The period between the First and Second World Wars, between the vehement agitation for the vote and the social convulsions of the 60s, is often thought to have been a time of relative quiet for organized feminism.
But the quiet is an illusion. In fact, the inter-war period was a time of intense activism, as feminist leaders inaugurated the pivotal next phase of the feminist movement, which involved the ideological capture of international and non-governmental organizations—none more so than the League of Nations.
Feminism was always to some extent international. In the nineteenth century, English-speaking feminist activists often crisscrossed the Atlantic to share ideas and strategies; they held conferences and hosted speakers throughout North America, Great Britain, and western Europe.
But it was in the period after the First World War that feminism became an extensively international phenomenon, one of its primary goals being to create binding international agreements regarding the status of women.
Ultimately, the aim of this international activism was to develop a politics above politics, one that would control decision-making at the national level regardless of which national political party was elected or what the citizens of individual countries actually preferred and voted for.
Using the language of universal rights, feminists such as the American activist Alice Paul,
Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party in the United States and British socialist, pacifist, and feminist Vera Brittain set their sights on transforming their societies by changing the very manner in which the world order was envisioned and implemented.
It is now generally recognized that the United Nations is aggressively feminist, with a huge wing focused on “empowering” women and girls with massively expensive international programs justified by ever more bizarre, unprovable claims about women and girls being the primary victims of climate change, for example, or about how “Achieving full gender equality is still centuries away,” as a recent hysterical press release declared.
But even before the United Nations existed—it was founded in 1945—feminism was part of the international order through the League of Nations, an organization founded in 1920, with 42 member nations, and predecessor to the UN. A glimpse into the operation of the League provides an excellent example of how feminists laid the groundwork for their global institutional power later in the century.
Though the League of Nations was created specifically to protect member states’ security interests and to prevent another war, it became much more than that, embracing various social reform initiatives.
Ethics and Human Rights Professor Regula Ludi has argued in a recent article for the Journal of Women’s History (2019) that feminist organizations were active in the League of Nations from the time of the its creation, lobbying for the adoption of international legal standards that would increase pressure on reluctant governments and would contribute to what she calls “technocratic internationalism” or global rule by experts (Ludi, p. 14). Feminists early on positioned themselves as experts on all issues related to women, children, peace, and social progress.
Their rationale was from the beginning, building on decades of feminist propaganda in the nineteenth century, that women could offer a unique and alternative model of international relations that would allegedly substitute cooperation for competition because women were more cooperative and less warlike.
One of the many feminist groups involved with the League was the International Council of Women. This was an influential umbrella organization that had been established back in 1888, with founding members including some we know well here at Studio B, especially suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton (front row, third from the right) and Susan B. Anthony (front row, second from the left), and the leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances Willard (seated between Anthony and Stanton).
At best, these activists believed that women were morally superior to men and could if only given the opportunity organize society on a far more just and compassionate basis than men had ever achieved or even cared to try. At worst, they believed that men were barely human, wilful oppressors who should be excluded from most of the world’s decision-making and in need of re-education and social control.
The website of the ICW [International Council of Women] today boldly declares its female supremacism, including its belief in female moral superiority. It states grandly that “ICW work is not limited to reducing political, economic and civil inequities, but encompasses a moralization of the world so that it can be transformed into a good place for all women and children to live. ICW firmly believes that there is an ideal situation of well-being, happiness, and justice that is common to all women, irrespective of social class, ethnicity, or religion.” (see http://www.icw-cif.com/01/03.php) One cannot help but notice how, even while declaring that only women can bring about a “moralization of the world,” these deeply caring women deliberately exclude men from their mention of those who deserve a “good place” to live. This is obviously not an accident. To the feminists of the ICW, men have never had a conception of morality and have never cared to protect or provide for women and children. The ICW’s strange assertion that all women will agree about the “ideal situation of well-being, happiness and justice” is deeply naive at best, more likely dangerously totalitarian.
Organizations like the ICW and many others, including the notable British Six Point Group, which was founded in 1921 to advance women’s political goals, continually lobbied diplomats and representatives at the League of Nations to ensure feminist representation on its various advisory committees.
These groups were successful in influencing international policy on such matters as child welfare, women workers’ rights, and women’s legal status within marriage; they did so primarily by producing reports for the League and defining issues in feminist terms. In particular, they stressed concepts such as gender hierarchy and sex discrimination, encouraging League members to see women as a victim group distinct from men and globally oppressed. They stressed that gender inequalities in nations were produced by patriarchal social structures and had never come about naturally.
