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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: History


'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.


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