A question of knowing: thinkers, thought and sources in the history of women’s international thought

By Joanna Wood

Review of the workshop ‘Women and the History of International Thought’ held at as part of the Early Career Workshops at the EISA Pan-European Conference 2019, Sofia, Bulgaria

When Sarah Dunstan and I first conceived of this workshop, our aim was two-fold: firstly, to intellectually and practically engage a network of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working on the area of women and the history of international thought. In an emerging field, such connections are particularly vital as ECRs are less likely to have peers in their own institution or region and connecting with senior academics often involves a significant ‘leap’ across hierarchical divides. However, secondly, and far more basically, we wanted put this topic and these thinkers at the heart of a major International Studies conference because women and gender are not a new presence in international thought, they are constitutive from the beginning.

To this end, we brought together scholars from across Europe and beyond to recover and evaluate historical women’s international thought as well as set the agenda for revisionist histories of International Relations. We also hoped to engage in theorizing the role of gender in the histories of international thought and International Relations.

The first panel aimed to recover historical women as thinkers. Thomas Briggs from the University of Connecticut started us off with Vera Micheles Dean – ‘The great lady of International Relations’, as she was eulogised at her funeral – and her forgotten contribution to Foreign Policy Analysis. Tracing the biographical and intellectual journey of Dean from graduate studies to her long employment at the Foreign Policy Association, he illuminated the personal and professional gendered divisions experienced by women scholars. Reflecting on the legacy of these in the construction of the IR canon, he advocated attending to gender as an organising principle of IR, one holding significant and productive discursive power.  I followed with a connected paper on the ‘Terra Incognitae’  (a term borrowed, in different ways, with different meanings, from Anna Julia Cooper and Robert Vitalis) – the neglected locations of international thought. I discussed how following feminist and black feminist historians and taking racially diverse women as your starting point leads to new locations, specifically women’s colleges and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), thinkers and types of thought. Using a case study of the Bureau of International Research at Radcliffe and Harvard, I offered a tentative, pre-archival research analysis of how the lines of gender, race and class shaped the formation, functioning and forgetting of women’s international thought in the US academy from 1919-49.

The second panel, on gendering security and diplomacy, led with Dean Cooper-Cunningham of the University of Copenhagen on visualising insecurities through close examination of posters in and about the women suffrage movement. He argued that we need to look beyond text sources and investigate different types of knowledge production to fully recover historical women’s international thought and break silences. Showcasing the utility and impact of visual sources when looking at suffragist and suffragette approaches to security and insecurity, war and peace, he asked the powerful and searching question: ‘where is the visual in IR?’. Dr Boyd van Dijk of the University of Amsterdam then followed, speaking on gender and women in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. He revealed how the attempt to undo ‘Nazi extremes’ such as mass forced sterilisation after World War II reasserted older sex differences such as pro-natalism that found ‘fighting women’ dangerous to world order and the structure of politics. Through the example of Marguerite Frick-Cramer, the first woman to join the committee of the International Red Cross, he intricately reconstructed how gender operated in the ICRC and through this, the drafting of the Conventions, highlighting the fundamental role of unpaid volunteer female labour. 

Dr Sarah Dunstan’s paper on women, scholarly habitus & the canon of international thought provided a starting point in the third panel for broader discussions on constructing the field. Using the rich resource of oral histories conducted with senior women scholars in International Relations, she made a compelling case for why intellectual history needs to take such sources seriously if it is to truly understand and capture the contributions of women thinkers. Oral histories can get at the silent experience of the world that shapes the output of a scholar that otherwise goes un-noted, especially crucial when dealing with thinkers marginalised in traditional approaches to knowledge production, intellectual history and canon-formation. This led on to a multi-faceted discussion on how we ‘do’ the history of women’s international thought, to which I’ll return.

The undisputed highlight of the day came with Dr Immi Tallgren from the University of Helsinki, who, having been our senior discussant throughout, gave her keynote ‘Absent or Ignored? Women at the Dawn of the Discipline of International Law’. Giving a nuanced and reflexive account of looking for and researching women in the history of international law, she shared how a book chapter became a four year international project and the focus shifted from identifying women to questions of gender, visibility and silencing. She asked how we can move on in mainstream contemporary scholarship from the question of simply the absence of women to one of detail, depth and complexity and how we can “confront the sex and gender marginalisation in intellectual and professional ‘disciplinary’ histories without falling into essentialism, revisionism or hagiography? How to truly address intersectionality?”. The case studies of Katherine B. Fite (US Lawyer at the Nuremberg Trials) and Rebecca West (reporting on Nuremberg as a journalist) provided a captivating journey into how women worked and gender operated in international law in the mid 20th Century. However, even more compelling was the reflection on how looking for women and working on this sort of history becomes inherently political, inherently activist – “writing on women becomes an exercise in writing history from below” and asked the question of all of us ‘is being on the critical margin of scholarship a result of focusing on women and inherent to this?’. This provided both a powerful call to arms and demand for reflexivity from all of us and led to a buzzing Q&A.

Three key themes had emerged through the day and were crystallised in Immi’s keynote: 1. How do we know and identify women in international thought? 2. How do we identify International Relations or International Law and their respective scholars, particularly in relation to intellectual production versus practice and the hierarchies of knowing and doing? And 3. Which sources do we look at and which count as ‘thought’? We’ll be continuing to work on and discuss these as we build our network through online groups and future events. If you’re an ECR and want to be a part of this, please do get in touch! Email me at j.c.wood@sussex.ac.uk and I’ll add you to the list.

I want to end with some important and well-earned thank yous: thank you to Jef Huysmans and the EISA ECD committee and group for providing the funding, support and organisation that enabled the workshop to take place. To our hosts,Sofia University, and especially Prokop Kolinsky for his exceptional organisation both before and during the event. To our workshop participants Dean, Tom and Boyd, for making it an incredibly rich and thought-provoking day. To our fantastic senior discussant and keynote Immi, who in her engagement, enthusiasm, deeply thought comments and encouragement provided an exceptional model of mentorship and collegiality. And, finally, and most importantly, to my co-organiser Sarah, for all her hard work and for agreeing to do this in the first place! Thank you all.

Posted in Uncategorised

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *