1919 and the Rise of International Labor Feminism

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 12:00 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Dorothy Sue Cobble, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
1919 was a catalyzing moment for labor women’s international activism. In October 1919 over two hundred labor women from three continents and nineteen nations arrived in Washington, D.C. for the International Conference of Working Women. Over the next ten days, they hammered out a global agenda of women’s rights and social democratic reform that would guide labor women’s internationalism in the interwar era and beyond. Many also participated as advisers and observers at the inaugural meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO), held a few blocks away. There, they shaped the world’s first set of international labor standards in consequential and lasting ways and focused world attention on women’s lack of representational rights in global governance.

The frustrations of labor women as they lobbied at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference led directly to their decision to organize internationally. They found especially galling the failure of the Peace Conference’s International Labor Commission to guarantee women’s voting rights in the ILO and its disregard of social wages for mothers. As a consequence, French, British, and U.S. trade union women decided to call a world gathering of working women and formulate their own vision of a just postwar world. In this paper I draw on archives in multiple nations to reconstruct how the tumultuous events of 1919 spurred the rise of labor women’s transnational networks, crystallized a transnational social democratic women’s politics, and affected national and international policy.

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