“An International Policy Truly Representative of the Views of Women Workers All over the World”: The Accomplishments of the Women's Committee and the Failure of Organized Labor

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Yevette Richards, George Mason University
Various scholars have criticized Western female reformers and feminists for an orientation toward essentialism in their analysis of women’s oppression and for treating resource poor women as a foil to demonstrate the advancement of women in industrialized countries and thereby shore up their claims for equality.   The activism of the Women’s Committee of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in the 1950s and 1960s stands in sharp relief to this mainstream orientation.  Formed in 1957 the Women’s Committee had as a chief aim promotion of the organization, leadership development, and education of women workers in developing countries and particularly on the continent of Africa.  At a time when development projects and trade union organizing were seen as the purview of men, the Women’s Committee was one of the few organizations that sought to disrupt the exclusive linkage of men with economic life and to understand the specificity of working women’s challenges in countries around the world.  However, it was hindered in its activism by the strong apathy of the male leadership comprising the ICFTU’s Executive Board.  This leadership largely ignored the ramifications for the labor movement of the rapidly increasing female share of the labor force and repeatedly resisted the Women’s Committee’s calls for an expansion of its membership beyond its European base.   This paper addresses the ways the Women’s Committee sought to overcome its membership restriction by using conferences, correspondence, and programs to build transnational links that put the ideas and concerns of women workers in nonindustrial countries at the forefront of its agenda.
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