Women's International Thought: A JHI Blog Forum

Writing Connective Histories

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.

Women's International Thought: A JHI Blog Forum

On How to Construct a Canon

By Barbara D. Savage

It is one thing to argue for the expansion of existing canons, but another to actually do it, and harder still to create an altogether new one. Yet that is exactly what Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon, the first ever anthology of its kind, sets out to do. Its ambition is as brazen as its achievement, realized in just under a hefty 800 pages. This collection samples the writings of a diversity of women, ideas, and locations spread across much of the twentieth century and spanning a broad array of themes and interventions. It has the potential to be as foundational a work as Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s 1995 volume Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought.

The introductory essay outlines the depth and diversity of women’s ideas, locations, and arguments while standing itself as an illustration of why this work is both so necessary, so overdue, and so valuable. It frames this work not merely as reclamation—although it is that too—but rather as restorative work that puts women back into a field which they helped create: “Despite women being at the forefront of international thought throughout the twentieth century, their ideas were often stolen and, if not, then ignored.” (3) This book is an audacious effort to right that wrong, while also calling for a re-imagining of the field and its history in ways that expand and enrich it.

The ordering of the materials into 13 broad categories may on first glance look like a gathering of the usual suspects—among them, geopolitics, war, imperialism, anti-colonialism, international law and organizations, diplomacy, world peace—but within each grouping are surprising affiliations, stitched together by brilliantly rendered contextual essays. In those, biographical sketches permit a reader, however unfamiliar they might be with each woman, to place their work within a complicated life and varied intellectual influences. But unexpected topics also are deployed, including religion and ethics, technology and environment, and population and immigration, to cite a few. 

This printed gathering of women’s voices brings into one space women thinkers rarely found between the same book covers. Yes, it features Hannah Arendt, Anna Julia Cooper, Agnes Headlam-Morley, Merze Tate, and Simone Weil—but also Rachel Carson, Amy Jacques Garvey, Mary McCarthy, Eileen Power, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Louise Holborn.

One of the many strengths of this collection is its patent rejection of racial tokenism, as a variegated group of Black women are not confined to one section but are represented across nearly every category. Nor are the ideas they present confined to questions of race or imperialism or anti-colonialism; instead, they represent a range of expertise and concerns. The broad reach of their writings reflects their differing historical locations and moments, as well as starkly different ideological orientations and intellectual backgrounds. 

That said, should one want to eschew Adele’s recent admonition against “shuffling” the carefully arranged ordering of her recent musical release, this collection lends itself to all sorts of improvisational links across and even beyond the carefully designed section headings. For me, that was a special temptation as a scholar of Black women’s intellectual history, as I encountered fresh reminders of the many places where the women featured found themselves, whether in Zurich speaking to the International Women’s Congress (Mary Church Terrell) or analyzing the constitution of Ghana (Pauli Murray) or reporting on the first Pan-African Congress (Jessie Fauset) or arguing for African influences on Catholicism (Zora Neale Hurston). Those represented are activists, scholars, religious workers, all drawn together here by their gifts as writers and orators, and often by their experiences as cosmopolitan world travelers. This invites even more digging through archives and printed materials, giving further evidence of the willed erasure of Black women’s voices from international debates, moments, and gatherings in which they actively participated.

Among the greatest beneficiaries of this work are our students, not just in the field in which the book is situated, international thought, but in the many adjacent sister disciplines, including economics, anthropology, diplomatic history, religious studies, the history of science and technology, Black studies—fields not often brought into conversation with one another despite overlapping concerns. This collection of primary materials also begins to demonstrate how much work women thinkers did on topics where they were not expected to have authority or expertise, or where their ideas were discarded or overlooked. 

Women’s International Thought really does represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg of a much larger but still submerged body of women’s intellectual and political labor. Sometimes the trite metaphor is also the truth. The anthology’s range and reach should only encourage more work and more research, even as this volume is a gift to all who teach and write in any of these fields. 

And for that, we are in debt to the women whose years of labors and sacrifices brought it into print. They take care to emphasize the “towards” in the book’s title, inviting all of us to help build this new canon and to have it trouble the old in our teaching and our research. This collection now serves as a model for moving forward in ways that are as capacious and as creative as what is presented so brilliantly here.

Barbara D. Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2018-19, she was Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford. Her forthcoming intellectual biography of Merze Tate is at press and expected in 2023.

Featured Image: Zora Neale Hurston at the Federal Writers Project booth at the New York Times Book Fair, 1937. Via the New York Public Library.

Women's International Thought: A JHI Blog Forum

Re-Drawing the Contours of International Relations

By Or Rosenboim

What do women know about international politics? To the informed twenty-first-century reader, this question may seem absurd or inappropriate. There are many women who do world-leading research in international relations, and others— perhaps not as many as I’d like—occupy key international political roles in governments and institutions. But if one looks at the conventional “canon” of thinkers in international relations, it seems that no woman has ever contributed to debates about international affairs, or indeed given serious consideration to such themes. The study of international relations was, apparently, a man’s job.

