- “Tapestries of Contacts”: Transnationalizing Women’s History
With the transnational or even global turn in the scholarship of the last two decades or so, historians of women’s movements have become increasingly aware of the many transnational dimensions—if not the inherently transnational character—of the modern women’s movement since its emergence in the late eighteenth century. An increasing number of books, PhD theses, special issues of professional journals and conferences, and even archives are dedicated to transnational and global aspects of historical women’s movements and feminisms.1 With different emphases and approaches, the three books discussed here make significant contributions to this ongoing endeavor. Stephanie Limoncelli, in The Politics of Trafficking, focuses on the first two main international organizations that opposed the traffic in women; in addition, she makes a useful comparison of the anti-trafficking efforts of three imperial states: the Netherlands, France, and Italy. Jennifer Boitttin, the author of Colonial Metropolis, takes a European city, Paris, as her unit of analysis of transnational connections. She traces the existence of African, African American, and Antillean colonial men and women in interwar Paris, in particular through their contributions to artistic and political life. Finally, Karen Offen, in an anthology called Globalizing Feminisms, has collected a number of influential essays in the history of feminisms—all but one published before—which take comparative, transnational, or other innovative approaches.2 What can we learn from these books? [End Page 200]
Limoncelli’s book about the politics of trafficking starts with outlining the nineteenth-century modernization and internationalization of prostitution, a process related to contemporary globalization, imperialism, and nation-state building. State officials regulated prostitution because they wanted to provide military men and male laborers, both in metropolitan and colonial areas, with “clean women” (i.e. women undergoing regular and mandatory medical checks for venereal disease). They also wished to keep prostitution within racial and ethnic boundaries, thus controlling which women serviced which men. Limoncelli defines trafficking as “the general movement of women across territorial borders for prostitution” (although later on she mentions that it also occurred within borders) (15). She acknowledges the debate about the number of women “voluntarily involved in such movements,” but emphasizes the involuntary side of the traffic in women (15). Her arguments are not only that women had limited rights within most countries until the mid-twentieth century (the endpoint of her research), but also that there is historical evidence that “trafficking agents were active and that women were bought and sold, and contracted to brothels for specific periods” and that those who organized prostitution used coercion and deception to exploit women and girls (15).
In reaction to the nineteenth-century expansion of state-regulated prostitution and the related traffic in women, two international organizations were created, which had opposing views on the role of the state. The first was British feminist Josephine Butler’s “British and Continental Federation for the Abolition of Government Regulation of Vice” (1875), which became the “International Abolitionist Federation” (IAF). The IAF’s name referred to the earlier movement to abolish slavery; its aim was to end state-regulated prostitution around the world. The second was the “International Bureau for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade” (IB), founded by purity reformers in 1899, which later changed the last part of its name to “Traffic in Women and Children,” and then to “Persons.” The IB’s aim was to abolish the traffic in women (and later boys); it did not oppose state-regulated prostitution but wanted the state to control sexual activities that they...