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  • Guest Editorial Note:Human Rights, Global Conferences, and the Making of Postwar Transnational Feminisms
  • Jean H. Quataert and Benita Roth, Special Issue Co-editors

This note introduces our special issue on "Human Rights, Global Conferences, and the Making of Postwar Transnational Feminisms." In it we try to capture part of the contentious histories of feminist activism unfolding in the period after World War II. We focus specifically on the meanings for feminist thought and action worldwide of the UN sponsored world conferences on women and related international gatherings. Prodded by international and national women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and facilitated through the UN's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the United Nations General Assembly declared 1975 "International Women's Year" (IWY) and named 1975-1985 as the "Decade for Women." The UN sponsored three large international conferences beginning with Mexico City (1975), followed by Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985); these gatherings generated so much momentum that a Fourth Women's World Conference was held in Beijing in 1995. Other UN conferences, including the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa in September 2001, also featured in this issue, allowed feminist antiracist activists around the globe to come together to discuss understandings of the intersections of gender and racial oppression.1

These conferences took place against the backdrop of a number of formative geopolitical developments: Cold War tensions and their subsequent easing after 1989; decolonization struggles and emerging nations' insistent drive for equitable economic development amid the continuing inequalities of the global economic and political order; the rise of neo-liberal economic agendas; women's increased participation globally in the formal labor sector; transnational organizing for lesbian and gay rights; and a concomitant, significant rise by the mid-1990s of conservative religious and fundamentalist groups around the world. These geopolitical and cultural factors sometimes sustained and sometimes constrained the ability of diverse feminist [End Page 11] and women's activists to form alliances, set new international and national agendas, and see to their implementation on the ground.

Until very recently, much of what has appeared about the UN conferences in journal literature has been in the form of reports on participants' experiences nearly exclusively in women's studies journals.2 Since 1996, it has mainly been feminist sociologists and political scientists charting the effects of the UN conferences on feminist and women's organizing around the globe.3 There also is a vibrant literature assessing the impact of women's [End Page 12] world conferences on feminist contributions to development discourses, particularly those efforts challenging the neo-liberal assumptions that drive the giving of mainstream development aid. These debates stress ongoing unequal macro-economic contexts.4 [End Page 13]

The topic of the UN meetings, with a few exceptions, has been left largely unexamined in women's history despite its undeniable importance for shaping the vibrant new patterns of transnational advocacy networks that emerged during the Decade.5 The same time frame saw a huge growth of feminist NGOs worldwide; the invention of innovative gatherings like the World Social Forums, which feature impressive participation by feminist activists; and the creation of UN People's Forums, which gave voice and visibility to NGOs as well as to local leaders and activists generally marginal to governmental authority and power. Strikingly, however, the Journal of Women's History paid scant scholarly attention to these conferences. One short report by Peggy Simpson, "Beijing in Perspective," appeared in the Spring 1996 issue; Simpson was an acclaimed Associated Press journalist whose personal experiences are part of the larger narrative presented here. In 1997, the JWH published Wang Zheng's article "Maoism, Feminism, and the UN Conference on Women: Women's Studies Research in Contemporary China."6 The relative neglect by historians of the more recent interface of global and local feminist organizing lies, perhaps, in the challenges for historical research of engaging contemporary themes and issues. The growing interest among women's historians in human rights histories and comparative studies in women's movements thus reflects a major conceptual shift, which promises a turn to transnational methodologies, interregional connections, and global historical perspectives. As we hope to show through the articles in...


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