Women, peace and transnational activism, a century on

Helen McCarthy, Ingrid Sharp, Laura Beers, Glenda Sluga, Celia Donert and Helen Pankhurst |


Helen McCarthy, Queen Mary University of London

As war waged in Europe in April 1915, over 1100 women gathered across enemy lines at The Hague, where they developed a unique vision in which peace, gender equality and human rights were intimately intertwined. The congress led to the creation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1919, which quickly became one of the most distinctive voices within the international peace movement and a major player in histories of twentieth-century global feminism.

Amidst the current flurry of commemorative activities marking the centenary of the First World War with a national - and often military - focus, the history of the Women’s Peace Congress offers an opportunity for a different kind of reflection. The meeting at The Hague reminds us that the war inspired not only great acts of patriotic service on the home and fighting fronts, but nurtured new kinds of politics, not least the politics of internationalism. This was a complex movement in intellectual and ideological terms, but at its heart lay the twin ideals of peace and international cooperation, best expressed in the creation of the League of Nations – the forerunner of today’s United Nations – at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Historians of gender, including the contributors to this ‘virtual roundtable’, have shown how women were active participants in this confluence of new ideas and movements centred on building a more peaceful world. The women of WILPF, in particular, seized the moment afford by the First World War to move women’s rights out of the arena of national politics and into the international realm. Gender equality, they argued, was a global political issue – a claim which might seem uncontroversial in 2015 but was a revolutionary idea a century before.

The contributors to this roundtable use the centenary of the Hague Congress to reflect on the past, present and future of women’s transnational organising, and to ask how far feminist perspectives have become integral to international debates about security, development and human rights over the past century. At stake in this conversation are some critical themes which remain as pertinent today as they were in previous decades:

  • How have ‘women’ been imagined as a global political subject?
  • On what basis have activists claimed to speak for ‘women’ – and which women?
  • How and when have women organising collectively been able to transcend or transform political, ideological and cultural differences, and how and when have they been contained or constrained by them?
  • With what success have women sought to bring gender to bear upon the norms of international politics?
  • How have activists interacted with states, supranational institutions and other civil society organisations in their efforts to get their voices heard?

Ingrid Sharp and Laura Beers revisit the history of the Congress and the founding of WILPF, considering how the delegates envisioned women’s and human rights across national and political differences, and how their commitment to social justice and peace shifted in response to new threats, including colonial violence and fascism.

Building on this analysis, Glenda Sluga traces the origins of today’s institutional machinery dedicated to global women’s rights in the fraught gender politics that accompanied the founding of the United Nations in the 1940s.

Celia Donert and Helen McCarthy pick up this thread by exploring how debates about women’s rights became fractured by the ideological struggles of the Cold War era, and what was gained – and, more controversially, arguably lost – by the turn within women’s activism towards questions of sexual violence following the fall of Communism in 1989.

Helen Pankhurst of Care International brings her practitioner perspective to bear on these historical reflections, asking what can be learnt from the past in our efforts to build a fairer, gender-equal world in the present.

The Women’s Peace Congress of 1915 and the envisioning of women’s rights as human rights

Ingrid Sharp, University of Leeds

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 2015 calls for feminist-inspired resistance in the campaign to stop war and continues to stress the importance of women's agency in preventing wars and post-conflict resolutions. Its distinctive integrated approach brings together human rights, disarmament and women’s peace and security, and argues that war and the arms trade have human rights implications that impact disproportionately on women. This approach is central to WILPF’s understanding of modern conflict and the changing nature of warfare.

WILPF today has many tools that were not available to the women who gathered at The Hague in 1915 or to those who met again in Zurich in 1919. Its activists work within a context in which a majority of states are embedded in an international organisation, the United Nations (UN), and have made a formal commitment to gender equality and human rights, most notably through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified in 1981, and the more recent Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on the inclusion of women in peace-building and conflict-resolution, adopted in 2000. A century ago, governments did not recognise women’s rights as a legitimate subject for international discussion.

In 1914, only a very small minority of women in each belligerent nation opposed the war and few strengthened or even retained their international contacts once hostilities had commenced.  Most of those who did were already active in the international suffrage campaign through the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), an umbrella body for national suffrage organisations. When it became clear that the meeting of the IWSA planned for Berlin in 1915 could not take place, an alternative congress was planned jointly by women from Britain, Holland, Belgium, Hungary, and Germany. These included active suffragists such as Chrystal Macmillan and Kathleen Courtney of Great Britain; Aletta Jacobs of the Netherlands; Rosika Schwimmer of Hungary and Anita Augspurg, Lida Gustava Heymann and Frida Perlen of Germany, while American peace activist and social reformer Jane Addams readily agreed to chair the congress. In April 1915, 1,136 women from 12 combatant and non-combatant nations met at The Hague to discuss ways of mediating between the warring sides, stopping the war and finding non-violent ways of resolving future conflict. These delegates saw working to end the war and to achieve female suffrage as inextricably linked: they saw women as providing the strongest moral influence for peace and it was vital that their demand for greater democracy in international affairs should include women.

In May 1919, after the armistice had been signed and the terms of the peace were being negotiated in Paris, many of the same women met in neutral Zurich to form a distinctive feminist response to these negotiations. Earlier plans to meet in Paris were thwarted as women from defeated nations were not permitted to travel there. WILPF was founded at this meeting.

Although the Congress at The Hague did not bring the war to an end and the women’s attempts to influence international relations in its aftermath did not prevent the outbreak of a second global conflict in 1939, their insights into the causes of war and the conditions necessary for building a sustainable peace remain highly pertinent today. The founders of WILPF stood apart from many of their former suffragist comrades, who chose to align themselves with the war aims of their respective national governments, and thus prove themselves patriotic and loyal citizens worthy of the vote. By contrast, the women at The Hague demonstrated the possibilities of international female solidarity and cooperation in the cause of peace at a time when other international organisations had largely suspended their links and few anti-war arguments could be expressed in public.

Human rights in 1915

Was women’s work for peace during the First World War also informed by a discourse of human rights? This is an important question, as the human rights discourse as we currently understand it is often assumed to date back only to 1945, reflected in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 or, as the historian Samuel Moyn has influentially argued, to have emerged as late as the 1970s. In this reading, human rights campaigns before that decade were rooted in and used to support the emergence or preservation of the nation state, rather than to transcend or challenge its power.

This criticism certainly applies to some branches of the early twentieth-century women’s movement, demonstrated most clearly in their abandonment of internationalism during the war in favour of patriotic war work and often highly public support for their own nation’s cause. By contrast, the concerns of the women at The Hague in 1915 and Zurich in 1919 went beyond self-interested national politics and have strong resonances with those reflected in UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions of the UN Security Council. They believed that a sustainable peace went beyond the cessation of violence and that inequality, including gender inequality, would lead to renewed conflict. This can be seen in The Hague resolutions of 1915. Article 3, on the peace settlement, presents the war as a shared human experience of suffering and demands a ‘permanent’ peace based on ‘principles of justice’, while Articles 9, 15 and 17 all deal with the inclusion of women in national and international politics through their enfranchisement as ‘one of the strongest forces for the prevention of war’ (Article 9). Of the Zurich Resolutions of 1919, Section I on famine and blockade demanded a fair distribution of food to those in need; Section II on the Peace Treaty concluded at Paris criticized its shortcomings as tending to ‘set up conditions to produce war’ and suggested openness, democracy and self-determination of populations as well as fair and equal access to trade and international efforts to combat disease and the protection of the rights of minorities within nations.

