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A Geneva in the Pacific: Reflecting on the First Three Decades of the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA)

By Fiona Paisley

Griffith University


   On August 9, 1928, more than 125 women gathered in Honolulu to participate in the first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference. At a second conference convened in the same city two years later the association was formed, and in following years gatherings were held in 1934 (Honolulu), 1937 (Vancouver), 1949 (Honolulu), 1955 (Christchurch, New Zealand), and 1958 (Tokyo), attracting delegates from a range of countries including Japan, China, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, the Philippines, Samoa, and Fiji. Renamed the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association in 1955 (aknowledging the growing involvement of women from the Philippines), the association with its headquarters in Hawai'i continues to this day. The following introductory essay concerns aspects of its formation and first three decades only.

   As one of the leading international women's social movements of the twentieth century, the PPWA/PPSEAWA provides an inspiring case study of generations of women who promoted "inter-cultural exchange" and "inter-racial friendship" as antidotes to the divisions of race and nationalism and the negative impacts of unregulated globalization that in many ways still face us today.[1] The idea for a women's association in the Pan-Pacific, first suggested during a conference on Pan-Pacific Food Conservation in 1924 and pursued by Julia Judd Swanzy, president of the Free Kindergarten Association in Hawai'i, attracted a core group of women from the United States, Australia and New Zealand as well as Japan and later China. Among those who became its nucleus were U.S. Mainland feminist Jane Addams, Vivia Appleton (Hawai'i YWCA recently returned from working in China), Mary Woolley (U.S. Women's Bureau) and Quaker Ann Satterthwaite, secretary and lynchpin of the organisation. They were joined by Australians like Bessie Rischbieth (Australian Women's Service Guilds), the industrial hygienist Ethel Osborne, and Eleanor Hinder (Shanghai YWCA), and by New Zealand women like Elsie Andrews (NZ Teachers' Association). Tsune Gauntlett was a stalwart member of the Japanese delegation (World Association of the YWCA and member of the Peace Committee of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship), while Maria Paz Mendoza-Guazon (first woman graduate from the University of the Philippines), Mei Ting (doctor and Chinese delegate) Victoria Bennett (a Maori delegate on the New Zealand delegation), Clorinda Lucas (first Native Hawai'ian on the Hawai'i delegation) and Ella P. Stewart (National Association of Colored Women who joined the U.S. delegation in the 1950s) would become important figures in their own right at forthcoming conferences. In the eyes of their Anglo colleagues, the charismatic presence and intellectual acuity of these women brought frisson and "glamour" to the association.[2] Given that many of the women early involved in the association were already active in international women's organisations based in Europe (including the YWCA and the WCTU, both with extensive networks into the region) invitations were widely circulated for national delegations to attend conferences.

   Promoting greater cooperation among women of the Pacific through a combination of social reformism, anti-racism and pro-peace politics, the association aimed to provide a model in microcosm of a peaceful and equitable future for the diverse cultures, peoples and nations of the world. Towards this substantial goal, PPWA/PPSEAWA conferences were built upon the ideals of cultural internationalism. Respect for and understanding of cultural diversity were considered to be essential if the world was to avoid another cataclysmic world war and to overcome the present injustices and exploitation engendered by racial inequality. Important in their development would be interpersonal contact with other cultures as well as sharing information, strategies, and achievements with other women in professional and leadership roles across the region. When Anglo-Australian Bessie Rischbieth reported her experiences of the first conference to the Berlin Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance that same year, she emphasised the innovative nature of its location in the Pacific rather than in Europe or North America. By transcending the Old World Order and replacing the hegemony of Europe, she asserted, Pacific women would create their own internationalism at the oceanic crossroads of the Pacific.[3]

   Internationalists like Rischbieth anticipated that Pacific women with little or no background in international activism would need the guidance of their more experienced western colleagues. Such a premise was obviously Eurocentric, given its assumption of the relative modernity of women across the region and of their willingness to accept such benevolent, if well-intentioned, offers of leadership. In its early years, the Pan-Pacific women's hierarchy considered Anglo delegates from the white settler colonies to be most advanced, those from the civilizations of Japan and China less so, with the Pacific Islands occupying the lowest rung. In a similar way, it sought to contrast the pleasures of cultural diversity with those traditions considered antithetical to the goals of modernisation, particularly where women and girls were concerned. This second outlook would be for the most part shared by the non-western delegates who joined PPWA/PPSEAWA, as they aimed to contribute their own ideas about western-style progress in their region. Thus while Pan-Pacific internationalism would be rearticulated by a range of non-western delegates as they participated in increasing numbers at successive conferences, they too celebrated the ideal of cross-cultural exchange and endorsed the place of development and modernisation for their constituencies at home.

