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The ILO: Women's Networks and the Making of the Women Worker

Eileen Boris and Jill Jensen

University of California Santa Barbara and Pennsylvania State University


   In early 1941, as the war engulfing Europe disrupted the institutions of global governance, members of the Liaison Committee of the Women's International Organizations to the League of Nations appealed to the Director General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to reinstate Marguerite Thibert, the French socialist and feminist who for over a decade had spearheaded the ILO's Section on Women's Work. Thibert was to go to Montreal in 1940 when the ILO relocated from Geneva, but by the time that she overcame a series of personal and bureaucratic obstacles, financial troubles led the Director General to eliminate her position. Despite being paid less than her male counterparts, Thibert was devoted to the mission of the ILO to better working conditions. She wouldn't accept separation from her life's work without a fight.[1]

   To plead her case, Thibert mobilized an international women's network that long had lobbied civil servants less concerned with women's rights than issues of political and economic stability. In letters and cables, the International Council of Women, the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, the World's Young Women's Christian Association, the International Federation of University Women, the International Federation of Women Magistrates and Members of the Legal Profession, and the Soroptimist Clubs made programmatic and personnel arguments for retaining her. They stressed the importance of her sections in various reports, especially The Law and Women's Work: A Contribution to the Study of the Status of Women, a compendium on legislation impacting the employment of women worldwide. They claimed that elimination of her section would "jeopardize" progress on global labor standards, including equal pay and married women's right to work. Moreover, they reminded ILO officials that her departure would leave the ILO without any women chiefs "in direct contravention of the constitution ... which holds that a proportionate share of the Office personnel should be filled by women eligible for office of all ranks."[2] By Spring 1942, Thibert won reinstatement; as the Acting Director General explained, "it is important that we should not lose sight of the problems concerning women and children." But the deciding factor probably was an expanded line of credit given by the allied nations to the ILO, along with the need for seasoned staff to plan for post-war reconstruction and perhaps the support of the Roosevelt Administration for placing women in policymaking roles. [3]

   The struggle over maintaining the section on women's work during WWII highlights the various ways that study of the ILO illuminates women and international social movements. As the premier institution devoted to the conditions of work within the League of Nations and then the United Nations (UN) systems, the ILO has played both a normative and technical role, setting codes of conduct through treaty-like conventions and offering on-the-ground assistance on a range of labor market and employment issues. Founded in the aftermath of WWI, the ILO sought to reconstruct the European industrial workforce, overwhelmingly male, through improved labor standards. Grounded in the tenets of "social democracy, Christian democracy, and social liberalism," it sought to eliminate inhumane working conditions, counter the economic injustice that many believed fueled political instability, and remove disincentives to reform by setting comparable practices worldwide. Tripartite national delegations of labor, government, and business representatives deliberated on proposed conventions drafted by committees of experts. Worker and employer delegates often carried out these deliberations as their own transnational groups. Nations then were to ratify these conventions and use them as guidelines for labor standards legislation. The organization consisted of an International Labor Office, staffed with global civil servants under an elected Director-General (all of whom have been men), an elected Governing Body, and the decision-making body, an annual International Labor Conference where country delegates elect ILO officers, make recommendations and pass conventions. Many Latin American nations joined early on, but the U.S. did not until 1934. With the decolonialization of the world after WWII, the membership of the ILO became truly global.[4]

   The history of the ILO illuminates the position of women within international organizations as well as the networks they forged with non-governmental women's groups and among themselves. Labor feminist networks planned and executed their own international conferences alongside those of the ILO to comment on its actions and generate future recommendations. This was the case with the first International Congress of Working Women in 1919 in Washington D.C., the World Conference on Women Workers in 1956 in Budapest, Hungary, and at the first World Conference on Women in 1975 in Mexico City. Discussions taking place at these events showcased the diverse perspectives of women's movements in relation to class, race, sexuality, culture, and nationality. If middle class women's groups initially dominated the conversation, based on greater access to resources for international travel, national and grassroots organizations from the Global South became increasingly involved in the latter part of the twentieth century. The organization thus provides a way to track the international dimensions of feminism's common challenges, but also the divisions over what the fair treatment of women really means in terms of global labor regimes.

   Because the ILO functioned as an arena in which feminists debated the advancement of equal rights and the merits or harms of protective labor legislation for women, its policy deliberations embed both tensions among women and the twists and turns of dominant gender norms, a movement over the century from concepts of female biological difference to gender mainstreaming. Moreover, its focus on development, including questions of basic needs and world employment in the 1960s and 1970s, underscores the sometimes contrasting priorities between women from industrialized nations who sought equality with men and fought for anti-discrimination measures and those from former colonies and emerging economies who placed the elimination of poverty and economic justice between nations on the ILO agenda. Contestation among women as well as between women and men emerges from its records.

   ILO pronouncements, thus, mirror ideological debates over women's labors and contain assumptions about human rights, female difference, and gendered responsibilities for family as well as work. The agency generated massive amounts of data on the social, economic, cultural, and political forces that shaped women's work—reports about women's labor in specific places, such as Conditions of Work of Women and Young Workers on Plantations; for specific categories of workers, such as Problems of Women Non-Manual Workers; about job training in difference regions, such as Vocational Guidance and Training of Women in Latin America; and in terms of divisions of labor between the sexes and by age or marital status.[5] We can use these investigations for social history, however, only after realizing that such documents do not merely present facts, but rather produce social knowledge about the "woman worker." And this knowledge grew in a context in which women's issues became flash points for both the Cold War and continuing struggles over economic inequality and unequal power within the world order.


