Toward a History of Women’s International Thought

by Dr. Katharina Rietzler

A few months ago, when we started working on the Women and the History of International Thought Leverhulme Research Project, we had to choose a fitting avatar for our twitter feed (and if you haven’t followed us yet, please do so!). It did not take us long to choose a photograph of a historical woman international thinker.

Merze Tate Collection-WMU Archives & Regional History Collections, Fair Use.

The image we chose is of the African-American scholar Marze Tate, taken while she was a student in Oxford in the 1930s. Looking purposeful and determined, aiming her gaze into the distance and not at the camera, Tate is seated on a bicycle, in front of Oxford University’s Radcliffe Camera. Wearing her academic gown, and adopting the pose of a woman who knows exactly where she is headed, Tate gives the impression of belonging in this world of dreaming spires and earnest scholars. And yet, she doesn’t. She is positioned outside the grounds, in front of a cast-iron spiked fence, with her back turned to the library. This does not seem like a scholarly mise-en-scène in the narrow sense, taken inside a cosy common room or a don’s study. Tate remained an Oxford outsider, commenting on her singular status as “the only colored American in the entire university, man or woman.” Her life’s work illustrates some of the challenges but also opportunities inherent in recovering and re-evaluating women’s international thought.


Merze Tate’s biographer, Barbara Savage, is one of fifteen contributors to Toward a History of Women’s International Thought, a collection of essays we are currently putting together. The book analyses the thought of eighteen women thinkers and considers their gendered and raced social positioning, as well as their status inside or outside the academy. Adopting a broad definition of ‘thought’ and relevant sites for intellectual production, we were struck by some recurring themes.


One of these was the widespread commitment to teaching beyond the academy, whether through pamphleteering, lecturing or journalism. Another was a recurring concern with international political economy. We were also intrigued by the complex connections between ideology and spirituality, which led some of ‘our’ thinkers to put forward a religiously informed critique of colonialism, while others embraced a millenarian vision of Anglo-American empire. Overall, we encountered diverse perspectives on race, empire, war, economy and ideology – as we expected. In the following, I will discuss three themes that connect Tate’s life to those of other women international thinkers, and thereby also offer a sneak preview of Toward a History of Women’s International Thought. These themes are profession, patronage and the figure of the pioneer.


Before Merze Tate became an academic, earning degrees from Oxford and Harvard, she already had a profession as a history high school teacher. Indeed, as Barbara Savage has uncovered, American teachers were the main audience for Alfred Zimmern’s international relations summer school at Geneva, the site of Tate’s ‘international awakening’. It was also Tate’s all-black sorority network, consisting largely of school teachers, that got her to Oxford. Professional solidarity was limited by racial discrimination, highlighted by the fact that Tate taught in a segregated school and that her professors at her undergraduate institution, Western Michigan University, sought to minimize her race their letters of recommendation for her.


Yet, recognising professional training and networks as important to women’s intellectual production and international thought is crucial. Education is a largely hidden part of the history of international thought. Women teachers were not just at the forefront of opening higher education to women in America, they were also active in professional organizations that sought to internationalise the American high school curriculum before the First World War. During the war, teachers active in the National School Peace League formulated critiques of the creeping militarization of American society that drew on their professional ethos, as pedagogues who knew best how to educate the young citizens of the nation.


Merze Tate herself remained committed to educating ‘ordinary citizens’, for example black soldiers who went off to fight in World War II, and she enthusiastically participated in cosmopolitan pedagogical experiments, not least Tagore’s World University in Shantiniketan, India. Tate is not alone here – other women thinkers shared a commitment to educate the general public, often in the context of strong national traditions of citizens’ education. In Britain, we can point to Elizabeth Wiskemann who bridged the divide between academia and journalism, but also Barbara Wootton, committed to pamphleteering and a ‘practical’ approach.


