Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement
For many who study world history, the twentieth century becomes the story of one war after another. Leila J. Rupp’s Worlds of Women offers a clear alternative, the history of an international movement committed to peace and to human rights. In this clear, original institutional history, Rupp describes three separate women’s organizations and compares them in terms of the circumstances of their origins, [End Page 483] their goals, and the types of women who joined and led them. The International Council of Women (founded in 1888) with its broad advocacy for women spawned a new group committed only to suffrage, the International Alliance of Women (founded 1904), which in turn lost its pacifist members to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (founded 1915) after the outbreak of World War I. Although Rupp does not neglect an assessment of the international impact of these groups, she has chosen to focus her analyses on how each achieved its separate identity, and how each came to be largely staffed and run by white, bourgeois, Christian women from Europe and English-speaking settler nations.
Borrowing her organizational approach from theorists of social movements, Rupp frames the narrative around the concept of “social movement communities”: how they defined themselves and their interests, how they demonstrated opposition to the status quo through both symbols and actions (p. 7). This determines the original structure of the book, and allows Rupp to avoid the plodding style of the strictly chronological institutional history. Section 1, “Boundaries,” describes the evolving membership and networks, the common “Anglo-Saxon” assumptions of the groups, and women’s use of “maternalist politics” to set themselves morally above the world of male politicians. Section 2, “Consciousness,” addresses the nature of their identification as “feminists” and their formulation of a consciously international feminist agenda.
Here Rupp gives a definition of this often contested term that could be applied in many other historical circumstances. Feminists have “a sense of themselves as a group with interests distinct from those of men; a perception that existing societal arrangements, differing as they did from country to country, disadvantaged women in relation to men; and a commitment to improving the situation of women” (p. 130). With this common concern as an ongoing theme, Rupp reconstructs (from official minutes and newsletters) disagreements within and between the organizations on tactics and issues, issues ranging from protective labor legislation for women to rights of citizenship and to pacifism.
Section 3, “Personalized Politics,” offers answers to the questions often posed by world historians: “What difference does it make? How does this piece of women’s history affect our understanding of the twentieth century?” First, this book enriches our understanding and increases our knowledge of these decades. We now have the story of the international elite women’s networks to balance that of our traditional narratives of European and North American male diplomacy; [End Page 484] we have a fuller picture of the workings of the League of Nations, and in particular of its often overlooked measurable success in the areas of human rights and social welfare. Thus, Rupp provides the alternate narrative without which the history of international relations from 1890 to 1945 remains skewed and incomplete.
Second, Worlds of Women demonstrates the importance of gender to world historical analysis and the importance of a transnational perspective for women’s history. A gendered reading suggests the increasingly “feminine” role assigned to the league, “staking moral claims without any force to back them up” (p. 217). The transnational perspective poses a challenge to theorists of “identity politics.” “Identity” was not an exclusive concept for these women who acted as feminists, as citizens of their own countries, and as international advocates. In addition, Rupp’s careful research proves that there was no feminist hiatus even in nations that granted elite women the vote after World War I. Instead, there is over one hundred years of an international feminist movement, clear connections between the trans-Atlantic U.S. and European women’s movement of the 1830s and 1840s and the United Nations Decade for Women from 1975 to 1985.
Yes, this history makes a difference.