Merze Tate and 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 Merze 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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2 comments on “Merze Tate and Women’s International Thought
  1. Molly Cochran says:

    Very excited for the book to come out and full of hope for how it may impact teaching within the field. I am wondering if there are plans to collect ‘alternative’ international thought syllabi as part of the project. At the Sussex pre-BISA workshop on the theme, participants shared stories of their efforts in regard to generating interest in their departments for this and in creating such syllabi. Thank you for this taster of what is to come.

  2. Katharina Rietzler says:

    Thank you very much for your comment, Molly, and I agree! Women international thinkers, even those where you wouldn’t expect it, tended to be heavily invested in questions of pedagogy, education and curricula. Re-incorporating their thought into academic syllabi might not just make those syllabi more diverse but also more reflexive.

    I know you have been working on the theme of ‘publicness’ which, I feel, speaks to concerns about education, and I would love to discuss further.

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