The second theme I would like to highlight is patronage. Merze Tate was clearly a remarkable woman but professional success would likely have remained elusive had it not been for the timely interventions of academic mentors such as Alfred Zimmern and Agnes Headlam-Morley. Interestingly, patronage networks can be multi-generational. In the 1930s, Tate got into the Harvard graduate programme thanks to Bernice Brown Cronkhite. In 1918, Bernice Brown herself received a Carnegie Endowment fellowship in international law partly thanks to a recommendation from Fannie Fern Andrews, a former teacher, educational reformer and now forgotten international thinker – one of the first to write on the League of Nations’ Mandates System. Other women international thinkers in our volume also relied on networks of patronage, not necessarily those confined to academia. Elizabeth Lippincott McQueen, a spiritual entrepreneur who also spoke at international relations summer schools in Southern California, relied on personal benefactors to erect her shrine to international aviation.


Such support, especially from male patrons, was not always altruistically given. The Oxford academic Florence Melian Stawell had a mentor in Gilbert Murray, who arranged publishing contracts for her but also appropriated her ideas. Anna Julia Cooper had to defend her Sorbonne dissertation in front of a committee that was not predisposed to taking her challenging ideas on race and the French empire seriously. And at Howard, Merze Tate was excluded from the patronage networks that benefited her male peers. Patronage remained a double-edged sword for women thinkers, never something to be relied upon exclusively.


The third category, that of the pioneer, is the most difficult. Merze Tate was clearly a remarkable and extraordinarily ambitious woman whose success should be celebrated. It is tempting to label her a pioneer, even if we might question the masculinist and settler-colonialist connotations of the term. Other women international thinkers can also lay claim to having done something first, from Florence Melian Stawell’s use of the term ‘international thought’ to Krystyna Marek’s writing the first monograph on the birth and death of states.


In a more figurative sense, Tate also scoped the ‘field’ of academic IR, by raising new questions for both international relations and African-American studies. She also broke with some of her mentor’s cherished ideas, not least those on public opinion. And her exceptional status as a black woman in academe also caused an at times overwhelming sense of responsibility – Barbara Savage speaks of the “burden of representation”.


But what does the celebration of exemplary women, gently mocked as the search for ‘women worthies’ by an earlier generation of women’s historians, obscure? The danger may well be that it obscures systematic erasure and structural exclusion and further a politics of exceptionalism. Despite striking a solitary figure in the image, Tate must be situated in her concrete life worlds, structured by profession and patronage.


(This is an edited version of comments offered on the occasion of the 2018 Vere Harmsworth Lecture given by Professor Barbara Savage, the Barbara Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford Harmsworth Professor in 2018/2019.)

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Reading Women

by Professor Kim Hutchings

One of the aims of this Leverhulme project is to make the ideas and arguments of historical women about international politics visible. Over the past few weeks, I have been familiarising myself with the work of four women who wrote about international politics (amongst other things) from the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. They are all women who were very famous in their day, but none of them figure in accounts of the history of international thought or, interestingly, as reference points for feminist IR. As a feminist IR scholar I had not previously read any of their work. The women are, in chronological order:

Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914)

Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Eslanda Robeson (1895-1965)

Of course, this is not to say that these women are entirely unknown or unstudied. Recent work on black feminism and black internationalism has opened up the work of Cooper and Robeson to scholarly scrutiny (May 2007; Ransby 2013). Historians of peace and of women’s peace activism recognise the role of Bertha von Suttner (Stiehm 2013). Emma Goldman remains an iconic figure in the history of anarchism (Ferguson 2011). Nevertheless, little attention has been paid to how these women thought about and analysed the world of international politics. This is in part because their work does not fit with disciplinary norms about what kind of literature counts as significant within the history of international thought.

Of all of them, only Cooper did scholarly work in the most conventional sense, and her key work on international politics: Slavery and the French Revolutionists 1788-1805, was her Sorbonne PhD, written in French and only translated into English and published in 1988. Although Robeson was trained originally in Chemistry and then Anthropology, her writings were all directed to broader rather than scholarly audiences, These thinkers developed and expressed their ideas in novels (von Suttner), travel writing and journalism (Robeson), speeches, pamphlets and letters (Goldman), and memoirs (von Suttner and Goldman).

