When Margaret Snyder first started working for the UN in Addis Ababa in 1971, programmes for African women centred around healthcare and support for children. Snyder, who has died aged 91, established the first UN regional women’s programme to change that perception. She went on to launch the UN’s development fund for women (Unifem) and became affectionately known as the “UN’s first feminist”.
Her job in Ethiopia was to help establish a women’s programme at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to support women in their roles as farmers, entrepreneurs and often family breadwinners. The programme evolved into the African Training and Research Centre for Women (ATRCW).
Establishing the women’s programme was evidence the UN was beginning to acknowledge that a country could not develop unless women’s economic contributions were fully recognised. That acknowledgement, however, did not come with a budget, so among Snyder’s first jobs was to persuade funders to back the cause. This she managed, through a mix of charm and determination, securing funding from other UN agencies, governments and foundations.
As ATRCW director, Snyder promoted vocational training for women, piloted innovative new ideas that would save them time in the home and increase their productivity and finances outside it, and backed microcredit schemes.
She became known as someone women wanted to work for and with, often giving young women their first UN jobs. She allowed her team to oversee programmes, while she dealt with funders, bureaucracy and sexism. Discussing the conceptual framework of the programme at a briefing soon after arriving in Addis, Snyder recalls being told by an executive: “You women are not supposed to conceptualise.”
An external review of the centre’s work in 1978, the year Snyder left to set up Unifem, summed up the tension and provided a fitting riposte: “The ‘ladies’ are a rather successful bundle of energy and drive who sometimes appear to threaten less-progressive elements of the ECA bureaucracy.”
Born in Syracuse, New York, Margaret, known as Peg, was the youngest of three children of Matthias Snyder, a doctor, and his wife, Cecelia (nee Gorman), a pianist and Latin and German teacher. After gaining a degree from the College of New Rochelle, New York, she earned an MA in sociology from the Catholic University of America in Washington.
She returned to Syracuse and became dean of women at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit co-educational further education college. Snyder grew up with a strong Catholic faith and an enduring sense of service and injustice. During the depression she saw her father offer medical care to someone short of money in return for a chicken. Her mother, who left a job playing the piano at the local cinema when she discovered a male colleague was on a higher wage, taught her to be kind and humble, yet fierce.
While at a Catholic retreat, Snyder was encouraged to volunteer overseas. Her motto was “Say Yes to Everything”. In 1961, she took what was meant to have been a year-long sabbatical from Le Moyne to advise voluntary organisations in Kenya and Tanzania, then Tanganyika. She ended up staying for three years and began a PhD at the University of Dar Es Salaam in 1964, which she completed in 1971.
After a few years back in the US lecturing, Snyder returned to Africa at a pivotal time for women. The first of four global conferences on women was held in Mexico in 1975, and the following year the UN introduced its first decade of women to promote their rights. Throughout the decade, Snyder was instrumental in getting African women’s voices heard.
One outcome of the conference was to create a fund that would support programmes promoting gender equality. In 1978, Snyder was asked to set up the Voluntary Fund for the Decade for Women, which became known as Unifem and was later absorbed into UN Women. She remained its executive director in New York until her retirement in 1989.
One of the first programmes Snyder funded while at Unifem was Wangari Maathai’s fledgling Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Maathai was struggling to get any international backing for her environmental work. The grant opened the doors to other funding opportunities for Maathai, who would win a Nobel peace prize in 2004, and meant the movement could expand across Africa. Snyder joined the board and the pair became close friends.
After retiring from the UN, Snyder continued to work and travel. She became a visiting fellow at Princeton University and a Fulbright scholar in Uganda. She authored books on women’s economic empowerment and supported numerous causes.
Snyder lived in an apartment around the corner from UN headquarters in Manhattan, New York. She could see the tall white building from her window and from the building’s roof garden, a space she loved and helped tend. Her home became a meeting place for UN delegates, officials and friends passing through the city. One visitor was another Nobel peace prize winner, the former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in town to discuss setting up a fund for women market traders in Liberia. Snyder became the vice-president of the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund.
In 2016, she was honoured in UN Women’s celebration of leading women in the UN. Interviewed about her work, she was characteristically modest. “I felt that Unifem had done quite a bit of good for a lot of people because not only did we create innovative and experimental projects that would be adopted by larger funds, which was part of our mandate, but also the idea of women in production, beyond family level, in the economy, in the politics of countries, those ideas. I think we made a contribution to them.”
Her brother Robert predeceased her. She is survived by another brother, Thomas.
• Margaret Cecelia Snyder, social scientist and women’s rights advocate, born 30 January 1929; died 26 January 2021