On 21 January 2017, five million people gathered in more than six hundred locations around the world to demand an end to impunity for harassers and abusers of women. The Women’s March was a response to Donald Trump’s comment about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, but the protests weren’t confined by their Trumpian origins. Women marched in Bangalore as part of their own campaign against male sexual violence. Filipina women were protesting against sex trafficking and the larger economic forces shaping their working lives. In the US, Latinx and African American marchers emphasised the impact of Trump’s immigration and policing policies on women.
What does contemporary feminist activism look like if instead of starting in Washington, we consider the Chilean protest chant ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A Rapist in Your Path’), which went viral in 2019? It begins: ‘We know the rapist is you/It’s the cops/The judges/It’s the state/The president.’ It was composed by Las Tesis, a feminist collective in Valparaíso, but quickly spread. Wearing green scarves to represent their own campaign – the fight for legal abortion – thousands of women sang and danced to the chant in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square. Blindfolded women performed it in Istanbul despite police intimidation and arrest. Female Turkish MPs performed it in the Grand National Assembly, relying on parliamentary privilege for protection. The chant was translated into Bengali for protests in India and adapted for use in Beira in Mozambique, Nairobi, Tel Aviv and hundreds of other cities.
The Chilean chant wouldn’t have surprised the central figures discussed in Peace on Our Terms and Feminism for the Americas. Mona Siegel’s book begins shortly after the end of the First World War, when hopes for peace and reconstruction were high. President Wilson’s speech on the rights of nations and peoples seemed to promise that small nation-states and imperial territories could look forward to self-determination. Women, many of whom had been active in war work, wanted a role in shaping the peace. Those who had opposed militarism were also optimistic that women might find a place in the postwar settlement.
This was not, as historians have tended to portray it, an uninspiring moment for feminism. Suffragists in France, with support from elsewhere, demanded that the Paris Peace Conference involve women in the negotiations and that participating countries commit to the principle of women’s suffrage. Wilson received their delegations but had little interest in their agenda. Undeterred, suffragists from the victor nations gathered in Paris in February 1919 for an Inter-Allied Women’s Conference. After the testimony of Zabel Yesayan, a Sorbonne-educated Armenian who had survived the genocide, other participants described the injustices and cruelties women faced under war and occupation. They were particularly alert to what they termed the ‘horror’ of male power outside the ‘West’, although the French feminist Suzanne Grinberg noted that ‘we have received no mandate to plead this cause by those whom it concerns.’ The suggestion that women such as Yesayan might speak for themselves did not develop into a greater willingness to share the stage. But the efforts made in Paris did force the concession that all League of Nations posts should be open to men and women on equal terms – no small achievement when the imposition of marriage bars meant that women’s exclusion from the professions was becoming steadily more entrenched.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a successor to the International Women’s Peace Conference of 1915, held its first meeting in May 1919 in neutral Zurich, despite Allied governments’ refusal to grant visas to the delegates. The representatives from the Central Powers bore marks of extreme hunger and suffering – the conference was all the more important for them because they had few opportunities to address an international audience. The African American suffragist and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell, the only delegate of colour, had to speak on behalf of all those she termed ‘the dark races of the world’. She drew attention to the whiteness of the assembly, noting that it was her sole ‘privilege to represent, not only the coloured women of the United States, but the whole continent of Africa as well’. Terrell was drawing on the radical rhetoric of another 1919 gathering, the Paris Pan-African Congress, although its (male) organisers had given little space to women, despite their valuable work in bringing the congress about. Women of colour responded by founding the International Council of Women of the Darker Races in 1922.
