How Women's Rights Became Human Rights: Gender, Socialism and Postsocialism in Global History, 1917-2017

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of Histories, Lanuages and Cultures


'Women's rights are human rights.' Few people would openly disagree with this statement today. Yet the United Nations did not recognise the centrality of women to its vision of universal human rights until 1993. Forty-five years after the UN adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna affirmed the need to protect the rights of women. This breakthrough is typically associated with the success of US-led feminist advocacy networks at a moment when the end of the Cold War seemed to promise a new era of global democracy based on universal human rights. But, as this research project will reveal, that is only part of the story. The scope and meaning of women's rights - in employment, education, public life, marriage, reproduction, or bodily autonomy - remain deeply contested around the world. These conflicts are historical as much as they are cultural. To understand the politics of international women's rights today, we need to look back to the past.

This international research project will tell the story of struggles over women's rights during the twentieth century from a new perspective. Looking beyond the history of western feminism, it asks how Second and Third World socialist women debated women's rights from the October Revolution of 1917 until today. The promise of radical emancipation for women was a central pillar of socialist ideology during the twentieth century, although there was a striking gap between the rhetoric of equality and the reality of life for women in socialist regimes, political parties, or social movements. While contemporary human rights discourses frequently present women as suffering victims of trauma and violence, socialism claimed to create women as political subjects by liberating them from structural oppression.

From the perspective of post-Cold War global history, this project will revisit the role played by global socialism in internationalizing its vision of women's emancipation and asks how this reshapes our understanding of the recent history of human rights. By establishing an international network of scholars working on the history of women and gender in global socialism, the project will create a unique body of expertise that can ask how the promise of women's emancipation was interpreted in diverse but interconnected cases including official women's organisations in state socialist Eastern Europe, communist and radical leftist movements in Western Europe or the USA, Mao's cultural revolutionaries, Maoist movements in South Asia or Latin America, and socialist (including communist) parties and movements in colonial and postcolonial Africa.

This project will shed light on historical actors who are marginalised within histories of globalisation. It will also allow us to reflect on the politics of writing this contested and contradictory history from the perspective of post socialist memory and nostalgia. It will explore these questions through public history workshops and by engaging local NGOs, social enterprises and secondary school pupils in debates about the global history of women's rights as human rights in the twentieth century. This will provide a basis for future collaboration between the research team and secondary school teachers of History.

Through a series of academic conferences, free public events and workshops for secondary school pupils, a monograph and journal articles, and online briefing papers and video reports, this project will make a timely contribution to current debates about the history of human rights, internationalism, and humanitarianism. It seeks to transform this scholarship by exploring the alternative moral visions that were shaping global notions of rights and international order outside the liberal democratic West, and by revealing the 'problem of women' discovered by the UN in 1993 to have been central to the global history of human rights throughout the twentieth century.

Planned Impact

This project has the potential to transform our understanding of the history of women's rights by revealing the significant contribution of Second and Third World women to debates about women's rights during the twentieth century. It will speak to a wider audience of policy-makers, human rights practitioners, and school teachers interested in critical and historically-informed perspectives on human rights and gender. The broad geographical scope of this project, combined with its focus on both the evolution of women's rights in international politics, and the local social contexts in postwar and postcolonial societies that shaped human rights and humanitarian policies in everyday life, means that the project can contribute a valuable historical perspective to contemporary debates about international women's rights.

The PI, with the project team, local NGOs, and members of the international Network on Women's Rights and Global Socialism, will run workshops on the global history of women's rights for secondary school pupils in Liverpool. In line with the project's global research ethos, a schools workshop will also be held at a parallel site in New Delhi in cooperation with Dr. Mallarika Sinha Roy, Women's Studies Department, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The PI will invite women's rights NGOs, social enterprises and Network members to shape the format of these workshops. By engaging pupils from diverse backgrounds in debates about the history of human rights in global perspective, this project seeks to take forward the AHRC agenda for the co-production of knowledge with communities outside the walls of the University.

The aim of these workshops is threefold. First, to foster creative ways of encouraging young people to 'think with History' to generate critical perspectives on contemporary issues - such as gender equality and social justice - that concern them. Second, to hone pupils' research and presentation skills, and to inspire a new generation of university students with an awareness of the intellectual and practical benefits of studying History at University. Third, to encourage the project team and Network to think about the possible benefits of their research for wider audiences, and creative ways of communicating their academic research to these audiences in the long term.

The schools workshops in Liverpool will focus on schools with which the University of Liverpool has Widening Participation partnerships, such as the Belvedere Academy. They will be aimed at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the Citizenship programme area of the National Curriculum, which fosters understanding of human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of law. The content of the workshops will be prepared in discussion with women's advocacy groups, social enterprises and members of the project's international Network. They will be facilitated by the PI, PDRA, and student interns at the University of Liverpool.

