Vania Bambirra: a voice from the Global South.

by Dr. Felipe Antunes de Oliveira

Vania Bambirra
 Image courtesy of Memorial Vania Bambirra (UFRGS)

The marginalisation of women’s voices in International Relations is a long-lasting and broad-based phenomenon, the full extension of which is only now being revealed by the WHIT project. However, as the case of Vania Bambirra shows, invisibility may be even starker when the condition of being a woman is compounded by the circumstance of being a Global South scholar espousing radical political ideas. Although some of Bambirra’s texts have been translated to German, Italian and Japanese, her most important writings are in Spanish and Portuguese, placing her beyond the imperial language barrier which has informally established English as the undisputed idiom of IR scholarship. Consequently, despite co-founding dependency theory, teaching at some of the most important universities in Latin America, and publishing dozens of highly original books and articles, Vania Bambirra’s name is completely absent from IR and IPE handbooks and disciplinary surveys.

Bambirra herself recounts her intellectual trajectory in a 100-page long academic memoir she wrote in 1991 as a requirement for reclaiming her position as Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Brasilia after returning from decades of political exile. Born in 1940 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, she was first trained as a schoolteacher – a career she never intended to follow. In 1959, she was accepted at the Federal University of Minas Gerais for undergraduate studies in Sociology and Politics, soon also receiving a competitive scholarship to join a research team in Economics. Although Marxism was not officially part of the curriculum, Bambirra confesses that she spent most of her research time reading Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Preobrazhensky and Rosa Luxemburg. Her studies were complemented by political activism in slums, trade unions and peasant associations, helping to establish the famous ligas camponesas (peasant leagues) – revolutionary agrarian reform movements that were precursors of the contemporary landless workers movement of Brazil.

Vania Bambirra
Image courtesy of Memorial Vania Bambirra (UFRGS)

In 1962, Bambirra was accepted as a master’s student and teaching associate at the newly founded University of Brasilia, created in the new Brazilian capital to be a centre for innovative social thinking. Because her husband was also accepted in the same department, the founder of the University and its first Dean, the revered anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, proposed slashing her wages in half, so that the couple ‘would not get rich at the University’s expenses’. Refusing to accept the condition of a second-class academic just for being a woman, Bambirra mobilised her colleagues and founded the University of Brasilia Faculty Association – finally winning her arm-wrestle with the Dean and keeping her full salary.   

After visiting Cuba as the representative of Brazilian social movements in 1963, a trip that included meetings with revolutionary leaders such as Ernesto Che Guevara, Bambirra returned to Brazil only to see her academic career abruptly interrupted by a right-wing military coup in 1964. In her memoirs, she recounts those turbulent days:

Consummated the coup, I returned to my office (…). It was very sad, literally. Everything that was in my shelves and my files (…) had been thrown to the ground, with obvious marks of boots soaked in the campus’ mud. My desk shelves were empty – not even the pens and a cheap necklace I left there remained in place. In sum, the chaos warned us: ‘don’t come back.’ Then I left, but not before going to the lecture theatre and reading the ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ to the students. It was an extremely sad farewell (Bambirra 1991, 21).  

Hiding from the police, Bambirra moved to Sao Paulo, where her daughter was born under a false name to avoid political persecution at the hospital. In 1966, she finally managed to escape to Santiago, becoming a full professor at the University of Chile before her thirtieth birthday. After the 1973 coup staged by Pinochet against the democratic socialist administration of Salvador Allende, she was forced to flee again – this time, to Mexico, where she completed her doctoral studies under the supervision of Ruy Mauro Marini and earned a professorship at the National University of Mexico (UNAM).

In exile, her research would flourish and begin to attract international recognition. The only woman in the original group that created dependency theory, Bambirra published a highly original theory of revolution (1967, 1973), a caustic critique of Latin American ruling classes (1974; 1978) and an extensive analysis of the works of Marx and Lenin (with Dos Santos, 1981), as well as detailed historical case studies of the social, political and economic contradictions of Latin American societies (1977). Although Bambirra never saw herself as an IR scholar, her work has a strong international character, clearly building on Lenin’s theory of imperialism. In contrast with the simplified views of dependency theory popularised in North American universities by Gunder Frank and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Bambirra’s writings explored the complex relationships between international pressures and social disputes in peripheral societies, refusing straightforward external determinism:

It is necessary to insist that the great theoretical contribution of dependency has been to demonstrate that this is not solely an international relations phenomenon, of trade exchange that is unfavourable to less developed countries; instead, it is the internal relations that conform a socio-economic structure whose character and dynamic are conditioned by imperialist subjugation, exploitation and domination (Bambirra 1974, 99).    

Particularly interesting – and, so far, unexplored – is Bambirra’s engagement with the feminist ideas of the 1970s. Opposing a clear-cut separation between class struggle and gender-based oppression, she dismissed feminism as ‘an absurd and grotesque idea’ (1972, 84). Her problematic views on feminism were largely conditioned by the identification of the movement with the leadership of Global North, bourgeoise women. From her positionality as a Latin American political refugee, Bambirra realised that, across the Global South, bourgeoise women dumped the burden of housework on the shoulders of working-class women. For this reason, Bambirra classified ‘the petit bourgeoises woman in Latin America’ as ‘the most sinister exploiter that has ever existed’ (1978b, 40). As she explained:

The bourgeois woman, though it is true that she cannot escape her social category as object and her inferior position, does not experience the phenomenon of exploitation of her work in the home. On the contrary, she is served hand and foot. If she wants, she can work, whether in a career or for diversion. She exists to cultivate the trivialities of life, to show off the latest fashion, to adorn the house. Though woman, in general, occupies an inferior position, her problems are directly related to the class she belongs to. The bourgeois woman, even though her condition is that of an object, because she is a woman, does not have the problems of the proletarian, who lives the phenomenon of double exploitation in her work (Bambirra 1972, 83).

Several passages relating gender and class forms of oppression – often from a peripheral capitalist perspective – can be found in Bambirra’s published and unpublished writings. Overall, Bambirra’s sensitivity to varied and overlapping forms of oppression, as well as her deeply situated historical work, suggests that she may be seen as a precursor of intersectional IPE approaches. Ultimately, however, her firm commitment to historical materialism meant that class was normally taken as having ontological primacy over other analytical lenses.    

Image courtesy of Memorial Vania Bambirra (UFRGS)

Looking back at Bambirra’s rich academic and political trajectory, it is shocking that her work is never mentioned in disciplinary histories of IR and IPE. Particularly unforgivable is the failure of critical literature reviews of dependency theory to acknowledge her extensive contribution (Chilcote, 1974; Kaufman, Chernotsky, & Geller, 1975; Palma, 1978; Smith, 1979 –honourable exceptions are Cristobal Kay, 2010 and Grosfoguel, 2000). A case in point is Catherine Scott, whose book about gender and development (1995) raises important critiques of dependency theory. Based on a limited engagement with the dependency literature, the author claims that ‘[n]either gender nor women are explicitly discussed by the early dependency theorists’ (1995, 93). Although her critique of Cardoso and Faletto (1979) is certainly insightful, Scott’s sweeping assessment of dependency theory is fundamentally limited by her unawareness of the only woman in the original dependency group.

Revisiting Bambirra’s extraordinary life and work is particularly important at a moment when right-wing, authoritarian governments are again on the rise in Brazil and elsewhere. After Vania Bambirra’s death, in 2015, a dedicated group of Brazilian researchers digitalised most of her published and unpublished academic work and made it freely available on a website kept by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. A deep dive into Bambirra’s writings may reveal unexplored facets of her work; a comprehensive stocktaking of her contribution to IR, IPE, Latin American history and gender studies is still waiting to be written.

Dr. Felipe Antunes de Oliveira is a Research Associate at the Centre for Global Political Economy (University of Sussex) and Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Latin American Studies (Georgetown University).


Bambirra, V. (1967). Los errores de la teoría del foco. Santiago: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo.

Bambirra, V. (1972). Women’s liberation and class struggle. Review of Radical Political Economics, 4(3), 75–84.

Bambirra, V. (1973). La revolución Cubana: una reinterpretación. Santiago: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo.

Bambirra, V. (1974). El capitalismo dependiente Latinoamericano. Mexico DF: Siglo XXI.

Bambirra, V. (1977). Brasil: nacionalismo, populismo y dictadura: 50 años de crisis social. Mexico DF: Siglo XXI.

Bambirra, V. (1978). Teoría de la dependencia: una anticrítica. Mexico DF: Ediciones Era.

Bambirra, V. (1978b). The situation of Latin American Women – Interview with Vania Bambirra. Two Thirds – a journal of underdevelopment studies. 1(3), 38-42.

Bambirra, V. and Dos Santos, T. (1981) La estrategia y la tatica socialistas de Marx y Engels a Lenin. Mexico DF: Ediciones Era.

Chilcote, R. H. (1974). Dependency: A critical synthesis of the literature. Latin American Perspectives, 1(1), 4–29.

Grosfoguel, R. (2000). Developmentalism, modernity, and dependency theory in Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South1(2), 347-374.

Kaufman, R. R., Chernotsky, H. I., & Geller, D. S. (1975). A Preliminary Test of the theory of dependency. Comparative Politics, 7(3), 303–330.

Kay, C. (2010). Latin American theories of development and underdevelopment. London: Routledge.

Palma, G. (1978). Dependency: A formal theory of underdevelopment or a methodology for the analysis of concrete situations of underdevelopment? World Development, 6(7–8), 881–924.

Scott, C. V. (1995). Gender and development: rethinking modernization and dependency theory. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Smith, T. (1979). The underdevelopment of development literature: The case of dependency theory. World Politics, 31(2), 247–288.

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International Thought and the Talented Tenth

by Katharina Rietzler.