Siegel also considers the role played by women in nationalist demonstrations in Egypt and China. In 1919, Egyptian women called for the British colonial authorities to make good on their promises of national self-determination. Huda Sha’arawi, the daughter of an elite Egyptian and his Circassian mistress, became the chief inspiration behind the ‘ladies’ protests’ that accompanied wider political unrest. She confronted British troops, taunting them to kill her ‘so Egypt shall have an Edith Cavell!’ The reference to Cavell was intended to provoke – Sha’arawi took her cue not from Europeans but from intellectuals such as Qasim Amin and Hind Nawfal, who had championed ‘women’s awakening’ in Arab countries since the 1890s. Nawfal had founded the journal al-Fatah (‘Young Woman’) in 1892 as a forum for women writers as well as a campaigning organ, while Labiba Hashim’s Fatat al-Sharq (‘Young Woman of the East’) ran from 1906 to 1939 – two of the 24 women’s periodicals circulating in Arab cities during this period. ‘We learn from history,’ Nawfal wrote, ‘how many a deadly lion has emerged from the harem and how many hennaed hands have held the reins of kingdoms.’ In 1923 Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, arguing that women’s rights were embedded in the Islamic and Pharaonic traditions. She remained deeply involved in international feminist campaigns throughout the 1920s and 1930s, recording in her autobiography that her attendance at congresses caused astonishment, ‘as if the veiled Egyptian woman was stamped in their imagination with the characteristics of ignorance and barbarism’. She became increasingly pan-Arabist in her sympathies and in 1945 became the founding president of the Arab Feminist Union, the counterpart of the newly established Arab League.
In China, Soumay Tcheng (‘Zheng Yuxiu’ in Pinyin), a student and revolutionary activist joined the Chinese delegation to Versailles while still in her twenties. Her bobbed hair and knee-length skirts identified her as a ‘new woman’, but her political background was far from frivolous. She had helped to transport suitcases of explosives during the uprising against the Qing dynasty, and followed many other Chinese revolutionaries by studying in Paris. During the Versailles negotiations, she opposed the demeaning settlement offered to China. Her impromptu all-night debate with Lu Zhengxiang, the head of the Chinese delegation, delighted members of the patriotic May Fourth Movement back home. Tcheng returned to China and joined other feminists who were working to address the ‘woman question’. She set up her own law practice and contributed to the Chinese civil code of 1929-31, which grants women a free choice of marital partner, as well as equal divorce and property rights. Though they never met, Tcheng’s renown was such that Sha’arawi featured in her feminist journal L’Egyptienne.
In Feminism for the Americas, Katherine Marino charts the rise of pan-American feminisms that promoted social justice, human rights and anti-fascism. Pan-Americanism itself, however, framed ambitions for a more democratic continent around a fait accompli: US hegemony. Feminist leaders from North America often assumed leadership roles in collaborative ventures such as the Inter-American Commission of Women and were deaf to accusations of ‘Yanqui imperialismo’. Marino’s account focuses on the ‘feminismo práctico’ of figures such as Ofelia Domínguez Navarro, a Cuban lawyer who advocated the rights of women workers and single mothers, and her Panamanian compañera Clara González. González, who was born to an indigenous working-class family, had to fight to practise law in Panama and successfully campaigned for the admission of women to the profession. In the 1920s she launched a number of organisations that were uninterested in ‘betterment’ agendas for women and instead embraced feminist goals for social justice. She was active in the movement for divorce by mutual agreement that passed into law in 1925, the same year Panamanian brides were permitted not to promise obedience to their husbands. González’s ambitions extended beyond her own country: she campaigned for an international treaty on women’s rights that would cut through national regulations and local obstacles. A binding treaty proved elusive, but pressure from feminists did lead to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1946.
When Anglophone arrogance became intolerable, the compañeras created their own version of pan-Americanism, sometimes recast as pan-Hispanism. Marino makes the case that this collective political effort had an impact on mid-20th-century international politics. The compañeras made feminism part of Popular Front movements to resist fascism in the 1930s, and influenced the work of the League of Nations and the early United Nations. In places where women’s rights were incorporated in movements for national and collective advancement, men such as Baltasar Brum, president of Uruguay from 1919 to 1923, became part of the struggle. (Brum has a walk-on part in Feminism for the Americas as the author of Los derechos de la mujer, or ‘The Rights of Woman’.)
It has proved easy to write these achievements out of history. Eleanor Roosevelt claimed in 1944 that feminism ‘almost no longer exists’ in the US; its persistence in Latin America was for her a sign of the continent playing catch-up, rather than evidence of its energy. Virginia Gildersleeve, one of only six female delegates to attend the San Francisco Conference that established the charter of the United Nations in 1945, was even more forceful. Only in ‘backward countries’, she said, was ‘spectacular feminism’ still necessary. Gildersleeve believed that trying to achieve any special measures for women’s rights would be ‘very vulgar’. US diplomats wanted only a generic commitment to women’s and human rights to be included in the UN’s remit, fearing that stronger concessions would upset the Jim Crow racial settlement at home, strengthen the status of smaller nations at the UN, and burnish the reputation of Soviet-aligned and Popular Front politicians. It made little difference. The UN charter of 1945, which laid the groundwork for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed ‘the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small’.