Importantly, their feminist vision rested on a discourse of shared humanity, often based on women’s identity as mothers, which allowed them to reach across national divides and to maintain a sense of the humanity of the enemy. Historically, women’s movements have often used a ‘maternalist’ argument to justify their demands for inclusion in the life of the state, believing that women as actual or potential mothers had a special duty of care and a higher moral calling than men. Aletta Jacobs’ opening speech at The Hague Congress appealed to a shared belief in the innate pacifism of women in all nations, referring to the suffering ‘mother-heart of women’ and to their deeper understanding of the war in human terms as a shared catastrophe bringing nothing but damage, waste and loss.

Challenging sovereignty

The women’s peace movement, inextricably bound up with the campaign for women’s suffrage, was clearly transnational in nature and deployed the language of human rights to challenge the doctrine of national sovereignty. Its goals went beyond national considerations and its commitment to peace worked across national boundaries. Internationalism was a key value that informed WILPF’s vision of citizenship in a world structured to prevent future wars.  The experience of the war had revealed the fragile integrity of the nation state and the futility of pursuing progress in isolation: preventing future war would only be possible at international level and through transnational activism. In her account of the 1915 Congress, WILPF president Jane Addams hoped for:

a new birth of internationalism…designed to protect and enhance the fruitful processes of cooperation in the great experiment of living together in a world become conscious of itself. 

For Addams, internationalism represented a superior way of governing human affairs, whilst a concern with inalienable rights rooted in human psychology that transcended the borders of nation states underlay all that WILPF did. Although Addams accepted that there was within human nature a primitive instinct to fight, she believed that the urge ‘to foster life and protect the helpless’ was even more deeply-rooted and would eventually win out.

Since the 1990s, the concept of human security has imbued post-conflict negotiations with a recognition that peace is far more than simply an absence of war. This is not a new idea. The preamble to the UDHR (1948) states that human beings are entitled to live in freedom from fear (threat of violent disruption) and freedom from want (hunger and material need), whilst Jane Addams, writing in 1922, was already referring to:

two of men’s earliest instincts…: the first might be called security from attack, the second security from starvation.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that there is thus little to distinguish contemporary human rights discourse from that of the early twentieth century. The suffrage movements to which the feminists meeting in 1915 belonged reinforced class and racial hierarchies in their demand for political rights. Although located on the radical end of the spectrum, WILPF was dominated by western Europeans and Americans, and their texts make use of racialised, imperialist terms such as ‘primitive’ (Hague Resolution 11b) and ‘backward’ (Zurich Resolution Section V 10h). Nowhere in the resolutions is the implication that women of supposedly less developed nations should be denied shared rights or a shared humanity acknowledged. Only in later decades would WILPF members seriously question the place of racial and civilizational categories in their vision of internationalism.

The women’s vision for peace and a better post-war world was not shared at the level of policy making and did not inform the peace negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. Nor did the League of Nations set out to transcend national interests and overcome divisions between the former enemies, preferring instead to reinforce the national interests of the victorious powers. The political context of the time did not allow the women’s ideas to gain influence amongst decision makers, and we should therefore be cautious about drawing too neat a line between the human rights discourse deployed by a small group of transnational feminist activists in 1915 and its global prominence in the present day. Although it is clear that the women of WILPF envisaged women’s rights as human rights and that their aims and structures transcended the nation state, it is also clear that this alone was not sufficient to ensure that their vision was realized. However, it is nonetheless important to recognize the nature and scope of the women’s vision and acknowledge the continuities with WIPLF’s present-day activism for gender, peace and security.


The history of the women’s campaigns for peace is crucial to inform our understanding of the issues facing activists today. It is important to note that WILPF was a leading NGO behind the formulation and passage of Security Council Resolution 1325 on the inclusion of women in peace-building and conflict-resolution and that the commitment to annual monitoring of its implementation by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM, now UN Women) arose directly from the lobbying of women’s activist groups. Like the resolutions produced by The Hague and Zurich congresses, the 18 clauses and the preamble of Resolution 1325 represent a consensus rooted in women peace activism.

As the following contribution by Laura Beers further demonstrates, WIPLF’s transnationalism and concern with human rights is not fixed but has always evolved to reflect experience and changes in context. From its beginnings, the organisation was aware of the need to be self- reflective and to guard against inflexibility of thought. The move of the women’s transformative peace agenda from margins to mainstream in international policy is an important affirmation of the transformative power of ideas and the value of continued efforts for peace in the face of apparent setbacks and slow progress. The women’s vision of 1919 did not dismantle the mindsets of war or prevent the development of nuclear weapons, the rise of nationalism or the outbreak of conflict in 1939.  Neither the League of Nations nor the UN has been able to prevent war. However, the fact that core values identified by the women in 1919 are now embedded within the framework governing international relations represents a paradigm shift in the context for WILPF’s campaign to create a sustainable and lasting peace, which remains based on principles of gender equity, social justice and respect for human rights. 

Feminism, internationalism and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Laura Beers, University of Birmingham

The conference that convened on 28 April 1915, was not the first international peace conference to meet at The Hague. In July 1899, representatives of 26 governments had come together in that city at the behest of Czar Nicholas II of Russia ‘with the object of seeking the most effective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace and, above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments.’ The delegates could not agree on a scheme of multilateral disarmament, but they were able to draw up a series of rules for modern warfare, known collectively as The Hague Conventions. Eight years later, representatives of the same governments reconvened for a second peace conference. This too failed to make substantive progress towards disarmament, although it agreed various further conventions regarding the rules of naval warfare.

The third peace conference differed from its predecessors in fundamental ways. In the first place, the 1100 or so women who came to The Hague in April 1915 were not formal representatives of their respective governments. Rather, they were private citizens who believed that their opinions held weight in discussions about foreign policy. Secondly, whereas the 1899 and 1907 meetings had focused specifically on the advancement of peace through the abolition (or at least the regulation) of warfare, the women who assembled in 1915 viewed peace as a holistic process, which was as much about securing liberty and social justice within and across nations as it was about ending armed conflict between states. Finally, of course, the peacemakers who gathered on this occasion were all women. 

For the individuals involved, these three key elements - their democratic claims to political authority, their demands for social justice, and their gender - were intimately related and influenced the nature and direction of their pacifism. The women saw themselves not merely as peace activists, but as feminist pacifists. But what did this identity mean for the women who held it, and how did it allow them to build an international organization that charted new territory in its commitment to transnational cooperation in the pursuit of world peace?

Making peace amid war

The women who assembled at in April 1915 were, for the most part, affluent, well travelled, and multilingual. While some, such as the organization’s future president Jane Addams, had established careers in the more socially acceptable ‘feminine’ field of social work, others were pioneering women in male-dominated professions such as law, medicine, teaching and design. None had the right to vote in national elections in their respective countries. Only a few, including the British representatives, enjoyed municipal suffrage rights. However, the success of many in breaking down professional barriers bolstered their conviction that women should not be excluded from full political participation.