Feminists also fought hard for what they called an Equal Rights Treaty, something that would bind member nations to pursue feminist policies. According to feminist researcher Carol Miller in a detailed article on interwar feminist activism, the idea for an Equal Rights Treaty was first proposed in 1926 by Lady Margaret Rhondda, a Welsh peeress, former suffragette, and chair of the aforementioned British Six Points Group. Lady Rhondda gained the support of American activist Alice Paul, chair of the International Advisory Committee of the American National Woman’s Party. Paul began to mobilize support amongst other activists.
Soon the treaty became a major feminist initiative. One League member remarked that “Every time one meets members of women’s organizations, this question [of an equal rights treaty] is brought up” (qtd in Ludi, p. 18). Although some member nations resisted the idea, objecting that customary relations between men and women were inextricable from each nation’s unique culture and should not be subject to a sweeping universal rule, that perspective quickly came to seem embarrassingly retrograde. One member of a feminist organization called Equal Rights International was happy to report that “One felt very strongly at Geneva that few nations were prepared to oppose ‘equality’” (qtd in Ludi, p. 23).
Under pressure from feminists over years, the League finally agreed in 1937 to conduct an international survey, which would collect data on the legal, political, and economic status of women in preparation for a report on the status of women and recommendations for its improvement. The committee in charge of the survey and report was staffed with a majority of feminist women: French professor of law Suzanne Bastid, New York judge Dorothy Kenyon, Anka Godjevac, a Yugoslavian lawyer, and Kirsten Hesselgren, a Swedish MP.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable that in the later 1930s, a time when diplomatic crises and deepening hostilities between nations were bringing world conflagration ever closer, the League should have agreed to divert resources and intellectual energy to a study of the status of women. Feminists had been successful in convincing the League that women’s issues were inextricable from the League’s main business of international security.
The feminist methodology at the League seemed to operate on the following quite brilliant question: why work to convince a nation to carry out your ideological demands through the give-and-take contest of the democratic process, when you could simply persuade some unelected technocrats to impose your worldview by fiat?
Carol Miller quotes Vera Brittain arguing that “The time has now come to move from the national to the international sphere, and to endeavour to obtain by international agreement what national legislation has failed to accomplish” (qtd in Miller, p. 221).
As Professor Ludi notes in her research, feminist activism at the international level was an important part of “the process by which certain political issues [were] displaced from the national […] and into the international realm” (qtd in Ludi, p. 21). Feminists astutely recognized that pushing for international standards determined by feminist experts would concentrate power in the hands of a decision-making elite.
In the end, the international survey on the status of women was never completed, as League members eventually had to confront the cataclysm of the Second World War and, in effect, the failure of the organization whose main purpose had been to prevent another war. But although no binding Equal Rights Treaty resulted from the investigations, the push for a global solution to feminist issues had born fruit.
By this point, it was clear that a majority at the League of Nations had been convinced, or at least had decided to officially accept, that feminist ideas about women’s oppression were not only legitimate but were also intimately related to global security and development.
And the effect was long-lasting. The feminist doctrine that oppression of women was universal and was caused by systemic inequities framed international discussions for the next century.
Moreover, activism towards an Equal Rights Treaty did not end with the League. When the United Nations was formed in 1945, a Commission on the Status of Women was immediately created; and as Carol Miller explains, “The scheme outlined by the League committee of experts, and the material collected in the course of its inquiry, provided the basis for the early activities of the UN Status of Women Commission.”
Later in the century, a comprehensive Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against women was ratified in 1981. It contains thirty distinct provisions for advancing women’s “equality” while also recognizing women’s special needs and disabilities as women, needs which require special treatment to redress imbalances or eliminate wrongs. It thus commits ratifying states to a sweeping range of impossible-to-satisfy initiatives and promises, such as making sure women have access to abortion and “maternity leave with pay,” have the “right to bank loans,” and the “right to participate in recreational activities and sports,” to name only a very few of the intrusive and endlessly expensive standards that must be complied with.
The idea that men and women’s needs are best served through a holistic approach that values men and women equally, is appropriate to each country’s unique culture, and recognizes that men also have distinct needs and disabilities was decisively quashed by the acceptance of feminist dogma and has never been successfully rehabilitated.
In short, feminist demands advanced at the League of Nations, cloaked in authoritative-seeming language and with a veneer of expert legitimacy, quickly became an integral part of decision-making at the highest international levels, thus assuring the emergence of global feminist power in the second half of the twentieth century.