Is pedagogical thought a form of international thought? If the study of international relations emerged from the study of race relations, as Robert Vitalis has suggested, education is central to international thought, even in the absence of educational mobility. In the United States, questions around education went to the heart of the American racial order in the era of Jim Crow segregation. Black women educators were the first to critically analyse the formation of attitudes in childhood as a problem in international-relations-as-race-relations. In this blog post, I will focus on two African American women and their international educational thought, Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961).[1]

Nannie Helen Burroughs, Image courtesy of wikimedia. (Common Domain).

In their thought, they recognised education as intrinsically connected to challenging American racism in a world of empires, and before W.E.B. Du Bois popularized the idea of the ‘talented tenth’, a small group of educated leaders who would uplift the race. Amidst the resulting fierce debates that pitted proponents of industrial education against those who criticized the latter as entrenching African Americans’ socio-economic subordination, Cooper and Burroughs occupied a middle ground, with both insisting on the importance of classical education and economic self-sufficiency.

The history of African American club women forms another important context for Cooper’s and Burroughs’ international thinking, as does the structural discrimination that left teaching as one of the few viable professional avenues for African American women intellectuals. Black women’s clubs grew in prominence in the Progressive Era, forming the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW) in 1896. Education became a fundamental concern of the movement – the NACW’s motto was ‘Lifting as We Climb’ – and many of its leaders were educators themselves. Mary Church Terrell, the first NACW president, studied at Oberlin College as a contemporary of Anna Julia Cooper. Terrell was also the first African American woman to be appointed to a school board in the District of Columbia. Cooper and Terrell both taught at the prestigious M Street High School in Washington D.C., the first African American public school – and the alma mater of Nannie Burroughs.

As a wide-ranging international thinker, Anna Julia Cooper analyzed ‘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’, as discussed in a previous post by Kim Hutchings. Born into slavery in North Carolina, Cooper became the fourth African American woman to gain a doctoral degree, at the Sorbonne in Paris. In her thesis, Cooper developed a methodology for recovering the voices of marginalised people of colour in the French Empire.[2] For most of her life, though, she was a teacher, first in the segregated school system of North Carolina and then Washington DC. Her best-known book, published to wide acclaim in 1892, became A Voice from the South.

Anna Julia Cooper, Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a chapter on ‘The Higher Education of Women’, she speaks to key themes in women’s history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: women’s greater public and political role, the supporters and detractors of women’s education, and the beneficial impact of women as educators. But Cooper connects these concerns to core themes in international thought: race and civilization, war, hierarchy.

Cooper embraces the idea that maternal influence might temper chauvinism and racism, and couches the history of war and empire in terms of pedagogical failure:

‘Since the idea of order and subordination succumbed to barbarian brawn and brutality in the fifth century, the civilized world has been like a child brought up by his father. (…) Whence came this apotheosis of greed and cruelty? Whence this sneaking admiration we all have for bullies and prize-fighters? Whence the self-congratulation of “dominant” races, as if “dominant” meant “righteous” and carried with it a title to inherit the earth? Whence the scorn of so-called weak or unwarlike races and individuals, and the very comfortable assurance that it is their manifest destiny to be wiped out as vermin before this advancing civilization?’

Such ideas, Cooper, argued, were those of men, and while woman sometimes ‘parroted’ them, ‘her heart is aglow with sympathy and loving kindness, and she cannot be true to her real self without giving out these elements into the forces of the world.’ The ‘thinking woman’ would reform the ‘civilized world’, emitting those feminine qualities, that, together with masculine influence, would ‘produce for the twentieth century a higher type of civilization than any attained in the nineteenth’.

Cooper’s ideas may seem essentialist today, but they are remarkable in the way in which they claimed an importance for women’s education in world order and civilizational terms.

Nannie Helen Burroughs’ educational thought did so, too, but with greater attention to economic globalization and missionary Christianity. Like Cooper, Burroughs ran a school, the Christian National Training School for Women and Girls in the District of Columbia. Burroughs also worked for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention and became active in civil rights and women’s organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the NACW. She left a substantial corpus of published writings which has recently been collected in an anthology.

As Angela Hornsby-Gutting has shown, Burroughs’ educational work was not focused on racial uplift in the United States alone. From the early 1900s, Burroughs became concerned with the uplift of people of color throughout the world. She thought that African American women occupied a special role as missionaries spreading the gospel in foreign lands, exemplifying women’s leadership and self-sacrifice in the spirit of Christ. Burroughs regarded colonial oppression in Africa and racial oppression in the United States as intrinsically linked, referring to Africans as ‘our kinsmen.’ Her National Training School trained both African American and African women students. However, Burroughs’ efforts to professionalize domestic service also furthered women’s economic independence as wage earners in a time of economic boom and bust, and combated racist stereotypes.

In a 1902 speech entitled ‘The Colored Woman and her Relation to the Domestic Problem’ given at the Negro Young People’s Christian and Educational Congress in Atlanta, Burroughs, like Cooper, reflects on the ‘thinking woman’. She admits that domestic service may not conform to the aspirations of educated African American women ‘but educated women without work and the wherewith to support themselves … are not worth an ounce more to the race than ignorant women.’

Burroughs regarded the race problem as an international one, in which the forces of capitalism and the legacies of slavery pitted ‘white imported help’ against African American women seeking economic independence. The ‘demands of the hour’ were those brought about by the radical transformations of the Progressive period, marked by urbanization, industrialization and mass immigration. Burroughs’ case for professionalizing domestic science is also a plea for racial solidarity in the face of global white supremacy which put white workers at an advantage in the marketplace. In Burroughs’ speech, global labor movements and the global color line internationalize the question of industrial education.

More practically-orientated than Cooper, and in a less lyrical voice than her, Burroughs nonetheless also understood her work as a teacher to be of core relevance to an international order in rapid flux.

[1] For a closer analysis of the category of ‘education’ in the context of women’s international thought see Katharina Rietzler, ‘Public Opinion and Education’, in Patricia Owens, Katharina Rietzler, Kimberly Hutchings, Sarah C. Dunstan (eds.), Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, under contract).

[2] For a longer discussion see Vivian M. May’s essay on Cooper in Patricia Owens and Katharina Rietzler (eds.), Women’s International Thought: A New History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming January 2021).

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Finding women thinkers in the record

By Joanna Wood.

Having been forced to return to the UK a few weeks ago, halfway through my research trip to US College archives, it seemed like a good moment to reflect on why I was there, what I was doing and why looking in those places matters, especially for marginalised and/or neglected thinkers. As a post written in light, rather than in spite, of the current situation, I’d like to dedicate this to the archivists who made me so welcome: you make this research possible. Thank you.

For those researching neglected, marginalised thinkers, the official record seems to be the opposite of where you should be looking – after all, these thinkers are neglected in part because they don’t appear in the record and they don’t appear in the record because they are marginalised. Precisely the sort of place to omit historical women thinkers from the deeply gendered, raced and classed times of the 1920s-50s. Not necessarily. I look at women present in, connected to or working in the US academy in the first half of the twentieth century, where they are a minority in gender and a double (and triple) minority when this intersects with race and/or class. Our field until recently has not expected to find them in the academy, let alone the official record. And yet, it is the official record that started to lead scholars to these thinkers and now, to a broader ‘world’ of women’s international thought in the academy. Named chairs (professorships), prizes and buildings were often the first clue that ‘a woman was here’  (Murphy, 2017, Vitalis, 2015). But those are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person ‘named’ there are pages and pages of thinkers waiting in the records: in journal lists, institutional material, minutes, magazines, personal papers and correspondence.

Starting with the available reports marking every stage of a scholar’s career, you work through the annual lists of doctoral dissertations in progress, updates on new hires and of course obituaries. Similarly, reports of events, conferences and meetings are combed for mentions of women. This starts to build you a list of names that you then search for individually: career path, published work and of course personal papers in archives. You could stop there: it certainly furnished me with a significant number of thinkers to work on and a broad perspective on women in the field. However, these published resources are only one part of the record – the other is found in the archives, specifically the institutional archives of US Colleges and Universities.  

Take a trip through the catalogue or finding aids of most archives of US academic institutions and, sometimes after serious digging, you will almost certainly find a woman engaged in international thinking. Depending on the institution, or even despite the institution, it won’t necessarily be obvious (a member of faculty) or even resemble what we expect international thought to look like (books, credited research, named roles) but they will be there. And, best of all for the scholar, you finally get more than names – you get bodies of work and pictures of the professional reality of women thinkers in the academy. Halfway through my archival research in the US and I’m delighted (and more than a little relieved) to say that the theory has stood up to the reality. The archives have provided enough women and thought to furnish multiple theses.

Firstly there are the institutional records: the lists of graduating students, incoming and exiting Faculty, course lists, Departmental records and minutes for every committee you can imagine, on every possible theme. Then there is the official correspondence: hirings and firings, responses to press requests, letters between other heads of academic institutions, individuals. And the occasional autograph hunter… Finally there is the informal correspondence between teachers and former students, scholarly colleagues, academic women and non-academic friends, family and everyone in between. This last category, unsurprisingly, usually proves the most enjoyable to work through, containing as it does vignettes that are wonderful regardless of how relevant they are to your project (often the less relevant, the more enjoyable!). Correspondence runs the gamut from the formal official refusal letter to a women graduate seeking work to the rich informal correspondence of college women keeping in touch with former teachers and mentors, discussing the attempts to manage marriage, children and the desire to maintain an intellectual and professional life. We find contradictions to the more easily available ‘record’: a complaint to a railway company reveals that a senior women’s college administrator and two other women did in fact attend a conference even though they don’t appear in the rapporteur’s report; and a letter from a college teacher to her former student after the latter’s marriage exhorts her to not give up her burgeoning professional intellectual career in international economics. And, even after ‘finally’, there is also that impossible to categorise set of materials that can at best be loosely headed ‘ephemera’ – randomly kept magazines, telegram drafts, photos and odd notes that give a brief glimpse into the day to day world of women in the academy.

