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"The IWSA/IAWSEC in the Age of the League of Nations"

By Ellen DuBois

University of California Los Angeles


   The International Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA) and the League of Nations (LoN) flourished and interacted in a common world of interwar international hopes for a peaceful, liberal world order. At first sight this might be an odd claim: because the IWSA was formed earlier (1902) and lasted longer than the League of Nations; because the former was a small federation of voluntary organizations and the latter was a formal, globally ambitious collaboration between governments; and because the tendency is to date the IWSA's greatest successes--the enfranchisement of women throughout Europe and North America -considerably earlier than the heyday of the League.

   The last of these should be dealt with first. It is certainly the case that the list of enfranchisements claimed as the achievements of the IWSA's national affiliates, was dense between the late 1910s and the early 1920s and came to a virtual halt soon after. For these very reasons, the IWSA saw the need to diversify, reaching out beyond its initial and signature goal of universal national enfranchisement for women. In 1923, it changed its name to the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship (IAWSEC). The subsequent years saw vigorous activity in the international arena, and much of it was located in Geneva, where the IWSA/IAWSEC (for shorthand, the Alliance) maintained an office. Indeed, without a focus on Geneva-based activities and interaction with the LoN, the history and activities of the Alliance after the late 1920s are impossible to appreciate. The breadth and depth of the WASM International archive makes it possible to remedy this abbreviated sense of the organization's history, by extending historical reach to its concerns through the 1930s. More generally, the Alliance's monthly journal (The International Woman Suffrage News, later the International Women's News), from which a number of articles over a ninety-year period are included in the WASM International archive, is an incomparable resource for general investigation into feminist activities in Geneva and around the League.

   The Alliance was not the only international women's organization to be drawn into interaction with the League of Nations; nor was it the largest. But it did hold an important position midway in the political spectrum of women activists—often mediating between social reformers and egalitarian women's righters—which gathered around the League in the interwar years. In good part because of the associative, federated approach to women's activism that the Alliance brought to its activities—following the model established in the U.S. by founder Carrie Chapman Catt--it situated itself as the coordinating force within the sprawling network of international women's organizations in Geneva. The Alliance helped to organize and was the dominant force in a series of meta-associations of women's organizations interacting with the League in the 1920s and early 1930s: the Joint Standing Committee of Women's International Organizations; the Liaison Committee of Women's International Organizations; and the Peace and Disarmament Committee of Women's International Organizations. (For more on these issues, see the essay by Denise Ireton, also in this database.)

   The issues which the Alliance raised with and pursued in the League of Nations began—even as the League was being formed--with concerns that women have access to employment in the new organization. Pressure from the Alliance and other international women's organizations (hereafter WIOs) in Paris during the 1919 Peace talks resulted in Article 7 of the League covenant, promising to open all League positions without discrimination to women. Subsequently the Alliance led the same organizations into a Joint Committee of Women's International Organization to pressure and monitor appointments. (In 1931, the Joint Committee remade and renamed itself the Liaison Committee of Women's International Organizations, and expanded its scope at the League.) Nonetheless, the League remained overwhelming male-dominated. In the late 1920s, in response to continuing inquiries from these organizations, the Secretary General began to rely on Rachel Crowder, later Gabrielle Radziwell, to act as liaison with these groups.

   Carol Miller's 1992 Oxford Ph.D. dissertation constitutes the most complete study of WIOs'involvement with the League of Nations. As Miller observes, given the relative rarity of women in official diplomatic positions, work through the Secretariat in Geneva was the best way for women to become involved in the exciting world of international relations in the interwar years. Australian writer Frank Moorhouse has authored two wonderful novels focusing on young, idealistic women working in and around the League of Nations, which reflect considerable research on his part and are said to be drawn in part on the career of Canadian League staffer Mary Craig McGeachy; historians of this subject should not overlook this intriguing source.[1] Did such women come out of voluntary women's organizations in their home countries? Did they interact regularly with the Alliance women in Geneva? More research can certainly be done on this dimension of the subject. Interaction between women inside and outside the League provides a very useful framework for exploring Alliance impact on League matters and vice versa. These relations anticipate the more regularized intersection that developed later between the United Nations and WIOs with formal consultant status.