Indeed, as Ingrid Sharp notes above, support for women’s suffrage was one of the threads that united the women. The conference participants were nearly all active in national suffrage organizations within their own countries, including Lida Gustava Heymann and Anita Augspurg, the founders, in 1902, of the Hamburg Women’s Suffrage Society. Nearly all were also members of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) and had planned to attend the fourth international meeting of that body, scheduled to take place in Berlin in 1915. IWSA was an international association, rather than a transnational organization, and as such it was typical of a wide number of associations formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the World Methodist Council, which first convened in London in 1881, and the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres founded in Copenhagen in 1901. While male and female participants in international conferences and meetings retained their national identity, the personal and professional bonds formed at such events helped to break down barriers of national difference and forge a sense of common humanity. Nonetheless, with the invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914, many of these internationalists were forced to choose between national and other allegiances. Most put nation first. As Emily Greene Balch wrote from The Hague in 1915:

Of all the international gatherings that help to draw the nations together, since the fatal days of July 1914 practically none have been convened. Science, medicine, reform, labor, religion – not one of these causes has been able as yet to gather its followers from across dividing frontiers.

In taking the decision to meet at The Hague, the delegates made a different choice to put their loyalty to their international sisters before national allegiance. In this respect alone, their coming together was a political statement. However, the political significance of their meeting went well beyond a symbolic show of international solidarity. The assembled women agreed a series of resolutions advocating not only the immediate cessation of hostilities but also the ‘Democratic Control of Foreign Policy,’ a radical claim in an era when diplomacy remained the preserve of an aristocratic elite. The women were not unique in making this demand, but they went farther than many would-be reformers at the time in insisting that nations not only cede control of foreign affairs to their own subjects but sacrifice national sovereignty in the interests of permanent peace. The congress resolutions called for the creation of a new supranational structure,

[a] ‘permanent International conference,’ ‘constituted [so] that it could formulate and enforce those principles of justice, equity and good will in accordance with which the struggles of subject communities could be more fully recognized and the interests and rights not only of the great Powers and small nations but also those of weaker countries and primitive peoples gradually adjusted under an enlightened international public opinion. 

At the end of the conference, the women agreed to maintain contact, establishing the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace. On returning to their home countries, they formed national branch organizations, including the British Women’s International League (WIL), to agitate for mediated peace negotiations, and later to make the case for a positive peace along the lines laid out in US President Woodrow Wilson’s famous ‘14 Points’ speech. After the armistice, the women reconvened in Zurich to discuss a further series of resolutions for the social and political reconstruction of Europe and the European empires. This second Congress appointed representatives to present their resolutions to the male power-brokers then assembled at the Paris Peace Conference. Despite general disregard for their views in Paris, the women committed themselves to acting as a full-time fact-finding and advisory body on foreign affairs.

The constitution of the newly-named Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) created an international executive to which branches could submit resolutions. The executive was empowered to adopt or reject these without consulting the other national bodies, signalling WILPF’s status as a truly international body rather than simply a federation of national sections. The internationalism of WILPF was further underscored by the composition of the executive, the members of which were elected to serve as individuals by the full congress without a mandate that a national of any particular country should sit on the executive committee. The Hungarian-born Rosika Schwimmer may have gone farther than some of her colleagues when she proclaimed that:

I have no sense of nationalism, only a cosmic consciousness of belonging to the human family

but she was not alone amongst interwar WILPF members in repudiating nationalism and advocating the adoption of an ‘international mind’.

WILPF after 1919

WILPF’s strength as an international lobbying organization lay largely in its ability to speak with a transnational voice as an advocate for policies that, as the women saw it, transcended national interests. While the national sections frequently acted independently, the central voice of the organization was the international secretariat based at the ‘Maison Internationale’ in Geneva, the seat of the League of Nations. (WILPF was the only international women’s group to establish a permanent headquarters in that city.) In numerical terms, WILPF’s radical stance always limited its potential appeal, even amongst professed pacifists. At its interwar height, WILPF counted only 50,000 members spread across 50 countries throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. In contrast, the League of Nations Union, one of the largest peace organisations in Britain, boasted 400,000 paid up members in that country alone in the 1930s. WILPF’s expansive definition of pacifism further limited its popular support. The group quickly gained a reputation as one of the most socially radical international organizations outside the communist sphere. As Sharp notes, much of the language they used in the interwar period foreshadowed the post-Second World War focus on positive human rights by emphasising the importance of economic and social as well as physical security in guarding against future wars. 

For many of the women active in WILPF, this broad conception of social justice and human rights was intimately tied up with their self-identity as feminist activists. Some WILPF women, especially the leaders of the German movement Heymann and Augspurg, continued to subscribe to an essentialist notion of gender difference that posited that women, as mothers and nurturers, were inherently more pacific than men. These arguments, however, remained on the periphery of WILPF discourse. More representative were those who believed that women’s historical condition, as legally, economically and politically disadvantaged members of their respective societies, brought them a unique sensitivity to and empathy for others who had been ill-served by the existing world system. This feminist emphasis on social justice was one of the major factors that made WILPF unique amongst women’s international organizations, and provided a key to its long-term success and durability as an international lobbying organization. It also proved an early source of conflict within the organization as the members’ commitment to social justice came into tension with their absolute pacifism.

Empire and fascism

The two key issues that dominated international politics in the interwar period were the fate of Europe’s empires and the rise of fascism. On the first of these, WILPF was united in its condemnation of imperial police violence and its support for a pathway to independence for Europe’s colonies; notably, WILPF cooperated closely with the Indian National Congress in the 1920s and 1930s. The women, as we have seen, often struggled to transcend the imperialist assumptions under which they operated. Yet, even when the European and North American founders of WILPF slipped into a hierarchical rhetoric which posited western civilization as more advanced, they consciously fought against an impulse to instruct or patronize non-white women.  For example, in 1927, the British branch of WILPF was alone amongst British women’s organizations in condemning the publication of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, rejecting Mayo’s conclusion that the social practices of the Indian people rendered them unfit for self-rule and arguing instead that only self-government would allow Indian women the opportunity to improve their own circumstances.

On the second issue, the rise of fascism, WILPF’s members were divided. All members were united in their opposition to fascist brutality and aggression, especially the persecution of Jews and the mistreatment of political prisoners within Germany and Italy and the flouting of external treaties. Individual WILPF members, including the British Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, spoke out in a personal capacity against fascism’s gendered social policies designed to push women out of the workforce and encourage maternity. The international organization, however, denounced fascism primarily in humanist, as opposed to feminist, terms. For WILPF women, to be a feminist internationalist meant to assert the right of women to participate in international affairs as equal partners, not simply to contribute to discussions about the role of women and children. In this respect WILPF differed from other international feminist organizations in not focusing its attention solely on ‘women’s issues’ such as sex trafficking or women’s legal and political rights. WILPF’s mission was to bring women’s perspectives to the table on all issues affecting foreign policy.  However, if WILPF women were united in condemning fascist aggression, they were divided over the appropriate international response to fascism, and specifically the question of whether lasting peace could be achieved through the appeasement of the dictatorships or only through their overthrow.

The majority view was expressed by the German exile Gertrud Baer at the 1934 international congress in Zurich. ‘State-fascism,’ she argued,

is our worse [sic] enemy and we cannot possibly stand for a programme which claims justice if we do not take a clear position on this question and declare ourselves to be with those who are exploited, oppressed and murdered by fascism. 

A significant minority, however, including most of the British section, were unwilling to countenance the forcible opposition to fascism, through either economic sanctions or, ultimately, armed intervention by European liberal democracies. In 1934, and again in 1936, the British section came close to resigning from the international organization in protest against the bellicose anti-fascism of the Geneva headquarters. Ultimately, however, the personal and ideological bonds that had brought the women into the organization convinced them that it was more important to maintain the unity of WILPF in the face of the rising threat of war than to cripple the feminist peace movement by allowing the organization to split apart. 

