Pan-American Feminism and the Origins of International Women’s Rights, 1915–46

Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM
International Ballroom B (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Katherine Marino, Ohio State University
My paper examines the significance of Pan-American feminism—a movement of women’s rights leaders throughout the Western Hemisphere—to the development of international law from 1915 to 1946.  It reveals how, despite U.S. hegemony in both inter-American politics and feminism, a number of Latin American feminist leaders, alongside international jurists and statesmen, influenced definitions of international “women’s rights” and “human rights.”

The Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW), which gave organizational form to Pan-American feminism for at least a decade after its 1928 creation, became the driver of the first international women’s rights treaties in the world.  Under the hierarchical leadership of U.S. National Woman’s Party member Doris Stevens, the IACW initially promoted one specific goal: “equal rights” for women, defined narrowly as equal individual, civil and political, rights for women.  My paper reveals how a number of Latin American feminists, including Paulina Luisi, Bertha Lutz, Marta Vergara, Ofelia Domínguez Navarro, and Clara González, successfully pushed a broader Pan-American “equal rights” agenda that included not only equal political and civil rights but also economic and social justice for men and women, as well as international multi-lateralism more broadly.  At the founding of the United Nations in 1945, Pan-American feminists advanced this vision when they successfully pushed for the inclusion of “women’s rights” as a category of “human rights” in the founding charter of the UN.

These efforts to expand women’s rights engaged the crucial energies of a coterie of Latin American male diplomats and international jurists, as well. My paper reveals how “women’s rights” initiatives advanced new inter-American alliances, in ways that sometimes overlapped with, but more often clashed with, official U.S. State-Department-led hemispheric goals.  I will explore the key role that debates around women’s rights, and feminists themselves, played in forging broader definitions of international law, inter-American multi-lateralism, democracy, and human rights.

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