   The emergence of the PPWA/PPSEAWA can be situated within the history of cultural internationalism in the Pacific, as well as in relation to feminist internationalism emanating from Europe. Dominated by U.S. philanthropic and mission interests, a loosely defined Anglo-American cultural internationalist movement in Honolulu had since the turn-of-the-century envisaged a new era in world civilization, anticipating the dawning of a Pacific Age to emerge in and through the so-called "melting pot" of Hawai'i. Following a world war shaped by imperial and colonial history and fueled by aggressive individualism and expansionist nationalism, these cultural internationalists looked ever more hopefully towards the "Pan-Pacific" — imagined as an Ocean surrounded by the "civilizations" of "East" and "West" — for the source for an anti-racist world civilization based on "friendship" and "cooperation."[4] Among those Anglo women from Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand who formed the core of the early PPWA, womankind seemed to provide an essential contribution to this vision, not because women were essentially maternal but because many of their number purportedly continued to live in closer proximity to the social and cultural life grounding human society and therefore, would strengthen the affective and inter-relational component necessary for the success of any international movement.[5]

   Reflecting the importance of this Honolulu-based cultural internationalist network to the future of the PPWA, its first conference was funded by the Pan-Pacific Union. The PPUA also published conference proceedings in The Women of the Pacific, while special issues of the popular Pan-Pacific and the Mid-Pacific magazines included a wealth of photographs alongside conference papers and reports of conference events. Photographs taken during early conferences would be pinned up each day on a noticeboard from where they could be purchased by delegates as conference souvenirs, while the location of conferences in Honolulu and then later in cities like Vancouver and Christchurch meant that participants could enjoy the cultural experience of travel and tourism as well as the more explicitly political activities involved in conference attendance. Australians, for example, spent a couple of weeks on a cruise ship before arriving at conferences in Hawaii, and used the time to work on their papers and put the final touches to the particular discussion theme they had been researching and preparing over previous months with the help of reading lists compiled by conference organisers.

   The initial task for a women-only organisation in the Pan-Pacific was considered by its founders to be focused on enabling the less advanced women of the Pacific countries to become internationalists and thus contribute directly to humanizing the process of globalization in their region. In its constitution, drawn up at the 1930 conference, the then PPWA established two fundamental aims:

   a.To strengthen the bonds of peace among the Pacific people by promoting better understanding and friendship among the women of all the Pacific countries.

   b.To initiate and promote co-operation among the women of the Pacific region for the study and betterment of existing social conditions.

   At conferences, the Pan-Pacific delegate was to put into practice the very kind of cooperative approach needed in national and international affairs. She would develop her skills in engaging cross-culturally at the same time as sharing with others aspects of women's activism in her own country aimed at improving the lives of girls and women and engendering a more internationalist outlook in areas such as population management, teaching internationalism in schools, and the influence of women in public life. Each conference focused on specific themes, such as "Social and Economic Inter-dependence" (see Women of the Pacific, 1955). Alongside expert formal papers on social justice, health, education, employment, population and welfare, less formal discussion groups comprising cross-national membership were to engage in less scripted exchanges. In some ways the Pan-Pacific network returned to old ground nonetheless, reiterating in new form earlier debates about protectionism versus equality feminism, and ultimately promoting some policies such as the need to limit women's access to night work in factories that alienated non-western colleagues, in this case the Japanese delegation. Again in 1937, a roundtable discussion concerning population as one factor underlying the outbreak of war revealed the racial and national politics bubbling just below the surface as heated exchanges ensued between delegates from Japan and Australia, the former excusing their country's recent invasion of Manchuria as an outcome of population pressure with the latter seeking to defend the exclusion of "Asian" immigrants from White Australia on cultural grounds.[6]

   Aiming to ameliorate the inevitable strain involved in the cultural internationalist project, conference social events and activities, as well as shared accommodations, were designed to provide opportunities for shared experience.[7] Out of informal exchanges it was hoped that affective experiences essential to confronting one's own assumptions about "other" races and cultures might facilitate the kinds of "interracial friendship" that would one day transform whole societies. In a similar ethos, performers including indigenous dance groups and musicians were employed to provide conference entertainment, while many delegates from non-western cultures became themselves sources of excitement for their western counterparts when they appeared in traditional dress at conference dinners and social events. But as Leila Rupp among others has noted, the politics of dress has played a central role in European international feminism's claim to lead the world of women into modernity;[8] it would continue to do so in the Pan-Pacific as an explicit part of the cultural internationalist experience.