American and British diplomats dismissed ‘left feminist’ groups as communist fronts, and historians have often fallen into the same trap – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the extent to which Cold War loyalties influenced the survival and organisation of archives. Siegel notes that Tcheng is written out of communist histories of China as a consequence of her Nationalist Party sympathies and her flight to Taiwan after the revolution in 1949. And the global feminist mobilisation inspired by left-wing bodies such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation is only now being given the attention it deserves. Siegel and Marino’s books reveal a great deal about the political choices of previous histories of feminism. It transpires that feminists weren’t content simply to accept Wilson’s principles of self-determination or Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’: they wanted to shape the emerging discourse of freedom and rights – and to challenge the powerful to live up to their promises.
It was an uphill battle. Male politicians lost interest; diplomats were often happy to sacrifice women’s causes, or to give jobs to the ill-qualified wives and sisters of statesmen rather than troublemakers like Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian diplomat given the nickname ‘Lutzwaffe’ by her male colleagues. As one might expect, there were also disagreements about principles and goals. Women who had racial, national and economic privileges tended to resist more radical approaches to the redistribution of power. Many were uninterested in racial justice. Siegel notes the ‘reflexive Orientalism’ that led Western feminists to dismiss the concerns of Chinese women such as Tcheng. And despite the geographical breadth of the interwar feminist movement, the leading participants were those who had the privileges of class. The labour organisers Rose Schneiderman and Jeanne Bouvier, active at the inaugural meeting of the International Labour Organisation in 1919, were the exceptions.
The power to cross oceans and to marshal typewriters, translators and telegrams gave some women the chance to influence the interwar world order. The dominance of wealthy women at congresses and conferences is no surprise; nor is it a surprise to find them promoting their own favourite causes. Doris Stevens, an American suffragist funded by the Carnegie Endowment and by well-heeled donors to her US National Woman’s Party, undermined attempts to lengthen the list of feminist demands. During her presidency of the Inter-American Commission of Women, Stevens curtailed its remit, touting an ‘equal rights’ feminism that didn’t take into account the needs of Latin America, riven by deep economic inequalities and state violence. She failed to grasp the link between her government’s meddling in Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti and Cuba and the demands of women in those nations for self-determination. Feminism for the Americas features women from a spectrum of economic backgrounds, but they are still predominantly white and highly educated. This was not a period when indigenous or Black women’s voices were readily heard. Their demands for access to land, literacy and maternity services, as well as an end to male and state-sponsored violence, were marginal to feminist movements.
What are the legacies of these struggles? Both books argue that the feminist campaigners of the interwar period set the terms for future activism by insisting that the language of human rights is inherently feminist. Their telegram diplomacy and ‘foot in the door’ assertiveness forced a reorientation of both the League of Nations and the UN. When Hillary Clinton declared in Beijing in 1995 that ‘women’s rights are human rights,’ she was – knowingly or not – invoking the achievements of these years. The widespread international acceptance of a woman’s right to maternity leave is another major achievement. But it is worth remembering that other sorts of influence and rhetoric were also part of the interwar feminist mobilisation. Ideas of stewardship, modesty, refinement and pronatalism were prominent. Many activists stressed male and female ‘equivalence’ rather than ‘equality’. Some held fast to the idea that women were ‘world mothers’ who would promote peace as a consequence of their capacity to bear children. Bertha Lutz spoke in defence of eugenics and racial hierarchies. Our feminist forebears have mixed records. Doris Stevens emerges as particularly problematic, yet she was aware that she lived in an extraordinary time for feminism, one in which global power structures were being reshaped. At a congress in Havana in 1928, as the delegates resolved to support justice for the Americas, she ‘felt as if a great forest fire had swept through me and left me a charred tree’. Her convictions about US leadership had gone up in flames: ‘We were supposed to be taking them, [but] they had, as a matter of fact, utterly devoured us.’