Although their lifetimes overlapped, they represent, roughly speaking, three generations, von Suttner a woman of the later nineteenth century, Cooper and Goldman spanning nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Robeson the first half of the twentieth century. Von Suttner was an aristocrat from the Austro-Hungarian empire, Cooper an African-American women born into slavery, Goldman a Jewish immigrant to the US from the Russian empire, Robeson a middle class African-American woman. All of them travelled in Europe and the US, Robeson more widely in Africa, Latin America and China. Goldman and Robeson both experienced living in exile. The only direct interaction I know of was between Goldman and Robeson, who shared commitment to various radical causes. They were in correspondence until Robeson cut contact due to Goldman’s attitude towards the USSR. However, it is certainly the case that von Suttner was a target of Goldman’s dismissive remarks about women pacifists, and it seems likely that, at the very least, Robeson had knowledge of Cooper and her work.

The texts I have been reading were selected on the basis that they have something to say about international politics, that they are not well known in IR, and that the writers were women. At this stage, my analysis is a very preliminary one, but it is already clear that although there are many overlaps and interconnections between their arguments, these women were highly distinct thinkers. The most obvious similarity between them is in relation to the question of ‘voice’. Cooper is the only one of the four thinkers to subject the question of voice to theoretical reflection. Her advocacy of the importance of hearing the voice of black women is now well-recognised as a founding argument for the importance of ‘standpoint’ in claims to knowledge, particularly when it comes to the meaning of oppression. But the other three also ground their thinking in their own positionality and insist on the relation between their insights and their situation as aristocratic woman (von Suttner), working class woman (Goldman), black woman (Robeson).

Von Suttner’s influential novel Lay Down Your Arms was written from what was clearly von Suttner’s perspective, in which feminine emotion (of a very nineteenth century upper class kind) is the starting point for sustained questioning of militarism. This perspective works through her memoirs and her journalism and advocacy for the establishment of an international tribunal to settle disputes between states. Goldman sees the world from the position of those oppressed by capitalism. Like Suttner, for Goldman passion is central to political engagement and analysis, however whereas Suttner emphasises love Goldman emphasises anger. In Robeson’s ‘conversation’ with Pearl Buck in American Argument (1949), she is insistent that whereas Buck looks at questions of war and peace from the perspective of privilege, she looks at them from the background of oppression and therefore sees something different.

There is something interesting here about how voice and emotion work through the style and method of the work of these women. But there is also much of interest in their substantive claims about questions that continue to be important in IR. Some of what they argue fits with recognisable strands of thought in late nineteenth/ early twentieth century international thought, but much of it also prefigures arguments that are much more recent. Von Suttner and Cooper both share a belief in progress, universalism and civilization characteristic of liberal internationalism. In von Suttner, Cooper and Goldman one finds reference to evolutionary and psychological theorising, including around sex and sexuality, typical of their time. All of the thinkers are committed to internationalism and a certain moral universalism.

Cooper foreshadows the work of C.L.R James and the contemporary revival of interest in the Haitian revolution. She and Robeson clearly spell out the international politics of racialisation, and its significance within international political economy, empire and state-making long before today’s scholars returned to this theme. Goldman analyses the relation between the modern state and capitalist economy in relation to war – prefiguring themes in contemporary international historical sociology. Robeson traces the same relation within the workings of the UN, prefiguring later work in critical and decolonial political economy. Von Suttner and Goldman both expose the relation between gender, patriotism and militarism in ways that prefigure the work of later thinker such as Sarah Ruddick and Carol Cohn. And all four thinkers refuse to draw a clear line between domestic and inter-state relations.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to the range and value of all of the work of these thinkers in this short blog. Our Women and the History of International Thought project has only just begun, and I am still in the process of learning from the work of these women. I will conclude with some quotations, so that you can hear something of the voices to which I am currently listening.

