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Regional themes > Gender Last update: 2020-11-27  

United Nations

The unfinished story of women and the United Nations

Hilkka Pietilд

United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS)


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Prologue — Women and the league of Nations

In the 1920s and 1930s women’s international organizations, which were still young, had interesting collaboration with the first intergovernmental peace organization, the League of Nations. This collaboration also gave them the necessary experience for participating effectively in the process of the founding of the United Nations after the Second World War. This early history of engendering inter-governmental politics attracted, surprisingly late, the interest of researchers first at the beginning of the 1990s (Miller, 1992). During this time the process of engendering the global agenda also led to a number of irreversible achievements.

The founding of the League of Nations in 1919 marked the beginning of organized and institutionalized inter-governmental collaboration in a form that was unprecedented. This was the first step in joint foreign policy between governments toward supra-national goals—such as peace and security—instead of each nation merely defending its own individual interests against the interests of others. Women immediately realized the importance of such cooperation and had good reason to become interested in it as it aimed at ending wars and violence, and the settlement of disputes through negotiations, which corresponded with women’s yearning for peace. This desire was particularly strong in people’s minds right after the destruction and horrors of the First World War.

Another reason for women’s commitment to inter-governmental collaboration right from the beginning was their firm belief in the fact that the advancement of women in different countries required governmental policies and democratic opportunities for women to influence those policies. Women were united across borders as they worked to promote peace, and they saw promising chances to empower themselves in these new forms of inter-governmental cooperation.

It is amazing to see how well-prepared international women’s organizations influenced the inter-governmental process right after the First World War even though women’s cooperation was still very young. The first women’s international organizations began to emerge at the turn of the century and during the First World War.

Women at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference

After the First World War, representatives of governments gathered at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to establish the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Representatives of women’s international organizations were present in order to give their proposals regarding the Covenant of the League of Nations and to prevent the exclusion of women from the provisions and decisions.

In this context women founded the Inter-Allied Suffrage Conference (IASC), whose delegation received the right to participate in certain peace conference commissions. Provided with the chance to meet the representatives of 14 Allied Nations, the delegation immediately urged that women be given access to decision-making positions in the League of Nations. They also made proposals on issues they wished to be included in the programme of the newly established League. They proposed that the League set out to promote universal suffrage in Member States, take measures to recognize the right of a woman married to a foreigner to keep her nationality, and work to abolish trafficking in women and children and state-supported prostitution. In addition, they called for the creation of an international education and health bureau, and the control and reduction of armaments.

Based on these proposals, the Covenant of the League of Nations declared that Member States should promote humane conditions of labour for men, women and children as well as prevent trafficking in women and children. It also included provisions that all positions in the League of Nations, including the secretariat, should be open equally to men and women.

At the same time, women from American and British trade unions were on the move when the constitution of the ILO was being drafted. Specifically, they called for an eight-hour working day, an end to child labour, support for social insurance, pensions and maternity benefits, equal pay for equal work for women and men, as well as minimum wages for housework, among other things. Their proposals were politely received but quickly shelved as too radical.

Nevertheless, women’s efforts resulted in the inclusion of a reference to fair and humane conditions of labour for men, women and children in the International Labour Organization constitution (Galey, 1995). The work toward the other objectives has continued, although some goals have still not been achieved.

People’s Organizations and Inter-Governmental Cooperation

After the founding of the League of Nations and the ILO, representatives of women’s organizations began to regularly observe the proceedings and work of the inter-governmental organizations and give their own proposals to government representatives. They founded the Liaison Committee of Women’s International Organizations, which became “the voice of women” in Geneva. Women’s organizations campaigned throughout the 1920s and 1930s to ensure, among other things, that women and their rights would not be neglected. The League of Nations established a body for international legal protection of the human rights of particular minority groups.

This was the start of the dialogue between international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the inter-governmental organization (IGO) of the League of Nations. Forerunners in this dialogue, which later continued with the United Nations, included women’s international organizations such as the International Council of Women (ICW), International Alliance of Women (IAW), International Cooperative Women’s Guild (ICWG), International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW), International Federation of University Women (IFUW), World Young Women’s Christian Association (WYWCA), and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). These were based mainly in Europe and the United States.

“While each type of organization clearly had distinct goals and priorities, they all believed that the League of Nations was an important vehicle for social and political reforms, in particular, the advancement of the status of women” (Miller, 1992). These organizations were estimated to represent 45 million women, but “a leadership cohort of middle and upper-class British, Scandinavian and American women who met on a regular basis in London or Geneva coordinated women’s international work.”