The new anthology of women international thinkers, which accompanies an edited volume on the same topic published last year, is a long-due addition to scholarship on politics beyond the state. Indeed, its forthcoming appearance, in the summer of 2022, seems much too late. It is an essential, even revolutionary contribution to international studies, showing the fundamental role played by women in shaping the academic discipline of international relations (IR) as well as international thought more broadly.

This welcome collection is a compelling testimony to the significance of women international thinkers. It features predominantly British and American thinkers, and there is surely a great scope for future research and new anthologies that would feature voices from other areas of the world such as Central and Eastern Europe or the Global South. Yet more than anything, the book presents the discipline of IR with the uncomfortable truth about the exclusion and omission patterns that have shaped its self-image.

In recent decades, scholars have already expanded the boundaries of IR as a field of knowledge and academic inquiry. Robert Vitalis showed how Black scholars were excluded from American debates on world order. Robbie Shilliam, Alexander Anievas and Nivi Manchanda brought the notion of race to the forefront, engaging with the discriminatory and Western-centric legacies of IR. Other accounts of disciplinary history grounded its birth in British imperial thought, highlighting the racial prejudices that motivated its establishment. While there has been a surge in scholarship on Indian, Japanese or African international thinkers, though, relatively little attention has been dedicated to women’s contributions. An unsuspecting student might imagine that indeed, women played only a marginal role in the development of international thought, apparently limited to the theme of “gender.”

The new anthology demonstrates that this myopic image of a women-less discipline is far from the truth. Patricia Owens has already shown elsewhere how women were systematically excluded from the disciplinary history of IR and how their role in shaping the field has been undermined. Women thinkers rarely feature in anthologies of “great international thinkers,” who in turn are often described as the “founding fathers” of the discipline. This intentional erasure is not only unjust towards past thinkers but also towards contemporary woman scholars and students who encounter a historically incorrect, deeply gendered, and essentially unwelcoming representation of the discipline.  

In an ambitious and wide-ranging attempt to take stock of dozens of neglected, ignored, under-studied, and excluded figures, this collection offers an alternative view of the state of the field, re-drawing the contours of our knowledge about IR and its historical genealogies. Women were there, in crucial crossroads along the discipline’s development, and contributed a great deal.

The thematic division of the anthology, which includes chapters on immigration, war and peace, education, religion, demography, immigration, economics, law, decolonization, and the environment, reflects the versatility of women’s role in IR as a field of scholarly investigation and simultaneously redefines what “counts” as IR scholarship. In the section on geopolitics and war—key themes in traditional conceptions of IR—the selected contributions demonstrate how women thinkers shaped political discourse. Ellen Churchill Semple played a major role in introducing the study of geopolitics to the United States. Sylvia Pankhurst, well-known for her suffragist activism, and British journalist and activist Claudia Jones are rarely included in the canon of geopolitical thinkers, but they also had an original take on world order, empire, and conquest. Pankhurst advanced an effective critique of fascist Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1938[1], while Jones showed the failings of British imperialism in India in 1942.[2] Their views were no less valuable and prescient than those of their male colleagues.

The anthology clearly demonstrates the need to expand the definition of who “counts” as a geopolitical thinker, which is one of its most path-breaking contributions. Challenging the notions of inclusion and exclusion in the field of IR is not merely a scholarly exercise in the ever-lasting quest for new perspectives on international politics. It is a call to rethink what is considered as knowledge in IR and who can produce it. In this sense, the anthology can be read as a political manifesto against disciplinary gate-keeping, which has limited women, but also non-white, non-western, and other marginalized groups, from expressing their views on international relations—at the discipline’s loss.

Hopefully, the thinkers in this anthology will not be fenced into the category of “women international thinkers,” but will be considered, simply, as international thinkers. The wide range in this volume shows that women engaged with all aspects of IR. The interest in their perspective needs no collective justification—each should be judged for the merit of her own ideas, alongside male thinkers.  

As the editors rightly suggest, this volume can only be considered as a very first step towards a much larger, necessarily collaborative project to bring to light the ideas and texts of women international thinkers. Other linguistic and geographical spheres should be explored, institutional settings and political organizations should be investigated. But it makes little sense to point out the missing thinkers in this volume, as the editors themselves encourage the readers and the discipline to continue the exploration and contribute to the collaborative project of redefining the meaning of knowledge production in IR.  

[1] Sylvia Pankhurst, “The Fascist World War (Ethiopia and Spain),” New Times and Ethiopia, 1 August 1935, reprinted in The Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, ed. Kathryn Dodd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 214– 216. [pp. 92-93 in the Anthology]

[2] Claudia Jones, “What We Must Now Do about India,” Weekly Review, 25 August 1942, 8–10. [pp. 105-109 in the Anthology]

Or Rosenboim is Senior Lecturer in Modern History and Director of the Center for Modern History at City, University of London. She is a historian of political thought, and her work focuses on international thought in the twentieth century. She has published on the idea of globalism and on various theories of world order in British and American political thought. She is also interested in geopolitics, Italian international thought and imperial history.

