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American Women Acting Globally: Collections at the Schlesinger Library

Nancy F. Cott

Harvard University


   Some things are hidden in plain sight. Women from the United States have enacted global agendas for two centuries or more, and the Schlesinger Library has led in acquiring and preserving documentation of their foreign travels, organizations, work, and collaboration with others in far parts of the world. Yet all this w as relatively neglected until recently— a corollary of historians' longstanding tendency to focus their eyes inside national boundaries. While the history of American women's international efforts has yet to be well mapped, the potential for a fuller picture of this vital and little-explored part of the past is beginning to come into view. Conceptualization of the area of study should rapidly advance with provision of resources such as the Women and Social Movements, International digital archive. [1]

   Historians of the United States began to refocus their interests on the transnational and international in the mid-1990s, shaken from old patterns by contemporary awareness of globalization. The Organization of American Historians undertook a concerted effort to encourage this development, running a series of conferences at La Pietra, near Florence, Italy (1997-2000). In the resulting anthology, Rethinking American History in a Global Age, distinguished historians explored the historiographical implications of reframing standard U.S. history topics— from initial settlement, to democratic institutions, environmental and economic development, and nationalism— in international perspective.[2] The volume had significant influence. Although a deep-lying national ambivalence about international involvement haunts the history of the United States, some historians now point out that there have always been parties and groups advocating internationalism, especially at the level of ideas and non-state actions. Cultural, social, and legal movements and voluntary organizations show that U.S. citizens have been highly involved in the world. Individuals' endeavors changed who Americans were, and what international policy would be.[3]

   Overseas and overland travel were risky, time-consuming and arduous when American women first started pursuing what they intended to be good works in far parts of the world. As wives of male missionaries in the early-nineteenth century and on their own as missionaries after 1860, some went to live in India, Burma, Singapore, north Africa, and China, or took up residence in the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent and in the island Hawaii long before the United States extended there. Temperance and anti-slavery advocates also joined international networks of reformers to follow their strong beliefs, to an extent usually under-recognized. Clara Barton is well known, for example, for her role in founding the American Red Cross nursing service and her work in the Civil War but what of her services as advocate, nurse and organizer of the International Red Cross? She moved into global relief work when wars and calamities in other parts of the world demanded it, and initiated a flow of American women overseas as humanitarian workers aiding refugees from war, famine, and natural disasters.[4]

   The organized women's rights movement was international from its inception. Those who assembled at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 heard greetings sent by women's rights advocates in France and England.[5] The small but determined number of women's rights activists in antebellum U.S. gained moral support by being part of a transatlantic network.[6] By the 1880s and 1890s, the formation of international women's organizations, such as the International Council of Women, the International Woman Suffrage Association, and the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union, testified to the importance and the immense growth of these networks and solidified them formally. Suffragists in the United States took heart from New Zealand women's success in winning the right to vote in 1893, Australia's in 1902, and Finland's in 1906, as they were pursuing a state-by-state strategy for themselves. American suffragists pointed fingers as they saw women in twelve more foreign nations gain the vote while their struggle to amend the U.S. Constitution to the same purpose still went on. Then, after victory in 1920, American suffragists lent their expertise to sister campaigners in Cuba, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and El Salvador.[7]

   By the late-nineteenth century there were women geographers, explorers, and journalists traveling the globe (including Nellie Bly, who made herself a sensation by going around the world in less than Jules Verne's eighty days). American women's explorations and service abroad multiplied along with their greater access to higher education and professional training. The twentieth century multiplied international forays–for two reasons that cut in rather different directions. First, the improved speed and efficiency of international travel and communication made such efforts more feasible. But second, nation-states' modern capacities to wreak human and physical destruction demanded more far-flung and varied relief efforts, human rights investigations, and international peace movements. There were renewed organizational efforts to create international agreements and international bodies to prevent and/or substitute for war when international conflict arose.

   American women's interest in fostering world peace in the era of World War I and after is well known, but detailed archival research into more than one important organization remains at the beginning level. The Schlesinger holds records of the massive federation called the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, established in 1925 by Carrie Chapman Catt (who had led the U.S. woman suffrage organization to victory in 1920). This umbrella organization brought together numerous existing large women's organizations in the United States —including the American Association of University Women, Federation of Woman's Boards of Foreign Missions, General Federation of Women's Clubs, National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association, National Council of Jewish Women, National League of Women Voters, National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the National Women's Trade Union League— and at its height claimed to speak for five million women. The federation aimed to set women's minds to understanding the causes of war, rather than protest against it. Its leaders and members wrote letters to members of Congress, gave lectures, and organized petitions and study groups known as "Round Tables." It linked to many women's organizations around the world, and lasted until 1939. In WASM International's digital collection can be found selected correspondence of the Committee from the 1930s, including letters by Carrie Chapman Catt, Margery Corbett Ashby, and Rosa Manus.