“ – war is the negation of education, and therefore all the triumphs of education must be annihilated by it; it is a step backwards into barbarism and must therefore have everything that is barbarous in its train” von Suttner Lay Down Your Arms (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894: 262).

“High Politics, that is fifty or sixty men and a following of newspapers, see to it that there shall never be any rest, that no progress can ever be made towards the healing of internal troubles, the elevation of human society.” Von Suttner Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner: records of an eventful life Volume 2 (Boston and London: Ginn & Co., 1910:174).

“The slave trade was a catalyst for the plunder, the atrocious wars, and the anarchy which for three centuries dislocated Western Africa, giving reign to savagery and impeding the progress of all civilization” Cooper Slavery and the French Revolutionists 1788-1805 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988: 33)

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class, – it is the cause of human kind, the very birthright of humanity” Cooper A Voice from the South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988: 120-1).

“If for no other reason, it is out of surplus energy that militarism must act to remain alive; therefore it will seek an enemy or create one artificially. In this civilized purpose and method, militarism is sustained by the state, protected by the laws of the land, is fostered by the home and school, and glorified through public opinion.” Goldman “Preparedness: the road to universal slaughter”, originally published in Mother Earth, December 1915, accessible in:

“Citizenship has become bankrupt: it has lost its essential meaning, its one-time guarantee. Today the native is no more safe in his own country than the citizen by adoption. Deprivation of citizenship, exile and deportation are practiced by every government; they have become established and accepted methods.” Goldman A Woman Without a Country, originally published 1937, reproduced in The New Anarchist Library (Orkney: Cienfuegos Press, 1979).

“The colonial powers of the ‘free world’ have always thought and spoken of Africa in terms of themselves, not in terms of the African people; in terms of raw materials, cheap labour, areas for expansion and settlement, strategic bases and military man-power, always for themselves, not for the African people” Robeson New World Review Vol 20, 1952, July.

“The UN, like most large families has special little cliques within itself. These cliques, in order to get their way on points at issue, use parliamentary, diplomatic, procedural techniques, as well as personal, political and especially economic pressure to further their aims. They intrigue, gang up, take sides, threaten; they call their opponents names and try to ridicule them” Robeson New World Review Vol 24 1956 January.



Buck, Pearl S. with Eslanda Goode Robeson (1949). American Argument. New York: John Day Co..

Ferguson, Kathy (2011) Emma Goldman: political thinking in the streets. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

May, Vivian M. (2007). Anna Julia Cooper, visionary black feminist: a critical introduction. London: Routledge.

Ransby, Barbara (2013). Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson. New Haven: Yale University Press

Stiehm, Judith Hicks (2013). Champions for Peace: women winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

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What happened to women’s international thought?

Welcome to the first monthly blog post for the Leverhulme Project on Women and the History of International Thought. In this opening post, Patricia Owens presents some of the findings from an article just published in International Studies Quarterly (available for download here).

There can be little doubt that existing histories of international thought and disciplinary International Relations (IR) have marginalized historical women. By historical women, I mean those figures working before the late twentieth-century and the historically constructed rather than biological character of sex difference and gender identity.

What is the magnitude of the problem? In answering that question might be also find resources for remedying historical women’s exclusion and thereby rewrite the history of international thought?

To establish the number, proportion, and identity of historical women in existing histories, I analyzed sixty texts from 1929 until the present, and across four genres: histories of international thought; IR’s disciplinary histories; anthologies of canonical figures; and IR ‘states of the art’.

Across all texts, of 4421 references to historical figures there were 130 to historical women: 2.94%. The 130 references yielded 79 individual historical women with at least partial recognition in IR’s intellectual and disciplinary history.

The genre least likely to highlight the intellectual contributions of historical women is that which establishes a catalog of intellectual ‘greats’ or ‘classic’ thinkers. Across eighteen anthologies of canonical figures, there were only nine occasions when a historical woman was profiled: 1.54%.