During the workshops, pupils will work on independent projects and participate in group debates. They will be invited to present the results of these projects at the University. The student interns will produce lesson plans which will communicate new scholarship on the history of human rights in a manner that is accessible for secondary school teaching. This will in turn support the career development of Liverpool undergraduates. An online briefing paper reflecting on the workshops and our experiences of co-producing knowledge about human rights history will be posted on the project website, along with a short video report in which pupils summarise their impressions about the project. These will act as resources for other researchers interesting in approaches to knowledge co-production.

The PI will continue these activities after the end of the project by applying for AHRC Follow-On Funding to extend the schools workshops beyond Merseyside and to expand their focus to subjects covered by the A-Level curriculum.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/P008852/1 01/06/2017 30/09/2019 £164,070
AH/P008852/2 Transfer AH/P008852/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2021 £13,227
Description This AHRC Leadership Fellowship seeks to uncover the neglected histories of internationally organised communist and socialist women and their struggles over women's rights around the world during the twentieth century. In comparison to the rich scholarship on feminism in the US or western and northern Europe, there is still relatively little scholarship on women's activism in state socialist Eastern Europe or the global South. This Fellowship seeks to change that story.

Through the network on 'Women and global socialism' funded by the grant, we have been exploring topics such as communist Bengali women's engagement with state socialism in Eastern Europe, the gendered experiences of South African socialist women in the transition to armed struggle, the connections between Portuguese and African women's organisations, the political activism of the Cuban women's federation, the transnational connections of communist women in postwar Chile, and the ambivalent engagement of East European women with 'others' from the global South in the early years of state socialism. A project with this type of global reach can only be approached collaboratively, and our network brings together scholars with the necessary language skills and contextual knowledge to combine locally-grounded social histories of women's movements with the grand narratives of women's rights and socialist internationalism. We discussed these questions at a series of workshops in Liverpool (March 2018), London (December 2018) and Cambridge (December 2019). The resulting essays will be published as a special issue of The International Review of Social History (Cambridge University Press) in 2022.

In April 2019 we held a public engagement workshop hosted by Dr Mallarika Sinha Roy, Assistant Professor at the Women's Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, which included scholars, feminist activists and representatives from the Centre for Women's Development Studies in a roundtable debate about the history and legacies of the entanglement of socialist internationalism and feminism in India.

At the same time, our project is concerned with the political and affective dimensions of writing a history of socialist internationalism in the 'post-socialist' present. To this end, we have organised a public history workshop at the Casa Bar - a community-run bar and meeting place in the city of Liverpool - to discuss the possibilities of writing radical history after 1968. This included a witness seminar, a roundtable in which former student activists and '68ers' discussed their memories of 1968 and its legacies for activism and scholarship today.

Our research is ongoing, but so far it is clear that the rich variety of historical experiences of female activists and organisations, and their engagement with international communism, broader notions of socialist internationalism, and discourses and practices of human rights, is a subject that has only just begun to be explored.
Exploitation Route The results of this project might be of interest to scholars and students of global feminism, as well as to activists and professionals working in the field of contemporary women's rights who wish to gain a historical perspective on their work.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description European Commission Marie Curie-Sklodowska Intra-European Fellowship
Amount £308,432 (GBP)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 07/2019 
End 07/2021
Description Newton International Fellowship for Dr Radka Sustrova "Women's Labour Activism in Authoritarian Regimes: Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland 1938-1968"
Amount £70,000 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2020 
End 02/2022
Description Collaboration with Dr Mallarika Sinha Roy, Women's Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 
Organisation Jawaharlal Nehru University, India
Country India 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution In November 2017 Celia Donert gave a lecture at the Women's Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, about her work on women's rights in Cold War Europe. This was an occasion to meet in person with Dr. Mallarika Sinha Roy, a partner on Donert's AHRC Leadership Fellowship, as well as other staff and students at the Women's Studies Centre.
Collaborator Contribution Dr. Mallarika Sinha Roy organised a guest lecture for me at the Women's Studies Centre at JNU, thereby facilitating meetings with JNU staff and students.
Impact This collaboration is in the early stages. Dr. Sinha Roy will come to Liverpool in March 2018 for a workshop on 'Gendering Socialist Internationalism.' This will be an oppportunity to continue the conversation and discuss further cooperation / publication / funding plans. This is a multidisciplinary collaboration, involving modern European history and politics (Celia Donert), Women's Studies , Development Studies, South Asian history and politics (Dr. Sinha Roy).
Start Year 2017
Description Project website launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project website was launched, providing news about the project team and events, calls for proposals for our conferences, and a blog space. The website has increased the visibility of the AHRC Fellowship and led to requests about further participation and involvement from scholars working on related topics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Public engagement workshop at Women's Studies Centre, JNU, New Delhi 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This workshop explored the history and memory of struggles for women's rights in India with a particular focus on socialist and post-socialist feminisms. The workshop brought together faculty and postgraduates at JNU and the University of Delhi, as well as the Centre for Women's Development Studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Research visit to Women's Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The PI Celia Donert gave a talk about her research on women's rights in Cold War Europe at the Women's Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017