- “Worlds of Women” Making a Difference
My contribution to our reflections on the ways in which the historian Leila Rupp has transformed the field of women’s history focuses on the impact of her 1997 book Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement.1 This text is not only one of the most cited books in the field of women’s and gender history, but it also helped to shape the relatively new study of transnational women’s movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 Before this now classic book, Rupp published a number of articles that helped formulate an agenda for research about women’s transnational organizing, and her work remains relevant today.3
The struggle for women’s rights and human dignity is neither a linear story, nor one of uninterrupted progress—far from it. The historians Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser assert that the “nineteenth century marked the nadir of European women’s powers and opportunities.” The history of women in Latin American in the twentieth century furnishes numerous examples of adverse cases, and Josie McLellan recently warned against the Whiggish assumption of untrammeled progress for women in Western Europe since 1945.4 Even so, the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented global advance in women’s rights. After the October Revolution of 1917, women gained equal rights in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Constitution (1936) included these rights. In many Western countries, women won the right to vote in the first two decades of the twentieth century. After 1945, socialist countries in Europe adopted new constitutions that included equal rights for women; communist China did this in 1954. On the level of global governance, the League of Nations adopted a Commission on the Legal Status of Women in 1937.5 In 1945, the League of Nations’ successor organization, the United Nations (UN), included “the equal rights of men and women” in the preamble to the UN Charter. In 1946, the UN also created a Sub-Commission on the Status of Women, which, under pressure from women delegates, became a full-fledged Commission.6 The UN adopted declarations and conventions of special relevance to women from 1948 onwards, including the 1951 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 100 on “Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value” and the 1952 “Convention on the Political Rights of Women.”7 The advance of women’s rights and status in socialist countries suggests that the Cold War played an important role in encouraging Western countries to adopt these and other measures.8 As [End Page 140] the historian Melanie Ilic reminded us in 2011, “[B]y 1963, Soviet women, in comparison with many other women in the world, had every reason to boast about their recent achievements that were both clearly set down on paper and relatively advanced in reality.”9 Indeed, Donna Harsch points out that “[f]rom the 1950s to the 1970s, many observers, and certainly communist leaders, believed that communism had successfully answered the ‘woman question.’”10
There is no doubt that international women’s organizations—in particular the International Council of Women (ICW, established in Washington, DC in 1888), the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA, established in Berlin in 1904, renamed the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship [IAWSEC] in 1926, and the International Alliance of Women [IAW] in 1946), and the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF, established in Paris in 1945)—played key roles, often as initiators of major legal and cultural changes for twentieth-century women at the international and transnational level. The research about these international women’s organizations is still very far from “complete.” However, we have an understanding of their significant contributions, an understanding that we largely owe to Leila Rupp’s groundbreaking Worlds of Women.11
The State of the Historiography in 1997
To get a clear idea of the state of the historiography of women’s movements and feminisms in 1997, the year Worlds of Women was published, and simultaneously to substantiate the originality of the book’s approach, I carefully combed through its bibliography and read (or reread) a...