Only six historical women are recognized as ‘great thinkers’: Hannah Arendt, Susan Strange, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf.

The maximum number of historical women included in any one work that aims to establish, or even expand, the ‘canon’ is two. Even anthologies and readers edited by self-consciously ‘critical’ scholars perform no better than so-called ‘mainstream’ texts.

Results by Genre: Historical Women in Sixty Histories of International Thought

Genre No of Texts Cumulative number of historical figures for each genre Cumulative number of historical women* %
Canonical Thinkers 18 584 9 1.54%
History of Int. Thought 18 1952 47 2.41%
IR ‘state of the art’ 14 698 16 2.29%
Disciplinary History 10 1187 58 4.88%
Overall Total 60 4421 130 2.94%

Across all sixty texts, only twenty-two historical women were mentioned more than once, nearly half of these twenty-two mentioned just twice. The figure most recognized was British IPE scholar, Susan Strange. In second and third place are Prussian-born Hannah Arendtand Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg, both Jewish.

No women working outside the US, UK, or Europe is included among those mentioned more than once.

Only four women of color, all African-Americans, are among the seventy-nine: Merze Tate, Eslanda Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Pauli Murray, and all from one text: Robert Vitalis’s recent,White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations.

Twenty-Two Most Recognized Historical Women in Sixty Histories of International Thought

Name (alphabetical by mention) Mentions Main location and field
1. Susan Strange (1923-1998) 10 British-based international political economist
2. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) 7 Prussian-born US-based political theorist
3. Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) 5 Polish-German based philosopher and socialist revolutionary
4. Margaret Sprout (1903-2004) 4 US-based independent IR scholar
5. F. Melian Stawell (1869-1936) 4 Australian-born British-based classicist
6. Helena Swanwick (1864-1939) 4 German-born British-based political writer and feminist
7. Jessie Bernard (1903-1996) 3 US-based highly prolific sociologist and feminist scholar
8. Adda B. Bozeman (1908-1994) 3 US-based IR scholar
9. Susan Lawrence (1871-1947) 3 British-based Labour politician
10. Margaret Mead (1901-1978) 3 US-based anthropologist
11. Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932) 3 US-based geopolitical thinker
12. Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) 3 Austrian-born writer, peace advocate, Nobel Peace Prize winner
13. Jane Addams (1860-1935) 2 US-based social worker and philosopher
14. Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) 2 US-based sociologist and leading pacifist
15. Kathleen Courtney (1878-1974) 2 British-based political activist, suffragist, internationalist
16. Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) 2 US-based sociologist and organizational theorist
17. Mary Agnes Hamilton (1884-1966) 2 British-based Labour Party politician
18. Agnes Headlam-Morley (1902-1986) 2 British-based IR scholar
19. Lucy Philip Mair (1901-1986) 2 British-based scholar of colonial administration
20. Margery Perham (1895-1982) 2 British-based scholar of colonial administration
21. Ruth Savord (1896-1966) 2 US-based librarian
22. Barbara Ward (1914-1981) 2 British-based development economist

We already know from some earlier studies and preliminary work for this project that women in the past have thought deeply about international relations. But their work has been ignored, marginalized, or appropriated.

The historical women identified through this survey are the tip of the iceberg of those who, in different ways, are part of the history of international thought.That there is little convergence on which historical women were referenced suggests that larger numbers are completely hidden from view.

Historical women’s exclusion from IR’s intellectual and disciplinary tells us very little about the quantity and quality of women’s intellectual work in this domain. It tells us much more about how selective histories are produced and maintained and how gendered and racial hierarchies shape intellectual organization.

So, perhaps, the real question is not, to paraphrase then Sussex historian Martin Wight’s famous query: ‘why is there no international theory’by historical women? Rather, it is: what happened to women’s international thought?

Over the course of the next four years we hope to provide a systematic answer to that question.

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