   Labor was a central theme in women's international activities in the early-twentieth century. One among the radically utopian efforts to reconstruct society on a more equalitarian basis immediately after World War I was the International Federation of Working Women. The Schlesinger's invaluable collection International Federation of Working Women contains stenographic reports of the 1st and 2nd congresses, held in Washington, D.C., and Geneva, Switzerland. The brainchild of members of the National Women's Trade Union League in the U.S. and their transatlantic contacts, the organization survived only a few years, and is well represented in the WASM International digital archive.

   As women's wage work became a standard feature of modern society and spread around the globe, it remained a springboard for international consultation and collaboration. The Maida (Stewart) Springer Kemp Papers at the Schlesinger Library offer critical evidence and insights into the career of one of the few African American women to reach a high level of authority and influence in the American labor movement, and the first to represent the American Federation of Labor abroad. From her position as a machine operator in a garment factory in New York, where she joined Local 22 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in 1933 when she was in her early 20s, her involvement in the trade union movement began. Increasingly active and respected for her contributions to workers' education and her service during World War II in the Office of Price Administration, by the 1950s Kemp became involved, through the AFL, in developing labor unions in several African countries that were establishing independence. She traveled extensively in Africa for the AFL-CIO, and lived in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Kenya for periods of years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The WASM International digital archive makes selections from her collection from that period available, covering her involvement in the international activities of the National Council of Negro Women as well as her labor work. There are also excerpts from an oral history of Kemp.

   Numerous collections at the Schlesinger Library illuminate the leaders and activities of the Women's Trade Union League (founded in 1903). The WASM International digital archive contains selected reports, speeches, and letters from one, the extensive Frieda S. Miller (1889-1973) papers, emphasizing the international activities of this multidimensional leader. Miller began in the Philadelphia branch of the NWTUL and eventually served in more than one official public capacity, first in New York state (where she was Industrial Commissioner from 1938 to 1943), in the nation— appointed by FDR, she was Director of the Women's Bureau in the US Department of Labor from 1944 to 1953— and in international efforts. As early as 1936 she had begun representing the United States at International Labor Organization conferences, and briefly during World War II she served as special assistant for labor to John C. Winant, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Examples of valuable sources include notes for a 1950 speech that Miller gave in Geneva and a packet of notes for a number of speeches that Miller classified under "UN Activities for Women," both in this online archive.

   After Miller left the U.S. Women's Bureau in 1953, she went to work full-time for the ILO and conducted several major surveys of working conditions and opportunities for women and children in Asia and the Middle East. For a short period (1957-1958) she also represented the International Alliance of Women at the United Nations. In the early 1960s Miller became U.N. representative for the International Union for Child Welfare (a European organization), conducting an International Child Welfare Survey and participating in various UNICEF projects. She left the U.N. in 1967 at the age of 78.

   Both Kemp's and Miller's careers suggest another important theme: the connectedness of national and international. Organizations such as the International Labour Organization or the United Nations draw upon representatives of nation-states and thus are not opposed to but dependent upon them—while moving their member states, presumably, in a direction away from militant nationalism. Both Miller and Kemp became international representatives for the U.S. after achieving distinction at the national level. The same was true of Grace E. Frysinger , whose career as a senior home economist in the Extension Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is documented in the Schlesinger's holdings. Her work led her to involvement in the 1930s and 1940s with the international group called the Associated Country Women of the World. Photographs and letters offering Frysinger's perspective on the ACWW's conferences in Britain and Canada appear in WASM International's digital archive.

   Women in U.S. public office such as Miller and Frysinger were usually representing their nation when they participated in international bodies or events, while feminist social movement activists who meant to put demands on their government used the relation between the national and the international differently. This can be seen in the move of the National Woman's Party to organize internationally. Originally a militant suffrage faction, the NWP regrouped after 1920 with the singular aim to add an Equal Rights Amendment —mandating equal rights to women and men—to the U.S. Constitution. Frustrated at the national level upon their initial introduction of the amendment in 1923, the NWP increasingly sought allies in women's equal rights groups abroad, with the aim of incorporating equal rights provisions in international agreements and thus binding their own nation along with others.

