The Rise of Women’s Transnational Activism: Identity and Sisterhood between the World Wars, by Marie Sandell

This valuable work sheds light on the building of an ‘international sisterhood’ to further the struggle for women’s rights, says June Purvis

April 30, 2015

Recent years have witnessed the rise of transnational perspectives in studies of the “first wave” of the women’s movement. Leila Rupp’s groundbreaking 1997 work Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement explored the growth and nature of international women’s organisations from the 1880s to 1945. In this clearly written, informative book, Marie Sandell builds on Rupp’s pioneering research, and focuses on international women’s groups in the understudied interwar years.

It is easy to forget that the struggle for women’s rights in the 19th and early 20th centuries involved efforts at the international as well as the local and the national levels. Indeed, by the end of the First World War, there were three major international women’s groups concerned with improving the status of women – the International Council of Women (founded in 1888), the International Alliance of Women (1904) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915). Their memberships were largely educated upper- and middle-class North American and European women, with non-Western members drawn from Westernised elites.

Countering earlier assumptions, Sandell documents the substantial growth of these organisations during the 1920s. The number of national associations affiliated to the International Council of Women, for example, rose from eight in 1899 to 38 in 1925. A key factor influencing this expansion was the after-effect of the First World War and the widely felt resolve to work internationally to prevent such conflicts from recurring. However, expansion was much slower during the 1930s as political, economic and social instabilities took hold. In Italy, for example, the Fascist government closed down women’s societies and forbade women from attending international conferences. But despite this dimming of optimism, the international organisations became more representative during the 1930s as more non-Western women joined.

Some groups, such as the International Alliance of Women, were avowedly feminist, while the label was rejected by others, including the International Federation of University Women. Nevertheless, the latter body, founded in 1919 by Virginia Gildersleeve, a dean of Barnard College in New York, and Caroline Spurgeon, the first female professor at an English university, was acutely conscious of the unequal status of university-educated women. “The coeducational institutions seem to have a lordly male complex,” pronounced Gildersleeve in 1937. “Women generally are accorded second place.” But despite such universalist ideals, racial and religious exclusions could be found at national levels. The American Association of University Women did not allow black women to become members, and the German branch began to exclude Jewish women in the 1930s.

The increasing diversity of these organisations during the interwar years made notions of sisterhood harder to maintain, although Sandell concludes that an international sisterhood “of sorts” was built. Women created a form of unity and identity around struggles for suffrage, emancipation and commitment to peace, uniting to fight for many rights we now take for granted. This work sheds light on the evolution of the international women’s movement; in telling of past efforts to cross national boundaries and find common ground, its message resonates for our divided world today.

The Rise of Women’s Transnational Activism: Identity and Sisterhood between the World Wars

By Marie Sandell
I. B. Tauris, 320pp, £62.00
ISBN 9781848856714
Published 30 January 2015

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