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The Inter-American Commission of Women: Sources on Hemispheric Solidarity

By Megan Threlkeld

Denison University


   The Inter-American Commission of Women (Comisión Interamericano de Mujeres, or CIM) was established at the Sixth International Conference of American States in Havana, Cuba, in February 1928. Since World War I there had been much interest in inter-American organizing among women, though the initial efforts were disconnected from one another.[1] The CIM owed its inception to a combination of factors: activism among Cuban women, concern from the U.S. National Woman's Party, and a movement from within the Pan American Union to incorporate women and to include issues pertaining to women's status on its agenda. Doris Stevens, a member of the National Woman's Party and first chair of the commission, declared that with the founding of the CIM, "international feminism was born." "We want no more laws written for our good and without our consent," she declared in a speech to the conference delegates. "We must have the right to direct our own destiny jointly with you…. Our subjection is world-wide. The abolition of our subjection will be accomplished by the world-wide solidarity of women."[2] Stevens, her NWP colleagues, and the hundreds of Cuban women who paraded through the streets of Havana during the conference successfully pressured the PAU to establish a special commission devoted to advancing women's rights.

   The commission was unusual among women's groups before 1945 in that it was part of an international governmental organization. According to its website, "the CIM was the first official intergovernmental agency in the world created expressly to ensure recognition of the civil and political rights of women."[3] Delegates were appointed from every member nation of the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States). Since 1940 both the chair and the seats on the executive council have rotated among members. The CIM is transnational in its approach to issues that affect women throughout the Americas, but its members are appointed by their respective countries, and it relies on individual states for implementation of its programs and policies.

   Doris Stevens was appointed chair of the commission in April 1928. Over the next two years all American countries named commissioners to represent them. During Stevens's tenure from 1928 to 1939, the commission focused on two projects: gathering information on the civil and political status of women in every American country, and securing the passage of two hemispheric pieces of legislation. The first, a Convention on Equality of Nationality, required nations to abolish gender-specific policies regarding the status of women citizens who married foreign nationals. The practice of stripping women of their citizenship if they married foreign nationals (even in cases where the husband's country would not grant her citizenship, leaving the woman stateless), had long been a concern of many activists, and was due to come before the League of Nations in 1929. Stevens and other CIM activists wanted to be in a position to make a recommendation to the League based on existing laws in the Western Hemisphere.[4] The second piece, a Treaty on Equal Civil and Political Rights, ensured that women's right to vote or hold office would not be denied on account of sex. The nationality treaty was signed at the Seventh International Conference of American States in Montevideo in 1933 and was ratified soon after by the United States, Chile, and Mexico. By 1991 seventeen nations had ratified the treaty. The equal rights treaty was never ratified by the PAU, but in 1938 the delegates to the Eighth International Conference adopted the "Lima Declaration in favor of women's rights," which asserted women's political, civil, and economic rights, and urged countries to recognize those rights legally. However, the declaration carried no power of enforcement. Still, women activists secured a real gain with the formal recognition of the CIM as a permanent organization at the Eighth International Conference in 1938.

   Under pressure from U.S. groups that opposed the National Woman's Party, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt replaced Doris Stevens as the U.S. representative to the commission in 1939, ending her tenure as chair. Under pressure from Latin American women, meanwhile, who were concerned that Stevens's leadership would set a precedent for U.S. dominance of the commission, the PAU named an Argentine woman, Ana Rosa S. de Martinez Guerrero, as chair in November 1939 and moved the commission's headquarters to Buenos Aires.[5]

   When the Pan American Union was reorganized in 1948 as the Organization of American States, the structure of the CIM remained roughly the same. One significant difference was that the president of the commission was now elected by the commission itself, rather than by the OAS as a whole. At the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá that year, the OAS adopted two conventions concerning women's status, one on the granting of political rights to women, the other on the granting of civil rights to women. Both argued for the legal equality Doris Stevens had advocated throughout the 1930s, but also recognized women's special position as mothers, and therefore did not challenge protective labor legislation. The commission became a permanent specialized organization of the OAS in 1953.

   Throughout the middle part of the century, the focus of the CIM broadened to incorporate women's education and working conditions as well as their civil and political status. During the 1960s and 70s, the commission's focus expanded even further to include access to public services, especially health care, and "the dissemination of a modern image of women, and ... social participation and a voice in the decision-making process." Reflecting on this shift in focus in 1974, the commission noted that it had sought to narrow "the gap between the juridical mandate of a law ... and its projection in terms of the concrete situations of everyday life, which are even more strongly influenced by prejudice and social conventions."[6] According to a 1999 CIM publication, the logic behind this expansion was "that women's gender-related problems did not exist in a vacuum; instead, they were very much tied in with the processes at work in society as a whole."[7] The commission's official statute was revised several times between 1948 and 1986 to reflect these changes.