But, of course, that only gets us to more names on the list and the professional reality of these women. What about their thought? We already have the published work, where they are credited, from journals, books and other publications but this leaves many thinkers simply a name on the list. This is where the archives really come into their own: many hold the personal papers of former students, Faculty and associated thinkers. These in turn contain a wealth of resources that, if we are willing to step beyond the traditional definition of thought as academic books and journal articles, offer a rich body of international thought.  This includes teaching materials, pedagogy, bibliographies, unpublished work, fragments, contributions to husbands’ work and other non-traditional genres. Not only does this offer exciting new material to work with but also brings to light women previously excluded as ‘thinkers’ such as teaching-only staff, librarians and administrators. We finally find ourselves immersed in the world of women’s international thought hinted at by the named chairs, prizes and buildings.

All of these finds do not of course detract from the very clear omissions that such archives contain, whether contemporaneous (students or staff prevented from attending, those who don’t appear in the record) or later (hierarchies of whose papers were kept, whose are catalogued most thoroughly). Likewise, regardless of how many women we find in the record, we must never lose sight of the fact that there are those who do not feature, are not mentioned, are not visible, have been actively erased. The record and the archives can only ever be partial, biased, unreliable but they are a fruitful starting point in a field that doesn’t expect there to be any women thinkers in this period, let alone recorded ones. That is an important misconception to challenge and the record a significant source to use to do so, precisely because of its partial, weighted status. We should continue looking beyond both record and archives but that is another blog post.

Once you find one and shatter the illusion of absence, finding women in the record becomes addictive. Named chairs and buildings go from being part of the furniture of your institution to revealing clues to a different intellectual history, archives from dusty official repositories to vibrant alternative stores of new thought and thinkers. We find a new world of international thought. And, so, going back to where I started, we should not be surprised to find women in the most official of records. Women were in the academy, engaged in international thinking, throughout the 20th century. It is time we caught up with these thinkers sitting – some of whom have sat for over 100 years – in plain sight.

Murphy, C. N. (2017) Relocating the point of IR in understanding industrial age problems. In: Dyvik, S. L., Selby, J & Wilkinson, R. (eds) What’s the Point of International Relations? London, Routledge, pp.71-82.

Vitalis, R. (2015) White World Order, Black Power Politics: the Birth of American International Relations. NY,Cornell University Press.

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Women Thinkers of the World Economy

by Professor Patricia Owens

In International Political Economy: An Intellectual History, Benjamin J. Cohen (2008) argued that a ‘magnificent seven’ individuals shaped the modern discipline of ‘IPE’ when, in reaction to the turmoil of the Oil Crisis of 1973, it was founded as a separate academic subfield of IR within Political Science. On this account, IPE was a necessary and belated unification of political-economic thought after the historical separation between the academic disciplines of Political Science and Economics.

Susan Strange

But as with the omissions and erasures that characterise IR’s more general disciplinary history, discussed in earlier blogs and WHIT research, so with IPE. In dating IPE’s beginning to the 1970s, numerous women international economic thinkers are easily erased from the wider history of thought on the world economy. International economy is a field so fundamental to understanding international relations that it ought to be thought ludicrous that the earliest women thinker to be reckoned with is Susan Strange, one of the ‘magnificent seven’, who founded both IPE in Britain and co-founded the British International Studies Association.

Thus far, most, but not all, of the works we have recovered and analyzed in this domain can be understood as examples of ‘white women’s’ international economic thought (Owens, 2018), drawn largely from thinkers with advanced academic training, most often at the London School of Economics. Most were middle or upper class and were activist intellectuals or academics; some primarily working inside academe, others beginning their career inside the academy and re-joining after diplomatic or other public service; one began her career as a journalist and, another, the first woman to be hired to an IR department, left academe to follow her husband and never returned.

Unsurprisingly, women international thinkers encompassed the ideological range, from Marxist analyses of imperialism and liberal and ‘realist’ readings of the relation between states and markets, from development economics to one of the earliest formulations for a ‘developing economy’ of what is now referred to as ‘neoliberalism’.

Here, in this short blog post, we just briefly consider two examples of women’s international economic thought, Sudha Shenoy (1943-2008) and Edith Penrose (1914-1996).

Sudha Shenoy

One of major strands of Economic thinking that dominated early- to mid-twentieth century LSE is associated with the so-called ‘Austrian School’, promulgated by, among others, Friedrich von Hayek, who taught at LSE from 1931 to 1950. Opposing any form of planned economy as an unjustified and dangerous infringement on the spontaneous economic order generated by individual economic action and innovation, the Austrian School is one of the intellectual progenitors of what is now commonly referred to as neoliberalism.

Despite the scale of interest in this ‘ism’, including work on the global intellectual history of neoliberalism, this work has all but ignored Sudha Shenoy (Slobodian, 2018; Harvey, 2005). Yet, she claimed ‘the longest connection to the Austrian movement of anybody ever’ (Shenoy, 2003); attended the 1974 conference in South Royalton, Vermont, where the contemporary historical resurgence of the Austrian School is said to have begun; and her intellectual work prefigured the contemporary neoliberal transformation of India. Born in India, Shenoy received her PhD at LSE where her father, B. R. Shenoy (1905-1978), member of the Mont Pelerin Society, also studied with Hayek.

F.A. Hayek

Though her research focussed primarily on India, Shenoy contributed to the history of economic thought, compiling and introducing a selection of Hayek’s writings, A Tiger by the Tail: The Keynesian Legacy of Inflation, a work described as ‘as much Shenoy’s book as it is Hayek’s’ (Salerno, 2009: xiii; also see Shenoy [1972] 2009 and Becchio, 2018). She worked at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, was a Research Assistant at Oxford’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and in the early 1970s became a Lecturer in Economics, at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.

The title of Shenoy’s 1966 essay, ‘The Coming Serfdom in India’, was an obvious play on Hayek’s 1944 The Road Serfdom. It was published in The Freeman, a libertarian magazine of the Foundation for Economic Education published between 1950 and 2016.The essay draws a distinction between two types of liberals, ‘advocates of liberty’ and ‘statists’. The former are the ‘true’ liberals because they understand that freedom is indivisible. It is not enough to have free elections if the conditions of economic freedom are strangled by the political intervention of the state. The concentration of economic power in the hands of state administrators, she argued, was a form of political exploitation, ‘the politically strong ex­ploiting the politically weak’. In India, state-led economic planning, particularly preferential treatment for the industrial sector, consolidated the oligarchic power of ruling-party officials, civil servants, and favoured businessmen. Government-sanctioned industrial production enriched those able to reap the rewards of private monopolies or protected internal markets at the expense of ‘the starving, ill-clothed, and unsheltered Indian masses’. Foreign aid from the industrialized West only made things worse. ‘Given in order to “feed starving orphans in Orissa” …or to “keep India from going com­munist”…, it is in fact one major cause why orphans in Orissa are starving and why India is now so firmly set down the road to serf­dom’. International economic development, emerging out of colonial economic administration, was included among the fields encompassed within the British International Studies Association established in 1975. Shenoy had no links to BISA. But Edith Penrose was instrumental in the establishing development studies at LSE and SOAS and was one of the six speakers at the 1975 inaugural BISA Conference held at Oxford. Yet she appears in no disciplinary history of IR.

Edith Penrose

Penrose was born in Los Angeles, studying at UC-Berkeley, then Johns Hopkins, where she received her PhD and later taught and researched (Penrose, 2018). She crossed academe and policy worlds with ease, from assisting Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN Human Rights Commission to advising international tribunals on the oil industry. Appalled by the McCarthyite treatment of her colleague and friend Owen Lattimore – accused of spying for the Soviets and complicity in the so-called ‘loss of China’ – Penrose and her husband quit the United States. They pursued academic careers first in Australia, then Iraq, but were expelled  after the 1958 Iraqi Revolution, eventually settling in Britain. Her most influential work was The Theory of the Growth of the Firm, considered one of the most influential works of economics in the second half of the twentieth century. She co-edited New Orientations: Essays in International Relations (1970) and co-wrote Iraq: International Relations and National Development (1978).

Yet it is Penrose’s, The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry (1968), a synthesis of economics, politics, and history, that is probably her most important contribution to the history of IPE. At the end of World War II, the world’s crude-oil reserves were under the control of seven international corporations colluding to ensure high prices. However, by the 1950s, there was a new story to tell of major structural transformation in the global economy: the increasing power of the crude oil producing countries themselves. In telling the story international petroleum industry in historical and comparative detail, Penrose offered what one reviewer described as ‘the raw material and direction for a new theoretical approach to international economic relations… Few books in the currently arid field of international economics can claim as much’ (Murray, 1969: 517). Penrose showed the confluence of international political and economic forces shaping oil prices and the prospects for international regulation of the industry. ‘The deeper root of the problem’, she argued, ‘is simply that international firms, including the oil Companies, have not yet found a way of operating in the modern world which would make them generally acceptable as truly international institutions’ (1968: 263).

Neither Shenoy nor Penrose explicitly focussed on the gendered nature of the global economy. But, of course, the recovery and retrieval of these earlier women writers, whether explicitly feminist or not, is a feminist project and part of the gendered intellectual history of international political economy as a field. It constitutes a significant part of what Elias and Roberts in their excellent Handbook on the International Political Economy of Gender conceive of as the ‘multiple and diverse roots and influences’ on feminist IPE (2018: 1). Yet the absence of earlier women thinkers in the Handbook reflects a more general tendency to assume that, barring the exceptional figures of Rosa Luxemburg (Hutchings, forthcoming) and Susan Strange, there were no important historical  women thinkers on the world economy before the emergence of feminist IPE or they are not precursors to contemporary approaches to the IPE of gender.