In the end, their commitment to their international sisters kept open lines of communication between fascist-controlled and democratic countries and led many members who had initially supported appeasement towards an absolute rejection of fascism by the late 1930s. The trajectory of WILPF between the wars was, then, yet further proof of the power of politically-willed, transnational, and gender-based solidarities in drawing women together across differences, even at historical moments when the climate for international cooperation could hardly have seemed more hostile. 

Women’s rights, human rights and the creation of the United Nations

Glenda Sluga, University of Sydney

As Ingrid Sharp and Linda Beers’ contributions have already begun to make clear, women were characteristically present in the shaping movements and events that created the League of Nations in 1919, its successor body the United Nations in 1945, and, eventually, our present-day international human rights regime. Yet despite this centrality, the presence of women is rarely acknowledged in mainstream accounts of this history. Once we put women and gender back in the story, it becomes hard to ignore that feminist demands for equality and their insistence on women’s shared humanity help to define an international - not just national - history of democracy. In other words, throughout the twentieth century, the struggle for greater political representation took place in international as much as national domains, and women were at the forefront of this struggle, demanding a range of rights for themselves as well as others.

But exactly how, when and why did women’s rights become an ‘international’ question, and what role did feminist activism play in bringing this about? For most of the twentieth century, male and female liberal, democratic, and progressive supporters of international government believed in internationalism because it made space for a good national patriotism. The League of Nations represented a liberal international world order based on national self-determination and international government, making support for both principles seemingly compatible. At the moment of its foundation in 1919, the all-male peacemakers in Paris (including delegates from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the Indian principality of Bijkaner) unanimously agreed that women’s status was a defining prerogative of national sovereignty: it could not be considered an ‘international’ concern. This was despite the fact that women's associations such as the International Council of Women and WILPF, brought together under the impetus of the 1915 Hague Congress, were also present in Paris, demanding recognition of women’s self-determination as equal in importance to national self-determination. In other words, in the first half of the twentieth century, women’s exclusion from international politics was not inevitable but rather a product of negotiation among the imperial and national delegations.

The events of 1919, however, also provoked and enabled feminists to turn to international institutions like the League for leverage in their efforts to claim rights for themselves within nations. Women’s involvement and their demand for political rights and recognition as citizens of the nation state were notable features of early twentieth-century liberal internationalism. The trend expanded through the century with a further twist, as women from minority and colonised communities embraced opportunities offered by the League and its agencies to demand both rights for themselves and recognition for their ‘nations’. This often put them at odds with western feminist internationalists who took the existence of the imperial nation state for granted, even if some, as in the case of WILPF, were critical and outspoken about its illiberal governing practices.

Women and the creation of the United Nations

The 1940s were the apogee of this profoundly entangled history of women, feminism, nationalism and internationalism. In Paris in 1919, there were no women representing states at the planning for a League. A quarter of a century later in San Francisco in 1945, when delegates met to draft a charter for the United Nations, things had changed. There was, at least, a small group of women in attendance as the formal representatives of nation states. Thanks to demands made by women's groups and the expansion of women’s roles in national political spheres, the United States boasted a delegation that included Dr Virginia Gildersleeve, Dean of Barnard College; Canada had Cora Casselman, MP; China, Miss Wu Yi-Fang, the President of Ginling College (and WILPF member); the Dominican Republic, Minerva Bernadino, President of the Inter-American Commission of Women; Uruguay, Senator Isabel P. De Vidal; Brazil, Bertha Lutz, MP and biologist. Venezuela sent one and Mexico two women councillors, and Australia sent Jessie Street in an undesignated capacity. The French government nominated Elisabeth de Miribel, a former resistance fighter; Norway, Sweden and Denmark sent one woman each. Britain appointed two junior female ministers, Ellen Wilkinson and Florence Horsbrugh as second-tier or assistant delegates.

The experience of these female delegates was mixed. One press report noted that both British women had expressed an exasperated and shared refusal ‘to be confined to the “woman’s field”,’ arguing instead that women’s interests were ‘global’. Part of the explanation for this frustration was a tendency in San Francisco to appoint the few women state delegates to committees dealing with social questions, the feminine provenance of which had been established at the League. Observing the proceedings, veteran WILPF activist Gertrude Baer warned that it was still uncertain whether women would:

at last be called to offices which manipulate the master levers, where the purposes and methods of public action are determined.

Even though women’s status was now on the international table, the legitimacy of women’s rights as individuals remained contested, as did their role as international actors.

This was reflected in the controversy surrounding the provision in the UN Charter affirming the equal eligibility of women and men for positions in the organisation. A similar provision had been included in the Covenant of the League, but, surprisingly, in the late 1940s, this point aroused more heated debate than 30 years previously. What progress there was, as in the Charter’s invocations of rights and freedoms without distinction of sex or race, language, or religion, was due to the efforts of Latin American, Scandinavian and communist delegates. Male and some female delegates from northern and western Europe stuck to the view that women’s difference made them especially suited for UN peace work. The French delegate suggested women’s equal rights to citizenship could be offered as a reward for women’s war effort, rather than as recognition of rights intrinsic to their status as human beings. By contrast, for feminists from both old and new worlds focused on achieving equality, this gendered interpretation of rights distracted from the central and urgent task of enshrining universal ‘human rights’ as the moral cornerstone of the new UN-focused international order. 

Women’s rights in the post-war world order

Their concerns were not misplaced. Women’s representation on the UN Secretariat and as delegates declined during the first decade of its existence. Exceptions to the general rule of male appointments were, however, important. They included the Swedish feminist Alva Myrdal’s stint as acting top-ranking Director of Social Affairs, which included Human Rights (1949), and then as head of Social Sciences at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) between 1950 and 1955. Myrdal was able to use her short tenure to set up studies of women’s status (picking up on the incomplete work started under the League), and to highlight the importance of building women’s rights into development programmes targeted at colonial and post-colonial states. Her outlook was shaped by the Swedish model which, she claimed, had shown that giving women as well as men a greater stake in the improvement of quality of life led that country out of its feudal past into a more democratic and modern future.

Other important women active at the UN in this period included the former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Indian feminist Hansa Mehta, who acted as Chair and national delegate respectively on the Human Rights Commission (1947-1948). Roosevelt and Mehta were on opposite sides of a debate about the need for a Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) as part of the Human Rights Commission, on the grounds that the inclusion of women in the idea of ‘human’ rights could not be taken for granted. Mehta drew on her feminist experience in India to draft a charter of rights for CSW that established ‘the freedom of woman and her equality with man, equality of identity’. Further, throughout the discussions regarding a Human Rights covenant (eventually diminished to a declaration), Mehta was among a minority who promoted the principle that individuals be allowed to petition a UN Human Rights Commission, that the Commission be enabled to take action on petitions (and not just make abstract pronouncements on rights), and that a bill on human rights should become part of the Charter and a fundamental law of the UN. All three propositions were defeated, but they remained important measures of how individuals, and particularly women, could imagine alternative models of internationalism which challenged great power interests in the new world order.

Nonetheless and despite pressure from the new communist bloc for a conception of non-discrimination as relevant to sex as well as race, the scope of the CSW was severely limited. The final version of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (that remains in operation today) reflects the mixed influences of the post-war groups involved. While it unambiguously addresses ‘men and women’, it enshrines the family as ‘the natural and fundamental group unit of society...entitled to protection by society and the State’. Mehta, and the CSW, were unsuccessful in their demands that the interests of children and mothers be separated in order to emphasise women’s intrinsic rights as individuals. Instead, in Article 25 of the Declaration the needs of mothers and children were essentially yoked together.

