A new biography of Barnard Dean Virginia Gildersleeve arrives just in time for Women’s History Month


Q As a biographer, how do you reconcile the sometimes unattractive qualities of a subject with their accomplishments?

A. I tried to view every problematic facet of Gildersleeve’s career – and there were quite a few – as an opportunity to explore contested ground. For example, his bias against Jewish candidates in Barnard. The terrain there is the fast-paced world of college admissions, which is more or less continuously changing and often plagued with new challenges. That said, Gildersleeve could be “mulish” (his word), clueless, reprehensible and insufferable.

Q Why did you choose your title, The insider?

A. Gildersleeve was an “insider” in two ways. First, when Barnard’s Board of Directors and Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler selected her as Dean, she was the only one of many candidates considered to have attended both Barnard (Class of 1899) and Columbia (for graduate studies), and had also taught. at both institutions (she was a Barnard Professor of English and she had taught a graduate course at Columbia).

Second, Gildersleeve, as the daughter of a well-known New York judge who was a friend of the president of Columbia, she was part of the social class that ran things in New York. That meant a lot in 1911, and it’s crucial throughout my book. But there are instances where Gildersleeve was as much an outsider as an insider.

Q What books have you read recently that you would recommend, and why?

A. More recently, I have read or re-read higher education stories that relate directly to my work on Gildersleeve. For Columbia, I recommend Robert McCaughey’s Columbia and Barnard stories, Booth, Colombia and A college of her own; by Rosalind Rosenberg changing the subject, which explores the experiences of women at Columbia; and Michael Rosenthal’s astute biography of Nicholas Murray Butler, Nicholas Miraculous. Butler, I might add, was very caring in his long professional relationship with Gildersleeve; without this care, of course, she would have been forced to seek another occupation.

I have long admired Helen L. Horowitz foster mother, on women’s colleges, and campus life, about the many ways students shape higher education. For fiction about university life, there is that of John Williams Stoner, the story of a young 20and-century English teacher from the Midwest and the difficulties he faced.

Q What are you teaching this semester?

A. Nothing yet, but the classes I’ve taught in the past at Barnard and Columbia have been history of education and seminars on American women’s history, with a focus on the progressive era and the 1920s. I am revising a survey of American women’s history that has gone through many editions and may survive another.

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