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The International Council of Women, 1888 to the Present

By Leila J. Rupp

University of California Santa Barbara


   The International Council of Women (ICW), founded in 1888, is the oldest lasting transnational women's organization. It also spawned, directly and indirectly, two other major groups, the International Alliance of Women (originally the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, established in 1904; see Arnold Whittick, Woman into Citizen (London: Athenaeum, 1979.) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (emerging out of International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1915; see Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Bericht-Rapport-Report, 1915). Earlier in the nineteenth century, a variety of connections across national borders had anticipated the establishment of an organization designed to bring together the women of different countries. Women travelers, migrants, missionaries, and writers made contacts that prepared the way for more formal organizations; movements such as abolitionism, peace, socialism, and moral reform called attention to the cross-national character of causes to which women were devoted; a flurry of activity around the revolutions of 1848 connected radical women across national borders; and a number of independent congresses brought together individuals devoted to the cause of women's rights. (One such congress in the digital archive is Congrès International du Droit des Femmes, 1878.

   In 1888, at an international women's congress in Washington, DC, called by the U.S. National Woman Suffrage Association, the International Council of Women was born (See Birth of the International Council of Women (ICW): First International Women's Conference, Washington, D.C., 1888). The idea for such an organization grew from meetings of U.S. suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony with women activists in England and France during a trip six years earlier. Anthony then pushed the National Woman Suffrage Association to invite international representatives to the 1888 meeting. Despite the suffrage connections, the call went out to a much broader constituency, "all women of light and learning, to all associations of women in trades, professions and reforms, as well as to those advocating political rights."[1] That broad reach—including literary clubs, temperance societies, labor groups, moral purity societies, peace organizations, and professional groups—remained the hallmark of the ICW.

   The idea was for women to organize in national councils in their own countries, but that happened slowly. The U.S. National Council of Women was first, but by the first quinquennial congress in 1893, only Canada had formed a national body (See May Wright Sewall, Genesis of the International Council of Women and the Story of Its Growth, 1888-1893). Lady Aberdeen, a Scottish aristocrat then living in Canada as the wife of the governor general, accepted the position of president of the ICW in 1893, although she had not previously heard of the organization. But she stuck to the job with a vengeance, serving until 1936 with only a five-year break from 1899 to 1904 and another gap from 1920 to 1922. Shortly after taking office, she dispatched her French- and German-speaking private secretary to Europe to build national councils. As a result, by the next quinquennial congress, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia joined the ICW. By 1914, twenty-three councils had affiliated; by 1939, thirty-six. Adding together all of the women who belonged to the local groups constituting the national councils, the ICW claimed to represent thirty-six million women by 1925.

   Despite its professed openness to women from all around the globe, until after the Second World War the ICW remained an organization made up predominantly of members from Europe and the "neo-Europes," those places such as the United States, Canada, and Australia colonized by Europeans. Almost all of the leading members claimed a European heritage, no matter where they lived. The official languages of English, French, and German reinforced Euroamerican dominance, as did the location of congresses in either North America or Europe. In addition, a kind of feminist orientalism pervaded the international women's organizations, assuming that women in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America needed the guidance of western women to find their way to freedom and equality.[2]

   In other ways, as well, the International Council of Women by its very nature limited its membership. Only elite women—through wealth or national prominence—could travel across the Atlantic to attend meetings and congresses. U.S. suffragist Matilda Gage described the audience at the founding meeting as consisting of "the most eminent women," and in fact the ICW held the reputation as the most aristocratic of the transnational groups, in part because Lady Aberdeen was a marchioness and her successor a Belgian baronness.[3] During the early years of her presidency, Lady Aberdeen bankrolled the organization, closing the purse strings only out of fear of setting a precedent for future officers. In 1906 the ICW voted to provide travel grants for all officers so that "the choice of officers" would not be "limited to ladies of independent means."[4]

   In addition, the vast majority of members were Christians, and a Christian spirit pervaded the organization. Lady Aberden regularly described in biblical terms the spiritual nature of ICW meetings, and the organization regularly celebrated Christmas but not other religious holidays. The motto and basis of action of the ICW was the Golden Rule in its New Testament form. Early on the meetings opened with a public prayer, a practice objected to by European Christian women who found it an expression of Anglo-American culture. The Executive Committee first substituted a silent prayer, and then, when the Europeans continued to express dissatisfaction, an opening statement by the president.