   The Schlesinger Library's holdings on leaders in the National Woman's Party in the post-suffrage era are extensive, including papers of Alice Paul, Edith Houghton Hooker, Jane Norman Smith, Sue Shelton White, and Caroline Lexow Babcock, for example. A particularly rich and fascinating collection represented in the WASM International digital archive is that of Alma Lutz, (1890-1973) who became deeply committed to pursuing equal rights for women through the NWP as a young woman in the 1920s. She also became a historian of the women's movement. Her collection (spanning to 1961) documents all the issues taken up by the National Woman's Party, including jury service for women, wives' independent nationality, and opposition to sex-based labor legislation, in addition to national and international work for equal rights provisions. She sat on the NWP National Council, served as literature chairman and was a contributing editor to the party's serial, Equal Rights. Lutz remained an active member of the Massachusetts Branch of the party while also participating in its international work. The WASM International digital archive includes papers from the 1930s saved by Lutz concerning women’s nationality rights and correspondence with other international supports of an Equal Rights Treaty such as the British activist, Chrystal Macmillan.

   Feminists outside the United States also used international collaboration as a lever to pressure their own national governments. For women in Latin America still unenfranchised in the 1920s, the international efforts of the National Woman's Party served as a resource and organizing arena as they worked on gaining the right to vote. The Doris Stevens Papers at the Schlesinger Library are a magnet for researchers interested in Latin American women's rights struggles before World War II. Stevens (1888-1963) became an enthusiastic paid organizer for the National Woman's Party in the 1910s, and remained a member of the group for more than three decades after 1920, becoming a visible leader of its international efforts. There is a strong sampling of her papers in the Women and Social Movements, International database. She studied international law (and was named the first woman member of American Institute of International Law), led equal rights protests at international meetings (getting herself arrested for protesting outside the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact Conference at Rambouillet, France, in 1928), and participated in international meetings of women's rights groups in Geneva and The Hague in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

   Stevens's collection is especially valuable for documenting the work of the Inter-American Commission of Women and the players in it. Stevens attended the Sixth International Conference of American States, in Havana, Cuba, in 1928, where the Pan American Union (later called the Organization of American States) created the Commission as an advisory group; and she was named its first chair. She served until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt unseated and replaced her. The WASM International digital archive, which includes a hundred separate items from the Stevens Papers, reproduces some of her correspondence as well as minutes and other materials, bringing to light the work of Stevens and her Latin American colleagues and friends as well as other NWP international work through the 1940s.

   Another extremely rich collection for examining women's networks and feminist-leaning organizations, that of Lena Madesin Phillips (1881-1955), likewise shows the progression of a social movement organization from the national to the international. Kentucky-born lawyer Phillips was serving as the secretary of the national board of the Young Women's Christian Association during World War I when she was drafted to become the executive secretary of the new National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (founded in 1919). A woman of tremendous civic energies and contacts, she presided over the new federation in the late 1920s, and then led in founding (1930) and presiding over the International Federation of Business and Professional Women. The WASM International digital archive reproduces selected materials from her papers, providing insight into Phillips's wide interests and the International Federation's early decades.[8]

   The papers of another Southerner, Lucy Somerville Howorth (1895-1997), offer further perspective on the International Federation of Business and Professional Women. The daughter of leading Mississippi suffragist Nellie Nugent Somerville, Howorth was a successful lawyer (admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1934, a rare accomplishment for a woman at the time). She chose to work with several international women's organizations, including the International Federation of Working Women and the International Council of Women as well as the IFBPW, and a handful of items in the WASM International digital archive reflect this.

   A unique relationship among the local, national, and international can be seen in the career of Edith Spurlock Sampson (1901-1979) whose papers at the Schlesinger invite more attention to this extraordinary woman.

   From a working-class African American family in Pittsburgh, where she had to punctuate her education with odd jobs, Sampson initially trained for and did social work. The urgings of a law professor from whom she took a course in criminology eventually sent her to law school at night. Maintaining a dual focus on social work and law in the 1920s and 1930s in Chicago—first as probation officer, then referee for the Juvenile Court of Cook County, Illinois, and then Assistant State's Attorney there—she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court the same year as Lucy Howorth.