   Of particular importance to organisers of early conferences was the presence of women from Japan and China, one of the key aims in the early years being to create bridges between the dual world civilizations of "East" and "West" located on the Pacific Rim. According to PPWA/PPSEAWA rhetoric (and often overlooking their already substantial international reputations), such women were taking their first steps into the world community. As president and Australian Georgina Sweet explained in her conference address in 1930, by following in the wake of their western counterparts they would first become "personalities," then spokeswomen for national constituencies, and finally might come to transcend national self-interest by embracing a truly international outlook. (Women of the Pacific, 1930) As well as women from Japan and China, increasingly important to the PPWA/PPSEAWA ideal would be the presence of Indigenous women from the settler colonies. Thus in 1934, Maori women were included as part of the New Zealand delegation. While another significant figure was the first African-American member of the US delegation, Ella P. Stewart (NACW), who participated in conferences at Christchurch and Manila in 1952 and 1955, arguing that she spoke not for only African American but for all women in the United States.[9]

   Ultimately, western women's implicit assumptions about their own leadership in the Pacific progress were to be tested during these first decades. Often western women found that the "women of the East" or Pacific Island women arrived already empowered by their own communities and concerned to articulate their own account of the Pacific. Given that the region was a patchwork of colonial interests—far from a last place of refuge from histories of race antagonism as imagined by the Pan-Pacific ideal—women attracted to the association were unlikely to overlook local and regional politics in the name of international exchange. Indeed, the opposite was often the case, as hopes for the reformulation of race relations in the settler colonies shaped the involvement of many non-western women who aimed to draw from their participation in the PPWA/PPSEAWA international women's support for greater cooperation between white and non-white women in their own countries. Conversely, women's suffrage in western societies had not produced the degree of change in public culture or the substantial increase of women in key public roles anticipated by many western feminists, and thus their non-western colleagues often seemed to be more "advanced" than expected in terms of their employment and influence in public life. Furthermore, the cultural internationalist worldview considered western modernity itself to be an obstacle to world peace and cooperation. From this perspective, in countries retaining "traditional" elements in their cultures women appeared to enjoy a level of familial and community status, including an enjoyment of cultural expression, since lost to modern women in western industrialised societies. Engagement with cultural diversity was thus hoped to re-humanise a western society seen by many—including the leading U.S. feminist Jane Addams, involved in the first years of the association—as overly individualistic and mechanised, aggressively nationalistic, and ultimately dangerous to the future of the globe. Mobilizing an evolutionist and ultimately Eurocentric model of world history, Addams thus advised the first conference that through becoming leaders in the region European women could witness womankind's part in the "beginnings of civilization."[10]

   As more delegates from non-European countries added their voices to the Pan-Pacific women's cultural internationalist ideal, it became increasingly apparent that "culture" played a different role in their own imaginings of a new world order. For numbers of non-western women involved in PPWA/PPSEAWA internationalism, deploying cultural difference was a site of resistance and an expression of political rights. In the New Zealand case, for example, after Maori women had established their own women's national organisation in the 1950s, their delegates began to question the place of Maori delegates within the New Zealand national delegation where they had been represented since the 1930s, and to call for specific representation for non-western women like themselves in the association's international hierarchy.[11] Increasingly aware of the fallibility of its aims to transcend the politics of "race," throughout its first decades the PPWA/PPSEAWA struggled not only with the domination of white women in its hierarchy but also in its efforts to attract national delegations beyond its own networks. In some cases, Anglo women even represented non-western national delegations: for example, at the end of the very first conference the suggestion by Eleanor Hinder, an Anglo-Australian resident in Shanghai and member of the YWCA[12] who spoke for the China delegation at the first conference, that the next should be held in China was greeted with trenchant criticism by Mei Ting, one of the few ethnic Chinese women on the delegation. (Eleanor Hinder, ‘Chinese Women in Pacific Affairs: An Interpretation’, Women of the Pacific)