Rosa Luxemburg

But enquiring into the conditions and reception of historical women’s work – who is recognized when and by whom, who is not recognized by whom and how – might reveal something quite important about the conditions of this subfield’s intellectual reproduction. After all, that only Susan Strange, as an exceptional founding figure, is the only thinker in histories of international thought to receive the recognition they deserve, was itself gendered, and is surely part of the context for the later production and reception of feminist IPE.

As Joanna Russ has argued, ‘If you are women and wish to become pre-eminent in a field, it’s a good idea to (a) invent it and (b) locate it in an area either so badly paid or of such low status that men don’t want it’ (1983: 101). As economic history enjoys a ‘global’ turn, both feminist IPE and women’s and gender history are thriving, and IR is renewing itself, in part, through investigating its intellectual and disciplinary history, now is a good time for these fields to start speaking with and learning from one another. 


Becchio, Giandomenica (2018) ‘Austrian School Women Economists’ in Kirsten Madden and Robert W. Dimond (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of the History of Women’s Economic Thought (London: Routledge), pp.309-324

Cohen, Benjamin J. (2008) International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

Elias, Juanita and Adrienne Roberts (2018) ‘Introduction: Situating Gender Scholarship in IPE’ in Elias and Roberts (eds.) Handbook on the International Political Economy of Gender (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar)

Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hutchings, Kimberley (2020 forthcoming) ‘Revolutionary Thinking: Luxemburg’s Socialist International Theory’ in Patricia Owens and Katharina Rietzler (eds.) Women’s International Thought: A New History (Cambridge University Press)

Murray, Robin (1969) ‘Review of The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry. by Edith T. Penrose’, International Affairs,Vol.45, no.3

Owens, Patricia (2018) ‘Women and the History of International Thought’ International Studies Quarterly, Vol.62, no3, pp.467-481

Penrose, Angela (2018) No Ordinary Woman: The Life of Edith Penrose (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Penrose, Edith (1968) The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry (London, Allen & Unwin)

Penrose, Edith and Ernest Penrose (1978) Iraq: International Relations and National Development (London: E. Benn Publishers)

Penrose, Edith, Ernest Penroseand Peter Lyon (ed.) (1970) New Orientations: Essays in International Relations (London: Cass)

Russ, Joanna (1983) How to Suppress Women’s Writing (London: Women’s Press)

Salerno, Joseph T. (2009 [1972]) ‘Introduction to the Third Edition’, A Tiger by the Tail: A 40-Years’ Running Commentary on Keynesianism by Hayek (third edition) (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs)

Shenoy, Sudha (2003) ‘The Global Perspective: An Interview with Sudha Shenoy’, Austrian Economics Newsletter, Vol.23, no.4

Shenoy, Sudha (2009 [1972]) ‘The Debate, 1931-1971’ in A Tiger by the Tail: A 40-Years’ Running Commentary on Keynesianism by Hayek (third edition) (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs), pp.1-14

Slobodian, Quinn (2018) Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

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Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Women in the Inquiry 1917-19

by Professor Kimberly Hutchings

Cynthia Enloe encourages us to ask the question ‘where are the women?’, not only because we should acknowledge women’s role in international politics, but also because the question opens up new angles of inquiry and generates insights that we might not otherwise have (Enloe 2014: 1-36). Women’s presence and women’s absence always tells us something, not only about the gender politics of particular places and times, but about the matrix of material and ideological forces and conditions that shape and are shaped by international politics. 

Recent work in the history of international thought and in international theory has become increasingly aware of the role of research networks, think tanks and conferences in the development of International Relations as a discipline (Guilhot 2011; Parmar 2015; McCourt 2017). In this respect, historians of IR have become more interested in the role of organizations involved in the emergence of IR as a distinct academic field of study by the middle of the twentieth century, as well as in individuals that were prominent within them. This includes organizations such as the US Council on Foreign Relations or the British Royal Institute of International Affairs, set up in the aftermath of WWI, and figures such as the geographer, Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950), who played an influential role in the former (Smith 2003: 192-200; Ashworth 2013). Bowman also played a major role in the committee that preceded the setting up of the Council on Foreign Relations, the deliberately neutrally labelled ‘Inquiry’ (1917-19), set up by Woodrow Wilson to prepare the US recommendations for the peace settlement (Smith 2003: 113-138).

Isaiah Bowman,

Most accounts of the Inquiry stress the role of particular men, such as Bowman or James T. Shotwell (1874-1965). As far as we know, there was only woman member of the Inquiry that went to Versailles, the librarian Florence Wilson, who organized resources for the Inquiry and later became the Head Librarian of the League of Nations Library in Geneva (Huber, Pietsch and Rietzler 2019). For this reason, we may be left with the impression that women had little significant involvement in the Inquiry’s work at all (McCourt 1917). Interestingly, however, according to records from the Inquiry for 1918 although the personnel were male dominated, over and above Wilson, there were at least 28  other white women involved in working for it during the course of that year (Gelfand 1963: 337-342). I was surprised to find this out, by chance, when following a trail researching into Ellen Churchill Semple (1863-1932), a prominent geopolitical thinker, who was invited onto the Inquiry by Bowman (Keighren 2010).

Ellen Churchill Semple,

So, what does finding women working for the Inquiry tell us? Much more research would have to be done to answer this question properly, but here are two suggestions. First, it tells us about the opportunities opened to a particular class of educated white women, offspring of the Progressive era, in a field that had yet to be defined and professionalised. It shows that women played a role in laying the groundwork for disciplinary IR, and how that groundwork was tied up with the world of practitioners and policy-making. Second, in drawing attention to women’s presence it also draws attention to women’s absence. Two kinds of absence are potentially significant here: women with relevant expertise whose application to the Inquiry were refused on grounds of ideology, like Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961), who was too sympathetic to the Russian Revolution to be considered. But there is also the significance of the disappearance of women from representation of the Inquiry at Versailles, and their explicit exclusion from the Inquiry’s successor organisation.

Women’s involvement in the Inquiry reflects a peculiar mix of professionalism and amateurism in the approach to understanding international relations at the time. The point of the Inquiry was to do what we would now call ‘evidence-based’ policy-making. That is to say, to produce reports and recommendations based on expert research on key international regions and issues. Inquiry researchers in 1918 were classified according to functions including working on Africa; Austria-Hungary; Far East; Italy; Latin America; Pacific Islands; Russia; Western Asia; Western Europe; Diplomatic History; Economics; General Research; International Law; Maps-Cartography; Reference and Archives. As historians have noted, Maps-Cartography, formed a particularly key function, since much of the Inquiry was concerned with making recommendations for the drawing of new national boundaries and imperial domains in a world after Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires (Gelfand 1963; Crampton 2006; Sluga 2006).

Hetty Goldman,

The Inquiry drew on academic expertise primarily in History and Geography. These disciplines had become increasingly professionalised since the 1870s in the US, consolidating their academic identity though professional organisations and university departments, which became forums for theoretical and methodological debate, including between history and geography (Koelsch 2014). It turned out, however, that the East Coast colleges, from which the majority of Inquiry personnel were recruited, lacked specific expertise in modern history, international law and Europe (including modern European languages) and were over-populated by classicists and medievalists. Amongst this population, in a war context in which younger men were often serving in the armed forces, Bowman and Shotwell extended their recruiting efforts to women they knew with academic expertise. This included those with obviously relevant knowledge, such as Semple or Mary E. Townsend (b. 1884), who became a leading expert on German colonialism (Townsend 1928). It also included less obviously qualified candidates such as Hetty Goldman (1881-1972), an archaeologist, who, for the Inquiry, worked mainly on the issue of Alsace-Lorraine (Gelfand 1963: 54) or Ellen Scott Davison (1864-1921), a medieval historian, who was assigned to the diplomatic history section of the Inquiry (Gelfand 1963: 340). Dorothy Kenyon (1888-1972), a recently qualified lawyer with no previous experience of international law, ended up working on Siam, India and the Philippines (Gelfand 1963: 64). In his Foreword to Davison’s posthumously published Forerunners of St Francis and Other Studies (1927), Shotwell comments: “Here the reader has the full benefit of the strictly scientific method, which always based its detail on original sources and not upon the secondary texts of other historians” (Davison 1927: xv). Where substantive expertise was missing, it seems that the Inquiry put its faith in rigorous method, and expected its members to catch up on relevant knowledge (Gelfand 1963: 32-78).  

Ellen Scott Davison,

Women were included in the Inquiry then for a mixture of reasons. They were included because they had already broken through into the academic world and were part of elite university networks, because there were not enough experts to do the work that the Inquiry required, because of personal connections with particular influential men, such as Bowman and Shotwell, because of their expertise as researchers. For some of them, such as Goldman, the work appears to have been effectively a brief summer job, part of various kinds of war work and essentially a distraction from her work as an archaeologist (Mellink and Quinn 2006). For others, the work fed into a feminist internationalist agenda that structured their later career, as with Kenyon’s subsequent activism and her work on the status of women for both the League of Nations and the UN (Weigand and Horowitz 2002).

The presence of elite white women in the Inquiry, reflecting their presence also in liberal elite networks of the time, suggests a decisive shift towards (some) women’s inclusion in communities of international relations research and policy. Yet when the Inquiry moved to Versailles, and when the Council on Foreign Relations was set up, in part as a response to disappointment with the peace settlement, the women involved in the Inquiry largely disappear. Now you see them, now you don’t. Why? Here one would have to go more deeply into the gendered and racialized assumptions of leading Anglophone analysts of international politics in the early twentieth century, including assumptions of many of the women analysts themselves (Gelfand 1963, Smith 2003, Sluga 2006; Vitalis 2015). As Sluga has shown, in spite of increased visibility of women activists at the Versailles conference, the dominant psychological and civilizational terms of the political imagination of nationality at the time reinforced an international hierarchical race/gender/class order. Whether or not women shared this imagination, which many but not all of them did, it enabled playing off factors of race, gender and class against each other at the discretion of elite white men. Within this order, women’s active participation in knowledge production and political action was permissible to the extent it conformed with racial and class privilege. However, this permission was conditional on the interests of dominant actors, who were also happy to use the trump card of the attitudes to women of racially ‘backward’ cultures to deflect demands for an international investigation on women’s suffrage (Sluga 2006: 118). Women could work at the Inquiry, even in the context of prevailing assumptions about the lack of rational capacity of women, because of their position of privilege and because they had the patronage and permission of men. But those prevailing assumptions meant that permission could be withdrawn as easily as it was given.

