject otherwise qualified applicants; to require as part of the application the occupation, education and place of birth of the applicant’s parents ; to supplement the applications procedures for local high schoolers by requiring a photograph and a personal interview. When in 1922 Dean Hawkes of Columbia College responded to one of Columbia’s professors by explaining the rationale of the admissions process there is no reason to think he was not speaking for the process for Columbia’s three undergraduate schools:


Seventeen years later, in 1939, Virginia Gilderskeeve defended Barnard’s operative admission mechanisns thusly:
Too many of one thing is not good.

Last updated: January 2, 2015
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