Friday, January 10, 2020

Q&A with Mona L. Siegel

Mona L. Siegel is the author of the new book Peace On Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War. She also has written The Moral Disarmament of France. She is a professor of history at California State University, Sacramento. 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on women's rights after World War I in your new book?

A: This idea for this book dates back 30 years, to when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado and enrolled in a class on women’s peace activism. 

Unbeknownst to me and much of the CU student body, the papers of the oldest existing international women’s peace organization—the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—are housed in the basement archives of the Colorado campus. 

Reading through crumbling letters written in scrawling script and onionskin duplicates of minutes laboriously typed on manual typewriters, I learned about a courageous group of international female activists who came together in Zurich in 1919 to demand a voice for women in defining the peace terms at the end of the First World War. 

Before disbanding, these women drew up a “Woman’s Charter,” which they saw as a prerequisite to the establishment of a lasting peace, which they delivered it in person to the peacemakers. 

Even as an undergraduate student I couldn’t help but wonder: what if statesmen had taken these women’s concerns seriously? Might the history of the 20th century have unfolded differently? 

As I moved on from Colorado and launched my career as a historian, I buried these questions and largely forgot about them, until about five years ago when I began reading the memoir of a remarkable early 20th-century Chinese feminist named Soumay Tcheng. 

Tcheng had been a rebel and a revolutionary, but what I did not know, and what a century’s worth of historical scholarship had failed to document, was that she was also a diplomat appointed to represent China at the Paris Peace Conference. 

Now I really began to wonder: if historians had managed to overlook China’s female peace delegate as well as the feminist pacifists who had gathered Zurich in 1919, might there be female activists from this era whose stories lay equally buried and forgotten? 

Very quickly, this question became an obsession. Though it terrified me to embark upon such a large project, global in scope and well outside my historian’s comfort zone, once I started researching Peace on Our Terms, I never looked back. 

Q: The book examines women in various countries around the world. How did you research the book, and how did you choose the women you discuss in the book?

A: To me, research has always been the most fun part of being a historian. It allows me to follow clues from one archive to another, and in this case, from one country to the next. Ultimately, this book led me to at least 15 archives and libraries in four different countries. 

One of my most remarkable finds came when I visited the Center for Feminist Archives at the University of Angers (France). 

There I stumbled upon the complete records of the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference, a meeting of prominent European and American suffragists who spent over two months directly lobbying the peacemakers in Paris. 

The group kept scrupulous records, but all of their papers disappeared in 1940 when the Nazis occupied Paris and carried them off to Berlin. In 1945, the Soviets in turn seized the women’s papers from the defeated Germans and deposited them in an archive in Moscow. 

Only in 2000, at the end of the Cold War, were they repatriated to France and opened to researchers.

The women whom I discuss in my book all were drawn onto the global stage by the diplomatic events of 1919; all left a paper trail of one kind or another. 

Some, like Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, French labor activist Jeanne Bouvier, and African American civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell, wrote and published detailed memoirs chronicling their efforts. 

Others died in silence and obscurity, leaving me to weave together their stories through press reports and scattered documents in archival collections like the one in Angers.  

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I hate writing titles. When I pull other people’s books off the shelf, I often marvel at the succinct, clever titles that effortlessly capture the essence of their work.

For this book, my editor at Columbia University Press, Caelyn Cobb, and I devised the title over a sushi lunch in Chicago. 

I told Caelyn that I wanted a title that captured my historical subjects’ determination and strength. I wanted it to reflect the truly global scope of their activism. 

And I wanted it to express the fact that women were demanding international recognition of their rights not only because they saw such an expression to be just and fair but also because they believed it to be vitally necessary for the world to achieve lasting peace and security. 

Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women’s Rights After the First World War somehow managed to check all of these boxes. 

The photographs the press and I chose for the cover of the book—of both Egyptian and European feminists in 1919—further emphasize the dynamic and global nature of women’s activism. Together, I hope, the title and imagery will entice readers to crack open the book and dig in.  

Q: Overall, how would you describe these women from a century ago, and what would you say is their legacy today?

A: These women were fearless. 

The physical journeys that they undertook alone would have deterred most people. 

American women crossed the Atlantic in ships stripped of all heating elements to clear way for war material. European women traveled by train across Central Europe through countries racked by revolution. 

Chinese peace delegate Soumay Tcheng circumvented two-thirds of the globe—crossing the Pacific, the United States, and then the Atlantic—to arrive in Paris. 

Women’s physical stamina was outdone only by their moral courage. 

French and German women embraced each other as sisters just months after the cannons of World War I were silenced. 

Upper-class Egyptian women defied customs of seclusion and took to the streets of Cairo to demand national and gender emancipation. 

American civil rights advocate Ida Gibbs Hunt risked her husband’s diplomatic career to help organize a Pan-African Congress and demand racial justice in a new world order.

These women’s combined legacy is both invisible and ubiquitous. 

In specific terms, it is thanks to these women’s efforts that international institutions like the League of Nations (and its successor, the United Nations) opened their doors to female participation a century ago. 

In individual countries, many of the female activists of 1919 rose to positions of power and authority. 

Chinese feminist Soumay Tcheng would help draft China’s first modern civil code granting equal rights to women in marriage. British trade unionist Margaret Bondfield would become Labor Minister and the first woman to hold a cabinet-level post in the United Kingdom. 

More generally and centrally, female activists of 1919 transformed women’s rights into a global rallying cry, which continues to reverberate around the globe today. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Both 2019 and 2020 have seen important anniversaries for the historical events described in my book, and I have been traveling fairly widely sharing stories of female activists at commemorative events marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference and of women’s suffrage in the United States. 

Although I have not yet launched a new book project, I will confess to having my eye on a certain French duchesse who was an heir to the Veuve Clicquot champagne fortune, was the first woman in France to get a driver’s license, and was also the first to be issued a speeding ticket (for driving 15 kilometers per hour in the Bois de Boulogne). 

Not incidental to my interest, she was also a committed suffragist and feminist. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Support women’s rights organizations! Global peace and security, now as much as ever, depend on achieving gender equality and securing basic human rights for all people around the globe. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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