   When the Alliance moved beyond personnel policy to substantive matters in the League, it began with the humanitarian and social reform matters long considered within women's purview. Of particular significance was the League's investigation into and efforts to curb international sexual trafficking of women and children, a matter significant enough to be included in the founding covenant. The Alliance had been concerned with sex trafficking and the sexual double standard from its inception, and reiterated this concern in the context of the League at its first postwar meeting. For its part, the League actively sought out the assistance of WIOs, going so far as to establish the special position of female "assessor"—essentially an outside consultant—to aid its work. Nitza Berkovitch's excellent survey of women's activism in international organizations emphasizes the "protection of women and children" in the interwar years; hence she offers considerable insight into the trafficking issue.[2] Among several articles exploring the League's work on and WIOs role in international anti-trafficking efforts, Katarina Leppanen's also makes an excellent contribution.[3]

   The outstanding Alliance woman engaged in anti-trafficking work within the League was Paulina Luisi, Uruguayan feminist and physician, the first Latin American woman on a national delegation to the League and the first to be incorporated into the Alliance's leadership. While other WIOs were also drawn into the League's anti-trafficking work, the Alliance—true to its intermediate position in the world of international feminism—seems to have played a major role in moving the analysis of sex trafficking, and measures designed to curb it, in a direction more consonant with women's rights. Thus Luisi successfully objected to proposed regulations that would have limited unaccompanied women's international travel as a means to controlling sex trafficking. The Alliance also advocated separating out reports on trafficking in women from those focused on trafficking in children. Materials documenting this subject are located mostly within the League of Nations section of WASM International, and include numerous official--and quite substantial--reports on trafficking nation by nation, along with official commentary solicited from the Alliance and other WIOs on how to campaign against trafficking. The League of Nations published annual reports on Traffic in Women and Children; those for 1922, 1926 and 1930 provide useful contemporary material on women's efforts on the trafficking issue in this period.

   The Alliance's concern with trafficking overlapped with its participation in the League's Mandate Commission. Out of concern for the women of the Mandated Territories, the Alliance successfully lobbied to have the League change the term it used for coerced prostitution from white slavery to trafficking in women, so as to clarify that women from all races were its victims. At the insistence of WIOs, the League agreed to at least one woman member at all times on the Mandates Commission. The first of these was Norwegian feminist and Alliance Vice President U*. Building on her prior research into interwar British feminism, historian Susan Pedersen is developing the first modern history of the Mandates Commission in which she pays attention to the role of international women political activists.[4]

   Nonetheless, the Alliance tended to see women in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as the objects of its "maternalist" concern rather than activists on their own behalf. Thus, it had to be pushed to incorporate the active involvement of the women from the mandated territories (and non-mandate colonies, such as India). As explored by Charlotte Weber, in her work on feminist orientalism, and Margot Badran, historian of Egyptian feminism, the crucial figure here seems to have been Huda Shaarawi, the first Arab woman in the Alliance.[5] Shaarawi pressed the Alliance to recognize that the privileges of mandatory powers acted to shelter aspects of the sex trade. In this way, the Alliance began--reluctantly to be sure--to grapple with the conflict between European imperialism and obstacles to greater rights for women in Asia and the Middle East. Various sections of the WASM International collection—LoN, IWSA, and Arab Women—provide materials for further investigation of these matters. The documents surrounding the Alliance's historic 1935 Congress held in Istanbul should particularly be consulted here.

   There is no question that the history of the League and the concerns of the Alliance came together most fully with respect to the area of peace and disarmament. The official history of the Alliance, by Arnold Whittick, devotes an entire chapter to this subject. League and Alliance leadership shared the belief that women had a special contribution to make to the advancement of world peace. Alliance founder Carrie Chapman Catt did her own postwar peace work largely within the US-based organization she founded, the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War. On the international stage, the mantle of peace fell to her protégé, Dutch activist Rosa Manus. The WASM International project has a special affiliation with Manus and not only because of her important international peace work in the early 1930s. Manus was also the driving force behind the first international women's archival project, the International Archival Institute of the Women's Movement (IIAV) which she helped to establish in Amsterdam in 1935. WASM International includes manuscript materials from the IIAV (now named Aletta), including Manus's own papers. For more on Manus's activism, see Politics and Friendship: Letters from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 1902-1942 in the archive.

