Dreams of Development: Transnational Perspectives on Gender, Work, and Violence

AHA Session 210
Coordinating Council for Women in History 12
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Daniel Bender, University of Toronto Scarborough
Daniel Bender, University of Toronto Scarborough

Session Abstract

The transnational turn in historical studies is leading to re-interpretation of international institutions as well as the exchange of ideas and information, movement of peoples, and configuration of economic and political power across the globe. Labor History and Gender History represent two areas of robust research in this arena. This panel advances the transnational gender approach by interrogating visions and conceptions of development since the late 1940s. “Development” as a concept emerged along with the decolonization of the Global South after WWII as a response by former colonial powers and other industrial capitalist nations to bring about stability. It represented both a response to the rise of non-aligned nations during the Cold War and an attempt to restructure the world economy. Often associated with “modernization,” development also captured the aspirations of Asian, African, and Latin American peoples who dreamed of a better world and higher standard of living.

            This panel considers “dreams of development” in terms of gender, location, labor, and violence. It challenges easy classifications of intent and outcome through historical case studies. In a revisionist move that positively values her case, Yevette Richards looks at the Women’s Committee of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to recover their development of African women’s leadership and women’s involvement in trade unions. She explores its promotion of women’s networks as part of a transnational project to move women in nonindustrial areas to the center of a union agenda during the 1950s and early 1960s.  In focusing on another international organization, the International Labor Organization (ILO), Eileen Boris traces the construction of “women in developing countries” as a distinct category of woman worker. Where once seen on the margins of economic life, as mothers, household managers, and workers in family-based cottage industries, “women in developing countries” became the workforce that the ILO turned to in its effort to end poverty through world employment during the UN’s Second Decade of Development during the 1970s.  Promoting “self-employment,” the ILO joined with feminist activists to empower rural women in the Global South, an effort that both commodified women’s labor and appeared compatible with neo-liberal micro-enterprise. Boris highlights the efforts of dedicated field researchers and grassroots organizers from the countries involved as well as the ILO’s Geneva-based civil service, but questions the larger political and discursive economy of the outcome. Pamela Scully further critiques Western discourses in exploring the efforts of feminist NGOs to curb violence against women in locales where development and conflict rubbed up against each other. She considers the examples of Sierra Leone and Liberia, where universalized models failed to meet the local needs of refugee women in post conflict situations during the last decade of the 20th century. Chairing and commenting is Daniel Bender, a labor and cultural historian whose own engagement in transnational history and the history of empire promises to enrich the session and stimulate discussion.

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