Who was the United Nations ‘First Feminist’?

Due to the liberal Roman Catholic upbringing, Margaret C. Snyder was inspired to start a pioneering career at the United Nations, where she focused on creating the mechanisms for global development aid, which would include the millions of women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

This career did not lack the attention, and today, she is regarded as the ‘First Feminist’ of the United Nations. During her 20 years at the United Nations and more than 30 years as an informal adviser to the organization, she ran and created a series of programs that brought millions of dollars in loans, training, and equipment to women around the world, such as supplying mills to women in Burkina Faso, helping Kenyan woman to counter soil erosion by planting trees.

Photo Credits to Snyder family

When she started working at the United Nations, she saw that most women there did secretarial work in the early 1970s. She promoted women even with the organization, under her influence, the situation changed. Dr. Snyder put young women on her staff, helped them advance in their home countries and at the United Nations; the prominent examples are the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, and Liberia, Ellen Johnson.

Margaret was born on January 30, 1929, in New York. During the interview she mentioned, that her biggest influence was her parents; her dad was a doctor, while her mother taught German and Latin in a local high school. During the great depression, her father took in patients on welfare as he put New Deal posters in his home window. As for her mom, she was playing the piano for the silent movies during this time – she was earning 30 percent less than a man who was doing the same job; this was the first instance of gender segregation, which grab Dr. Snyder’s attention. Margaret was working in Syracuse during high school, and she was helping Black migrants, who were arriving from the South. She studied at the College of New Rochelle in Westchester Country, Snyder graduated in 1950, then she got a master’s degree in sociology from the Catholic University of America.

“There was a failure to realize that the most serious problems of development defy solution without the involvement of women.”

Dr. Snyder was working as the women’s dean at the Le Moyne College, and then she was picked to be a volunteer overseas. She got the offer and started working in Tanzania and Uganda. As a part of an effort known as “Kennedy Airlifts,” she managed to find funding for African students, and they attended college in the United States. Even though her contract ended as a volunteer, she stayed in Africa and helped them to govern the East African Studies program at Syracuse University. Five years later, she completed a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. This year, she joined the United Nations as a co-founder of the African Training and Research Center for Women. It was the first major program focused on improving economic opportunities for Women. In 1978 she returned to New York City, where she was trying to find funds for women.

Eventually, she created the organization, which is known as the U.N. Development Fund for Women, and today as the U.N. Women. It expanded its scope, and the organization became a global powerhouse which serves woman not only in one continent but all across the developing world. In the 1980s, Dr. Snyder managed to create the women’s development commissions in 30 countries, which made millions of dollars for grass-root women’s projects.

Photo Credits to DULCIE LEIMBACH

After the retirement from the United Nations in 1989, Margaret was a Fulbright scholar in Uganda, at the same time, a vising fellow at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. She co-wrote or wrote three books about women’s economic development in Africa. However, her most impressive post-retirement work was the position of adviser and advocate for women activists and organizations.

A relentless advocate died on January 26, 2021, in Syracuse, New York; she was 91. Throughout her entire career, she was entrenched interest within the United Nations due to two reasons, she was a woman, and her approach of development challenged the ways her colleagues were used to doing things. Once, Dr. Snyder and her team were on a trip, and when they came back, they found out that their office was in a different building, in the room without a single phone line, her activism, contributions, and work changed a lot of things, by 2021, women have a significant position in the U.N. professional staff, and women’s issues remain as one of the organization’s pivotal points.

“Through all of the administrative issues, we were reminded that working to empower the poorest women was threatening to some high level and powerful people; they could move us, but they couldn’t stop us.”