   The male sphere of international foreign relations was decisively turning away from arms reduction and towards the bolstering of national security in the early 1930s. In this context, beleaguered pro-peace forces in Geneva looked to worldwide public opinion to bolster their efforts. Women were the key to this hope. In 1931, the League's General Assembly passed the so-called Spanish Resolution calling for greater participation by women on behalf of arms reduction.[6] Rising to the challenge, the Alliance formed a subcommittee of the Liaison Committee of Women's International Organizations, to focus on Disarmament and Peace. (Papers of the Liaison Committee are in the WASM International archive.) Under Manus's leadership, the Peace and Disarmament Committee used classic women's political methods developed in the pre-enfranchisement days--such as dignified public spectacle and massive petition campaigns--to bring the voice of the world’s women to the upcoming League of Nations Conference and Peace and Disarmament. This 1932 event arguably constituted the high point of Alliance/League interaction but ended in utter failure with respect to control of the accelerating arms race.

    In its response to the League's 1931 Spanish Resolution, the Alliance and other WIOs had argued that ultimately the best way to strengthen women's activities for world disarmament was for the League to work to advance women's rights and gender equality. As peace activities in the League waned after the failure of the 1932 Disarmament Conference, women activists ramped up their attention on behalf of women's rights on the international stage. However, the League refused to consider the Alliance's signature issue, woman suffrage, as within its purview because it regarded any question of internal political structure as within the sacred boundaries of national sovereignty. Instead, the Alliance focused on a seemingly abstruse but actually quite important women's rights matter: the independent nationality of women married to men of different nationalities. This issue was by definition international, an element of the League's concern with the regularization of legal codes of nationality, a way of raising the matter of women's national citizenship in an international venue, and an avenue into the all important feminist issue of the impact of marriage on women's independence and equality.

   The Alliance was one of the first WIOs to draw attention to married women's rights to retain their nationality regardless of their marital status or the nationality of their husbands. Chrystal Macmillan, British barrister, suffragist and international activist, was the Alliance's point woman on this issue. Under her leadership, efforts to alter laws country by country progressed slowly through the late 1920s.[7] This effort is reflected in the archive by an essay by Macmillan, Nationality of Married Women in the British Empire. Thus, when the League of Nations announced its intention to convene an international conference to consider regularizing national legal codes, and announced nationality as one of its three main foci, the Alliance saw an opening. Macmillan was among those who made proposals at the Conference on the Codification of International Law, held in The Hague in 1930. Macmillan submitted a resolution on independent nationality for wives passed at the 1923 Rome conference of the International Alliance. From The Hague, the campaign for married women's independent nationality moved to Geneva where the General Assembly of the League was charged with accepting, rejecting or modifying the findings of The Codification Conference and thus establishing international standards for married women's nationality. For treatment of these issues, see Nationality of Women: Observations Submitted by Governments (Geneva: League of Nations, 1932); League of Nations, Secretariat. Information Section, Report on the Nationality of Married Women, Prepared for the International Congress of Women (Geneva: Bureau for International Organizations, Information Section, Secretariat of the League of Nations, 1933); Nationality and Status of Women: Statements Presented by International Women's Organisations, 1935.

   In the end, the feminist forces in Geneva failed to alter the League's determination to hold to the principle that the husband's nationality should indeed determine that of his wife. Nonetheless, this campaign was of great significance in the history of women and women's rights at the League. First, it set the precedent for the League--and subsequently the United Nations--to attend to women's rights issues. Second, it opened up new spaces within the League for women's activism. As with the matter of trafficking, the League acknowledged that it needed more participation from women and so authorized a Women's Consultative Committee on Nationality, members to be selected by the WIOs with capacity to consult formally on League policy.

By 1935, in light of growing discrimination against women worldwide, discussions on Married Women's Independent Nationality had grown into a broader set of women's rights concerns, which the League agreed to investigate under the category of "Status of Women." There are six League of Nations documents in 1937 and two in 1938 in the archive entitled, "Status of Women: Communications from Governments and Women's International Organisations".[8]

   Of course by this time, the League itself was seriously faltering. But many of these developments—establishing women's autonomous nationality, the creation of consultant status for WIOs, an authorized study of women's legal status in member nations—were fully realized within the United Nations.

