By Elisavet Papalexopoulou
When reflecting on the forthcoming anthology Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon, it is useful to recall the genealogy of the phrase “international thought” that appears in its title. In the early 1920s, the Australian Florence Melian Stawell pitched the idea of a book on the League of Nations to her mentor, the liberal internationalist Gilbert Murray. Murray liked Stawell’s idea so much that he decided to use it himself. Stawell, meanwhile, was instructed to write about something else. And so she did: in 1929, she published The Growth of International Thought, which is excerpted in the anthology and in which she coined the term “international thought.”
Of course, Stawell has not been credited as the “mother of international thought” and, like most of the women featured in this volume, has seen her contribution to the field essentially erased. Yet the feeling of injustice, or even anger, towards this historical fraud that we still so commonly encounter in women’s history is not what makes this anthology “so necessary, so overdue, and so valuable,” as Barbara E. Savage puts it. Rather, it is its innovative way of understanding and presenting intellectual history and IR, breaking the confines of two fields typically assumed to be of different natures and demonstrating how we should write and understand histories of disciplines and ideas in the twenty-first century. Far from romanticizing or essentializing female thinkers, the compilation seeks the origins of IR as a field in the diversity of thinkers and ideas from both academic and non-academic spaces, texts, and political projects.
In their respective pieces about the anthology, Glenda Sluga, Or Rosenboim, and Barbara Savage comment how needed this book has been—each one from her own standpoint. Or Rosenboim remarks on the new developments in the field that involve the inclusion of thinkers from India, Japan, and Africa, but still neglect women. Barbara Savage sees the anthology as “restorative work” and stresses its “patent rejection of racial tokenism” as a key strength. And Glenda Sluga highlights the questions historians and IR scholars have failed to ask for years. They all agree that the anthology’s aims, its many functions as both an intellectual exposition and a tool for teaching, and its views of the complex field of international thought are laid out in a detailed, thoughtful, and elegant manner.
Yet in their essays, as in my own reading of their contributions, there is also a subtext of bitterness. Why do we still need anthologies of female thinkers, even after decades of women’s and feminist history have already shown us how to write histories of ideas and disciplines that include the “other half”?
Women’s International Thought, among other recent scholarship that centers women’s contributions to fundamental political concepts, their historical involvement in political debates, and their intellectual persistence in the face of marginalization on the basis of both gender and race, is one more effort towards making such questions redundant. It tells the story of how women of different social, racial, and ideological backgrounds viewed the interconnected political world of the twentieth century, and of their efforts to understand how human societies might function in peace. Their ideas on how to bring this peace about—stemming from imperialist, anti-colonial, socialist, conservative, or liberal viewpoints—give us new insight on the valuable traditions of failure and success in international relations.
In light of the dramatic events in international politics over the past few days, I find myself especially captivated by section seven of the book, titled ‘World Peace’. There, the reader can sift through texts of thinkers like Helena Swanwick, Jane Addams, and Mary Church Terrell, to name but a few, which gather stories of the founding of the “longest standing women’s peace organization,” the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Tracing the pursuit to uncover and eliminate roots of interstate violence seems all the more moving when we see how ideas of international cooperation were in many cases the work of female intellectuals. Leaving them out of our histories thus means leaving out the tradition and core of a field that was not simply an analytical tool to understand the causes and effects of war but also encompasses the idea that different people can co-inhabit this earth without bloodshed and conflict.
The anthology, Or Rosenboim observes, aims at a “re-drawing of the contours of our knowledge about IR and its historical genealogies.” This is evident in the way the material has been chosen, organized, and contextualized across the volume. Next to the primary texts, the goal of expanding the breadth and depth of the field is achieved by the introductions to the thirteen thematic sections. In some instances, these are predictable—such as ‘Field and Discipline’, ‘International Law and International Organizations’, ‘Geopolitics and War’. Other choices are more creative, with titles like ‘Public Opinion and Education’, or ‘Technology, Progress, and Environment’. In both cases, the section’s primary texts are, as Barbara Savage puts it, “stitched together” by wonderfully written essays that contextualize the work and lives of the historical women who, in the following, are featured in their own words. Women’s International Thought ultimately provides a collage, illuminating the existence of a non-unified intellectual world that nonetheless reveals the interdependency of conflicting ideas.
To this end, section two—on ‘Geopolitics and War’—juxtaposes a textby Margaret and Harold Sprout, in which, as Patricia Owen writes, “racial anxiety is sublimated and American Imperial expansion normalized,” with another by Claudia Jones, a leading activist in the CPUSA. In section three, ‘Imperialism’,we encounter the tensions between Lilian Knowles, Lillian M. Penson, and Sibyl Crowe on the one hand, who saw imperialism as the natural mode of powerful states, and the African American teacher and writer Jessie Fauset on the other, who questioned imperialist morality in her activist work. In section nine, ‘Men, Women, and Gender’, the likes of Ellen Churchill Semple, who essentialized and instrumentalized womanhood, are placed alongside the non-binary Vernon Lee, who viewed “female characteristics” as constructed through a centuries-long process of “feminine stagnation and regression.”
In the same manner, well-known thinkers co-inhabit the space of anthology with those who have been largely forgotten. Alongside texts by Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Goldman, and Ayn Rand, for example, we read the works of Sybil Crowe and Louise Holborn, whose intellectual labor had a seldom-acknowledged impact on the field. Through the brilliantly creative usage of texts and arguments, and the editors’ diligent archival work, prominent authors like Virginia Woolf are recast as international thinkers in a compelling and thought-provoking manner.
The emphasis on the word “towards” in the book’s title demonstrates how it marks a call for a new way of writing, reading, and understanding disciplinary and intellectual history that depends on collective work. To be sure, we would have an even clearer and richer view of the field of IR if the volume’s subject matter were to be extended to more languages and geographies. I believe it is in this sense that Glenda Sluga eloquently points out, “there is inevitably more where these came from,” and that, on a similar note, Or Rosenboim sees the anthology both as an invitation and a “first step towards a much larger, necessarily collaborative project.”
Indeed, this anthology could be the springboard for other projects that uncover texts in an extended non-Anglophone and non-European space, and explore their interconnections. It also shows a way towards a more inclusive type of presenting historical research beyond the usual canons, because of its innovative choice of texts, which are often non-academic and non-programmatic, and thinkers who elaborated ideas as academics, but also as journalists, essayists, and teachers. Let us just hope that the word “women” in its title will not discourage fellow scholars from reading it.
Elisavet Papalexopoulou is a fourth-year PhD candidate at the European University Institute. Her research focuses on intellectual history with an emphasis on gender. She is one of the organizers of the Intellectual History Working Group at EUI. At the moment, she is working on her dissertation, titled “Tracing the ‘Political’ in Women’s Work: Women of Letters in the Greek Cultural Space, 1800-1832.”
Featured Image: International Congress of Women, 1915. WILPF/2011/18, via LSE.