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Date with history: February 10, 1919

Suffragists demand a voice Mona Siegel on the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference’s pioneering work

Paris did not put on its most welcoming face in the winter of . Streets were icy, coal was expensive and hotel rooms scarce. Such matters were of little consequence to the dozen or so women who gathered at the French Lyceum Club on February . All had lived through the darkest days of the Great War. Marguerite de Witt Schlumberger, the -yearold French suffragist who presided over the meeting, had sent all five of her sons to the front. Britain’s Millicent Garrett Fawcett had watched her nation’s suffrage movement splinter over the war question. Florence Jaffray Harriman, who directed the Women’s Motor Corps for the American Red Cross, arrived in uniform.

Their ‘essential goal’ was to secure ‘women’s participation in national and international political life’. The suffragists faced an uphill battle. None of the states at the Paris Peace Conference had appointed a female plenipotentiary. If women were to be heard, they would have to make their case outside the halls of power.

From February to April , they did just that – meeting continuously, crafting an agenda, courting diplomats and demanding a hearing. Their most pressing goal was to secure women’s right to shape the laws that structured their lives. ‘Nobody,’ they told the peacemakers, ‘can speak in the name of the people as long as women, who represent half of humanity, are excluded

Suffragists who attended the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference from the political life of nations.’ Their first order of business was to request that the Supreme Council create a Women’s Commission to the peace conference, an appeal promptly dismissed.

The suffragists did not retreat. In the following weeks they met dozens of diplomats. In mid-March, the Supreme Council bowed to their pressure. The ‘ladies’ would be invited to ‘state their case’ before relevant commissions of the peace conference.

They appeared first before the Labour Commission, where they called for equal pay for equal work, stronger limits on child labour, an eight-hour working day and guarantees of women’s representation at the International Labour Organization. At the first ILO Conference that autumn, female advisers successfully pressed the all-male body to adopt a Maternity Protection Convention calling for weeks’ paid maternity leave.

The women’s second and final appearance at the peace conference came at the League of Nations Commission on April where they called on it to repress sex trafficking, recognize married women’s nationality rights, oversee global health, promote access to education and back female enfranchisement. Most of their suggestions were disregarded, but Article of the League Covenant – explicitly opening all positions in the world government to men and women – was a direct result of their labours.

‘February and April : these two dates will be celebrated in the history of feminism,’ predicted Suzanne Grinberg, the French conference secretary. ‘The first marks the beginning of our efforts to participate in international politics, the second, the result.’

Sadly, Grinberg was mistaken. Memories of women’s efforts at the Paris Peace Conference would be erased by the rising tide of fascism and the return of war. The suffragists scrupulously archived their efforts, but these documents were seized by the Nazis and then the Russians, only to be buried in a Soviet archive until the end of the th century.

Nevertheless, legacies of their efforts would reverberate through the decades in two ways.

First, Inter-Allied suffragists showed the promise of international treaties in advancing women’s rights. In the interwar decades, Pan-American feministas seized upon this to press for an Equal Nationality Treaty guaranteeing married women’s citizenship rights. After the Second World War, feminists pursued this strategy at the UN. Their efforts culminated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Second, the suffragists were among the first to insist that women’s inclusion, security and equality were necessary to sustain global peace. Male diplomats were slow to catch on, but in , the UN passed Security Council Resolution affirming the importance of including women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts. Mona L Siegel is Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento

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