Women, human rights and internationalism

What should we take away from the twists and turns of the history of women, human rights, and internationalism in the twentieth century? Women and women’s organizations contributed substantially to the many ideas and conversations which shaped twentieth century liberal internationalism and culminated in the League and the United Nations. An emergent international public sphere focused on international law and institutions gave women from different regions of the world expanded political spaces to voice a variety of human rights concerns. Across the western world, upper- and middle-class women and women’s associations identified with the social and political aims of liberal internationalism, even if in the interest of improving their own status within nations. That said, the bureaucrats and statesmen guiding the major instruments of twentieth century internationalism - including organizations such as the League or the UN, and international law - were more comfortable in accommodating women as the subjects of internationalism, than as its agents. The value of history in this scenario is not only that it allows us to recover the agency of women and their ambitions, but also the strands of feminism that were as profoundly entangled in the history of internationalism as imperialism and nationalism. It also reminds us that internationalism has a central place in the long and deeply gendered history of democracy and modernity. 

Women’s rights, transnational activism and the Cold War

Celia Donert, University of Liverpool

The Cold War threw a long shadow over political debates about peace and women’s rights, which for decades became inseparable from ideas of communism and anti-communism. As Glenda Sluga notes in her previous contribution, progress in advancing the cause of gender equality as an international issue was uneven in the immediate post-war decades. Peace became a familiar weapon in the arsenal of political propaganda used by states on either side of the ‘Iron Curtain’, with images of women and children central to the symbolism deployed in its defence in the East as well as the West. But Cold War societies, as well as governments, understood peace to be a matter of vital importance. Millions of people mobilized under the banner of peace during these 40 years. From Picasso to the women of Greenham Common, gendered representations of peace were central to the broad-based politics of anti-fascist, anti-war, and anti-nuclear campaigns in this period.

Women’s transnational activism continued into the second half of the twentieth century, shaped but not silenced by Cold War geopolitics. WILPF’s long-running commitment to working across borders and its belief in the common humanity of all peoples meant that the organization took East-West relations more seriously than the other international women’s organisations that were re-established after the enforced hiatus of the Second World War. After 1945, however, WILPF activists were increasingly confronted with competing ideals and practices of internationalism, especially from the Soviet bloc and ‘Third World’. Disarmament campaigns, the nuclear threat and decolonisation, moreover, caused feminist activists to redefine their maternalist ideals and what they meant by ‘peace’. 

Defining women’s rights in the Cold War world

Women’s rights became the object of Cold War conflicts as governments and statesmen deployed gender equality as a barometer of the purported achievements of Communism versus those of western liberal democracy. During the 1950s, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women became a battleground between these competing models of freedom and democracy. The UN Declaration on Human Rights established equality between the sexes as an individual human right but still referred to the family as the ‘basic unit’ of society. Political and cultural disagreements over the relationship between individuals, families, and states coloured debates over women’s rights for decades. 

The expansion of Soviet influence, for example through the creation of people’s democracies in eastern Europe, gave greater salience to these debates about women’s rights. Communist regimes encouraged women of all classes to study, work and participate in public life as citizens. Women gained equal rights under the law, for example through family laws that liberalized divorce while dismantling husbands’ privileges in the division of property and family decision-making. Abortion was decriminalised in many countries, and social policies introduced benefits for mothers, married or single. State socialism never entirely solved the problem of women’s dual responsibilities as workers and carers. Nonetheless, women living in eastern Europe in this period developed a robust sense of their rights as socialist citizens, and socialist states made the emancipation of women a core part of their cultural diplomacy abroad, in the form of international conferences, study visits, or exchanges. In the first 30 years of the Cold War, state socialism was taken seriously by western feminists as an example – whether positive or negative – of an alternative model for women’s emancipation.

Women from newly independent states in the developing world also looked to the Soviet bloc for inspiration. Decolonization transformed women’s transnational activism, above all by challenging the ‘standard of civilization’ that colonial powers - and, as we have seen, even the radical feminists of WILPF - had applied when framing (and denying) the rights of colonial subjects. The UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women became a flashpoint for citizenship claims in the early 1950s by nations seeking self-determination. They challenged the position adopted by Britain and France - then still colonial powers - which opposed universal political rights for women on the grounds that women in Africa, for example, were not ‘civilized’ enough to exercise a right to vote.  Universalist rhetoric demanding rights for all women was a means of challenging the arguments about cultural difference that colonial powers had used for so long to deny legal rights to supposedly ‘backward’ peoples. In the 1960s Third World states became the main champions of social and economic rights at the UN, and looked to the Soviet or ‘Second World’ as much as the West for sources of economic, political, and technical assistance. This, as Helen McCarthy shows in the following contribution, was a central dynamic at the UN Conference on the Status of Women held in Mexico City in 1975 to mark International Women’s Year.

Women’s activism across the Iron Curtain

Women on both sides of the Iron Curtain were crucial political actors in these Cold War struggles, yet are often forgotten in mainstream accounts. Women in Yugoslavia or Bulgaria were active in national and international politics as much as their Italian or German counterparts. International communist organizations such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation provided a platform for communist women to promote their vision of equality in international politics, alongside more familiar western women’s NGOs such as the International Council of Women or the International Federation of University Women. Women’s involvement in anti-war and anti-nuclear movements in eastern as well as western Europe also reminds us of the alternative ways in which women linked peace with equality during the Cold War, without necessarily invoking the language of human rights.

Women’s supposed ‘natural’ affinity to peace was ubiquitous in anti-war campaigns during the 1950s, but the maternalist ideals that animated much feminist peace activism in the interwar years were challenged in the post-war decades. As discussed above, Cold War rhetoric gave larger political meaning to domestic policies affecting women introduced by governments in both East and West. The implementation of legal rights was shaped by competing political, psychological and scientific theories about women’s roles as workers, consumers or mothers. In West Germany, for example, claims that socialism in the GDR was destroying the family were frequently used to legitimise the ideal of the West German woman as a housewife and consumer. Such arguments were reinforced by images of East German children apparently being socialised out of individualism by collective potty-training in state-run crèches. In fact, levels of investment in state-provided childcare varied significantly between west-European welfare states, with West Germany on the lower end of the spectrum and France and Sweden much closer to the levels of provision seen in socialist states. A more nuanced picture is now emerging of women’s changing attitudes to work, family and citizenship across post-war Europe, which also helps explain the difficulties faced by second-wave feminists in the 1970s and 80s who sought to imagine women as a ‘global sisterhood’.

By the 1980s, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of gender equality in the socialist bloc was increasing, but such concerns were rarely, if at all, voiced in the language of universal human rights.  Women wanted greater flexibility to manage the burden of paid work and childcare, often expressed through demands for part-time employment, and the allure of western-style consumer goods grew stronger. The 1975 Helsinki Accords, a trigger for human rights activism in the Soviet bloc and the monitoring of Soviet human rights violations by western governments and NGOs, focused on the human rights of dissidents and political prisoners rather than the everyday concerns of women as workers, mothers, or citizens. Meanwhile, the mass social movements that emerged after 1968 in western Europe rarely spoke the language of human rights. The convergence of feminism, environmentalism, and anti-nuclear movements after the 1979 ‘dual track’ decision by NATO to station nuclear missiles on European soil was behind the revival of mass peace movements and inspired efforts by west European peace activists to reach out to east European dissidents. Contacts between women’s activists in East and West remained limited, however, until after 1989.