   Historians only now are assessing the impact of the ILO. Most existing literature is internalist, written by the ILO itself. But, with the encouragement of the ILO's Century Project, scholars are probing its mission, activities, and structure in larger contexts.[6] Similarly, research on women and the ILO is just emerging, despite a robust interdisciplinary literature on women and work that sometimes draws upon ILO reports and studies. A limited history of women in the ILO from the 1990s provides some basic facts on women employed within the agency and its treatment of women workers throughout the years, yet does so with little analysis.[7] Several additional accounts, most notably by Lourdes Benería and Maryse Gaudier, chronicle direct experiences with the ILO, or its affiliated International Institute for Labour Studies.[8] Research on feminist strategies in relation to international institutions and the gendered nature of global governance has grown, but where feminist scholars have explored in depth the creation and preservation of women's international social networks focused on women's rights in the pre-WWI period and the late 20th century, few thus far have emphasized the policymaking community of women with economic and labor expertise connected to the ILO.[9] Though some work has started on specific conventions, ILO records remain a relatively untapped source of information on a variety of topics relating to women as social actors on transnational, international, and national scales.[10] Looking at debates through the frame of the ILO allows for a deeper connection between efforts on these different levels of governance over time and space.

   As is often the case, national battles extended into the international realm. Several of those who have evaluated inter-governmental meetings involving women from the United States between 1920 and the Cold War have tended to let conflicts between the National Woman's Party (NWP) and its international network and labor feminists in and outside of the U.S. dominate their assessments.[11] Such analysis reaffirms the dichotomy between equal rights, tied to a gender-first ideology, and protective legislation, associated with a class-based defense of women industrial workers, reinscribing conflict in the U.S. onto the world stage. Gender analysis of the ILO in relation to other international institutions often repeats this pattern.[12] A transnational approach, however, reveals circuits of exchange between labor feminists and international policymaking, complicating the standard story that champions an abstract equality over a characterized difference. Such efforts include support of fair treatment and just remuneration for women workers and the incorporation of groups historically left out of the formal global labor standards debates, such as domestic laborers, migrants, trafficked women, and home-based workers.[13] More detailed examinations of specific conventions will allow scholars to consider how labor feminists sought women's equality through supports targeted to wage-earning mothers, dissolving the dichotomy between equality and difference. Stepping outside that discussion redefines collaboration around social security, maternity leave, and other "work and family" policies as strategies to advance women's rights and gender equality on the job and in the polity.[14]

   The documents contained in Women and Social Movements, International suggest future directions for research. Scholars might augment attention to the work of key women actors within the International Labor Office and look more broadly at the social and political relationships between international women's groups and the ILO (as suggested in this essay). They might assess ILO projects and research on women as workers or as women workers, and the executive decisions that either supported or inhibited these classifications. Such analysis could enhance understanding of women as global policymakers and experts and shapers of globalization.[15]


   Insiders and Outsiders

   The ILO has functioned as an institutional venue for women working transnationally to influence the global gender order as well as improve conditions in their own nations. As Frieda Miller, the Director of the U.S. Women's Bureau and an active participant in ILO deliberations as a government delegate and subject area expert, declared: "In no other international organization have women played as important a part as in the I.L.O." Miller's assertion suggests the paucity of women's power in other organizations: because from 1919 until 1945, when Miller penned her report, only three hundred women attended the yearly conference as delegates, advisers, and secretaries compared to thousands of men.[16] Only under the extraordinary conditions of war in 1941 was a woman, U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, elected as the President of the annual conference held in New York rather than in Geneva. Only in 1984, after the emergence of a global women's movement and in the midst of the U.N. Decade on Women, did the ILO again elect a woman to preside, Swedish Labor Minister Anna-Greta Leijon. However, a kind of sexual division of labor within reform circles encouraged appointing women experts, especially "when any question regarding women's labor was to be considered." This directive appeared appropriate since women reformers had adopted legislated labor standards as a more viable strategy than collective bargaining for female wage earners crowded into few occupations. By the 1970s, calls for equal representation of women on all issues had replaced this narrower view.[17]

   In the early years (1919 to the start of WWII), international women's groups concerned with social protection made up for the lack of formal female representation by lobbying ILO members from the outside. Organizations such as the U.S. National Women's Trade Union League, National Council of Women of Canada, and the short-lived International Federation of Working Women (IFWW) found the ILO receptive to their agenda of both protecting women workers and guaranteeing their rights on the job.[18] Most governments supported the regulation of female labor in the interest of "the preservation of the maternal function," a motivation which which dovetailed with the proposals of this generation of labor feminists. But the labor feminists actually wished to extend protections to men as well.[19] Two of the initial Conventions passed in 1919 protected maternity and restricted night work for women. While both underwent subsequent revisions, those on pregnant workers expanded coverage to new groups and called for enhanced leave and social security benefits, while those on night work allowed industry-specific exceptions and exempted managers.[20]

   During the interwar years, the ILO thus turned into a battleground where international organizations calling for equal rights clashed with those advocating special protection. Some feminist groups–led by the U.S. NWP, the British Six Point Group and their transnational offshoot Equal Rights International–felt the best way to press for commitment to equal political, civil, and employments rights would be by taking a stance against what they considered the discriminatory conventions of the ILO. They promoted an equality treaty to counter women-only ILO provisions, not only maternity leave and night work but also bans on working with hazardous substances and in underground mines. Their conflict with trade union women moved to Geneva, where in 1927 the ILO's Deputy Director lamented to Mary Anderson, then Director of the U.S. Women's Bureau, that the feminist "campaign against all protection for women ... is particularly unfortunate at a moment when the general tendency is retrogressive rather than progressive in the matter of labor legislation." [21] Nearly a decade later, Anderson and her allies would seek League of Nations–and ILO–endorsement of an alternative Women's Charter that maintained sex-based protective measures while asserting civil and political rights for women. During the 1937 International Labor Conference, U.S. delegate and social reformer Grace Abbott, formerly of the Children's Bureau, called for ILO members to adopt policies advocating women's right for full opportunities in work and the right to receive remuneration without discrimination based on sex.[22] Her resolution, along with pressure from the League of Nations itself, stimulated a series of studies on women's economic and social status relating to employment.[23]