   The age of ICW members represented a final limitation on membership, since most were of relatively advanced age. This was not a deliberate exclusion and a structural one only in the limited sense that older women were more likely to have the resources to travel. Throughout the years, leaders lamented the absence of young women and longed for fresh blood. One exception to the rule of older leaders was Alice Salomon, who at the age of twenty-six became the youngest-ever member of the Council board in 1900.[5] The next youngest was already over sixty. Over time, separatist organizing fell out of fashion among the younger generations, so the ICW, along with the other transnational organizations, came to seem old-fashioned and unappealing to young women.

   The elements of exclusion, however, served as a basis of solidarity for those within the fold. Elite, older, Christian, European-origin women asserted a common bond of womanhood. An ideology of difference between women and men, based on women's potential for motherhood and their systematic disadvantage compared to men of their group, served as the rationale for organizing as women across national boundaries. Although there were certainly disagreements about particular issues among ICW members, the relative homogeneity of the membership minimized conflict. From the beginning, the constitution (pages 17 to 22 in document online) of the ICW made clear that the central body had no power over the national sections, which would maintain "complete organic unity, independence," and "method of work".[6] In 1905, a new article in the constitution explicitly excluded all "political and religious questions of a controversial nature affecting the inter-relationship of two or more countries" from the jurisdiction of the international structure.[7] Only after the Second World War, in response to the Holocaust, did the constitution exclude from the ban political and religious questions "affecting fundamental human rights and freedoms", Such an approach could severely curtail international action at the same time that it avoided conflict within the organization.

   The ICW was committed to a broad program of improvement in women's lives. By 1899, the international structure began to solidify beyond just planning the next congress, and the ICW took on substantive issues, first peace and international arbitration and the legal position of married women. International Standing Committees on these two issues, as well as suffrage, equal moral standards and the traffic in women, trades and professions, public health and child welfare, and immigration, pursued the substantive work of the Council. This wide-ranging program, or what Corresponding Secretary Teresa Wilson referred to in 1899 as a "certain vagueness about both our methods and aims," served as "at once our stumbling-block and our pride—our stumbling block because of the difficulty we experience in explaining precisely by rule and measure what we are and what we want, and our pride because this very vagueness enables us to be all-embracing."[8] As other transnational women's groups emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century, most with more specific constituencies and/or more specific areas of work, the ICW conceptualized them as "new independent bodies which hived off to concentrate on a programme of their own."[9] Aware of its reputation as old-fashioned, the ICW prided itself on retaining its broad program in the face of increasing specialization.

   Members of other women's organizations expressed virtually unanimous agreement throughout the years that the ICW was conservative. The International Council of Women steadfastly maintained its self-image as the all-encompassing group representing the diverse interests of women throughout the world. By trying to chart a course acceptable to all women, it failed to please many. Early on, the insistence of the leadership that anti-suffragists deserved a hearing at a session on political rights prompted suffragists to form their own organization devoted to winning the vote. It was in that way that the ICW gave birth to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

   When the League of Nations came to life in the aftermath of the First World War, the ICW expressed enthusiastic support (See "International Conference of Women at Washington,". The organization's Bulletin regularly carried upbeat reports from Geneva, including praise for the entry of Germany into the League as "nothing less than a victory for civilization."[10] As late as 1936, when it was becoming clear that the League had little power to prevent conflict, an ICW member noted that it represented the first milestone on the road to a system of international law. League officials favored the ICW over the other transnational women's groups; Princess Gabrielle Radziwill, the League official responsible for relations for voluntary organizations, described the Council as "the most influential women's organization."[11] When the United Nations took the place of the defunct League, the ICW supported the new organization and sought consultative status.[12] Within the United Nations, the ICW faced new competition from the Soviet-sponsored Women’s International Democratic Federation, which succeeded in organizing women around the globe.[13]

   Since 1945, the ICW has committed itself, as its website states, to "Human Rights for women."[14] It remains "apolitical" but committed to the emancipation of women. According to the website, the initials ICW stand for the goals of "International peace and justice, Capacity building for women as decision-makers, Women's human rights and rights for all people." The ICW today advocates, in addition to its long-standing goals of peace and equal rights and responsibilities for women and men, the elimination of all forms of discrimination, sustainable development, and communication and networking worldwide. Women from all around the globe have moved into the membership and leadership, making it a more truly global organization than in its early years (See #2036, The International Council of Women. Paris: International Council of Women, 2000).