As the intensity of ideological conflict diminished through the 1990s, it has become possible to see this rather more nuanced picture in sharper relief. What was at stake in most European welfare states (whether democratic or communist) in Cold War-era debates about women’s rights was a set of shared concerns about equality in the private and public spheres. The wealth of recent research by historians on women and gender in state socialist regimes highlights the similarities rather than the differences in debates about employment, housework, childcare, marriage, and reproduction in East and West. Looking behind the Cold War rhetoric was a common language about the political, civil – and especially social and economic rights – for which women had fought for access since the nineteenth century. The often forgotten history of dialogue between women’s organizations from the First, Second, and Third Worlds demonstrates the role of women in sustaining this common language. The Cold War period also, however, illustrates the intensity of disagreements over its meaning, and the potential for shared commitments to be operationalised in very different ways.

The Cold War and women’s rights as human rights

Why might the history of these Cold War struggles be important for understanding contemporary debates about women’s rights as human rights?

First, this history is crucial for understanding the genesis - and the failure - of landmark international conventions, noted by previous contributors, such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This Convention emerged from debates launched at the Conference in Mexico City in 1975, which, as McCarthy discusses in greater detail, were riven by Cold War tensions from the outset. Soviet bloc states even went so far as to organize their own version of the UN women’s conference - symbolically held in East Berlin, the pre-eminent Cold War European city - in October of the same year. The text of CEDAW - and other resolutions and action plans on women of the period - was thrashed out after lengthy and often bitter debates in which delegates accused each other of imperialism, racism, and Zionism. The traces of these debates are still visible in the language of CEDAW. It is possible to trace the reluctance of states - notably the USA - to ratify CEDAW back to these Cold War tensions.

Second, the history of gender politics during the Cold War throws into sharp relief the shifting terrain of debates about women’s rights as human rights during the 1990s. A key moment in this transition was the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The success of transnational networks devoted to the promotion of global women’s rights since the collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has turned on the decision to mobilize around ‘apolitical’ questions of sexual violence or bodily violations. This strategic focus on individual bodily suffering, rather than the structural factors that might cause violence, has been criticised for abandoning a feminist commitment to social justice. More than 20 years since the Cold War ended, has the global discourse of women’s rights - and in particular gendered representations of victimhood and violence - been entirely appropriated by the post-ideological rhetoric of humanitarianism? 

This would be too simplistic an argument. Yet there has been a turn towards moral and cultural principles in the framing of human rights since the 1990s. Attempts to reach a consensus on controversial aspects of gender equality have resulted in what some have seen as a ‘rollback’ of women’s human rights in contemporary debates. The human rights scholar Stephen Hopgood, for instance, notes that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals refer to ‘maternal health’ rather than reproductive rights. Given that history is often invoked to legitimate the use of human rights in the present, the story of Cold War women’s activism serves as a reminder to those who care about gender equality - whether as historians or activists - that the political stakes are always high in struggles over women’s rights.  

Feminist activism, global women’s rights and the United Nations, 1970 to the present

Helen McCarthy, Queen Mary University of London

1975 was a milestone in the history of the international women’s movement. Three years earlier, the United Nations General Assembly had voted overwhelmingly in favour of designating 1975 International Women’s Year (IWY), an event which kick-started the UN Decade for Women. The UN Decade was marked by three major intergovernmental conferences on the status of women - in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) - and was followed by a fourth conference ten years later in Beijing (1995). In histories of global feminism, this period represented a moment when women’s experiences and needs became integral to thinking about development, human rights and global security. The three UN Decade conferences played an important role in lending strength and coherence to a proliferation of activist networks among women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which, as Celia Donert discusses in the previous contribution, stretched across Cold War divides and encompassed both global North and South.

The UN Decade also galvanised a process of institutionalisation through which women’s rights became enshrined in international legal instruments and an expanded UN machinery. In 1979 the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), followed in 1993 by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and, in October 2000 the ‘landmark’ Security Council Resolution 1325, which affirmed women’s centrality to conflict prevention and resolution, called for equal participation of men and women in all efforts to maintain and promote peace and security, and recognised the risks of gender-based violence, especially rape and sexual abuse, created by conflict situations. Over the same period, the UN’s machinery for upholding women’s rights has greatly expanded; this includes the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, both established after the first world conference in Mexico City, and, more recently the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, established in 1997.

In 2010, these three initiatives were combined, together with the older Division for the Advancement of Women (founded 1946), to form UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Visitors to UN Women’s website today will find set out an inspiring vision of how nation states can, through implementing these international conventions and adhering to best practice in policy making, eliminate sex discrimination and achieve equality between men and women ‘as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security.’ Gender equality, it would appear, has become a ‘norm’ – that is, universally accepted, non-contentious - within the international community.

The history of international gender norms

The development of an international institutional architecture to support gender equality was not, however, inevitable, and nor is it complete. As Glenda Sluga’s contribution reveals, the present-day UN Women was built upon historically-specific foundations laid in the 1940s in which the definition of women’s rights as human rights was contested from the start. The problem of how to frame and de-limit those rights proved no less controversial in 1975, when thousands of female activists, members of government delegations and UN officials descended upon Mexico City to attend the first world Conference on the Status of Women. The history of this, and subsequent conferences, shows how efforts to build consensus over gender equality took place amidst serious and long-running disagreements linked, as Donert shows, to larger Cold War struggles and reflecting major ideological and cultural differences. The compromises required to reach agreement under such circumstances points to an important lesson: that gender norms are not the product of a benign process of global convergence around universal values, but are hard-won and fragile pacts which need to be constantly renewed if they are to survive. As the history of organisations like WILPF demonstrate, women’s NGOs have played and continue to play an invaluable role in keeping gender equality visible in the international arena. But this is not because of ‘natural’ solidarities between women, but because of a political commitment to maintaining dialogue across difference, however hard that might be in practice.

Women as a global political subject

‘Women’ were the subject of the Mexico City conference and of the Decade which followed, but just who or what was this collective global subject? The organizers of the 1975 conference agreed on three themes, Equality, Development and Peace, which signalled the simultaneously overlapping and competing priorities of the participants. For many western delegates, equal rights and the elimination of formal sex discrimination were key, whilst some more radical feminists demanded an end to ‘sexism’ in all its settings, from the mass media to the oppressive nuclear family. By contrast, for those representing developing countries, equality of this kind seemed meaningless for women impoverished, like their menfolk, by immense inequalities of wealth between the rich, industrialised North and the poor, under-developed South. This was especially true of the G-77, a group founded in 1962 on a radical, anti-western platform and containing many newly-independent ex-colonies. Women’s rights, they argued, could only be secured by remedying larger economic injustices, and by allowing developing countries to control their own economies free of interference from western capitalist interests. Development, the second theme of the conference, was therefore a highly politicised issue, with western delegations emphasising aid and investment in response to G-77 demands for a global redistribution of wealth. Peace, the final theme, was no less contentious, viewed by many as rhetorical cover for Soviet efforts to capture the conference agenda for use in attacking US foreign policy during a period of Cold War détente.

The very category of women was, therefore, contested in Mexico City, and not only amongst the government delegations. Divisions were also evident at the NGO Tribune, which took place simultaneously alongside the official conference. These differences ran in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways: between lesbians and heterosexuals, between white women and women of colour, between Catholics and Protestants, and between supporters and opponents of the state of Israel. Disagreements over the latter issue proved insurmountable, and the Conference was forced to produce not one but two final documents: a Declaration which placed ‘Zionism’ alongside imperialism, racism, apartheid and foreign domination on a list of evils to be eliminated; and a World Plan of Action, which governments undertook to put into practice at national level.