   U.S. women also raised the question of the status of women directly within the ILO. Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, with its totalitarian threat to all nations, debates over social and economic rights for both women and men escalated. A breakthrough for women came during an Inter-American regional ILO conference in Cuba that same year. Attendees adopted the "Declaration of Havana," proclaiming that "attempts to regulate working conditions cannot be successful unless women are recognized as individuals fully capable of the responsibilities of citizenship."[24] They also noted the social value of child bearing, "so that it entitles particular care in terms of attention from public authorities."[25] Maternity measures called for protection for pregnant women against job dismissal, entitlement to job leave before and after childbirth, and the right to be reinstated after pregnancy with breaks for nursing. Additional resolutions supported women's wages, social aid programs for mothers, and equal pay for equal work. These resolutions offered a comprehensive transnational formula for both the social and economic rights of working women and mothers. But the fear remained among feminists that employers would respond to such measures by letting women go or refusing to hire them in the first place.[26]

   With the end of WWII, women's presence in the ILO expanded. By the time of the 1944 International Labor Conference in Philadelphia, where the agency revamped its constitution to affiliate with what became the United Nations, women served as primary representatives.[27] They negotiated international agreements on the reemployment of women amidst dislocations due to reconversion and the return of soldiers from the war. They promoted employment services for women as a vehicle to meet the U.N.'s post-war goal of international full employment.[28] The transfer of the women's section back to Geneva in 1948, with augmented funding, reflected the growing significance of women in ILO work.

    Depression conditions originally had led Albert Thomas, the Frenchman who first served as the ILO's Director, to establish a special section in 1931 within the International Labor Office, initially known as the Section on Conditions of Employment of Women and Children. He placed in charge his old socialist comrade Thibert, who entered ILO service as a researcher five years before when women generally held clerical positions in the agency. In the postwar era, Mildred Fairchild, the former Chair of the Department of Social Economy at Bryn Mawr College, took over as chief of the now upgraded Women's and Young Workers Division until her retirement in 1953. Then, in a move that reflected the ILO's new regional focus and the prominence of accomplished feminists in Latin America, Chilean diplomat Ann Figueroa, a previous administrator of the Chilean Women's Bureau, oversaw the division's surge into technical assistance between 1954 and 1959. Figueroa later became the first female Assistant Director-General of the ILO.[29]

   Thibert, her successors, and small staff exerted long-term influence on the trajectory of operational programs, including sending experts to help nations address the problems of women's employment. Such fieldwork involved efforts to keep women employed in industrial countries during the global depression of the 1930s, and later, in partnership with regional offices, to oversee female-run small enterprises in the form of cottage industries and traditional handicrafts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.[30] The section investigated conditions of employment; promoted training, education, and the establishment of national Women's Bureaus; and developed specific directives about women and young workers, another group seen in need of protection and thus often programmatically joined with women in labor departments throughout the world. With the input of a transnational group of women experts, it prepared studies and annual reports, based on questionnaires sent to member governments, that various ILO committees and conferences examined. It sometimes helped draft conventions and recommendations.[31]

    In 1959, in the renamed Office for the Coordination of Women's and Young Workers' Questions, responsibility for the work fell to another American, Elizabeth Johnstone.[32] Johnstone typified the career global civil servant who stayed with the ILO for over forty years; like Fairchild, her husband also worked for the agency. With the change in name, her unit no longer stood as a division but rather became attached to the office of the Director General–a demoted placement in the hierarchy that nonetheless recognized questions of women's work as pervading all aspects of the ILO. The Office for the Coordination of Women's and Young Workers' Questions worked closely with, sometimes even within, various divisions in order to provide a more "integrated approach."[33] Fulfilling that charge, in her first year alone, Johnstone represented the ILO at the meetings of various international organizations, including Open Door International for Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker and the International Association of Food, Drink and Tobacco Workers; conducted research for other UN agencies, including UNICEF and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), whose meetings she attended annually; and prepared for the ILO Governing Body the report Women Workers in a Changing World in preparation for Labor Conference action on what in 1965 became Recommendation No.123, "Employment of Women with Family Responsibilities." [34] By then, Johnstone's title again shifted; she became Program Coordinator, Women, Young Workers and Old Workers Programs. Among her final acts before retiring in 1975 was preparation of materials on equality of opportunity for ILO participation at the Mexico City Conference marking the International Year of the Woman.[35] By the 1970s, in ILO publications such as Women Workers and the Development Process (Asia and the Pacific), "women's development" had to a large degree taken precedence, reflecting now the move within the United Nations for greater attention toward both economic and "social development."[36] These were difficult years for the ILO because the U.S. lessened its contribution and for a short while pulled out of the organization altogether.

    The organization of a unit on women, then, followed the trajectory from special status to gender mainstreaming, with intervening periods of neglect. Johnstone's successor, Russian labor expert Ekaterina Korchovnova, from 1976 to 1982 headed an upgraded Office for Women Workers' Questions, a nomenclature that finally uncoupled women from children. By the time that the next chief Raissa Smirnova retired six years later, still another reorganization returned work on women to a special advisor, who reported to the Deputy-Director-General, then the first woman in that position, Ghanaian Mary Chinery-Hesse. By then, many more women from the Global South worked for the ILO, including Maria de Lopez Callado of Colombia who, after time in Geneva, ran its regional office in Central America and Nieves Confesor of the Philippines, the first Asian woman Chair of the ILO's Governing Body.[37] These women continued to turn to the ILO to help organize women workers for full employment, decent work, human rights, and self-reliance within the context of globalization.[38]

   In performing their duties, women staff drew upon a robust network of women labor administrators and researchers solidified through friendship, common experiences, and shared commitment to accommodating working women's family responsibilities, protecting their motherhood, and assuring their equal rights to work and on the job. For example, Fairchild frequently consulted with Frieda Miller, a former researcher at Bryn Mawr who belonged to the same labor feminist and reform circles, over the language of resolutions and conventions, strategies for their enactment, and specific issues, like industrial homework, equal remuneration, and domestic work for which Miller acted as a key member of expert panels. Anticipating problems with revising the Night Work Convention for Women, Fairchild regretted that Miller would be at a UN meeting rather than the 1948 International Labor Conference. In a personal letter Fairchild confided,

