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Margaret C. Snyder, the U.N.’s ‘First Feminist,’ Dies at 91

Margaret C. Snyder, the U.N.’s ‘First Feminist,’ Dies at 91


Margaret C. Snyder, the U.N.’s ‘First Feminist,’ Dies at 91

“We were trying to make a paradigm shift from looking at women as mothers to looking at women and their economic activities,” said Thelma Awori, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations who worked closely with Dr. Snyder. “Peg picked that up and enlarged it.”One of her first grants went to Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, an anti-deforestation initiative led by Wangari Maathai, who went on to win the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize in part for that work. Dr. Snyder and Ms. Maathai remained close friends — whenever Ms. Maathai came to New York she would stay at Dr. Snyder’s spacious, light-filled apartment on Mitchell Place in Manhattan, just north of the U.N., and Dr. Snyder hosted a wedding party for her daughter Wanjira.After she retired from the United Nations in 1989, Dr. Snyder was a Fulbright scholar in Uganda and a visiting fellow at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. She also wrote or co-wrote three books on women’s economic development in Africa.But perhaps her most important post-retirement work was as an adviser and advocate for a long list of women activists and organizations, many of whom she hosted at her apartment. It was there, in 2006, that she helped organize the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, a program to rebuild markets across war-torn Liberia, named for Ms. Sirleaf, the country’s first female president.For all her career success, Dr. Snyder was in constant conflict with entrenched interests within the U.N., both because she was a woman and because her approach to development challenged the ways many of her colleagues were used to doing things. The risk of bureaucratic sabotage was ever-present: Once, Dr. Snyder and her team returned from a trip to find that their office had been moved to a different building, in a room without a single phone line.But she could take some comfort in the long view: By 2021, women would make up a significant portion of the U.N. professional staff, and women’s issues, including development, remain one of the organization’s focal 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,” she wrote in 2020. “They could move us, but they couldn’t stop us.”

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