   The commission also serves an important function relative to the United Nations. Since 1955 the commission has made annual (later biennial) reports on women's status throughout the Americas to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The CIM has actively worked to implement UN measures like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the Western Hemisphere. The CIM also held several assemblies in conjunction with the UN Decade for Women between 1975 and 1985, and filed special reports both before and after each major UN women's conference. Much of this material is available in this database. Overall this relationship has been so effective that the UN recommended the creation of other regional intergovernmental organizations along the lines of the CIM.[8]

   Historical scholarship on the CIM is scattered and relatively thin. A number of books, essays, and dissertations written since 1990 have addressed it tangentially, focusing primarily but not exclusively on the pre-1940 period.[9] K. Lynn Stoner has provided an excellent overview of the backdrop to the founding of the commission and its first five years.[10] Most mentions of the CIM during the postwar period occur within discussion of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.[11] The best overview of the CIM's activities since its inception is History of the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), 1928-1997 (CIM/OEA, 1999).

   Manuscript sources on the CIM are also scattered. To my knowledge, no central repository for the papers of the CIM exists. All of its reports and publications are archived with those of the OAS at the Columbus Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., but manuscript records seem more often to reside with the papers of their individual authors. For example, there are several boxes of material on the CIM in the papers of Doris Stevens at the Scheslinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College has a small collection on the CIM, but it is comprised only of published material (nearly all of which is reproduced in this database). I would be very curious to know from other scholars whether they have come across manuscript material related to the CIM in Latin American archives, particularly in the papers of individual commissioners.

   Despite the fact that most of the known sources on the CIM are published primary sources, they remained relatively hard to access before the publication of this database. A brief search of WorldCat indicates that many are held by only five or ten libraries in the United States. But WASM International has gathered every source I know of, and many, many more of which I knew nothing. Together they make for an unprecedented collection of material on this organization.

   The commission has produced several regular series of publications, including the final reports of its biennial general assemblies, annual reports to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and various bulletins and periodicals. A significant number of these works are reproduced in WASM International; together, they give a unique picture of changes in women's status across two continents over much of the twentieth century. Interspersed with these series are stand-alone publications, including reports from one-time conferences, like the Libro de Oro (Golden Book), a compilation of biographical sketches of notable American women active between the 1920s and the 1970s, the multi-volume Situation Pertaining to American Women as of 1985, written to evaluate the impact in the Western Hemisphere of the UN Decade for Women, and the 1992 "Inter-American Conference on Democracy in the Americas: Women and the Decision-Making Process."

   The database, I would venture to say, represents the most comprehensive collection on the Inter-American Commission of Women to date. I hope that current and future scholars take advantage of this opportunity to expand our knowledge of this important feminist organization.



[1] For instance, in the United States both the League of Women Voters and the National Woman's Party advocated greater cooperation among women of the Americas, but these two groups were hardly eager to work with each other.

[2] Doris Stevens, "Address before a special plenary session of 6th Pan American Conference, 1928," 7 February 1928, MC 546, Folder 94.4, Doris Stevens Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[3] Inter-American Commission of Women, "Mission and Mandate."

[4] "Report of work done from April 1928 to April 1929 by the IACW," II:241, National Woman's Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[5] The CIM headquarters moved back to Washington, D.C. in 1943, where it remains to this day.

[6] CIM, Inter-American Commission of Women, 1928-1973 (Washington: General Secretariat, Organization of American States, 1974): 2.

[7] CIM, History of the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), 1928-1997 (Washington, D.C.: CIM/OEA, 1999): 38.

[8] CIM, Inter-American Commission of Women, 1928-1973, 3.

[9] See, for instance, Candice Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Ellen Carol DuBois, "Woman Suffrage: The View from the Pacific," Pacific Historical Review 69, no. 4 (November 2000): 539-51; Ana Lau Javien, "Entre ambas fronteras: la búsqueda de la igualdad de derechos para las mujeres," Politica y Cultura 31 (January 2009): 235-55; Francesca Miller, Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991); Corinne Pernet, "Chilean Feminists, the International Women's Movement, and Suffrage, 1915-1950," Pacific Historical Review 69, no. 4 (November 2000): 663-88; Paula Pfeffer, "'A Whisper in the Assembly of Nations': United States' Participation in the International Movement for Women's Rights from the League of Nations to the United Nations," Women's Studies International Forum 8, no. 5 (1985): 459-71; E. Sue Wamsley, "A Hemisphere of Women: Latin American and U.S. Feminists in the IACW, 1915-1939" (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1998).

[10] K. Lynn Stoner, "'In Four Languages but with One Voice': Division and Solidarity within Pan American Feminism, 1923-1933," in Beyond the Ideal: Pan Americanism in Inter-American Affairs, ed. David Sheinin (Westport: Praeger, 2000): 79-94.

[11] Karen Garner, Shaping a Global Women's Agenda: Women's NGOs and Global Governance, 1925-1985 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).