   I have had recently long conversations with the representatives of the women's organizations and I hope they will not press their demand for the abrogation of the Convention. I told them that I thought such action might well endanger revision since it would arouse trade union opposition to any change. The leaders of the Alliance and the Liaison Committee seem to accept that argument. . . . Our greatest danger, I think, lies in lack of qualified persons to speak with expert knowledge at the Committee sessions because of small delegations.[39]

   Weaving personal exchange–Fairchild had hired Miller's daughter to work in her division–with political deliberations, such correspondence illuminates the interactions of women insiders with feminist outsiders and the obstacles both faced in having their programs enacted by the ILO, which required negotiation among various government, employer association, and trade union interests. As largely unorganized workers, women the world over had less formal clout than their male counterparts; into this vacuum stepped labor feminists like Fairchild and Miller.

    Records generated from various ILO committees, whether assembled for one particular conference around a single issue or for the long-term, illuminate the ILO's approach to gender and labor over time. Reports and committee minutes provide a view into policy discourses and insights on women's agency. Despite criticisms relating to male-dominated authority over committee work concerned with the status of women, and accusations about limited power, these special groupings have offered women the intellectual space to interject views into a bureaucracy more focused on men's issues than women's.[40] The ILO initiated a Correspondence Committee on Women's Work in the early 1930s, along with other such committees, like one on industrial hygiene. After WWII, it called meetings of experts to address specific issues, like equal remuneration and domestic service, and convened special meetings, as explained in the 1959 publication, Working Papers, Prepared for the Meeting of Consultants on the Problems of Women Workers.[41] In the 1980s, the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men provided an institutional framework for women to debate and exchange ideas on ILO directives and programs.[42]

   Even if these "correspondence committees" had limited power, they offered women the chance to familiarize themselves with the work of the ILO in reference to both its policy approaches and ideological perspectives as explained, for example, in Social Security Issues Affecting Women.[43] Committee work, while not always ending in a convention, played an important agenda-setting role and generated studies that reflect changing views on female labor, women's international social movements, and global development. Beyond the work of its committees, the International Labor Office itself has conducted research and gathered empirical data on women workers throughout the world. It remains an institutional site of contact for specialists in labor law, economics, social policy, employment services, and family welfare seeking to better incorporate women into worldwide economic growth.


   Constructing the "Woman Worker"

   In 1944, the ILO reconfirmed the right to work of all people, declaring: "All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity." But women were not any worker; they were women workers, needing special treatment. So in constitutional planks, declarations and resolutions, and conventions and recommendations themselves, the ILO added the caveat, women had equal rights at work as long as protection of maternity and the safeguarding of health and welfare of potential mothers occurred.[44] This portrait of the woman worker was, after all, compatible with the labor feminist insistence that women workers, because of their very inequality as women, required protective legislation so they might combine wage earning with caregiving.

   However, debates over socialist versus capitalist priorities complicated the ILO's deliberations. In 1952, for example, the Polish government delegate Mrs. Kalinowska mocked the gap between labor feminist aspirations and conditions in the U.S., "that highly industrialized country which spends billions of dollars on armaments and yet possesses meager maternity protection in only four out of its 48 States and, as is well known, has even up to the present no social health insurance."[45] These ideological positions shaped the ILO's Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention.[46]

   All kinds of feminists in the postwar years both wanted more and initiated a more active stand within the ILO on equality between men and women. They argued that women and girls deserved equal empowerment to realize their own opportunities, improve their lives, and contribute to the well-being of both their families and their communities. Still dominated by male administrators, the ILO found itself responding to women's groups, such as the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, which lobbied for equal pay. Women serving on the UN CSW challenged the ILO to commit to policies removing "all discrimination based on sex." Even then, some within the CSW qualified this request by insisting that where standards were particularly low, special protection may be necessary to protect the health of women.[47]

   With such pressure coming from the ranks of both inter-governmental organization and NGOs, the ILO called a special meeting of experts in 1950 to discuss and draft a convention on what it termed equal remuneration. Prominent specialists included Frieda Miller, Alva Myrdal of Sweden, Gertrude Stemberg of the Netherlands, and Indra Bose of India. Their work informed Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value.[48] The following year, ILO members adopted the Equal Remuneration Convention (#100), which remains one of the most ratified conventions to date, though one in which enforcement has suffered from disagreements over how to measure equivalent work responsibilities and job content.[49] Other instruments promoting equality followed, most notably Convention (#111), "Discrimination in Employment and Occupation" (1958), which defined discrimination as "any distinction, exclusion, or preference made on the basis of race, color, sex," but ever maintaining a dual perspective toward women, this convention excluded protective legislation as a form of discrimination. In a world that needed the labor power of women, additional conventions on employment policy and recommendations urged equal use and treatment of both men and women.[50] After years of debate, and encouraged by the Mexico City Conference and the UN's Decade for Women (1976-1985), the ILO reiterated its commitment to equality, notably in the 1975 Equal Pay Directive (EPD) and the 1976 Directive on Equal Treatment for Men and Women as noted in Employment for Women, 1975-85: An ILO Contribution to the United Nations Decade for Women.[51]

   Inclusion of men in anti-discrimination proposals prefigured the turn from a separate focus on women to gender mainstreaming that would mark the last decades of the 20th century, though initially men remained workers and women, workers with family responsibilites. ILO publications, such as Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women Workers: Workers with Family Responsibilities (1980) reflected this position. The landmark Women Workers in a Changing World already had addressed not only non-discrimination and equal provision of vocational education, but also home responsibilities. Sweden, however, prefigured its later paid parental leave policy that applied to men when asserting that the prevailing view was becoming that "child care is not a responsibility incumbent only upon the mother but a responsibility to be shared by both parents." Yugoslavia agreed that work and family responsibilities were not women's alone; other Communist countries, like Albania, interjected a stab at "capitalist countries" by recommending that ILO "efforts toward the emancipation of women" must address "the elimination of the exploitation of, and discrimination against, women workers in capitalist countries."[52] In looking at housework and child care, the ILO was responding to the new women's movement in the industrialized North as well as fulfilling a longer labor feminist agenda on measures necessary for women to balance breadwinning and caregiving. But here too it could not escape the contestations of the Cold War.