This basic question - whether women as a global subject was independent of, or subordinate to, other political and ideological fault-lines - remained unresolved at the second conference of the UN Decade, which took place in Copenhagen in 1980. The international climate had arguably deteriorated even further, with deepening tensions over Palestine and apartheid in South Africa, whilst the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan signalled the end of Cold War détente. The US Congress was sufficiently alarmed by the anti-western and anti-Israel tone that it passed resolutions while the conference was in session lamenting its ‘politicisation’. Western feminists were also under pressure; efforts by the Australian delegate to insert the word ‘sexism’ into the conference document were met with assertions from socialist states that the phenomenon did not exist under communism. The Copenhagen Programme of Action, which, controversially, included reference to the high levels of employment, health, education and political participation enjoyed by women in countries with nationally planned economies, resulted in 22 abstentions from mainly western states. The third Conference, held in Nairobi in 1985, was more successful in reaching consensus on the final document, the Forward-Looking Strategies, by allowing delegations to vote on each separate paragraph, thus making it possible to register reservations without having to reject or abstain on the entire text.

Dialogue across difference

The three decade conferences demonstrate how the emergence of gender norms at the UN bore the deep imprint of the fraught global politics of the 1970s and 1980s. This applied equally to both NGO activists and government delegates, between which there existed a great deal of interaction and overlapping of roles. The British delegation to Mexico, for example, contained NGO representatives, Foreign Office diplomats and elected politicians, a mix that was replicated at Copenhagen. As previously noted, disagreements at the NGO Tribune were often profound; Irene Tinker, a US participant, recalled that women who clashed in their views were so infuriated they literally ended up pulling each other’s hair.

And yet, even if the decade conferences were by no means havens of global sisterhood, women activists, for all their differences, maintained a commitment throughout to dialogue. Some explicitly regarded the conferences as a learning process. One development expert at Mexico wrote that the ‘letting-off-steam’ aspect had been a cathartic experience and that the NGO Tribune had been a ‘learning, sharing and renewing experience’ for most participants. The head of the British delegation, Millie Miller MP, concluded that it had been ‘a miracle of organisation: it was a meeting place where women had communicated with women.’ The three conferences, together with the UN machinery operational in between, created a structure and a process for the solidifying of relationships between women’s NGOs at international, regional and national levels, the forging of trust and goodwill, and the development of shared methods and techniques for working through the UN system and national governments to advance women’s rights.

Post-decade achievements

Arguably it was only the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 that made the realisation of these aspirations possible, by allowing the debate to move beyond the old Cold War-era controversy over the primacy or otherwise of global capitalism in women’s oppression. It is significant that many NGO activists regard the 1990s as a key decade of advance: in 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights formally recognised violence against women as a violation of their human rights (leading to the Declaration of the same year); and in 1995 the Beijing Platform for Action, still considered the key document for global gender equality, was adopted unanimously by 189 countries. Finally, in 2000, following years of lobbying by women’s NGOs, SCR 1325 was passed, marking a milestone in the integration of gender norms at international level.

Some might argue that this shift in the terms of the debate is simply a reflection of the political hegemony of global capitalist interests in the post-Communist era, or, as Donert suggests, that the turn to questions about sexual violence distracts from larger concerns about social justice and structural inequalities between the sexes. History certainly shows that the framing and institutionalisation of gender equality have always been constrained by political realities. But it also shows how, during the turbulent 1970s and 80s as much as during the international crisis of the 1930s, this process was never entirely contained by the world’s wider ideological struggles. The UN Decade started a conversation and put in place the bare bones of an institutional architecture which provided a focal point for the lobbying and networking effort of thousands of women’s NGOs worldwide. As seen in the case of WILPF earlier in the twentieth century, women’s transnational activism since the 1970s has a dynamic of its own which is not subordinate to or simply a proxy for the political battles fought by men. That elusive dream of global sisterhood - of refusing, transcending and transforming the dominant categories which limit our politics - is what drives this activism into the twenty-first century. It’s what keeps us talking, even when words seem impossible.


Helen Pankhurst, CARE International

This virtual roundtable provides a rich opportunity for reflection on the past in light of current day women’s activism and vice versa. Does looking back help us to understand change and continuity in women's activism, and the gendered or non-gendered nature of international structures? By comparing challenges with the past, what parallels and differences can we see?

The starting point of this roundtable, Ingrid Sharp’s analysis of the Women’s Congress at The Hague in 1915 and the creation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1919, are important moments in the history of feminist internationalism. With the engulfing backdrop of the First World War, these events succeeded in joining up discussions about human rights, peace and security within a feminist perspective. Their integrated vision and focus on the effects of war are clearly relevant today. So is WILPF, which remains influential, for example, by contributing to the formulation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on peace and security in 2000.

The need to increase women’s agency in preventing wars and conflict, involving them in peace processes, and addressing the effects of conflict on women and children are as pertinent as ever, and have remained high on the political agenda. For example, in 2013 the G8 adopted the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict; and in 2014 British Foreign Secretary William Hague co-chaired the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict [FH1] with Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Billed as the largest event held on the issue, with 1,700 delegates and 123 country delegations, including 79 ministers, the summit was a defining moment in how sexual violence in conflict is addressed politically and tackled practically.

When nations were divided by the legacy of the First World War, the rise of fascism and the struggle against colonialism, Laura Beers highlights the power of feminist peace activism to transcend major ideological differences and keep lines of communication open. 

This power of women in dialogue across differences remains central to activism today. For example, the ‘Join me on the Bridge’ campaigns of Women for Women International, which started in 2010 when women from Congo and Rwanda congregated on the bridge connecting their countries. This galvanised a wider campaign [FH2] for solidarity and peace led by feminist activists working across national borders. Another example is the courageous work of women who helped bring the second civil war in Liberia to an end in 2003.

Glenda Sluga’s contribution explores how the fight for more equal gender representation in national parliaments has been mirrored by a struggle for women’s inclusion in international fora –  as actors and in terms of the agenda and priorities of international organisations such as the UN.  Sluga highlights the debate about whether to include women’s rights agendas separately, or to mainstream them. This remains a major debate today.  If there is an emerging consensus, it is around the need for both mainstreamed and women-focused approaches. For example, the 2015 draft Sustainable Development Goals include both a standalone objective around women’s empowerment and gendered targets integrated into many other goals.  Generally, in most institutions (national and international) mainstreaming and attention to women’s specific concerns is the preferred strategy, which requires sustained attention to prevent slippages and a return to a male-dominated discourse and practice.

Celia Donert’s contribution focuses on the East-West schisms created by the gendered propaganda of the Cold War. Both camps used the supposed emancipation and independence of women in their rhetoric as symbols of their respective ideological superiority, and took their dogma to deliberations about conventions such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Nevertheless, women activists worked across the East-West divide and increasingly also with newly independent states.

After the collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe, the focus moved onto violence against women, arguably a convenient one for a liberal Europe uninterested in addressing the structural determinants of violence. But these fundamental factors in violence against women cannot be ignored: violence against women operates as a cause and consequence of gender inequality. Further, it is vital to work with men and boys on redefining masculinity – that is, tackling the behaviour underpinning violence and gender inequality. In addition, the fight for sexual and reproductive rights and maternal health remain among the most contested areas of international development and human rights.

Generally, the importance of tackling global inequalities of wealth and power remain on the agenda: witness the Occupy movements and the campaigns on global inequality by Oxfam and tax injustice by Christian Aid. Notably, a gendered analysis is often a sub-theme rather than the mainstream in these demands for global social justice. There is too little work being done both by policymakers and campaigning groups on the cross-national structures perpetuating patriarchy, whilst the women’s rights focused structures too often remain side-lined.

