ROSALIND WRIGHT HARRIS speaks about her time working with the U.N. and related organizations at an American Association of University Women luncheon in Brunswick on Monday.

ROSALIND WRIGHT HARRIS speaks about her time working with the U.N. and related organizations at an American Association of University Women luncheon in Brunswick on Monday.


From witnessing one of the final League of Nations meetings before World War II in Geneva, Switzerland in 1936 to a train ride from New York City to San Francisco in 1945 to help draft the United Nations Charter, Rosalind Wright Harris’ journey has taken her across the world many times over. Now 93, she is a resident at Thorton Oaks in Brunswick. The Times Record spoke with Harris before Monday’s American Association of University Women luncheon in Brunswick about her involvement in the U.N., women’s rights and her biggest accomplishments.

The Times Record: Tell us about your early life.

Rosalind Wright Harris: I was born in 1923 in Chicago. My parents were both involved in international affairs. My father taught international law and was a great supporter of the League of Nations, which was founded after the first World War, and then on into the U.N. after World War II. My mother was the chair of international relations work of legal women’s voters in the 1930s.

As World War II was breaking out, there was a focus on keeping the crumbling League of Nations from falling apart, and a great issue of arms control around the world at the time. I was a child when all of this was going on, and just surrounded by it. My parents traveled a lot and I would stay with grandparents or they would stay with us. I eventually went into the “family business,” if you will.

TR: How did you get involved with the U.N.?

RWH: I was taken by my mother to Geneva, Switzerland in 1936 for a failed League of Nations meeting that was part of the decline of that institution. A few years later, having written my thesis in college on the League of Nations and treatment of minorities, I got a job in the State Department in a public liaison position. I answered letters from the public that were sent to the president or secretary of state, in which we tried to respond to their concerns of our foreign policies. This was during World War II.

On Jan. 1, 1945, there was a declaration of 26 nations in support of each other during the war. This was the first use of the phrase “United Nations.”

Around that time President

Roosevelt began planning for what would happen when the war ended, what kind of institutions we should be supporting, and to be sure that the U.S. did something. Come 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill decided that a conference would be held in San Francisco to lay out the guidelines for the U.N.

So at the end of February that year I was asked to go to out there with five others to set up the conference. Why they chose me to go, I’ll never know. So we took a train out there, and we helped delegates draft the United Nations Charter, which would become the U.N. later that year.

One of the unique things the delegates did was appoint 42 national, non-government organizations as consultants. The U.N. said they would work to identify organizations that have similar concerns as them in the economic and social fields, and help promote them. These were groups such as UNESCO, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization. Atop on the list, for me, was the American Association of University Women. Most of these groups still stand today.

TR: What were some of the other organizations you were involved in?

RWH: After our marriage in 1946, I moved to New York City where my husband worked for Harrison & Abramovitz, the firm that coordinated the design and construction of the U.N. headquarters building. In the 1950s, I worked for the International Graphic Arts Society and then later for the American Labor Education Service.

Starting in the late 1950s, I volunteered with many international organizations, including serving on the board of the International Social Service and as its representative to the U.N., as a founder of the International Women’s Tribune Center, and on the executive committee for an association of non-governmental organizations associated with the U.N., generally known as CONGO.

For CONGO, I helped organize international forums held in parallel with major U.N. conferences, including four forums focused on women in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing, and others on habitat and on drug abuse and trafficking. For 25 years, I served on the U.N. Advisory Committee for the Unitarian-Universalist Association.

TR: What are the biggest similarities and differences of the current U.N. compared to when you first started?

RWH: Our country has come a long way in one sense, but is pretty depressed in others. I really believe that we need to have the institution for cooperation at all levels, whether it’s town councils, right up through all the various levels. There is usually a reason to have to get together and make things work. And the U.N. is built on a long past. It didn’t just spring up fully armed from someone’s brain. So I think it was a great step forward from the League of Nations.

The whole U.N. system has delivered good to the world, and it’s still doing that. For those who don’t like it, they might fear that an institution they don’t like might tell them what to do, without thinking that other people in the world might not like it when the U.S. alone tells them what to do. The U.N. is a voice for the whole world.

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