- Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico by Megan Threlkeld
The larger issue framing Megan Threlkeld’s book on transnational organizations and Pan Americanism is whether women can establish linkages informed by gender rather than national identities. To answer this question, Threlkeld examines the activities of US-based women’s organizations (the YWCA, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom [WILPF], Pan American Association of Women, Pan American International Women’s Committee, and Inter American Commission of Women [IACW]) in Mexico during the inter-war years. These somewhat disparate groups sought to prove that women could establish exchange mechanisms above and beyond what nation-states, with their male-dominated diplomacy, could offer. But, Threlkeld asks, could such an imagined community be conflict-free? In her epilogue, the author concludes that this narrative “is more about failure than about success.”
The creation of a female Pan-American arena called for renouncing nationalism and donning an internationalist persona. Given the ongoing revolution in Mexico and US involvements in the conflict, this identity shift proved more difficult for Mexican than for US women. The “civilizing mission” mentality of US women’s groups disrupted and negated the imagined community of Pan America that they were trying to foster. Simultaneously, Mexican women refused to renounce the discourses of national identity and sovereignty while still reeling from the upheaval of revolution and US interventionism.
In Chapter 1, Threlkeld explores the meanings of inter-war female internationalism, with Jane Addams and the WILPF as prime exponents, and then documents the League of Women Voters’ 1922 Pan American Conference of Women in Baltimore as an example of “gendered diplomacy” and its possibilities. The US State Department and the Pan American Union both endorsed this event as a legitimate venue for “reconciliation” with Mexico, hinting that female agency was indeed possible in the realm of diplomacy. This positive atmosphere encouraged the four organizations mentioned above to establish a presence in Mexico starting in 1922. And yet, within four years, these groups had failed in their objectives, due to constrained funding, disagreements over priorities, limited organizational experience on the part of Mexican [End Page 680] women, and what Threlkeld terms “imperialist feminism.” Chapter 3 amply illustrates the extremes of feeling that pervaded this period: from lofty Pan-Americanist ideals expressed in public speeches by Secretary of State Hughes to Carrie Chapman Catt’s venting her frustrations with the slowness of “the South American mind.”
By 1926, as US-Mexico hostility angled toward war, women’s internationalist groups once more gained a foothold in informal diplomacy. Chapter 4 details how US women’s peace groups organized to oppose an armed conflict with Mexico. Threlkeld points to this period as decisive in transforming the way in which the US women’s groups conducted internationalist business. The experience gained through the peace with Mexico campaign made the women in these organizations much more media-savvy and politically astute than their predecessors. For example, the Inter American Commission of Women’s attempts to promote an equal rights treaty at the Pan American Conferences of 1933 and 1938 put to good use the tactics deployed in averting war with Mexico. Chapter 5 narrates how the lessons learned in previous years distanced the women in IACW from the human internationalism that Addams had preached, and brought them squarely into the legalistic feminism of IACW chair Doris Stevens. In later years, as Threlkeld observes in Chapter 6, the Roosevelt administration and the Good Neighbor Policy ushered in a new stage in US-Mexico relations, one in which US women’s groups became increasingly less attuned to Mexican women’s agendas.
Threlkeld has done an excellent job of showing that US women’s groups were not monolithic, giving us glimpses into the members’ class, education, and religion, as well as the larger organizational picture. This is a history not based solely on exemplary individuals, but one that takes into account the quotidian difficulties facing sister organizations across borders, and the pervasiveness of greater...