Global Feminisms and 1919: Centennial Reconsiderations

AHA Session 274
Society for French Historical Studies 7
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Karen Offen, Stanford University
In the Drawing Rooms of Paris: The Inter-Allied Women's Conference of 1919
Mona Siegel, California State University, Sacramento
1919 and the Rise of International Labor Feminism
Dorothy Sue Cobble, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
The Audience

Session Abstract

Exactly one hundred years ago, in January 1919, Paris opened its doors to statesmen and diplomats from the Allied nations, come to shape the terms of the peace that would mark the formal end of World War I. They were joined by hundreds of others representing ethnic minorities and subjugated peoples who arrived, often uninvited, but no less determined to have their say. In 1919, members of the global public followed these men’s every move, and historians’ have analyzed and second-guessed their decisions ever since, resulting in one of the most studied subjects of diplomatic history in the modern era. It is a historiography that has, for the most part, ignored or marginalized a full half of humanity: women.

Nineteen-nineteen was, in fact, a watershed year for women’s movements in many parts of the world. Wartime promises to establish a new world order rooted in popular sovereignty and national self-determination, as well as the participation and sacrifice of so many women during the war, empowered women to view themselves as legitimate public actors on the national and international stage. From the streets of Cairo to the drawing rooms of Paris to the meeting halls of Washington D.C., women of different nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and classes all stepped into the public limelight to demand the right to help define the terms of the peace agreement and/or to provide female perspectives on the meaning of justice and democracy in a new world order.

With the centennial anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference upon us, it is time to restore these women’s voices and actions to the historical record and to reassess the achievements and limitations of 1919 diplomacy in light of women’s experiences.

The participants in this roundtable highlight the catalyzing effect of the Paris Peace Conference—and the disillusionment brought in its wake—for feminists in many parts of the world. Brandy Thomas Wells explores the experiences of African American feminist Mary B. Talbert. Brought to Europe to serve Black troops, Talbert remained in France at war’s end and seized upon the diplomatic stage of Paris to encourage feminists to grapple with difficult problems around race and racism. Margot Badran draws our attention from Paris to the political ferment of Cairo, where men and women rose up in open revolt against British colonial occupation and Egyptian exclusion from the Peace Conference, exploring the importance of the events of 1919 in encouraging elite women to build their own, unique feminist movement in Egypt. Mona Siegel brings us directly into the parlors of the plenipotentiaries, where Western feminists, organized in an Inter-Allied Women’s Conference, demanded women have a voice in the peace negotiations, and pressed for women’s political rights in the new world order. Finally, Dorothy Sue Cobble explores the frustrations of labor women at the 1919 Peace Conference, following them from Paris to Washington, D.C., where they convened the first International Conference of Working Women, hammering out a global agenda of women’s rights and social democratic reform.

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