   Sampson's international involvement began in 1949 when, as chair of the executive committee of the National Council of Negro Women, she was chosen to represent the group on a ten-week global tour called "America's Town Meeting of the Air." The tour's 26 participants (prominent Americans representing various interest groups) traveled around the globe, broadcasting via radio their debates and discussions of political issues with people in twelve countries. Sampson's fellow delegates were so impressed with her balancing act as she defended the United States as the best nation on earth while acknowledging the distance still to go in achieving racial equality, that she was elected president of the World Town Hall Seminar founded by the group at the trip's end. Sampson saw the trip as a turning point in her life, after which world peace and brotherhood were as important to her as her legal practice. Never flagging in the latter, however, she was elected associate judge of the Municipal Court of Chicago in 1962, the first African American woman to win a judgeship by popular vote.

   In 1950 Sampson became the first African American delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, appointed by President Harry Truman to serve as an alternate for Eleanor Roosevelt. She served on the U.N. Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (and was reappointed in 1952). During 1951 and 1952 she frequently traveled abroad for the State Department, addressing the status of African Americans and racism in the U.S. Material in the WASM International digital archive reflects these transformative middle years of her life from 1949-52, beginning with her participation in the round-the-world town meeting. [9] Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, she was appointed to be a member-at-large of the U.S. Commission for UNESCO, and in 1961 and 1962 she became the first African American appointed to serve on the U.S. Citizens Commission on NATO.

   Besides formal appointments and offices, the networks of acquaintances and friends that American women constructed as they worked or traveled were crucial to the expansion of international endeavors. Informal networks have been important in relating one part of the world to another, enabling transnational circulation of knowledge, friendship, and opportunity for collaboration. The extensive papers of Anna Lord Strauss (1899-1979) bear out this point. A government employee, journalist, and managing editor of Century magazine before she was 30, Strauss next became a major leader in the League of Women Voters, moving from the presidency of the New York league in the late 1930s to become national president in 1944-1950. Both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower appointed her to national and international boards and missions, including the President's Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights (1951), and the U. S. Delegation to the United Nations Sixth General Assembly. A firm supporter of the United Nations, Strauss joined voluntary organizations that worked in its favor, becoming a director of the American Association for the U.N. and belonging to the U.S. Committee for the U.N. and the U.N. Association of the U.S.A.

   During the 1960s, Strauss devoted much of her time to the Committee of Correspondence, a New York City group in which eighteen American women drew on their pre-existing networks of contacts to exchange ideas and experience with women leaders throughout the world; their aim was to bring about better understanding and cooperation. The WASM International digital archive includes materials from Strauss's international activities of this sort in the 1950s and 1960s, and adds other correspondence, reports, and speeches related to the Committee of Correspondence from the papers of Louise Burton Laidlaw Backus (b.1906). Like Strauss, Backus belonged to the Committee of Correspondence and to voluntary organizations supportive of the U.N. She was also involved with the Pan Pacific Women's Association (later the Pan Pacific and Southeast Asia Women's Association). Relevant selections from her papers in the WASM International digital archive span from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Click here for a selection of significant materials from her papers.

   A ground-level rather than leadership view of women's international meetings and conferences in the 20th century can be found in the papers of the remarkable Florence H. Luscomb (1887-1985). Luscomb was a lifelong activist. Born into privilege in Massachusetts (and trained as an architect at M.I.T.) she used her funds and her talents to support universalistic principles of justice and democracy, especially in labor reform, women's suffrage, civil liberties and civil rights, and peace. Her extensive collection at the Schlesinger spans from her feisty days on the suffrage soapbox to her reprise of those years when the women's movement of the early 1970s called on her as a speaker. The library also holds the records of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Massachusetts Branch, to which Luscomb belonged. Selections from the Luscomb papers in the WASM International digital archive provide a unique look at an activist whose self-understanding as a "citizen of the world" began with her attendance at the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Conference in Stockholm in 1911 and persisted through her appearance at the World Congress of International Women's Year in Berlin in 1975. Twenty years later—and several generations younger— Wendy Thomas (who was public services librarian at the Schlesinger Library at the time) attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995; some of the materials she brought home also have been included in the WASM International digital archive.[10]

   Alongside and beyond the ventures sketched above, American women have pursued international goals through a great range of avenues, including international law, social welfare policy, economic development, health reform, reproductive justice efforts, and media innovation. In the later decades of the twentieth century, American businesswomen tried to spread their approaches around the world through innovative microenterprise and advocacy of economic development. Women with professional expertise in economics, labor statistics, social welfare, international relations, international law, and development brought their knowledge to bear globally. Global feminism was born in the 1990s, while refugee policy, international human rights and humanitarian movements also continued to draw women activists.