   The 1964 focus on the women worker marked the arrival of a new construction, "women in developing countries," as a distinct category requiring its own policies. Over the previous decade, the International Labor Office had begun to consider the plight of women in the Global South, first industrial, indigenous, and rural workers in Latin America; then plantation, white collar, agricultural, and handicraft ones in Asia and the Near East, and finally subsistence producers and semi-professionals in Africa.[53] At the 1964 conference it passed a separate resolution on "The Economic and Social Advancement of Women in Developing Countries" which called upon "developing countries ... to give special priority in their national plans to assisting women to integrate themselves into the national economic life." This gender integration strategy, asking for full inclusion in social security programs and non-discrimination in employment, still assumed a sexual division of labor. It balanced a call on advancing women's status through eliminating cultural and social barriers with maintenance of appropriate work for women, trying to accommodate those societies with separation of the sexes. But the ILO's own technical focus on income generation for rural women and action on the resolution's call to improve "agricultural, cottage industries and marketing" overshadowed the integration perspective.[54]

   In response to the UN's second decade of development, and its own fiftieth anniversary, the ILO initiated the World Employment Program (WEP) in 1969. The project set in motion a long-term ILO policy on the provision of "basic needs," an approach that Asian women experts would come to label as insufficient because it failed to address the cultural stereotypes that reinforced women's inequality.[55] Despite not challenging the sexual division of labor, in aiming to address human necessities in global development strategies, the ILO moved rural women's work from the margins to the center of its agenda. A twist to the trope of "women in developing countries" emerged: the Third World Women Survivalist. Again, the Soviet Union and its allies sought to use women's rights to align themselves with the Global South during International Labor Conference deliberations. Thus, in discussing the proposed "Declaration on Equality of Opportunity and Treatment for Women Workers" for submission to the Mexico City Conference in 1975, the Soviet bloc and developing nations joined forces to craft preamble clauses that rankled the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and employers. These "capitalist" groups found inappropriate the assertion that "establishment of a new social and economic order ... will contribute towards ensuring better employment, conditions of work and life for women, especially in developing countries." The motion passed over their objections.[56]

   The WEP itself involved research, analysis, and operational programs that drew the link between unemployment and underdevelopment. Partnering with experts all over the world, ILO staff elaborated on employment-generating strategies for poor countries. Much of the work focused on structures of women's work and productivity within informal sectors. Lourdes Benería, a Spanish-born economist trained at Columbia University and at the time on leave from Rutgers University, and Martha Loutfi, who taught economics at McGill University in Montreal, coordinated the Program on Rural Women, whose underfunding required researchers to raise money for their individual projects.[57] The ILO archives contain thousands of working papers from the WEP on topics such as agricultural modernization, gender and land rights, and rural women's industrial homework in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.[58]

   The fight to improve home-based work, pushed by the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) of Gujarat India (a trade union of informal sector workers) and a transnational group of women NGOs and experts, emerged out of these concerns. Highly susceptible to subcontracting within both formal and informal markets, homeworkers included scores of women and children, but also disproportionably racial and ethnic minorities and migrant workers with fewer civic protections. The ILO had taken up industrial homework in the 1920s as part of its deliberations on the minimum wage; the resulting 1928 wage convention (#26) assumed that such workers would remain outside of collective bargaining and thus required the intervention of government boards to improve wages. Again in the mid-1940s at the request of Frieda Miller, the ILO surveyed nations on the question only to conclude that it no longer was a prevalent practice in the West and thus not of great interest. Over the next two decades, the issue occasionally emerged, especially around the clothing trades. While worker delegates from nations with garment industries in crisis, like the United States and Australia, sought bans, government representatives from nations with large informal sectors, like India and Nigeria, found in homework a solution to unemployment. [59]

   As with equal pay initiatives, only the continued pressure by women in the ILO–and, in this case, in partnership with organizations of home-based workers themselves–convinced member states to treat home-based workers like any other workers by extending labor rights to them. Feminists in the ILO's Program on Rural Women and those working on projects in India, Thailand, and the Philippines spearheaded the effort beginning in the 1980s through research, Latin American and Asian regional meetings, and consultations of experts. SEWA, in turn, helped mobilize worker and feminist support. Throughout the convention-drafting stage and subsequent debate in the early 1990s, though, employers' groups refused to participate. The resulting convention (#177) passed in 1996 by an incredibly slim margin. It not only extended worker rights–to form their own associations and to occupational health and safety–but it offered protections against discrimination and for maternity. It also challenged an unfettered reorganization of the global economy that relied upon contracting out, offshore production, and flexibility, all of which had led to a "return" of the sweatshop.[60]

By the late 1990s, the ILO was ready to define gender equality as one of the primary goals in economic and social development. Its core standards, reaffirmed in 1998 with the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, were gender neutral in expression: the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, child labor, and discrimination in respect to employment and occupation, as well as the guarantee of the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining of workers regardless of country. As a new foundational perspective for the agency, gender mainstreaming meant that all ILO policies were to be scrutinized in regard to their implications for both men and women. Such methodology went beyond increasing women's participation in both employment and development to fully incorporating gender analysis into the planning and the structure of programs themselves. The 1994 Part-Time Work Convention (#175) as well as the Home-Work Convention exemplified this approach. According to a statement issued by Juan Somavia shortly after he assumed the Director Generalship in 1999: "The Office must now work to ensure that commitment to gender equality is internalized throughout the ILO and reflected in all our technical work, operational activities and support services."[61] To carry out this mandate, he established a Bureau for Gender Equality (GENDER), a shift reflective of changed norms but also indicative of new actions: a biennial review of the Action Plan on Gender Equality and Gender Mainstreaming and an institutional gender audit of the ILO itself.[62]


