Nancy Woloch on The Insider: A Life of Virginia C. Gildersleeve
As dean of Barnard College from 1911–1947, Virginia C. Gildersleeve promoted the value of the liberal arts, defended women’s intellectual capacities, and filled a leading role in higher education. She also sought a role in foreign policy. At the peak of her career, she served as the sole woman member of the U.S. delegation to the UN Charter Conference of 1945. The historian Nancy Woloch, author of The Insider: A Life of Virginia C. Gildersleeve, explores Gildersleeve’s dual significance as an educator and internationalist. Here, Woloch fields some questions on the book and on Gildersleeve.
Q: What drew you to Virginia C. Gildersleeve as a biographical subject?
Nancy Woloch: Complexity, contradiction, and conflict! Positive and negative factors vie for dominance in Gildersleeve’s career. Without question, Gildersleeve excelled as a college leader and institution builder. During her decades at Barnard, she co-founded and led the International Federation of University Women, started in 1919, and in 1927 she organized the Seven College Conference (or the “Seven Sisters”). She won admission for women to Columbia’s professional schools. A canny administrator, Gildersleeve knew how to attract publicity, amass credentials, and acquire and deploy expertise. She never lacked admirers. Yet she complicated her legacy by stances that proved divisive (if not misguided), that stirred up controversy, and that undercut her reputation both in her time and in history.
Q: What sorts of stances caused controversy? How did you cover these divisive episodes in her career?
Woloch: Areas of contention include charges of bias in college admissions, conflict over Middle East politics, commentary on the rise of fascism in Europe, and debates about equal rights for women, as at the UN conference of 1945. I tried to look at each divisive episode as an opportunity to explore contested terrain. Accusations of anti-Semitism in Barnard admissions and Gildersleeve’s defense of entrance policies in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, bring into focus the often explosive topic of college admissions, of import in the past and in the current moment. In flux continually, the world of college admissions is usually grappling with some new predicament. That said, Gildersleeve’s spirit of defiance and bent for controversy was a challenge.
Q: With all her achievements, Gildersleeve seems to have drawn abundant attention from scholars but has until now escaped a full-scale biography. Why is this?
Woloch: The life and career of Virginia Gildersleeve have long foiled potential biographers. She does not fit easily into any of the eras in which she lived, or into our own. She was judgmental, demanding, and embattled; her biases and “crusades” (her word) can alienate those who disagree with her. As a subject of biography, she both craves attention and seeks to evade scrutiny. Essentially, Gildersleeve wanted control of her own story. She took charge in 1954 by publishing an impressive autobiography that—she hoped—would deter biographers, who might make less favorable judgments. Of course, an autobiographer is not a totally reliable narrator, nor is a personal narrative necessarily a reliable historical source. Still, it was rewarding to work with Gildersleeve’s self-assessment—her version of her role in history—and to unpack its revelations and significance, along with its evasions and omissions.
Q: Does your title of your book, The Insider, refer to social class?
Woloch: Yes, in part. Virginia Gildersleeve was an “insider” in two ways. First, when Barnard’s Board of Trustees sought a new dean in a multi-year search that began in 1907, Gildersleeve was the only one of many women candidates considered who had attended both Barnard (class of ’99) and Columbia (for graduate school) and had taught at both institutions. She had spent her entire academic life on the Columbia campus. This was an advantage! Second, in a larger sense, Gildersleeve’s role as insider rested on social class, a status she inherited. The daughter of a prominent local judge (and friend of Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler), she was part of the social class that ran things in New York City; her status reflected her upbringing, educational advantage, access to financial resources, and family connections. In sum, Gildersleeve belonged to a social and cultural elite. This was important when she first became Barnard’s dean in 1911 and for the rest of her career as well. But there were instances in which she was an “outsider” as well as an “insider,” as at the UN in 1945.
Q: What was a surprise in Virginia Gildersleeve’s life/career?
Woloch: Variety and intensity of interpersonal connections. Gildersleeve thrived on interaction with others; she dealt with many combinations of men and women. In some cases, she was the sole woman among male colleagues, as among Columbia administrators or fellow U.S. delegates at the UN. In other cases, she dealt with both male and female colleagues, as on the Barnard faculty (half women by the 1920s) or in various professional organizations. In yet other cases, she worked with all-woman constituencies, as among Barnard alumnae or at international women’s conferences. Not least, for many decades, Gildersleeve was involved in two crucial personal relationships, first with the British literary scholar Caroline Spurgeon and then with Elizabeth Reynard, a Barnard professor of English. Significantly, in instances both personal and professional, Gildersleeve faced issues of rivalry, mainly with other women. These were fascinating to discover. Rivalry was a surprise.
Another surprise: To her credit, Gildersleeve got along really well with the domineering and manipulative President Butler, who often battled with his administrators (including Gildersleeve’s predecessor as dean at Barnard). But in this instance, Butler was indulgent and Gildersleeve was deferential; happily, harmony reigned.
Q: What topics in your book might especially appeal to readers?
Woloch: A great question. This book will engage any reader interested in higher education, the liberal arts, women’s colleges, the Seven Sisters, college admissions, the women’s movement, women and leadership, New York City history, internationalism, transatlantic connections, Middle East politics, autobiographical narrative, personal entanglements, volatile situations, rivalry, competition, complexity, and unending controversy.