Reframing Reform: Transnational Women’s Rights Movements at the Turn of the Century

AHA Session 68
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Laura Mayhall, Catholic University of America
Laura Mayhall, Catholic University of America

Session Abstract

By the end of the nineteenth century, women's rights activists were organizing in nations all over the world and they increasingly worked with women from other countries in international organizations. This panel explores the interconnectedness of women's rights movements in this international context around the turn of the century. Though the aims of reformers varied—ranging from suffrage or altering religious conceptions of gender roles to nationalist maternalism—women all over the world exchanged ideas and campaign strategies. Each paper on this panel analyzes an aspect of a national women’s rights movement within a transnational context. They examine the role of religion in the development of women’s rights movements in Great Britain, the use of visual politics in American suffrage campaigns, and the international networks of conservative women in Poland. Together, these papers shed new light on the ways that women’s rights movements developed together and considers how national contexts shaped movements differently.

Female activists from the countries discussed in this panel—Great Britain, Poland, and the United States—participated in international organizations that established networks of exchange during this period. Ben Griffin's paper demonstrates the role of religion in shaping women's rights movements in Great Britain where religious ideas were used to justify male domestic authority. His work examines how those religious arguments lost their force in the final third of the nineteenth century and allowed supporters of women’s rights to forge new models of masculinity. Allison Lange's presentation analyzes militant suffragists in the United States who borrowed visual strategies from their British counterparts in the 1910s. Radical American suffragists, particularly those in the National Woman’s Party, modeled their public image after the British militant suffragettes to attract publicity to their cause. Looking at conservative rather than progressive women’s rights movements, Meghann Pytka shows how rightwing female activists carved out a public niche for themselves by articulating an anti-imperial, gynocentric agenda. These activist women, specifically those associated with Warta and the Reading Room for Women, seemingly modeled themselves after Victorian worthy societies. In so doing, they competitively embraced the Kaiser’s call for “Children, Kitchen, and Church,” in order to promote Polish biopolitical power, frustrate German colonial ambitions, and—above all—to assert their own political legitimacy within Polish politics. Considering these analyses alongside each other reminds us of the significant exchanges that occurred among women’s rights reformers all over the world. Such conversations encouraged activists to work together, but these papers also highlight how different national contexts allowed women’s rights movements to develop in diverse ways. Discussions of transnational women’s rights movements enrich our understanding of transnational connections that shaped female activism during this period.

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