Florence Wilson,


Ashworth, Lucien M. 2013. ‘Mapping a New World: Geography and the Interwar Study of IR’, International Studies Quarterly, 57, 138-49.

Crampton, Jeremy W. 2006. ‘The Cartographic Calculation of Space: race mapping and the Balkans at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919’, Social and Cultural Geography, 7(5): 731-52

Davison, Ellen Scott. 1927, Forerunners of St Francis and Other Studies. Edited Gertrude R. B. Richards. Foreword, James T. Shotwell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Enloe, Cynthia 2014. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: making feminist sense of international politics Berkeley & LA: University of California Press.

Gelfand, Lawrence E. 1963 The Inquiry: American Preparations for Peace, 1917-19. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Guilhot, Nicolas (ed.) 2011. The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory. New York: Columbia University Press

Huber, Valeska, Pietsch, Tamson & Rietzler, Katharina. 2019. ‘Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900-1940’, Modern Intellectual History 2019 Online First: doi:10.1017/S1479244319000131.

Keighren, Innes. 2010. Bringing Geography to Book: Ellen Semple and the Reception of Geographical Knowledge. London: I.B. Tauris

Koelsch, William A. 2014. ‘Miss Semple meets the Historians: the failed AHA 1907 Conference on Geography and History and What Happened Afterwards’, Journal of Historical Geography 45: 50-58.

McCourt, David M. 2017. ‘The Inquiry and the Birth of International Relations 1917-19’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 63(3), 394-405

Mellink, Machteld T. and Quinn, Kathleen M. 2006. “Hetty Goldman 1881-1972” in Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Sharp Joukowsky (eds) Breaking the Ground: pioneering women archaeologists. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sluga, Glenda. 2006. The Nation, Psychology, and International Politics 1870-1919. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, Neil. 2003. American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Townsend, Mary E. 1928. “Contemporary Colonial Movement in Germany”, Political Science Quarterly 43 (1): 64-75.

Vitalis, Robert. 2015. White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Weigand, Kate and Horowitz, Daniel. 2002. “Dorothy Kenyon: Feminist Organizing, 1919-1963”, Journal of Women’s History, 14 (2): 126-131.

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The Gender of Knowledge

by Dr. Sarah C. Dunstan

Middlemarch, Public Domain.

Rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch recently, I was struck by the following line: ‘Young ladies don’t understand political economy, you know,’ said Mr Brook, smiling towards Mr. Casaubon. ‘I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book now.’[1] The context has certainly changed – we are no longer in 19th century England – but these attitudes persisted well into the twentieth century, with significant consequences. Through the research for the current Leverhulme Women and the History of International Thought project, it has become very clear to me that attitudes like this have profoundly shaped how we understand the intellectual genealogies of political economy as well as all kinds of thought in and outside of the academy. As the activist historian Berenice Carroll put it: ‘the class system of the intellect has a long history’ and ‘its relative exclusion of women dates back to ancient times.’[2]

As all of our project members have noted in their respective blog posts, as well as in their publications, women are notably absent from histories of international thought and the discipline of IR. This does not reflect the influence that many women had on international thought in their own time through published scholarship as well as teaching and public commentary. Eliot’s own intellectual legacy, although not in the domain of international thought, is symptomatic of this kind of forgetting. At her death, the historian Lord Action wrote that ‘[i]n problems of life and thought, which baffled Shakespeare disgracefully, her touch was unfailing.’[3] She quickly fell out of favour thereafter, however, remembered for many decades only in terms of what one critic dismissively referred to as her ‘ponderous moral aphorisms and …didactic ethical influence.’[4] Such exclusion was very explicitly gendered – the same critic opened his essay with a reflection on Eliot’s apparently unfortunate looks. It should go without saying that it is crucial that we undo this kind of exclusion and dismissal by recovering the work and historical impact of women’s work. Equally significant, however, is understanding how the process of forgetting women’s contributions has influenced how we understand knowledge formation and dissemination. As a number of scholars have noted in the case of IR, canon construction within the discipline has been so entwined with questions of gender and race that it can quite literally be described as an exercise in mapping ‘relations of descent and influence between [white] men.’[5] 

The quote from Middlemarch struck a particular chord with me because it was so reminiscent of the experiences of three women scholars I had just interviewed for our project’s oral history archive: Janice Gross Stein, the Canadian political scientist and security expert, Karen Mingst, the American political scientist of global governance and Margaret Hermann, the American political psychologist. The first, Stein, told me about her experiences doing field work in the late 1970s whilst she was working on the Egyptian-Israeli war of 1973. As part of this research, she interviewed a number of military officials in Cairo.  The first hurdle that she had to overcome was that she was a ‘Jewish woman… working in international relations’ at a time when there were few women working in the field of security.  She recalled that it took some effort for her interview subjects to ‘get over the fact that I was a woman and they were generals and they’d never had this kind of conversation with a woman before.’[6] When they did, Stein uncovered some brilliant material that overwhelmed ‘whatever discomforts’ she experienced.

In telling me this story, Stein noted that this attitude – the surprise at a woman being interested in and knowledgeable about security issues – was not particular to Cairo. To the contrary, one of her favourite examples of this kind of behaviour came from an interview with a senior Canadian General who asked her ‘What’s a nice little girl like you doing asking these questions?’[7] Karen Mingst met with similar incredulity during her graduate work at Wisconsin in the early 1970s. In the interview, Mingst told me that she still has clear memories of attending one of the core IR classes, Security, only to have the Professor turn to her and say, ‘Why are you taking this class? Women don’t study this.’[8] The Professor in question was male: Mingst herself was one of only three women students in the international relations (IR) programme and there were no women on faculty during her time there.

It is clear that a hundred years after Middlemarch was published, the notion that a woman might not understand political issues still required dismantling. The default assumption was that this kind of knowledge was ‘men’s business’. It is an assumption that Stein also met with when she started appearing as an expert commentator on Canadian national television. This again was ‘a myth busting experience for lots of people’ because it surprised them that the public face of knowledge around war could be a woman.

The subjects of security and war were not the only realms in which women faced stereotypes about appropriate areas of expertise for their gender. During my interview with Margaret Hermann, she recounted a similarly illustrative experience. As an adjunct at Princeton University in 1979, Hermann was charged with coaxing thirty undergraduate students into honing their critical thinking and debating skills through Princeton’s precept system. She began the semester prepared for intellectual and pedagogical challenges but was unprepared for the shocked silence that would greet her first overtures to the all-male class. None of the students in the room had ever been taught by a woman. The categories of “Teacher” and “Professor” and, by extension, the realm of serious knowledge, were therefore implicitly masculine to their minds.  Many of these students would later confide to Hermann that they had never even met a woman in their social circles who worked outside the home. This shock was compounded by the fact that Hermann was also visibly pregnant with her first child. If her students were confounded by the notion that a woman could also be a scholar, they were doubly surprised to discover that a scholar could also be a mother.[9]

Obviously Hermann’s students occupied a very particular elite sphere. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that for much of the twentieth century – until the late 1960s and 1970s – female students were not admitted to the most prestigious universities in the United States, Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth. Women attended separate or parallel, all-female institutions for their undergraduate degrees.[10] Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom were similarly constituted by single-sex colleges that demarcated gendered boundaries in knowledge acquisition. Likewise, many postgraduate programmes were reluctant to offer women bursaries if they were married, on the basis that they were unlikely to pursue work other than motherhood. In such a context, it is not hard to see how beliefs around authority and the relationship between expertise and gender come into being.

Thus far I have interviewed eighteen women scholars for the Leverhulme Women and the History of International Thought oral history archive. The women come from throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and each have very different scholarly trajectories contingent upon multiplicity factors that intersected with their gender. (These include national and ethnic identity, religion, class and sexuality, amongst others.) Their graduate school experiences range temporally from the 1940s through to the 1970s and their chosen areas of specialisation encompass diverse fields. Some have chosen to adopt explicitly feminist analyses to counter and work through obstacles they have encountered by virtue of expectations around their gender and their work. Others have pursued different methodological routes. All have been very successful scholars, latterly recognised as leaders in their respective areas. Without exception, however, they have all had to contend with the relationship between their expertise and their gendered identity as women. We need to take this into account when we read their intellectual work and when we think about the development of the field over the course of the twentieth century. The idea that ‘young ladies don’t understand political economy’ is hopefully a relic of the past. We should not neglect, however, to weigh its impact upon knowledge production within histories of international thought and beyond.

[1] George Eliot, Middlemarch (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994), 13.

[2] Berenice A. Carroll, ‘The Politics of “Originality”: Women and the Class System of the Intellect,’ Journal of Women’s History, Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 1990, Q137.

[3] Quoted in Roland Hill, Lord Acton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 303.

[4] On the resurgence of Eliot studies in the 1960s see Ken Newton, ‘Review of Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel,’ The George Eliot Review 46 (2015): 65-66.

[5] Andrea Nye, Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt (London: Routledge, 1994): xiv

[6] Janice Gross Stein, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 19 March, 2019, 13.

[7] Janice Gross Stein, Interview, 14.

[8] Karen Mingst, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 20 March, 2019, 7.

[9] Margaret Hermann, Interview with Sarah C. Dunstan, 17-18.