   The Schlesinger Library fortunately holds scores more collections recording and illuminating these varied projects— from the papers of Chinese-born Anna Chen Chennault, citizen-diplomat, businesswoman, and Nixon supporter, to Louise Holborn (1898-1975), expert in international law and the problem of refugees, to the nuclear disarmament Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace & Justice in upstate New York, founded in the 1980s to emulate and support the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp in England. Collections of 1960s feminists and their 1970s organizations also always show international linkages: the papers of Robin Morgan, Catherine East, Wilma Scott Heide, Marguerite Rawalt, and Adrienne Rich, and the records of the National Organization for Women and the Women's Equity Action League for example. Transnational impacts are central to Charlotte Bunch's Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Catharine Mackinnon's work in in establishing rape as an act of genocide, and to the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's translations and adaptations of their enormously influential guide, Our Bodies, Ourselves, to mention a few other signal collections. The Schlesinger Library also has the records of lesser-known groups such as the International Foundation for Gender Education (1990-2000), the International Alliance, an Association of Executive and Professional Women (1980-2001), and the International Association of Culinary Professionals (2004-05).

   These collections contain the raw material to prevent parochialism in United States history and fully include women among the U.S. citizens in the world. As students and scholars gravitate toward international and transnational history, they will welcome the availability of archives that make their explorations more fruitful. Let us hope that the WASM International digital archive will stimulate the widest possible use of relevant manuscript collections, leading the way to a deeper understanding of the United States in a world context and of American women's impacts and adjustments as they reached across national borders.



[1] In addition, the resource titled "Travel Writing, Spectacle and World History" from Adam Mathew Digital makes available online hundreds of documents of women's travel writing from the Schlesinger Library, including unique manuscript diaries, letters, drawings, guidebooks and photographs recorded by women travelers around the globe from the early 19th to the late 20th century. The resource includes a slideshow of hundreds of fascinating visual items, such as postcards, sketches and photographs.

[2] Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002).

[3] The United States' failure to join the League of Nations in 1920 and lukewarm support for the United Nations are often cited to support the contention that the U.S. is a "lone ranger." Yet that conclusion is far too simple. For instance, although the United States did not join the League of Nations, American representatives were involved from the first in its labor, social and legal efforts. See, e.g. Frank Costigliola, Awkward Dominion: American Political, Economic, and Cultural Relations with Europe, 1919-1933 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984); Warren Kuehl and Lynne Dunn, Keeping the Covenant: American Internationalists and the League of Nations, 1920-1939 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.); Dorothy V. Jones, Toward a Just World: The Critical Years in the Search for International Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.); Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); Kevin Gaines, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[4] E.g., Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), Patricia Grimshaw, Paths of Duty: American Missionary Wives in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), and Patricia R. Hill, The World Their Household: The American Woman's Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984); Ian R. Tyrrell, Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Clara Barton, The Red Cross, A History of this Remarkable International Movement in the Interest of Humanity (Washington, D.C.: American National Red Cross, 1898).

[5] See Nancy A. Hewitt, "From Wollstonecraft to Mill: What British and European Ideas and Social Movements Influenced the Emergence of Feminism in the Atlantic World, 1792-1869," Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, Vol. 7 (2003)

[6] See Carol Faulkner, ""How Did an International Agenda Shape the American Women's Rights Movement, 1840-1869?" in Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds., Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, 16:2 (September 2012).

[7] See Richard Evans, The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements in Europe, America, and Australasia, 1840-1920 (N.Y.: Barnes and Noble, 1977); Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan, eds. Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives (Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press, 1994); Estelle Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 2002), pp 54-57; Leila Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997); and Tyrrell, Woman's World/Woman's Empire.

[8] Significant sources from the Phillips Papers in this online collection include "First International Congress of Business and Professional Women, Geneva, August 23rd-26th, 1930: Copy of Secretary's Notes" and "Address of Miss Lena Madesin Phillips, President of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, at the Opening Session of the Second Congress of the Federation, Paris, France, Monday Evening, July 26th, 1936." The archive also includes published Proceedings of the international meetings of the IFBPW.

[9] WASM International includes 27 items by Edith Spurlock Sampson in its holdings. In addition to considerable correspondence with other activists, the collection includes two particularly interesting items, the text of a 1951 speech she gave and a report on a 1951 lecture tour in Germany.

[10] See, for example, in the database, "Some Remarks on the Draft Platform for Action of the Fourth UN World Conference on Women" and " UNIFEM in Beijing & Beyond: Celebrating the Fourth World Conference on Women."