   At the close of the twentieth century, women activists and policymakers continued to push the ILO to investigate the social and cultural context of women's work. There were more of them to do so, with women making up nearly a quarter of government delegates to the International Labor Conference in 2008 and nearly half of the organization's Executive Directors. Between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of women in the professional staff rose from 16 to 35 percent. The ILO as an institution slowly moved closer to reflecting the gender equity that had become central to its advocacy of "Decent Work," the non-gendered term that defined its mission.[63]

   For nearly a century, the ILO had upheld the right to work under decent conditions irrespective of sex or nation. In its first half-century, it coupled women's right to a job with protection of womanhood. By the 1960s, when industrial and developing nations alike needed women in the labor force, concepts of equality had more salience than the protectionist impulse that had pervaded conventions on maternity and night work in 1919 and subsequent pronouncements rooted in biological difference. Still, labor feminist networks highlighted the double day of wage-earning women, especially in the Global North, and sought social supports that would make equality at work feasible. Maternity remained a special case requiring protection. At the same time, "women in developing countries" became the target of ILO efforts to produce adequate living standards for all the world's peoples. By the 1970s, networks of women activists had expanded to include more grassroots groups from the Global South and not just mainstream elite women's organizations, which impacted subsequent conventions and technical assistance efforts.

   The ILO has generated a three-fold history: as an institution, as an arena of debate over women's place, and as a creator of social knowledge about the woman worker. Its reports and studies offer historians a wealth of materials through which to trace women's work over time and space, in female-dominated occupations and in "non-traditional" labor, in the home and for the family, and in the community as activists, policymakers, sojourners, residents, and citizens. Its documents, particularly those relating to the last fifty years, present a new field for research, offering material to explore transnational networks, globalization, and the interaction between the local, national, and international.



[1] This controversy can be traced in Personnel File P 1870 Madame Thibert, ILO Archives, Geneva. For example, Thibert to Director, 29 July 1940; 25 August 1940; 5 December 1940; 6 December 1940; telegram Women's Organizations to John G. Winant, 6 February 1940; Winant to Thibert, 16 January 1941. See Ethel M. Johnson to Edward J. Phelan, 10 May 1941; Phelan to Renée Girod, 20 May 1941; Emily Hickman to Mr. Phelan, 20 October 1941.

[2] To The Director from Renée Girod et al., 17 February 1941; To Monsieur E.J. Phelan from Emilie Gourd et al., 18 Juin 1941, Thibert File.

[3] E.J. Phelan to Madame Thibert, 11 February 1942, Thibert File.

[4] Gerry Rodgers, Eddy Lee, Lee Sweptson, and Jasmien Van Daele, eds., The ILO and The Quest for Social Justice, 1919-2009 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

[5] International Labour Office. Conditions of Work of Women and Young Workers on Plantations, Third Item on the Agenda (Geneva, 1970); ILO, Problems of Women Non-Manual Workers: Work Organisation, Vocational Training, Equality of Treatment at the Workplace, Job Opportunities (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1981); and International Labour Office, Vocational Guidance and Training of Women in Latin America: Item 1 on the Agenda: Report Prepared for the Latin American Technical Meeting on Utilisation of Women's Work, Lima, 1954 (Geneva, 1954).

[6] Publications and conferences sponsored by the ILO Century Project include, Jasmien Van Daele, Magaly Rodríguez García, Geert van Goethem, Marcel van der Linden, eds., ILO Histories. Essays on the International Labour Organization and Its Impact on the World during the Twentieth Century (New York: Peter Lang, 2010); Sandrine Kott and Joëlle Droux, eds.,Universalizing Social Rights: A History of the International Labour Organization and Beyond (Palgrave, forthcoming); and the conference, "West Meets East: The International Labor Organization from Geneva to the Pacific Rim" at the University of California, Santa Barbara February 3-5, 2011. The International Labor and Working Class History 80 (Fall 2011) volume includes several essays on the ILO. See also, Rodgers, Lee, Swepston, and Van Daele, The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919-2009. For details on the ILO Century Project, see

[7] Carol Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice for Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990).

[8] Lourdes Benería, Gender, Development, and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered (New York: Routledge, 2003); Maryse Gaudier, La question des femmes á l'OIT et son évolution 1919-1994 (Geneva: International Institute of Labour Studies, 1996); idem, "The International Institute for Labour Studies: Its Research Function, Activities and Publications 1960-2001," (Geneva: ILO, 2001).

[9] Mary K. Meyer and Elisabeth Prügl, eds., Gender Politics in Global Governance (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991); Mary E. Hawkesworth, "Outsiders, Insiders, and Outsiders Within: Feminist Strategies for Global Transformation" in Hawkesworth, Globalization and Feminist Activism (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006): 67-110; Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women. The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997); Ulla Wikander, Feminism, family och medborgarskap. Debatter påinternationella kongresser om nattarbetsförbud för kvinnor 1889-1919 (Stockholm: Makadam, 2006); and Valentine M. Moghadam, Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). In terms of highlighting transnational networks focusing on labor policy, Dorothy Sue Cobble, "U.S. Labor Women's Internationalism in the World War I Era," Revue Francaise d'Etudes Americaines 122:4 (2009): 44-57. For women and the origins of the ILO, see Ulla Wikander, "Demands on the ILO by Internationally Organized Women in 1919," in van Daele, Garcia, van Goethem, van der Linden, eds., ILO Histories, 67-89.

[10] Elisabeth Prügl, The Global Construction of Gender: Home-Based Work in the Political Economy of the 20th Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Nora Natchkova and Céline Schoeni, "Qui a besoin de "protéger" les femmes" La Convention sur le travail de nuit des femmes (1919-1934) », Travail, genre et sociétés, No 20, (2008): 111-28; Paula Määttä, The ILO Principle of Equal Pay and Its Implementation (Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press, 2008); L'Organisation internationale du travail, les féministes et les réseaux d'expertes. Les enjeux d'une politique protectrice (1919-1934)," in I. Lespinet-Moret and V. Viet, eds. L'Organisation internationale du travail – Origine, Développement, Avenir, (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes,2011), 39-52; see also, Nora Natchkova, Travail, luttes et inégalité: les femmes au cœur des négociations de l'Organisation internationale du travail et de l'horlogerie suisse (1912-1931), Université de Fribourg, PhD thesis, 2011.