[10] See Nancy Weiss Malkiel, “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016).

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IR’s ‘Power Couples’

By Dr. Katharina Rietzler

When an upstart discipline constructs its own identity, it tends to focus on “great texts” written by scholars whose capacious minds imagined a whole new range of fundamental questions about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. International Relations (IR) is no different. In fact, IR has been notorious for claiming the great minds of great men as its intellectual foundation. But there are costs to such narrow definitions of “thought”. One of them is that a focus on great minds leaves out the element of collaboration. While there are many forms of intellectual collaboration, between peers, between thought leaders and their disciples and between teachers and their students, there is one form that combines the intellectual and the romantic, the marriage of minds.

Twentieth-century thought has known some very high-profile heterosexual couples, from Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam, couples in which both partners achieved intellectual recognition and a public profile. Then there are the many unsung “wives of the canon” (Forestal & Philips 2018), women in traditional marriages who supported their husbands’ intellectual work by providing research assistance, commenting on draft work, typing, entertaining visitors and keeping house. There were also structural reasons why a heterosexual marriage to a scholar could be a disadvantage when it came to women’s intellectual production. In mid-century U.S. academe, women married to male faculty were often denied academic jobs because of anti-nepotism rules, an issue that affected white women more than African-American women seeking employment at historically black colleges and universities (Stephan & Kassis 1997, 59; Perkins 1997, 103).

Yet IR, a relatively young discipline that emerged out of multiple fields of intellectual inquiry as well as activism, seems to have an unusual number of academic “power couples”, heterosexual unions in which both partners shared a deep interest in the relations between peoples, empires and states. In these partnerships, female as well as male partners attained a measure of intellectual standing, if not on an equal footing. Being linked to an influential man could be a way for a woman to attain credibility. The historians Joan Hoff-Wilson and Robert Shaffer have highlighted “the importance of family connections, and male mentors, in the ability of women to become recognized as having something to say about foreign policy” (Shaffer 1999, 157). Intimate ties seem to have been particularly important for women’s knowledge production on international questions.

There are many examples of heterosexual couples in the wider field of International Relations: Lucie and Alfred Zimmern, Veronica Boulter and Arnold Toynbee, Margaret and Harold Sprout, Eslanda and Paul Robeson, Elspeth and Walt Rostow, Annette Baker Fox and William T. R Fox, to name just a few. Gender clearly mattered in these partnerships. William T. R Fox coined the phrase “super-power”, while his wife Annette, a trailing spouse, became a specialist on the foreign policies of small and middling powers. Lucie Zimmern was probably the most reviled woman on the interwar International Relations scene, resented for the access that her marriage gave her to conferences and high-level meetings. And yet she was a published author and specialist on the League of Nations, and, together with her husband, ran the Geneva School of International Studies, one of the most successful IR education projects of the 1920s and early 1930s. Veronica Boulter and Arnold Toynbee enjoyed a gendered working relationship in which Toynbee took public credit for Boulter’s work.

But what impact did these personal relationships have on international thought? Was IR as a field invested a heteronormative and gendered narrative about itself and the world? Is there a gendered division of labour within marriages in the formative years of the field, and were men and women assigned different roles according to perceived notions of masculinity and femininity? (As is well known, some spaces in which international affairs were discussed explicitly excluded women, for example the Council on Foreign Relations, the most influential American international relations think tank between World War I and the Vietnam War.) These are questions that have, to date, hardly been considered by historians of international thought.

Image Credit: Strategic Studies Institute, public domain

Ron Robin’s intellectual biography of one such IR couple forms an exception. Promising to probe the “intellectual balance of power” (Robin 2016, 7) between his subjects, Robin analyses the thought and influence of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, a wife-and-husband team of thermonuclear strategists who worked for the influential RAND Corporation think tank in the 1950s and 60s. If an intellectual marriage is a thought collective of two, with a distinctive thought style (pace Mannheim), then, according to Robin, Roberta set the Denkstil of this formidable couple. It was her seminal history of Pearl Harbor as a paradigmatic surprise attack that shaped their world view and created the foundation for the Wohlstetter Doctrine which argued that statesmen must assume that the enemy is irrational, and therefore needed to be deterred as much as possible. Although influential, the doctrine led the Wohlstetters to misinterpret the Cuban Missile Crisis. The disciples they recruited included Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad and Richard Perle. They resurrected Roberta’s analysis of Pearl Harbor after 9/11, with momentous results in Iraq and elsewhere. Derided as “Mr. and Mrs. Fearmonger” (Bacevich 2017), the Wohlstetters have few fans among critics of U.S. foreign policy but reading Robin, it is impossible to dismiss Roberta, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian who produced usable pasts, as a mere sidekick to her more famous husband.

Although Robin provides little detail on the working, emotional, and marital partnership between Roberta and Albert, there are glimpses of their intellectual life together. Both Wohlstetters were failed academics. Neither completed a PhD and they were employed in various non-academic jobs in the 1930s and 1940s. They had very different backgrounds – Roberta’s was much more genteel than Albert’s – but theirs truly was a meeting of two adventurous if slightly undisciplined minds. It was Roberta, who via a part-time assignment as a book reviewer for the RAND Corporation secured a professional “in” for her husband in Southern California. There they conducted an outwardly conventional heterosexual marriage, with Albert becoming the paradigmatic defense intellectual and Roberta playing hostess in their stylish modernist home.

Returning to Robin’s question about the “intellectual balance of power” within their marriage, I wonder if such an adversarial, “battle of the sexes” metaphor is appropriate. Roberta and Albert were a team, and both benefitted from the operations of gender in the context of their intellectual production. Roberta’s initial analysis made Albert’s hyper-masculine and aggressive take on the Cold War possible. And the delightful contrast between Roberta’s role as elegant Southern Californian housewife and her tough stance on confronting the Soviet enemy as a part-time RAND consultant may have helped her long writing career. Publicly, the couple only disagreed once, when Roberta implied in her final article, published in 1991, that the United States should seek to de-escalate conflicts instead of pushing for regime change abroad (Robin, 199). What happened privately, in the Wohlstetter’s domestic life, remains to be analysed.

What can the story of the Wohlstetters tell us about women and the writing of disciplinary history? The access and credibility that a male partner could provide to a female companion certainly remains important. Intellectual biographies of intellectual couples have the potential to offer more than a calculus of which partner had the more important and influential ideas. And finally, I think, to be wary of facile assumptions about male warmongers and female pacifists, dominant husbands and submissive wives, and the ways in which a gendered division of labour in a marriage maps onto intellectual production.


Andrew Bacevich, “Mr. and Mrs. Fearmonger”, First Things (June 2017)

Jennifer Forestal and Menaka Philips “Gender and the ‘Great Man’: Recovering Philosophy’s ‘Wives of the Canon’”, Hypatia, 33, 4 (2018): 587-592.

Linda M. Perkins, “For the Good of the Race: Married African-American Academics, a Historical Perspective,” in Marianne A. Ferber and Jane W. Loeb., eds., Academic Couples: Problems and Promises (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 80-105.

Ron Robin, The Cold World They Made: The Strategic Legacy of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Robert Shaffer, “Women and International Relations: Pearl S. Buck’s Critique of the Cold War”, Journal of Women’s History 11, 3 (1999): 151-75.

Paula E. Stephan and Mary Mathewes Kassis, “The History of Women and Couples in Academe,” in Marianne A. Ferber and Jane W. Loeb., eds., Academic Couples: Problems and Promises (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 44-79.

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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 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.

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Sex, Gender and the Canon

by Professor Patricia Owens

How and why are women absent from IR’s canon of so-called ‘intellectual greats’? Here I’d like to share some preliminary answers to this question, drawing on work with Kim Hutchings on canonical women international thinkers.

The intellectual identity and respectability of humanities and social science disciplines is formed through the creation of a canon of intellectual ‘greats’ and foundational texts. One of the earliest such works in the history of international thought was published in 1929 by a Cambridge-trained classicist.

The Growth of International Thought surveyed the development of ‘progressive internationalism’ from the ancient Greeks to the League of Nations through an analysis of figures such as Aristotle, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther, Grotius, Rousseau, Burke, Kant, and Mazzini.

Though its author was not seeking to establish a new academic discipline but popularize liberal internationalist ideas (Sluga 2020), the approach of surveying canonical thinkers was later adapted and extended in the numerous studies of important thinkers by those seeking to establish a discipline of IR from the early 1950s (Morgenthau and Thompson 1950; Wolfers and Martin 1956).

Largely for pedagogical purposes, hundreds of exalted thinkers and their main works have been collected in anthologies and analyzed in edited volumes forming the intellectual basis of the many eponymous schools of IR theory: Hobbesian, Lockean, Machiavellian, Kantian, Grotian, Marxist, Weberian, Gramscian and Foucaudian.

The author of The Growth of International Thought, the first of this genre, was not Alfred Zimmern, Gilbert Murray, Arnold Toynbee, or G. Lowes Dickinson, all well-known classical scholars in IR’s intellectual history.

It was F. Melian Stawell (1929), a figure unknown to later generations of IR scholars but who inaugurated a genre – surveys of ‘men of large and capacious thought’ (Thompson 1980: ix) – from which she and numerous other women intellectuals were effectively barred.

A recent study of eighteen surveys of canonical international thinkers working before the late twentieth-century, including several hundred cumulative references, there were nine to women.

In these works, which includes Stawell’s text, only six women receive some recognition as significant thinkers on international relations: Susan Strange, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf. This does not include a very brief reference in Stawell’s book to the biblical figure of Ruth, with Ruth is taken to foreshadow a liberal internationalist ‘charm of foreign culture’ (1929: 31).