In charting the three UN Decade conferences, rise of women’s activist networks, expansion of UN bodies and the institutionalisation of women’s rights within international legal instruments, Helen McCarthy’s contribution suggests that gender equality has become embedded in these dialogues and structures. However, beneath headline successes lie disagreements, contested definitions, multiple reservations to declarations, and potential for future slippage. Furthermore, declarations and agreements require implementation, which remains patchy with innumerable barriers.

The narrative of progress made in this period is clearly reflected in activism today, where battles are fought over form and function and how to push forward the women’s rights agenda without being swallowed up in other priorities or becoming  the casualty of international schisms.  Nevertheless, even in terms of mainstreaming women into positions of power in transnational peace organisations, there are successes to be celebrated.  For example, in 2011 the International Criminal Court appointed Fatou Bensouda, an African woman, as its second chief prosecutor.

The history of twentieth century women’s transnational activism reveals how much has been achieved, as well as the continued relevancy of debates about approach and content to the twenty-first century. The key questions then, as now, include:

  • How to work across other differences - economic, political and ideological, social and cultural;
  • How to effect change in terms of agency, social norms and institutional change at the international level, given different national perspectives;
  • How to navigate through changing but always dangerous national and global fault-lines.

Clearly women’s rights campaigners have firmly put their stamp on the international history of the twentieth century through their work in local, national and transnational arenas, and there are many achievements to celebrate both in terms of their impact on women and on humanity generally. However, though transnational feminist voices can be heard in 2015, they are still not equal to men in mainstream international politics. The need for a combined vision of peace, gender equality and human rights remains as relevant and critical as in 1915, whilst the dangers to these issues, individually and collectively, are as present as ever.

Further Reading

Addams, J. Peace and Bread in Time of War (Memphis, Tennessee: General Books, 2010, first published 1922).

Addams, J., Balch, E., and Hamilton, A. Women at The Hague. The International Congress of Women and Its Results (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003, first published 1915).

Bonfiglioli, C. ‘Cold War internationalisms, nationalisms and the Yugoslav - Soviet split: the Union of Italian women and the Antifascist Women's Front of Yugoslavia before and after 1948,’ F. De Haan, J. Purvis, M. Allen and K. Dasklova (eds) Women’s Activism: Global Perspectives from the 1890s to the Present (London: Routledge, 2012).

Burke, R. Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Bussey, G. and Tims, M. Pioneers for Peace: Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1965. A Record of Fifty Years‘ Work. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1965).

Cagatay, N., Grown, C., and Santiago, A. ‘Commentary: The Nairobi Women’s Conference: Towards a Global Feminism?’ Feminist Studies 12(2), 1986.

Chen, M. A. ‘Engendering World Conferences: The International Women’s Movement and the United Nations’ Third World Quarterly 16(3), 1995.

Donert, C. ‘Women’s Rights in Cold War Europe: Disentangling Feminist Histories’, Past and Present (Supplement 2013).

Donert, C. ‘Whose Utopia? Gender, Ideology and Human Rights at the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin,’ in J. Eckel and S. Moyn (eds) The Breakthrough. Human Rights in the 1970s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Fraser, A. The UN Decade for Women: Documents and Dialogue (Westview, 1987).

Ghodsee, K. ‘Revisiting the United Nations Decade for Women: Brief reflections on feminism, capitalism and Cold War politics in the early years of the international women’s movement’ Women’s Studies International Forum 33 (2010).

Ghodsee,K. ‘Rethinking State Socialist Mass Women’s Organizations The Committee of the Bulgarian Women’s Movement and the United Nations Decade for Women, 1975–1985,’ Journal of Women’s History, (24)4, Winter 2012.

Grimshaw, P., Holmes, K., Lake, M. (eds) Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

Hopgood, S. The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Jahan, R. ‘The International Women’s Year Conference and Tribune’ International Development Review 3, 1975.

Kuhlman, E. ‘The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Reconciliation after the Great War,’ in A. Fell, and I. Sharp (eds) The Women’s Movement in Wartime: International Perspectives, 1914-19 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Moyn, S. The Last Utopia.  Human Rights in History. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Olcott, J. ‘Globalizing sisterhood: International Women’s Year and the Politics of Representation’ in N. Ferguson, C. S. Maier, E. Manela and D. J. Sargent (eds) The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2010)

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About the author

Dr Laura Beers is a Birmingham Fellow in Modern British History at the University of Birmingham. Her primary research interest is political history, particularly the intersection between politics and the mass media, the relationship between politics and gender, and international politics between the two World Wars. Previously, Dr Beers was an Assistant Professor at the American University in Washington, DC and held post-doctoral fellowships from the Economic and Social Research Council and Newnham College, Cambridge. Currently, Dr Beers is completing a biography of the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, focusing on her involvement in transnational anti-fascist and anti-colonial networks. Her first book was Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Dr Celia Donert is Lecturer in Twentieth-Century History at the University of Liverpool. Her research and teaching interests lie in contemporary European history, particularly East Central Europe, state socialism, welfare, gender, nationalism, and human rights. Dr Donert’s current project, funded in 2014-15 by a British Academy / Leverhulme Small Research Grant, examines the history of women’s engagement with international communism in post-war, post-colonial Europe. Previously she has been a visiting fellow at the EHESS, Paris, and held post-doctoral research fellowships at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam, the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague.

Dr Helen McCarthy is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History and Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014) was named International Affairs Book of the Year at the Political Book Awards 2015. Her previous research explored the popular movement which grew up around the League of Nations in Britain in the 1920s and 30s and she has also published articles on the history of voluntary action and interwar political culture. Dr McCarthy is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, editor of the journal Twentieth Century British History, and senior editor at History & Policy. @HistorianHelen

Dr Helen Pankhurst is a women’s rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International, based in Ethiopia and the UK. She leads CARE International UK’s International Women’s Day march which launches the annual Walk in Her Shoes Campaign. Dr Pankhurst previously worked at WaterAid, Womankind Worldwide and the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development. She is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, leaders of the British suffragette movement. @HelenPankhurst

Dr Ingrid Sharp is Senior Lecturer in German at the University of Leeds. She has published widely on aspects of gender relations in German history, including sexuality in the GDR and Weimar and cultural and media representations of gender during and after the First World War. Dr Sharp was Principal Investigator of an AHRC network, 2011-2014, on female activists, which explored gendered approaches to cultural demobilisation in the aftermath of conflict. She leads the Resistance to War strand of the Legacies of War project at the University of Leeds, which works with local, national and international partners to coordinate commemorative activities and research, 2014-2018. Currently Dr Sharp is researching into the various forms of resistance to the First World War and the way these are being included in the centenary commemorations.  She is organising a major international conference on Resistance to War, to be held in Leeds in March 2016.

Glenda Sluga is Professor of International History at the University of Sydney. She has published widely on the cultural history of international relations, internationalism, the history of European nationalisms, sovereignty, identity, immigration and gender history. In 2013, Professor Sluga was awarded a five-year Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship for ‘Inventing the International - the origins of globalisation’. Her most recent book is Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). She is currently completing an ARC-funded study of the Congress of Vienna. Professor Sluga has been a visiting fellow at the University of Vienna, Centre for History and Economics, and Charles Warren Centre, Harvard University, the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, the University of Bologna, Clare Hall, Cambridge University, Leiden University, the European University Institute, Monash University and the ANU.

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