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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