Forging Bonds Across Borders: Mobilizing for Women’s Rights and Social Justice in the 19th-Century Transatlantic World

28.-30.04.2016, Konferenz, DHI Washington

This conference will explore how female activists inside and outside of institutions and organizations exchanged ideas in the Atlantic world and collaborated across national borders and bodies of water and sometimes also across borders of race, class, and gender throughout the long 19th century. One purpose is to show how, even without formal political rights, women were able to develop effective strategies and bases of power, working both within their own countries and through the personal transnational connections, alliances, and organizations they created.

Initially women did not focus mainly on gaining rights for their own sex but were concerned about issues such as the abolition of slavery, temperance, child protection, pacifism, and labor. But through their participation in these movements, which were often dominated by men, many women became aware, for the first time, that they too were an oppressed group in need of emancipation. Some fought to link suffrage and women’s rights with struggles against the inequities of industrial capitalism in what came to be known as “social justice feminism.” Others embraced “maternalist” ideologies that exalted women’s status as mothers and, rather than seeking feminist alternatives to that role, worked to apply the values associated with it to society at large.

Historians have by now produced a rather extensive literature on national feminist movements as well as a number of bi-national and multi-national comparative studies of female mobilizations. But so far, few scholars have focused on the transnational, especially the transatlantic, collaborations of women’s rights activists throughout the long 19th century. This conference aims to begin to fill that gap.

A number of factors led to the proliferation of social and political movements during this period: the spread of enlightenment ideals, as well as political liberalism, urbanization, scientific advances, especially in medicine, and technological progress in transportation and communication. For women, especially those of the middle class, unprecedented access to education opened up new intellectual vistas. Many turned to missionary and charitable work as well as to social and political reform as outlets for their newfound energies. Across industrializing countries, highly motivated, determined women’s rights and social justice activists as well as maternalist reformers and missionaries wrote countless letters, traveled widely, sought educational opportunities abroad, and worked for decades to establish personal connections and to collaborate with like-minded activists in other countries. Their efforts eventually provided the foundations for worldwide organizations around issues as diverse as women’s rights, protective labor legislation, and temperance.

Our conference aims at bringing together established as well as younger historians who are studying 19th-century transnational women’s rights and social justice movements from new and different perspectives, using, for example, the methods of biography and histoire croisée to examine how early women’s networks were established and continued to increase in density and scope, despite disagreements and conflicts among activists as well as severe external backlash.

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