Frank and Fearless Leadership: Virginia Gildersleeve and the Formation of the United Nations
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations — a noteworthy milestone that’s also an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between AAUW and the U.N. AAUW leaders and members advocated for the inclusion of women’s perspectives in discussions that lead to the U.N.’s formation, and, at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 (which resulted in the establishment of the United Nations), an AAUW leader was the sole female U.S. delegate.
On February 13, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt chose Virginia Gildersleeve, an AAUW board member and founder of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) — now known as Graduate Women International (GWI) — as one of the eight official U.S. delegates to the San Francisco Conference. The nomination of Gildersleeve represented a great victory for women, officially including them in the world’s post-war negotiations.
Agnes Meyer, a Washington, D.C., branch member and owner of the Washington Post, wrote an article that appeared in both her paper and the Spring 1945 issue of AAUW Journal. The article was aptly titled “Dean Gildersleeve — Popular Choice: Frank, Fearless, and Internationally Experienced.”
As president of Barnard College, Gildersleeve spent most of her career in education, and as founder and president of GWI, she devoted most of her life to international relations. At GWI she was known for being skilled at ensuring that smaller nations received a fair chance at representation, a quality that many considered to be essential when crafting a charter for the U.N. And Gildersleeve’s legacy lives on: In 1969 the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund was established to support women’s projects and women’s involvement in international development.
In her AAUW Journal article, Meyer asked Gildersleeve what it meant to her to be the only American woman at the table in San Francisco and how women’s points of view should be taken into account throughout the conference proceedings. Gildersleeve replied that she was chosen “because American women made a drive for representation, and I was on the roster of names compiled. Therefore, I do represent our women, but I hope I also represent my fellow citizens as a whole. Women the world over are determined to prevent another war, though we must not talk as if fathers minded less than women when their sons are killed in battle.”
Gildersleeve said that drafting the U.N. charter was not unlike the drafting of another document 156 years earlier, the U.S. Constitution. This time, however, the constitution was for a world organization, so it would require even more understanding, patience, and compromise on the part of all nations involved.
With all the eyes of the world looking on her, Gildersleeve expressed her faith in the outcome of the San Francisco Conference and in the strength of AAUW with its many branches and “disciplined and intelligent membership” to make a contribution to the restoration of education and community in post-war life. AAUW members did just that, and have remained involved with the United Nations since.