[11] Carol Miller, "'Geneva - the Key to Equality': Inter-war Feminists and the League of Nations," Women's History Review, 3: 2 (1994): 219-45; Helen Laville, "A New Era in International Women's Rights? American Women's Associations and the Establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women," Journal of Women's History 20 (Winter, 2008): 34-56.

[12] Sandra Whitworth, Feminism and International Relations: Toward a Political Economy of Gender in Interstate and Non-Governmental Institutions (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994); Sandra Whitworth, "Gender, International Relations and the Case of the ILO," Review of International Studies, 20 (1994): 389—405; Nitza Berkovitch, From Motherhood to Citizenship: Women's Rights and International Organizations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). But see, Ann Therese Lotherington and Anne Britt Flemman, "Negotiating Gender: The Case of the International Labour Organization," in Kristi Anne Stølen and Mariken Vaa, eds., Gender and Change in Developing Countries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 273-307.

[13] Jill Jensen, "New Dealers on the International Stage: U.S. Social Policy Experts and the ILO, 1948-1954," in Kott and Droux, eds., Universalizing Social Rights (forthcoming); Annie Delaney, Jane Tate, and Rosaria Burchielli, The Global State of Homework: Towards Better Work and Better Lives (Geneva: International Labour Organisation, in press).

[14] See, for example, Eileen Boris, "'No Right to Layettes or Nursing Time': Maternity Leave and the Question of United States Exceptionalism," in Fink et al., ed., Workers Across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 171-93.

[15] As with the recent work by Françoise Thébaud, "Les femmes au BIT: L'exemple de Marguerite Thibert," in Jean-Marc Delaunay and Yves Denéchére, eds., Femmes et relations internationales au XXe siécle (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2006):177-87.

[16] Frieda S. Miller, "Women's Work and the I.L.O.," 3, Report presented to Conference on the United Nations and Special Interests of Women, September 19, 1945, WN 5017/1 11/1945 to 02/1946, ILO Archives, Geneva..

[17] Lubin and Winslow, Social Justice for Women, 25-32, 62.

[18] For the work of the IFWW specifically, see Geert van Goethem, "An International Experiment of Women Workers: The International Federation of Working Women," Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Filologie en Geschiedenis/Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire [Belgian Journal of Philology and History], vol. 84:4 (2006): 1025-47.

[19] Ethel M. Johnson, Women and the International Labor Organization, 1946, 15, box 12, RG 86, Records of the Women's Bureau, International Services, NARA II, College Park, Md.

[20] Boris, "'No Right to Layettes or Nursing Time'"; for conventions and revisions, see Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention 1919 (no. 3). Geneva: International Labour Office, 1952.

[21] Miller, "'Geneva - the Key to Equality'"; H.B.B. to Miss Anderson, 20th July 1927 in WN 1-1-61,Women's Questions General Correspondence U.S.A. 1927-1957 Jacket 1, ILO Archives.

[22] International Labour Conference, Twenty-Third Session, Geneva, 1937, Record of the Proceedings, "Resolution 7" (Geneva: ILO, 1937), 785.

[23] League of Nations, The Status of Women Information Section, 24, April 1936, Geneva ILO (1938) Women Workers and Equal Rights (Status of Women) Correspondence 1935, file no. WN 9, ILO Archives.

[24] "Committee on Work of Women and Juvenile's Report," 1939, Havana, p. 13, box 119, Frances Haas Papers, Catholic University, Washington, D.C. See also, Frances Perkins, The International Labor Organization as an Agency of Democracy, Address before the Democratic Women's Luncheon Club of Philadelphia, March 27, 1939.

[25] Lubin and Winslow, Social Justice for Women, 150.

[26] Official Bulletin of the International Labor Office,1 April 1944, pp. 19-33.

[27] Johnson, Women and the International Labor Organization, 7-9; For details on the resulting 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, see ILO, The Declaration of Philadelphia (Montreal: The International Labour Office, 1944).

[28] Clara M. Beyer, "The I.L.O. Conference and Full Employment," Social Science Review 18:3 (Sept., 1944): 380-82; Anthony M. Endres and Grant A. Fleming, "The Full Employment Movement from the 1940s," in Endres and Flemming, International Organizations and the Analysis of Economic Policy, 1919—1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 198-236

[29] Ana Figueroa and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. La Mujer Ciudadana, Sugestiones Para La Educación De La Mujer. Problemas de Educacion 8. (Paris: UNESCO, 1954). See also Figeoroa's brief biography in Libro de Oro.

[30] See, for example, Marguerite Thibert, " The Economic Depression and the Employment of Women," International Labour Review 27: 4 (April, 1933): 443-70; "Study on the Problems of Women's Employment in Asia," from March of 1953, WN 2/7 (1), ILO Archives, Geneva; and International Labour Office, Management Development Branch Human Resources Development, "ILO Activities Relating to the Development of Small-Scale and Handicraft Industries," September, 1965, NYLO 1-2-14-1, ILO Archives.

[31] "Chief of the Women's and Young Workers Division" [ND 1953], Z.8/1/51 ILO Archives, Geneva.

[32] Memo from ILO Director David Morse to ILO staff, "Future Arrangements for Dealing with Women's and Young Workers' Questions," May 8, 1959, Z.8/1/51 ILO Archives; For insights into Johnstone's approach within the ILO during the 1960s, see Elizabeth Johnstone, "Women in Economic Life: Rights and Opportunities," Annals AAPSS 375:1 (Jan., 1968): 102-14.

[33] "International Labour Office: Director General's Instructions No. 109," May 8, 1959, Z.8/1/51.