Featured Image: Illustration from Ellen Churchill Semple, Influences of Geographic Environment (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1911).

Women's International Thought: A JHI Blog Forum

Women and the History of International Thinking

By Glenda Sluga

Is it a surprise that we owe the formalization of international thought as a field to a relatively recent book, David Armitage’s 2013 Foundations of Modern International Thought? In this clever assemblage of essays re-reading mainly early modern thinkers, Armitage argues that before the international turn, intellectual historians had shown almost no interest in analyzing the international as a domain of political thought. This was a task abandoned to international relations and international law; even intellectual historians interested in empires and imperialism, or transnationalism, ignored or neglected the international imaginaries or practices that nourished imperialist and colonialist inflected theories of the state, society, and politics. For Armitage, “international intellectual history” is the study of “[r]elations between states, and the multiplicity of non-state relations, taking in the modern era in which the individual is a subject of international law, and international institutions and transnational organizations thickly populate the world.” When it comes to the specific term “international thought,” this was coined by British publicists and litterateurs sympathetic to the League of Nations and nascent international institutions in the interwar era, although the term’s invention is only one clue to a longer history of international thinking. Armitage arrives at that history by asking a really neat question:  “How did we—all of us in the world—come to imagine ourselves in a world of states?”

This is, of course, a question that can be answered as much by the study of women’s ideas as those of the men Armitage discusses. It might seem an uncontroversial point to make, but that’s where we are, still, and why we need this anthology of Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon.

The absence of women from intellectual history has been one of its established features. The salient points of that absence in the context of (the) foundations of modern international thought is its dependence not only on preconceptions of who is an intellectual, but more specific to the history of “international intellectual” history, on women’s place (or not) in the older state-focused history of political thought. This anthology, like its companion volume of essays—Women’s International Thought: A New History—has now made it impossible for historians who ignore women as agents of ideas to blame the lack of women’s historical or international thinking.   

It is hard to believe that most historians in the course of their research have not or do not encounter texts written by women on their topics, no matter what the theme. In the 1990s, I was researching a history of ideas of the nation as they were conceptualized and reified in the context of peacemaking in 1919, at the end of the First World War. My overarching thesis was that the political conceptualization of nationality as a defining principle of the peace and the international order was influenced by the rise of new psychological discourses. As the United States, Britain, and France assembled their respective experts to pronounce policy on key peace matters, the psychological realism attributed to nationality and nationalism explained how knowledge about national difference was construed and remade in the setting of peacemaking, and the privileged status given to national “self-determination.” In the course of this research, I encountered texts written by women, even though women were commonly rejected for roles on the national expert peacemaking teams.

For example, Emily Greene Balch, an economist at Wellesley and future Nobel Peace Prize winner, was unsuccessful. Then there were the women brought on board in more or less formal ways: Gertrude Bell, the British “orientalist,” was consulted by the Foreign Office; Sarah Wambaugh, whose text on plebiscites is reproduced in the anthology, was consulted on borders; Ellen Semple, the author of studies on geography in its new anthropological mode, also infiltrated what was otherwise a highly masculine domain of political, geographical, and historical expertise. I discovered Mary Parker Follet’s The New State, and Carolyne Playne’s study of the neuroses of nations —all found their way to my desk. I remember the strange feeling of encountering these women where they were not supposed to be, given the difficulty women had in earning degrees and being accepted into public institutions. Reading them reminded me that it was no coincidence that women were enthusiasts of the new League of Nations, or that one of those enthusiasts, Florence Melian Stawell, coined the term “international thought.” What I failed to ask at the time, and what this anthology makes up for, was: how did they get there, what were they doing there, and which other women should I be seeing and reading?

Women’s International Thought is an extraordinary enterprise, both because it collects names that historians have forgotten and brings them together with those that have remained familiar—at least to historians of women or feminism, whether Jane Addams or Emily Greene Balch, or Helena Swanwick, Rosa Luxemburg or Virginia Woolf. At the same time, putting them into this framing of international thought shifts how we think of them, their importance in thinking through, in distinctive ways, a broad swathe of political issues. Their texts take us from the conventional feminine space of philanthropy—where women’s international activism was first placed in the early nineteenth century—into the mainstream of international thinking and the question, “How did we—all of us in the world—come to imagine ourselves in a world of states?” They contribute to our understanding of the realm of practice as well as interrupt our textual canons; they expand the spectrum of international thinking that we have forgotten, along with forgetting women. There is inevitably more where these came from.

Glenda Sluga is Professor of International History and Capitalism at the European University Institute. In 2020, she was awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant, overseeing a five-year research program on “Twentieth Century International Economic Thinking and the complex history of globalization.” In December 2021, Princeton University Press published her latest book, The Invention of International Order: Remaking Europe after Napoleon. Professor Sluga is also an Australian Research Council Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laurate Fellow, as the recipient in 2013 of a five-year fellowship for “Inventing the International.” She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Royal Society of NSW.

Featured Image: Picture of Jane Addams speaking to a crowd, July 1915. Via Wikimedia Commons.