A Complicated Legacy

The cover of The Insider: A Life of Virginia C. Gildersleeve features a striking black-and-white portrait of its subject as a young woman.

Nancy Woloch ’61

The Insider: A Life of Virginia C. Gildersleeve
Columbia University Press
328 pages, $30.00

The Insider: A Life of Virginia C. Gildersleeve, a new biography by Nancy Woloch ’61, excels at a challenging task: It takes the life of a little-known, complex, and often obstreperous woman and makes it into a riveting story.

Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve (1877–1965) served as dean of Barnard College from 1911 until her retirement in 1947. Born into a prosperous New York family, Gildersleeve was a consummate insider. She went to Brearley, a prestigious Manhattan girls school, and then Barnard, graduating in 1899 and returning there to teach after graduate school. That positioned her to accept the nomination to the dean’s role when a protracted search failed. Her father’s friendship with Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia, helped.

Gildersleeve transformed Barnard from a small commuter college to a member of the Seven Colleges Conference—an organization she founded in 1926. A masterstroke of marketing, the Seven Sisters raised Barnard’s reputation and that of all the member colleges: Fund-raising trips to Chicago and St. Louis became newsworthy when seven college presidents came to town. The organization had another, uglier side effect: Taking Barnard from a commuter school to a national one helped limit the number of Jewish students, since the United States at large had a far smaller proportion of Jewish families than did New York City.

Woloch is particularly strong when she is telling the story of Gildersleeve’s efforts to limit Jewish students. Without editorializing or apology, she describes the dean’s actions. Shifting from test scores to holistic admission practices, asking applicants where their parents were born, and stating preference for geographic diversity all became ways to exclude qualified Jewish applicants. Gildersleeve shared this goal with Butler, with Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer, and with most college presidents at the time. The anti-suffrage Meyer was, surprisingly, a strong supporter of the NAACP. Through that support, she advocated for Barnard to admit Zora Neale Hurston in 1925. Woloch’s account of Gildersleeve’s tepid support of Hurston speaks volumes to how insiders protect themselves.

As dean, Gildersleeve became a major international figure in women’s education. She met the British academic Caroline Spurgeon at a post-WWI conference. They became intimate (despite Spurgeon having a partner already) and co-founded the International Federation of University Women, over which Gildersleeve presided. That tenure, too, was marked by controversy. When the German delegation became Nazified in 1933 and the overwhelming majority of German women academics resigned, Gildersleeve remained loyal to the Nazi contingent. In this chapter, as with her account of the quotas of the 1920s and the anti-Zionist activism in the late 1940s, Woloch is firm but fair. Again and again, the dean’s actions walk over the line into antisemitism, and while Woloch never quite calls her that name, she makes clear how faint the distinctions are.

The Insider is the story of a woman powerfully placed at birth who, at several key points in her career, successfully found ways to consolidate her position and that of the college she loved. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, it’s a wonderful read, full of insight about women’s education a century ago and one woman’s complicated relationship to power.

Fernald is professor of English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Fordham University. She is the editor, most recently, of the Norton critical edition of Mrs. Dalloway.

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