[34] International Labour Conference, Forty-Eight Session, 1964, Sixth Item on the Agenda, Women Workers in a Changing World Report VI (1) (Geneva: ILO, 1963).

[35] See annual assessment in E. Johnstone Official Status File P 3240 Jacket II.

[36] International Labour Organisation, Office for Women Workers' Questions. Women Workers and the Development Process (Asia and the Pacific): ILO Contribution to ESCAP Regional Preparatory Meeting for UN Conference on Women, New Delhi, 5-9 November 1979 (Geneva: ILO, 1979).

[37] Lubin and Winslow, Social Justice for Women, 172, 184, 209-11.

[38] For recent UN initiatives in conjunction with the ILO, see the proceedings of the 46th Session of the UN Commission for Social Development, "Promoting Full Employment and Decent Work for All," 2008 at

[39] Mildred Fairchild to Frieda Miller, 29 V. 1948, and additional correspondence in Women's Questions General Correspondence U.S.A. 1927-1957 Jacket 1 WN 1-1-61, ILO Archives.

[40] See, for example, Nora Natchkova and Céline Schoeni, "The ILO, feminist milieus and expert networks: a Protective Policy at Stakes (1919-1934)," in Kott and Droux, eds., Universalizing Social Rights.

[41] ILO, Working Papers, prepared for the Meeting of Consultants on the Problems of Women Workers, Geneva, October 1959 (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1959).

[42] The ILO created the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men in 1981.

[43] Micheline Grounin and International Labour Office, Committee of Social Security Experts. Social Security Issues Affecting Women: Third Item on the Agenda/Working Document. Geneva: International Labour Office, 1975, 42.

[44] "Annex: Declaration of Philadelphia" Constitution at

"International Labour Conference, Record of Proceedings, Thirty-Fifth Session, Geneva, 1952 (Geneva: ILO, 1953), 343.

[46] Revision of the Maternity Protection Convention 1919 (no. 3). Geneva: International Labour Office, 1952.

[47] "Resolution to ILO Presented by Australia and the United States," box 8, folder 184, Frieda S. Miller Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University; Governing Body Chairman, G. Myrddin Evans to ILO Director Edward Phelan, on the pressure coming from the CSW, January 28, 1948, Z 14/2/3 (J.1), ILO Archives.

[48] ILO, Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value: International Labour Conference, Thirty-Third Session, Geneva, 1950, Report V, Volume 1, 129 pages (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1950). ILO, Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value: International Labour Conference, Thirty-Third Session, Geneva, 1950, Report V, Volume 2, 95 pages (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1950).

[49] See, Esther Peterson and Willard W. Wirtz, Equal Pay in Member Nations of the International Labor Organization, 1963; Paula Määtta, Equal Pay, Just a Principle of the ILO? (Demand GmbH, Norderstedt, 2008). For one analysis, Whitworth, "Gender, International Relations, and the Case of the ILO," 400-01.

[50] Lubin and Winslow, Social Justice for Women, 97-99. For example, United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and International Labour Organisation. Equal Pay for Equal Work. New York: United Nations, 1960.

[51] See also, United Nations, The World Plan for Action for the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Women's Year, 8-41, E/Conference 66/34 (1976); ILO, Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Women Workers, Eighth Item on the Agenda (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1974).

[52] Women Workers in a Changing World, 9, 21, 10.

[53] Employment Services for Women in Latin America: Item II on the Agenda: Report Prepared for the Latin American Technical Meeting on Utilisation of Women's Work, Lima, 1954 (Geneva: ILO, 1954).

[54] International Labour Conference, Forty-Eight Session, 1964, Record of Proceedings (Geneva: ILO, 1965), 752-753. For example, Rural Development and Women in Africa. A WEP Study. (Geneva: ILO, 1984).

[55] Lourdes Benería, International Labour Office, and World Employment Programme, Women and Development (New York: Praeger, 1982); UN Asian and Pacific Centre for Women and Development, Expert Group Meting on the Identification of the Basic Needs of Women of Asia and the Pacific and on the Formulation of a Programme of Work, Tehran, Iran 4 December-10 December, 1977, "Part I: The Critical Needs of Women," 3-4, in UN, 9-10-158/168-100-1 01/1977 to 12/1977 jacket 1,United Nations: UN, Asian and Pacific Centre for Women and Development—Expert Group Meeting on the Identification of the Basic Needs of Women of Asia and the Pacific, ILO Archives.

[56] International Labour Conference, "Appendices: Eighth Item on the Agenda: Equality of Opportunity and treatment for Women Workers," Record of Proceedings, Sixtieth Session 1975 (Geneva: ILO, 1976), especially 721-75, 781, 869-80.

[57] Martha Loutfi, Rural Women: Unequal Partners in Development (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1980).

[58] Pierrette Dunand and Udo Etukudo, Poverty in Developing Countries: A Bibliography of Publications by the ILO's World Employment Programme, 1975-1991 (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1992).

[59] Prügl, The Global Construction of Gender, 42-54; "ILO Finds Conditions Bad in Industrial Homework" ILO News Service 2:1 (January 1949).

[60] Prügl, Global Construction of Gender, 100-01, 108-13; Eileen Boris and Elisabeth Prügl, eds., Homeworkers in Global Perspective: Invisible No More (New York: Routledge, 1995); ILO, Home Work: Fourth Item on the Agenda. 4 (2A) (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1996).

[61] Director General's Announcement, "Gender Equality and Mainstreaming in the International Labour Office' (Circular no. 564) of December 1999. See also, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ROAP), "Promoting Gender Equality at Work: ILO Gender Mainstreaming Strategy (GEMS) in Asia and the Pacific, 2004 to 2007," (Bangkok, February 2004), C:\stellent\idcrefinery\work\wcmsp4-main\wcms_084293.doc 4/10/07.

[62] ILO, Women's Empowerment: 90 Years of ILO Action (Geneva: ILO, 1999), 8-10.

[63] Women's Empowerment, 9-10.