   The most comprehensive histories of the ICW are Women in a Changing World: The Dynamic Story of the International Council of Women Since 1888, the organization's official history, published in 1966; and Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement, which ends just after the Second World War and relies on many of the sources available in "Women and Social Movements, International."[15] The ICW issued a new history in 2005. (See #3633, Eliane Gubin et al., Women Changing the World: A History of the International Council of Women, 1888-1988. There is almost no scholarly literature on the ICW in the period since the Second World War, although Dutch scholar Francisca de Haan is researching the ICW, along with the International Alliance of Women and the Women's International Democratic Federation, in the postwar period.[16] See also Karen Garner's book on women's global governance.[17]



[1] "The Birth of the I.C.W., pamphlet, 1957, ICW papers, box 1, Sophia Smith Collection (SSC), Northampton, Mass.

[2] For an example, see Syrian Alice Kandaleft's debate with a French woman about the mandate system, "The World as It Is and as It Could Be—Continued," in National Council of Women of the United States, Our Common Cause, Civilization (New York: National Council of Women of the United States, 1933), pp. 148-54, 161, 168-169.

[3] Matilda Gage to My dear Son, Marcy 27, 1888, Matilda Joslyn Gage papers, box 2, Schlesinger Library, Cambridge, Mass.

[4] "The Meeting of the I.C.W. Executive Committee in Paris," [June 15-18, 1906], ICW Annual Report, 1905-06.

[5] See Alice Salomon, International Council of Women: Third Annual Report of the Fifth Quinquennial Period (London: International Council of Women, 1912).

[6] See also "The International Council of Women, 1888-1924," typescript, ICW papers, box 11, Headquarters of the National Council of Women of Great Britain, London.

[7] "Memorandum of the Meeting of General Officers," July 26-27, 1905, ICW Annual Report, 1904-05; "The Meeting of the I.C.W. Executive Committee in Paris," [June 15-18, 1906], ICW Annual Report, 1905-06.

[8] Women in Social Life: The Transactions of the Social Section of the International Congress of Women, vol. 1, edited by Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks Gordon Aberdeen and Temair (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1900).

[9] Martha Pol Boël, "Introduction," ICW Bulletin 16, no. 10 (June 1938).

[10] Laura Dreyfus Barney, "The Seventh Assembly of the League of Nations," ICW Bulletin 5, no. 2 (October 1926).

[11] Gabrielle Radziwill quoted in Carol Miller, "Lobbying the League: Women's International Organisations and the League of Nations," D. Phil. Diss., Oxford University, 1992, 46n.

[12] (See International Council of Women. Report of the First Post War Conference Philadelphia - USA September 6th to 12th 1947: Theme: Power and Responsibilities of Freedom (Philadelphia: International Council of Women, 1947), 87-88.

[13] See Women's International Democratic Federation. Women's International Democratic Federation, 1945-1965 (Berlin: Women's International Democratic Federation, 1965).

[14] See also Women in a Changing World: The Dynamic Story of the International Council of Women Since 1888 (London, Routledge & K. Paul, 1966), 116.

[15] Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[16] See Francisca de Haan, "Hoffnungen auf eine bessere Welt: Die frühen Jahre der Internationalen Demokratischen Frauenföderation (IDFF/WIDF) (1945-1950)," Feministische Studien 27 (November 2009), 241-57. See also de Haan’s essay on the Women’s International Democratic Federation in this database.

[17] Karen Garner, Shaping a Global Women's Agenda: Women's NGOs and Global Governance, 1925-85 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).