Encouraged by the founding of the ILO, American female trade unionists convened the first International Congress of Working Women in Washington DC in 1919, in collaboration with women from the European trade unions. The International Federation of Working Women (IFWW) was also founded at this conference, and decisions were reached regarding a united approach to women’s questions at annual International Labour Conferences. The ILO’s work toward the development of labour regulations had a brisk start, as early as the 1920s, with women participating intensively right from the beginning.

The activities of women’s organizations during that time can be compared to the large-scale NGO conferences arranged in connection with recent UN world conferences. In Paris in 1919 a handful of newly-established women’s international organizations arranged the first parallel NGO conference to coincide with an inter-governmental conference. The aim of the parallel conference was to make women’s voices heard in governmental discussions. It was not until 25 years later, at the founding of the UN, that some of the proposals made in 1919 by women reached the ears of the governments. Women’s early proposals included international collaboration in fields such as education and health care; but the world had to wait until 1946 to see the UN establish the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to address these issues. Women also had clear demands regarding disarmament and arms control—issues that were to become fundamental elements of the UN’s work from the outset.

In recent decades, parallel NGO conferences have become a permanent feature in connection with UN world conferences and gather thousands of people from around the world to monitor the inter-governmental events. These people’s fora create massive publicity for issues that activists from around the world want to bring to the public’s attention. NGO events parallel to UN conferences on women have attracted the greatest participation.

Latin American Women as Forerunners

Latin American women were instrumental in the International Conference of American States decision in 1928 to create the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW), the first inter-governmental body to address issues related to the status of women. The IACW prepared, and its member governments adopted, the Montevideo Convention on the Nationality of Married Women in 1933. This was the first inter-governmental convention providing women and men with equal status in respect to nationality. In 1935 the League of Nations approved the Convention and urged all Member States to ratify it.

The IACW also prepared the 1938 Declaration of Lima in Favor of Women’s Rights. At this time the IACW encouraged its member governments to establish women’s bureaux, revise discriminatory civil codes, and take women’s initiatives regarding these issues to the League of Nations (Galey, 1995).

Perhaps the most concrete example of women’s ability to make an impact at the international level was the Committee of Experts on the Legal Status of Women. Established by the League of Nations in 1937, it was authorized to conduct a “comprehensive and scientific inquiry into the legal status of women in various countries of the world.” The Committee’s work had barely begun when the Second World War broke out. But its founding was an important step toward putting women’s human rights on the agenda of inter-governmental cooperation. The Committee was also the predecessor of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) later established by the United Nations.

Pacifist and Feminist Aims

To summarize the relationship between women’s organizations and the League of Nations, Carol Miller, researcher on gender issues, refers to two ground-breaking achievements.

First, women created a model for cooperation and interaction between non-governmental organizations and inter-governmental organizations. Formerly only Heads of State, foreign ministers and diplomats were entitled to participate in inter-governmental conferences. Women, however, demanded the right of access to meetings in the conference hall and to official documents, and the right to distribute their statements in the hall and interact with official delegates—literally to lobby. They were first granted these rights at the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference in 1932, and later at other meetings.

Second, through their well-prepared proposals and what were perceived as credible actions, women’s international organizations were able to establish so-called women’s issues on the agenda of international cooperation. In other words, issues related to the status of women became international issues, not purely domestic concerns. This principle was established at the League of Nations at a time when women in many Member States did not even enjoy political rights, and when women were not accepted as diplomats (Miller, 1995).

Although pacifist aims, disarmament and peace were important reasons women supported the League of Nations, Miller points out that feminist objectives—the essence of which was the legal recognition of women’s equality—were clearly equally significant. From this perspective, the founding of the Committee of Experts mentioned above was in itself a victory. It showed that securing equality between women and men, and the status of women, were issues that could not be left to governments alone. These early days saw systematic work toward convincing the League of Nations to draw up and adopt an international equal rights convention.

These were the beginnings of the formulation of a “dialectic,” indirect and two-way strategy that has been used to advance women’s objectives throughout the history of the United Nations. When women found it very slow or impossible to promote their objectives at the national level in their own countries, they took their issue to inter-governmental organizations. Such collaboration within these organizations has often resulted in resolutions and recommendations, even international conventions, that are more advanced than those adopted at national levels. These accepted inter-governmental instruments then have been used effectively by women to pressure their governments and legislators to adopt and implement compatible laws in their respective countries.

As British pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain said in the 1920s, “The time has now come to move from the national to the international sphere, and to endeavour to obtain by international agreement what national legislation has failed to accomplish” (Miller, 1994).

The League of Nations’ attitude toward women’s activism was based on the realization that women were a valuable lobbying and support group for the League in almost every Member State. Women, on the other hand, saw the League as a new and powerful arena for advancing their objectives: peace, human rights and women’s equality in all countries. Thus due to women’s tenacious and clever diplomacy, the League of Nations was soon in advance of most of its Member States concerning women’s issues.

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