   Particularly by the 1950s, numbers of western delegates sought to better understand their own relationship to imperial and colonial history, engaging in self-conscious analyses of the politics of whiteness within the association.[13] How to decolonize their own project was a question that U.S., Australian, New Zealand and Canadian women addressed as they contemplated the successes and failures of the cultural internationalist project. For Elsie Andrews, the opportunity to transcend her own status as a white settler colonial appeared to be provided in her international friendship with a Maori member of the New Zealand delegation in 1934, Victoria Bennett. When the two women presented a statement on behalf of their delegation, Elsie speaking in Maori, and Victoria presenting the English translation, they became the "hit" of the conference. And yet on her return to New Zealand Andrews reiterated not their partnership as co-cultural internationalists but a quite different "nationalist" culture politics, one asserting the need to "preserve" the Maori people and their culture from the growing impacts of modernity.[14]

By virtue of its confrontation with the histories of "race" that are arguably intrinsic to all forms of internationalism, the PPWA/PPSEAWA provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties faced by a transnational community of women that shared a belief in the capacity of cross-cultural exchange to build a new civilization for the twentieth century. Despite the Association's flawed beginnings, the opportunities offered by the PPWA/PPSEAWA for dialogue between women otherwise on opposing sides during an impending a second world war, and again in the 1950s during the Cold War, remains one of its most remarkable achievements. Also importantly, the PPWA/PPSEAWA became a peak body bringing together the work of women active in many organisations across the region, particularly the YMCA, in the process becoming a respected world resource for information about the status and conditions of women and girls in an otherwise understudied part of the world — including by contributing to the Commission for the Status of Women, established by the United Nations in 1946, a global study of women carried out by the United Nations in the 1950s through one of its more controversial members, the Australian Jess Street whose pro-communist views sparked some interest in the association from the FBI.[15] The association was recognised for its work by both the League of Nations and the United Nations, securing special status from the latter as a non-governmental agency in the 1950s and travel grants from UNESCO for women in Southeast Asia to attend international meetings. In turn, through its many national committees with their local connections, it acted as a distribution point for publications produced by both organisations. Much remains to be researched regarding this important network, including the biographies of individual leaders and their personal trajectories into the Pan-Pacific community, and more about the significance and impact of the research and reports its members contributed on an extraordinary range of subjects—some of which appear in the conference proceedings available on this site.



[1] See Paul Hooper, "Feminism in the Pacific: The Pan-Pacific and Southeast Asia Women's Association," Pacific Historian 20:4 (1976): 367-78; Angela Woollacott, "Inventing Commonwealth and Pan-Pacific Feminisms: Australian Women's Internationalist Activism in the 1920s-30s," in Mrinalini Sinha et al., Feminisms and Internationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); Fiona Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women's Pan-Pacific (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009) and Google Books online.

[2] You can learn more about the contributions of these women in Glamour in the Pacific as well as finding some of their conference papers in Women of the Pacific online.

[3] "Report to the Board," Rischbieth Papers, MS 2004/6/305, National Library of Australia, Canberra. Quoted in Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, p. 1.

[4] For more on cultural internationalism in Hawai'i, see Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Paul F. Hooper, Elusive Destiny: The Internationalist Movement in Modern Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1980); and Tomoko Akami, Internationalizing the Pacific: The United States, Japan and the Institute of Pacific Relations in War and Peace, 1919-1945 (London: Routledge, 2002).

[5] On the role of emotion in internationalism, see Jon Thares Davidann, "'Colossal Illusions': U.S.-Japanese Relations in the Institute of Pacific Relations, 1919-1938," Journal of World History 12:1 (2001): 155-82.

[6] Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, chapter 4.

[7] Leila Rupp has discussed the uses of conferences in creating a culture of internationalism. See Rupp, "Constructing Internationalism: The Case of Transnational Women's Organisations, 1888-1945," American Historical Review 99:5 (1994): 1571-1600; and Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[8] Rupp, Worlds of Women, p. 75. See also Reina Lewis, 'On Veiling, Vision, and Voyage: Cross-Cultural Dressing and Narratives of Identity', Interventions 1:4 (1999): 500-20.

[9] Glamour in the Pacific, chapter 6.

[10] Jane Addams, "The Opening of a Woman's Congress," Mid-Pacific Magazine 36:4 (1928): 303.

[11] Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, chapter 5.

[12] Sarah Paddle, "The Limits of Sympathy: International Feminists and the Chinese 'Slave Girl' Campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s," Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4:3 (2003): 1-20.

[13] Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, chapter 2.

[14] Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, chapter 3.

[15] For a history of the commission go to For the controversy surround Jessie Street, see "Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association," memorandum from SAC Honolulu to Director, FBI, August 20, 1956. FIOPA 1073489, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. Quoted in Glamour in the Pacific, pp. 200-01.