Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve was born in New York and attended Brearley and Barnard College, before earning her Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In 1908, she became a lecturer in English literature at Barnard, where she also served as dean for 36 years (1911–1947). She was an early advocate of paid leaves of absence for female faculty members. With Caroline Spurgeon and Rose Sedgwick, she co-founded the International Federation of University Women in 1919. Virginia Gildersleeve became an important figure in international politics following World War I, and was the only female USA delegate named by President Franklin Roosevelt to attend the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations, held in San Francisco.