The UN’s First Feminist, ‘Peg’ Snyder, Is Dead at 91
Margaret C. Snyder, the founding director of Unifem, now folded into UN Women, died on Jan. 26, 2021, after a brief illness while staying in Syracuse, N.Y., near her relatives and the city where she was born.
“Peg,” as she was known, was 91, days short of her birthday on Jan. 30. Her grandniece, Megan Snyder, said in a phone call that her great-aunt had suffered from a suddenly collapsed lung but had been surrounded by people who loved her at her death. She had lived in a bright, window-filled apartment near the United Nations in New York City, with the campus of the headquarters as her backyard.
A legend among pioneering women in the UN, Snyder was traveling and speaking to promote the economic progress of women until her last years, including holding a rooftop brunch at her apartment building near Sutton Place in September 2019. It was a gathering honoring WanjiraMathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and activist whose mother, Wangari Maathai, was the Nobel laureate who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.
In an interview with PassBlue in 2016, as the Commission on the Status of Women convened to tackle 21st-century feminist issues that year, Snyder spoke about her life and role as the UN’s first unofficial feminist. In 1978, when she became the founding director of Unifem, she was an internationally recognized expert on girls and women in the economic development of Africa.
She went on to become an assistant director of East African studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, a Fulbright scholar in Uganda and a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Snyder, who holds a master’s degree in sociology from the Catholic University of America and a Ph.D. in that field from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, was the author of “Women in African Economics: From Burning Sun to Boardroom” and (with Mary Tadesse) “African Women and Development: A History.”
Below, in her own words, she wrote about her life, in 2016, for PassBlue. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, director of UN Women, wrote in a Jan. 27 tribute to Snyder, her death “comes at a point where the importance of bringing women’s voices and skills to the forefront has never been more important for the world’s ability to move ahead resiliently and creatively.”— BARBARA CROSSETTE
My UN career began at the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa 45 years ago. I was hired to design a five-year program to implement 1960s resolutions adopted by African women at five regional conferences sponsored by the UN and the commission, with support from the Swedish development agency. I was the first to be hired. I had worked with women in Kenya on two national women’s seminars and one East African women’s seminar, where women defined how they wanted to participate in their soon-to-be independent countries.
The Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup had just published her book “Women’s Role in Economic Development,” based on research in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It became an overnight best-seller among UN staff and academics because Boserup was widely respected internationally for her earlier book on agriculture. Her credibility, plus that of the Nobel laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis, then president of the Caribbean Development Bank, coincided with the appointment of Helvi Sipila, the UN’s first female assistant secretary-general and a Finn.
In 1972, these luminaries led the UN’s first pathbreaking global expert meeting on women and economic development. Boserup and Lewis made the issue respectable and influential among governments during the UN’s first Decade of Development. The Economic Commission for Africa’s five-year program that I presented at that meeting was welcomed as a possible instrument for transforming policies of the UN and governments into actions.
The Mexico City world conference on women in 1975, in International Women’s Year, was a logical follow-up to the Boserup-Lewis event. Attendance in Nairobi — 5,000 at the government conference and 6,000 at the parallel NGO [nongovernment organization] tribune — broke UN records and alerted governments to women’s potential.
At that time, the UN was highly respected in “third world” countries, as they were called. The Africa commission used that global stature to strengthen its own economic development mission. And the founding of the African Training and Research Center for Women followed. So yes, I found the global conferences helpful in spreading the word and celebrating women’s activities as central to national growth and equity. And they created networks.
To my knowledge, neither African nor donor governments were negative about the work of the African Training and Research Center, which attracted program resources from Western countries, foundations and NGOs. African governments were eager to host our activities.
For example: Itinerant training workshops, led by FAO agriculturalists, were hosted by 24 countries for government and NGO rural training leaders by 1977; national commissions on women and women’s bureaus in governments were featured at an Africawide seminar in Morocco in 1971, and as a follow-up, teams composed of an African woman, an Economic Commission representative and a representative from a women’s bureau (often the US or Canada) visited 17 countries in the 1970s. In addition, 30 national commissions and bureaus were created by governments by the end of the 1980s.
To close an information gap, national bibliographies on women in development were commissioned and, for the first time, data from a whole region — Africa — were compiled and analyzed in a database and articles were published in Canadian and American academic journals. These activities were welcomed by African governments eager to be involved, due at least in part to the African training center’s location in the Economic Commission for Africa, with the result that we could cite the backing of member states and speak in the name of the United Nations.
But the African Training and Research Center for Women created quite a stir in the African commission, and some senior staff attempted to exile it out of the UN to a member state. A review mission of government and donor representatives put this notion to rest with its observation that the center’s effectiveness had attracted many donor agencies, and that this success appeared “to threaten less progressive elements of the bureaucracy.”
Grass-roots women’s organizations became visible globally at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, but they have existed locally and often nationally for decades and even centuries. Women have always joined forces to help each other.
Ela Bhatt, the gentle, visionary founder of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, with its more than one million members, explains why grass-roots groups exist: “Organization is the answer for those who are weak economically or socially.”
When I worked in Kenya in the early 1960s, rural women had created 5,000 nursery centers under trees, in churches or other buildings. At the Nairobi 1985 International Conference on Women, many delegates visited the countryside to plant trees with the Green Belt Movement or pump water with Kwaho, a water-for-health NGO. In Peru in the late 1970s, community kitchens [comedores populares] and glass-of-milk groups were created by women from the countryside as means of survival for their families in slums. These were collective answers to the food supply problem. There were some 6,000 comedores in Lima by the early 1980s.
In Burkina Faso, women who gathered and processed shea nuts into shea butter formed cooperatives, with strategic support from Unifem, to buy equipment and sell their butter to the beauty products company L’Occitane of France in the 1980s. L’Occitane still helps some 17,000 producers every year by giving all their profits on International Women’s Day to literacy training and microcredit. In 2014, the company gave these women 142,000 euros [about $160,000].
In India, a sericulture project had 300 women who grew mulberry trees with vegetables planted between them, fed the mulberry leaves to the silkworms and sold them for silk production, using the income for family food and school needs. But an early evaluation revealed a classic situation: while income targets had been met, cash crops were replacing food crops, children were malnourished and alcoholism rose dramatically among men and women. Not for the first time, the income from what had been intended as a women’s activity was hijacked by husbands. Advice from the Indian evaluator corrected the situation.
My own experience of 11 years establishing and directing Unifem was based on our original mandate after Mexico. The fund was to finance activities of rural and poor urban women through “innovative and experimental activities.”
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