A Feminist Examination of Global Conferences

Guest post by Jean Quataert and Benita Roth, special guest editors

The Journal of Women’s History recently published a special issue (24, 4 Winter 2012) on “Human Rights, Global Conferences, and the Making of Postwar Transnational Feminisms.” The collection of essays and the reminiscences by global feminist activists shows the importance of United Nations-sponsored world conferences and related international gatherings for feminist thought and action worldwide. With few exceptions, the topic of the impact of global conferences has been unexamined in women’s history, despite its undeniable importance in shaping the vibrant new patterns of transnational advocacy networks that began to emerge in the 1970s.


In the last few decades, we have witnessed a huge growth of feminist NGOs worldwide; the invention of innovative gatherings like the World Social Forums, which feature impressive participation by feminist activists; and the creation of UN People’s Forums, which give voice and visibility to the NGOs as well as to local feminist leaders and activists generally marginal to governmental authority and power. While feminist social scientists have explored the subject of the UN’s importance for making women’s rights into human rights, most historians have not, perhaps because they are not accustomed to taking on the research challenges of contemporary themes and issues.

In editing our special issue, we wished to help fill gaps in the historical literature, but we were just as interested in showing the intersection of growing interests in the globalization of the human rights movement among historians of that movement, among women’s historians, and among women’s studies scholars. We sought more human rights histories and comparative studies on women’s movements: scholarship that represented no less than a major conceptual shift to studying human rights and feminist organizing, and which utilized transnational methodologies that made interregional connections and took global historical perspectives.

“Human Rights, Global Conferences, and the Making of Postwar Transnational Feminisms” is divided into two broad sections. The first section consists of six historically-rooted thematic articles which collectively take the reader into many of the contentious debates that women faced as they brought diverse perspectives and assumptions to global conferences. The subjects that these essays address include tensions over media representations of women’s struggles; the examination of socialist women’s global activism; the position of liberal Catholic women, whose voices were increasingly stifled by a resurgent conservative post-Vatican II Church; and the ways in which women from the United States, Canada, and Mexico negotiated the intersecting pulls of race and gender identities in a global context. The final two essays—which capture the national dimensions of transnational histories in the West and the global South—deal with 1990s feminist activism in the U.S. and the longue durée century of women’s activism in India.

We are especially proud of the innovative second part of this special issue, which features a unique “UN Activists Forum.” In the Forum, readers find first-hand retrospective assessments by five key international women’s human rights activists who reflect on their long and impressive public careers: Mildred Persinger, Arvonne Fraser, Devaki Jain, Rounaq Jahan, and Charlotte Bunch. From diverse backgrounds, geographical locations, and political persuasions, all of these women were instrumental in shaping the UN women’s world conferences; many continue to be prominent in today’s international women’s movements. Forum contributors responded to two questions which we posed to them: What has sustained your activist commitments over the decades? What are your views are about the future of transnational feminisms? As an introduction to the Forum, we asked Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, who brought UN activists to the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in 2011, to write about the process of bridging the worlds of scholarship and activism.  And for the JWH website, we asked special issue contributor Kristen Ghodsee for her take on the process of  researching socialist women’s participation in global organization. Her essay “Subtle Censorships: Notes on Studying Bulgarian Women’s Lives under Communismappears on the Journal’s website.

It is important to note that the articles and the UN activists’ tales do not lead to one seamless narrative about the impact of the UN meetings, about the development of human rights, or about the state of transnational feminist organizing. But taken together, these accounts demonstrate the pivotal influences of the UN in dovetailing with still all-important national and local political contexts to create and promote transnational networks and advocacy groups that deal with women’s issues. We hope that this special issue represents only a start in the important project of exploring the nexus of women’s and feminists’ grass-roots organizing, the place of international institutions, and transnational linkages in the global arena. We expect it to inspire further scholarship on the roles of transnational networks, national contexts, and local activists’ efforts at meaningful and substantive gender and social change. Furthermore, perhaps the rich details in these essays and activist perspectives that were shaped, deepened and, at times, thwarted under the UN and NGO rubric of human rights, will help scholars and activists continuously test the potential of human rights claims to become a shared transformative agenda for feminist causes worldwide.