Why are women absent from IR’s canon of ‘serious thinkers’ (Luard 1992: xiii)? On what basis, with what stated criteria, do authors and editors select these thinkers and texts? Examining the rationale for selection in the twenty-two such works, the most commonly cited criteria are influence, comprehensiveness, representativeness, quality, and recurrent themes.

Generations of authors and editors have interpreted these criteria to effectively exclude women from IR’s canon.

The most commonly cited criteria – influence – is construed in the narrowest of terms: prioritizing the influence of white men on other white men.

There are many explanations for why some thinkers appear to be influential to a variety of different audiences and at any given time. However, there is surprisingly little, if any, elaboration of what influence means in IR’s canon. There is no discussion of the means through which influence is felt and on whom, or the temporality and politics of influence. Appeals to influence in surveys of IR’s intellectual canon appear vague and, with one notable exception, avoid the basic question of why some thinkers ‘enjoy successive revivals of interest’ in particular contexts while others do not (Thompson 1980: x).

In the one volume that did offer an additional elucidation, ‘canonical status represents a judgement about the quality of… thought’ (Brown et. al. 2002: 3, emphasis). Influence is a proxy for excellence.

On this basis, Brown, Nardin, and Rengger sought to explain why there were no women among their fifty thinkers; the only explicit attempt to justify women’s exclusion from IR’s canon identified in our survey. In their words,

Because the relevant criteria can change on the basis of current fashions… the fact that all the writers… are white male Europeans might, or might not, be regarded a legitimate criticism. Nonetheless, …[s]ome thinkers clearly have produced more significant work than others and it seems right that this should be recognized in an informal way, always assuming that the canon is never fixed once and for all, and is always open to revision in the way that… in recent years …the names of Wollstonecraft and Nietzsche have been added (2002: 3).

Women were excluded from the largest collection of international political thought then available because they wrote nothing of significance to the history of international thought. Women’s thought is not significant or influential because it lacks quality.

This assumption is wrong.

Not only does it yield an overlapping and predictable list of ‘great’ male thinkers made influential by repetition. It sustains IR’s continued ignorance of women’s international thought, either by denying its existence or denigrating its substance. Significance and influence are a product of the way in which authors and texts are taught and read as much as if not more than the character and quality of the authors and texts themselves.

Canonical status is not a product of a neutral application of the stated selection criteria, but of the gendered and raced politics of expectations surrounding intellectual greatness and influence.

Valuations of influence and intellectual quality, who counts as a serious thinker, is intimately connected to questions of gender and race.

Our findings confirm the feminist historiography in other fields: historical women’s exclusion from disciplinary canons is always more than accidental; it is constitutive (Smith and Carroll 2000). This literature also suggests a variety of responses to the gendered and racialized formation of IR’s canon, ranging from exposing the processes through which diverse historical women were marginalized (Weiss 2009); recovering and analyzing women’s thought (Broad and Green 2009); and reconstituting the disciplinary canon itself (Pollock 1999).

Birthed by Florence Melian Stawell’s The Growth of International Thought, the existing study of canonical thinkers in IR is the study of the passage of ideas between fathers and sons, brothers, male friends and rivals. Like Political Theory, IR’s existing canon accounts only for ‘constitutive relations of descent and influence between men’ (Nye, 1994: xiv).

Typified in Thompson’s (1994) Fathers of International Thought, the obsession with the eponymous schools – Hobbesian, Lockean, Kantian – is openly patrilineal. IR’s ‘great debates’, to extend Carroll’s analysis, are ‘fratricidal struggles… between loyal sons and followers’ battling to ‘inherit and sustain the privileges and ruling power of the fathers’ (1990: 138, 150). If influence is proxy for quality and based on descent through a white male line, then women and non-white men can never legitimately enter the canon of IR’s intellectual greats.

This is confirmed, rather than contradicted, by the six historical women who have made it into IR’s canon: Arendt, Woolf, Sontag, Mead, Strange, and de Beauvoir. All European or North American, White or Ashkenazi Jewish, they appear as either anomalous and extraordinary, feminist, or inventors of their own field.

As Joanna Russ observed in a different context, these ‘women burst into the official canon as if from nowhere – eccentric, peculiar, with techniques that look odd and preoccupations that don’t “fit”’ (1983: 122).  

To prioritize the descent of ideas through a white male line produces an inaccurate, incomplete and distorted account of IR’s intellectual heritage. Women have been excluded on false grounds. The interpretation of the stated criteria is not neutral but deeply gendered and racialized.

The result is that both the exceptional and mediocre work of white males is celebrated and canonized and work of even the most exceptional women is ignored, marginalized and/or demeaned.

Perhaps the appropriate response to the all-male, all-white, and Western-centric canon is to abandon thinking through canons of ‘master’ thinkers. Indeed, there are serious risks in elevating certain charismatic and ‘great’ figures, privileging the already privileged with access to the means of intellectual production. It reproduces problematical assumptions about the heroic character of intellectual work. Singling out paradigmatic thinkers and engaging in lengthy discussions of their texts does little to account for the informal intellectual work of figures who are ‘canon-adjacent’ or ‘wives of the canon’, women collaborators who were central to the production of the ‘great’ texts and men (Forestal and Philips 2018: 588).

So, what then is at stake in the canonization of previously noncanonical thinkers and works if there are problems with the very idea of an intellectual canon?

This Leverhulme Project on Women and the History of International Thought is less interested in debating who is or is not inside the IR canon than in initiating a discussion about the history and accepted form of canonical and noncanonical work. We think this is especially important in a discipline such as IR which has not always taken the history of thought as seriously as it might.

We continue to invest in the terminology of exemplary – canonical – thinkers because it is intellectually and pedagogically indispensable to the reproduction and evaluation of theoretical ideas. But given the arbitrary way in which canons can form the historicity of the canon must be taught as and with the canon; evaluations of intellectual work must be properly contextualized, and our model of serious intellectual work should be dramatically transformed.

The very existence and the nature and form of canonical women’s intellectual work calls into question several of the basic assumptions on which IRs existing canon, and therefore its disciplinary identity, has been built. To notrecover and analyse canonical women international thinkers would be to leave these assumptions in-tact and miss out on the new research agendas engagement with their thought can provoke.


Broad, Jacqueline, and Green, Karen (2009) A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1400–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Brown, Chris, Terry Nardin, and Nicholas Rengger (eds.) (2002) International Relations in Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Carroll, Berenice A. (1990) ‘The Politics of “Originality”: Women and the Class System of the Intellect’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol.2, no.2, pp. 136-163

Forestal, Jennifer and Menaka Philips (2018) ‘Gender and the “Great Man”: Recovering Philosophy’s “Wives of the Canon”’, Hypatia, 33(4): 587-592

Morgenthau, Hans J., and Kenneth W. Thompson (eds.) (1950) Principles and Problems of International Politics: Selected Readings (New York: Alfred Knopf)

Nye, Andrea (1994) Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt (London: Routledge)

Pollock, Griselda (1999) Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge)

Russ, Joanna (1983) How to Suppress Women’s Writing (London: Women’s Press)

Sluga, Glenda (2020) ‘From F. Melian Stawell to E. Greene Balch: International and internationalist thinking at the gender margins, 1919‑1947’ in Patricia Owens and Katharina Rieztler (eds.) Women’s International Thought: A New History (Cambridge University Press forthcoming)

Smith, Hilda L., and Bernice A. Carroll (eds.) (2000) Women’s Political and Social Thought: An Anthology (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press)

Stawell, Francis M. (1929) The Growth of International Thought (London: Butterworth)

Thompson, Kenneth W. (1980) Masters of International Thought (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press)

Thompson, Kenneth W. (1994) Fathers of International Thought: The Legacy of Political Theory (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press)

Weiss, Penny A. (2009) Canon Fodder: Historical Women Political Thinkers (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press)

Wolfers, Arnold and Laurence W. Martin (eds.) (1956) The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs: Readings from Thomas More to Woodrow Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press)

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Holding Up Three Quarters of the World

by Dr. Sarah C. Dunstan

Speaking in 2005, the celebrated African American civil rights activist and politician, Horace Julian Bond, reflected “There’s a Chinese saying, ’Women hold up half the world. In the case of the civil rights movement it’s probably three-quarters of the world.” With the exception of icons such as Rosa Parks, most of the women involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States are not well known today. Fewer still are recognised for their efforts to link their struggles for racial equality in the United States to internationalist projects, although this is beginning to change through the work of historians such as Keisha Blain, Imaobong Umoren and Jennifer Scanlon. In today’s blog post, I am going to briefly sketch out the internationalist thought and activism of five African diasporic women linked by their involvement in the United Nations and their commitment to racial and gender equality on the world stage: the African American lawyer and diplomat, Edith Sampson; the Martinican activist and journalist, Paulette Nardal, the African American educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Mary McLeod Bethune; Bethune’s colleague and fellow activist at the NCNW, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and the African-American lawyer and activist, Pauli Murray. In so doing, I will also gesture towards the way that their contributions were belittled and elided in their own times.