   It is also the case that the Married Women's Nationality campaign and the subsequent Status of Women inquiry at the League had an important effect within the International Alliance of Women and on its place of leadership within the League. By the time of The Hague Conference in 1930, conflict between the Alliance's U.S. affiliate, the League of Women Voters, and its historic opponent, the U.S. National Woman's Party, had been imported into relations at Geneva. While the fact that the United States was not a member of the League generally hampered U.S. women activists in Geneva, the NWP had been able to get around this obstacle by working through the Inter-American Commission on Women and Latin American delegates. NWP head Alice Paul had moved to Geneva and was making effective international alliances on behalf of a more explicitly egalitarian agenda with women activists from Europe, Latin America, and Asia.[9] In 1933 the Alliance withdrew from the League Commission on Married Women's Nationality. By 1935, Catt's successor as Alliance President Marjory Corbett Ashby found herself walking a political tightrope between the U.S. affiliate of her organization, which remained adamantly opposed to international work with the NWP, and other national affiliates, which were more willing to compromise and collaborate. Some of the same dynamics can be found, in the International Labor Organization's deliberations on labor regulation and women's work. Much of the existing secondary literature on women in the League in this period highlights these U.S.-based factional disputes[10] The WASM International archive makes it possible to take a broader perspective and examine the degree to which egalitarian and protectionist perspectives proved more compatible elsewhere in the world of feminist internationalism than they did for United States women.

   These paragraphs constitute a preliminary outline for the history of the International Alliance of Women and the League of Nations, based on existing secondary sources. Much work remains to be done in filling out, and altering this framework. Recent decades have seen a tremendous growth in a truly global feminist purview, and this important development deserves a fuller history of international feminism--broader in the issues considered, wider in the national feminisms involved--than we have had so far. The WASM International Archive will prove invaluable in making this possible.



[1] Frank Moorhouse, Grand Days (London: Picador, 1993) and Dark Palace (London: Picador, 2002).

[2] Nitza Berkovitch From Motherhood to Citizenship: Women's Rights and International Organizations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

[3] Katarina Leppanen, "Movement of Women: Trafficking in the Interwar Era, Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 30, #6 (November-December 2002), 523-33. Also see Barbara Metzger. "Towards an International Human Rights Regime during the Inter-War Years: The LON's Combat of Traffic in Women and Children." In Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, 1880-1950. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007). Also Daniel Gorman, "Empire, Internationalism and the Campaign against the Traffic in Women and Children," Twentieth Century British History, vol. 19, #2 (2007), 186-216.

[4] Several articles have already appeared, among them: Susan Pedersen, "Back to the League of Nations," American Historical Review, vol. 112, #4 (October 2007), 1091-1117; and "Metaphors of the Schoolroom: Women Working the Mandates System at the League of Nations," History Workshop Journal, vol. 66, #1, (2008), 188—207.

[5] Margot Badran. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Huda Shaarawi and Margot Badran. Harem Years. (New York: Feminist Press, 1987); Charlotte Weber, "Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women, 1911—1950," Feminist Studies, 27, no. 1 (2001), 125-57.

[6] Hillary Charlesworth, "Are Women Peaceful? Reflections on the Role of Women in Peace Making," Feminist Legal Studies, vol. 16, #3 (2008), 347—61.

[7] Karen Knop and Christine Chinkin, "Remembering Chrystal Macmillan: Women's Equality and Nationality in International Law," Michigan Journal of International Law 22 (2001), 523-85.

[8] In continuing research on the League of Nations "Status of Women" activity, Ellen DuBois has discovered additional documents that are online on the website of UNIDROIT, the International Institute from the Unification of Private Law. She plans to discuss these documents further in her forthcoming work, "Global Flows in Interwar International Feminism." In the meantime, they are accessible, courtesy of UNIDROIT, at:

[9] Diane Elizabeth Hill, "International Law for Women's Rights: The Equal Treaties Campaigns of the National Woman's Party and the Reactions of the U.S. State Department and the National League of Women Voters," (Unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, UC Berkeley, 1999).

[10] Candice Lewis Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Susan D. Becker, The Origins of the Equal Rights Amendment: American Feminism between the Wars (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981).