When Edith Sampson became the first black woman appointed to the permanent U.S. delegation to the United Nations, the sociologist and activist St Clair Drake dismissed her appointment as an act of propaganda on the part of the U.S. State Department, an effort “to offset communism” by painting the nation as racially progressive. It was not, he felt certain, a reflection of Sampson’s expertise.[i] Sampson and other African Americans who believed in the potential of American democracy were commonly labelled ‘the left wing of McCarthyism,’ and thinkers such as St Clair Drake and W.E.B. Du Bois refused to take their political work and thought seriously. Whilst historians have made strides towards recovering the political trajectories of less radical male activists, the work and careers of women such as Sampson seem to have been doubly tarnished by their relative conservatism. One such example of this can be found in the work of historian Gerald Horne, who writes that Sampson was used to “cover up racism and barbarism at home,” and describes her as both a “hired gun,” and a “stooge.”[ii]

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 6 April 1949. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Regardless of the propagandist intent behind Sampson’s UN appointment or her more conservative political inclinations, the work she did at the United Nations and her conception of the international order still needs to be taken seriously. Moreover, Sampson was hardly an apologist for American racism nor an inexperienced candidate. Although she had certainly had a scant presence in the male-dominated civil rights organizations of her local Chicago, her experience fighting for civil rights and racial justice were far from inconsequential. Born to a launderer in Pittsburgh, she had become a social worker before retraining as a lawyer in her twenties. After graduating, she established a successful private practice and by 1934 had been admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. That same year, Sampson had been one of the founding members of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). An organization dedicated to “the complete integration of Negro women into the American commonwealth, with all normal rights and privileges,” the NCNW was active on both a domestic and international scale. [iii]

From its inception, the NCNW’s founders and leaders – women such as Sampson and Mary McLeod Bethune – had grounded the organisation’s domestic political goals in terms of the international struggle against racism. To this end, the group had sought relationships with women of colour worldwide and, particularly, put great effort into crafting links with women’s groups in India. As one of the organization’s members, a journalist called Toki Schalk, put it in the Pittsburgh Courier, “the world has closed in around us and we are only just so many hours away from every section of the globe. We may as well recognise that what effects Timbuctoo [sic], affects us and vice versa.”[iv] For Sampson, this went beyond acknowledging cause and effect to understanding racism in the United States as a local iteration of a global problem. She came to her position at the UN determined to combine her work for equality with an intellectual commitment to the international project of the institution.

Attempts to undermine Edith Sampson’s contributions to the international arena were characteristic of a broader contemporary pattern of undermining African diasporic women involved with the United Nations. One example can be found in press reactions to 1946 appointment of the Martinican intellectual Paulette Nardal as a specialist on the French West Indies Division for Non-Self-Governing territories. The Chicago Defender, one of the largest and most influential African American newspapers,ran with the headline “Martinique Girl Given High Post With UN Body.”[v] Dismissing Nardal as “a Martinique Girl” was ignorant at best and undeniably patronising. At fifty years of age, Nardal had already had a distinguished international career in journalism and political organisation.

Paulette Nardal. Unknown photographer. (Nombreux sites Internet et ouvrages divers) Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first black women to be admitted to the Sorbonne, Nardal had been one of the co-founders of the important interwar publication Revue du Monde Noir where she had published on questions of race and imperialism.[vi] In the late 1920s and early 1930s she had also been the secretary to the Martinican Deputy to the French National Assembly Joseph Lagrosilière and a key player in activist organising against fascism in France and world-wide through her work with groups such as the Comité Mondial contre la Guerre et le Fascisme and the Union des travailleurs nègres.[vii] When she had returned from Paris to Martinique during the Second World War, she launched a journal, La femme dans la cité, designed to educate Martinique women in their new role as voting citizens. Far from ‘a girl,’ she was an accomplished intellectual and activist who knew all too well the pressures of nation, race and sex in proscribing the limits of female behaviour and rights. Nonetheless, she was committed to the potential of international organisation and, particularly of the United Nations to be an instrument for “the liberation of all Mankind.”[viii]

Women of the African diaspora like Paulette Nardal and Edith Sampson were a rare sight at United Nations conferences in the organization’s early years. In 1945, for example, Mary McLeod Bethune was the sole African American woman – and one of only three African Americans – to act as a consultant to the US State Department at the U.N.Conference on International Organizations which established the United Nations Charter. Bethune had found it difficult to achieve even this position, only gaining access via her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People at the last minute. Nevertheless, she took full advantage of the role, bringing fourteen African American women along with her as observers. As far as she was concerned “Negro women, like all other women must take part in building this world, and must therefore keep informed of all world-shaping events.” [ix]

One of Bethune’s friends, and the Executive Director of the NCNW, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, took this sentiment to heart. By the mid-1940s, Hedgeman had already had a great deal of experience in political activism and community organizing on a national level and she was committed to the spirit of internationalism embodied in the organization of the United Nations. When the apartheid regime in South Africa was passed into law in 1948, however, she began to connect her efforts against segregation and racism in the United States to the struggles against racism occurring internationally.[x] Hedgeman became particularly vocal about her understanding of these links in the 1950s and 1960s as countries in Africa gained their independence from empire. In a 1959 article for the black weekly, the New York Age, she mapped out her understanding of the relationship between black Americans and Africa: “We are America’s major link with that ancient civilization, and we also have the opportunity to serve Africa as she develops continuing relationships with the West.”[xi]

Anna Arnold Hedgeman. Image Ownership: Public Domain , via Black Past

For Hedgeman, this link was primarily constituted by a shared political stance of anti-racism rather than a shared racial identity. This was particularly apparent in her keynote talk for the First Conference of the Women of Africa and of African descent held in the newly-independent Ghana in 1960. She was reluctant to affirm her solidarity with the women there on the basis of race but it seemed to her that there was great potential in an international movement grounded in a shared gender identity and shared experiences of discrimination on that basis. To an audience of over one hundred conference delegates, and over one thousand public attendees, she declared “It occurs to me that women have always been in public life, but the men have not always known it.”[xii] Hedgeman meant this both in terms of women’s contributions to international thought and national politics and in relation to more traditional women’s roles. She asked, “What is more important in the world than a housewife?” After all, such a woman “carries the major responsibility for what happens to the rest of us.”[xiii]

In many ways, this integrated understanding of the relationship between domestic and international spheres was reminiscent of the thinking Sampson had espoused a decade earlier, whilst an alternate US delegate to the United Nations. Outlining her strategy for peace in 1950, she wrote: “World security begins at home, where children who are born without racial or religious prejudice either learn it from parents and neighbors or are taught, according to the words of the United Nations’ Charter, ‘to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.’”[xiv] For both women, concerns around international security and access to rights had to connect the micro-concerns of family and community to the macro-concerns of global order. Their male colleagues, they felt, were too quick to overlook these so-called “womanly arenas” in favour of discussions revolving around weaponry and military defence. Nardal, too, had published similar opinions in the 1940s, contending that women had an important role to play in ensuring world peace because it was the “feminine vocation” to exercise “a calming influence” upon the warlike tendencies of men.[xv]

Neither Nardal, Sampson nor Hedgeman took this analysis quite so far as Pauli Murray who, in her own speech at the 1960 Ghanaian conference, argued that women of all races and nations shared common ground with Africans because they had all known a history of enslavement. “From these beginnings,” she declared, they could move together “towards equality.”[xvi] Murray dedicated her life to achieving this vision of an internationalist movement united by shared experiences of discrimination on the basis of gender and race. When she returned to the United States in 1962 to play an active role in the Civil Rights movement she loudly criticised the African American male leadership for not acknowledging women’s contributions. In one particularly scathing letter to A. Philip Randolph, a leading organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, she lambasted him for failing to include “a single woman leader.”[xvii] This kind of exclusion was typical of the period despite the large number of black women at the forefront of the struggle.

In the aftermath of World War Two, women like Edith Sampson, Paulette Nardal, Mary McLeod Bethune, Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Pauli Murray sought to make sense of their struggles for against racism within an international framework. In different ways, all five women believed that their identities as women, and women of colour gave their understanding of the world a unique depth crucial to the world-wide fight for equality. Although their expertise and efforts to put their ideas into practice through institutions such as the United Nations were often undermined by their contemporaries, it is imperative that we take their thought and contributions seriously. It is only then that we will gain a fuller picture of the ways that gender and race operated to shape international thinking in this period.

[i] St Clair Drake, ‘The International Implications of Race and Race Relations,’ Journal of Negro Education 20, 3 (1951): 267.

[ii] Gerald Horne, Who Lost the Cold War? Africans and African Americans, 20 Diplomatic History (1996): 613; 623. For commentary on the way ‘mainstream’ African Americans were characterised see: Manning Marable. Race, Reform, and Rebellion, 33; Helen Laville Scott Lucas, ‘The American Way: Edith Sampson, the NAACP, and African American Identity in the Cold War,’ Diplomatic History, 20: 4, (1 October 1996): 565–590.

[iii] Edith Sampson, Council History 1, Edith Sampson Papers, Box 9, Folder 188.

[iv] “Toki Types,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 21, 1945, 10.

[v] Chicago Defender, December 21, 1946.

[vi] See for example Paulette Nardal, ‘L’Eveil de la conscience de race chez les étudiants noirs,’ La Revue du monde noir, 6 (April 1932): 26.

[vii] A pacifist organisation with international reach, the Comité was dedicated to protesting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from 1935 through 1939.

[viii] Paulette Nardal, ‘United Nations/Nations Unies,’ La Femme dans la cité, 26, (January 1947), 4.

[ix] “Mrs Bethune Added to Frisco Advisors,” Chicago Defender, April 28, 1945, Mary McLeod Bethune Vertical File, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[x] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “One Woman’s Opinion,” New York Age, April 25,1959.

[xi] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “One Woman’s Opinion,” New York Age, April 25,1959.

[xii] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “Women in Public Life: Keynote Address in Ghana,” July 18, 1960, Box 127, as cited in Jennifer Scanlon, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, (Oxford, 2016), 131.

[xiii] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “Women in Public Life: Keynote Address in Ghana,” July 18, 1960.

[xiv] Edith Sampson, World Security Begins at Home 5 (Oct 19, 1950) Edith Sampson Papers, Box 5, Folder 109, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard.

[xv] Paulette Nardal, ‘From An Electoral Point of View/Optique électorale,’ La Femme dans la cite, 5 (March 1 1945), 3.

[xvi] Pauli Murray, “Speech, Conference of Women of Africa and of African Descent,’” July 18, 1960, Box 40, as cited in Jennifer Scanlon, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, (Oxford, 2016), 132.

[xvii] Pauli Murray, ‘Letter to A. Philip Randolph, 1963’ as cited in Johnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African-American Communities (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 89.

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