H-Diplo Article Review 946 on “Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900-1940.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 946
29 April 2020

Valeska Huber, Tamson Pietsch, and Katharina Rietzler.  “Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900-1940.”  Modern Intellectual History (2019):  1-25.  DOI:  10.1017/S1479244319000131/.

Review Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Georgios Giannakopoulos | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Jennifer Chochinov, King’s College London

By the end of the nineteenth century, after operating primarily as institutions which catered to meet the private needs of parishes and land speculators, American colleges and universities had acquired a certain academic respectability.[1] At the turn of the century, an increased emphasis on higher education had grown in tandem with a culture of professionalism wherein expertise and new white-collar professions bourgeoned.[2] Thanks to university annexes and all-women’s colleges, women benefitted from this new paradigm, entering higher education in greater numbers, and professionalizing service work they had formerly undertaken as volunteers (6). Universities played a role in a wider shift: as the United States became more emboldened by its own expertise, production of knowledge, and identity, the belief that other nations “could and should” replicate American democracy and enterprise likewise blossomed.[3] Subsequently, a growing interest in and articulation of intellectual inquiry emerged and later evolved, among other disciplines, into that of International Relations. By the early twentieth century transatlantic networks of American professionals and experts had emerged to disseminate the United States’ progressive ethos and fulfil its destiny as the new “moral empire” (2).

It is in this matrix, amid the crossroads of expertise, women’s professionalism, and American exceptionalism that Valeska Huber, Tamson Pietsch, and Katharina Rietzler find their article’s focus.  “Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900-1940” is an insightful contribution which addresses the lacuna in scholarship that, outside of international organizations and networks, fails to recognize women as both international thinkers and subjects of international thought during the early twentieth century despite their extensive involvement in knowledge production. Based on case studies of educational reformer Fanny Fern Andrews, social worker Mary Parker Follet, and librarian Florence Wilson, the article illuminates the professional settings in which these women cultivated their thoughts, focusing predominantly on their work and ideas formulated from the turn of the twentieth century through the early 1930s. As a male-focused historiography has often located international thought in official diplomatic and military bodies, Huber, Pietsch and Rietzler instead turn our attention to women’s emerging professions as “alternative settings,” illustrating where and how women systematically cultivated their thoughts on the international (3). 

Recent scholarship on women’s participation in international organizations and networks has shed new light on the myriad ways in which women championed international agendas, feminisms, and concepts of sisterhood across class and race (3).[4] In examining the intellectual offerings of professional women to international thought, and thus to the discipline of International Relations, Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler’s article depicts women’s historical contributions in three distinctive ways: First, the authors move beyond the history of organizations and networks to instead explore how professions which opened to women in the wake of the expansion of higher education and the resulting professional opportunities allowed women to engender their own ideas about the international. Second, their scrutiny of professional settings analyzes these women’s own theories, rather than the ideas that mattered to institutions.  While the subjects of the case studies of this article—Andrews, Follet, and Wilson—each supported and had ties to international organizations and large philanthropic foundations, it was their specific fields, in education, reform, and public service, that shaped their approach to civic engagement, human relations, and empathy, which transcended local and national boundaries. Third, by accentuating women’s expertise beyond the rhetoric of marriage and maternalism, they offer a refreshing reconsideration of how we define women’s historical agency.

In divergent ways, each woman was influenced by the participatory ethos espoused by renowned pragmatist and progressive educational reformer John Dewey, whereby individual civic engagement was emphasized in order to surmount differences among people, spanning social and geographical boundaries, and thus fostering a broader understanding of international relations. An essential component of Dewey’s influence, gleaned from examining Andrews, Follet, and Wilson’s professional frameworks, is how the emphasis on participation, emotion, and psychological experience incorporated individual and non-state actors into their international thinking.  Acknowledging how the thinking and practices of each woman spanned individual, local, national, and global relations, Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler effectively demonstrate how Andrews, Follet, and Wilson’s approach to international thought shifts established scholarly analysis beyond the state (24).

By teaching and advocating education reform in Boston, Andrews championed pedagogical practices which harvested emotional experiences to broaden horizons and foster civic virtues for American schoolchildren.  Focusing on home and neighborhood environments, then later moving to pen-pal programs and international children’s literature, Andrews envisioned education as an essential component of international politics based on its capacity to generate good will, advance American prominence, sustain international differences, and nurture a world community (9). Meanwhile, influenced by her own efforts as a social worker in immigrant communities in Boston, Follet espoused individual participation in group processes which recognised difference as a means to identify, define, and amend the central problems of social relations (12). Her theories and approaches to social relations and civic engagement were enthusiastically received by various businessmen who awarded her with invitations to lecture in New York, Massachusetts, and London.  Wilson, while working in Geneva as head librarian at the League of Nations, envisioned the library as the mechanism through which decision making and participation in international forums would be enabled and emboldened by direct engagement with materials accessed in the library (18). Wilson saw access to knowledge as essential to international questions and, through American classification and indexing methods, sought to facilitate access to international information for ordinary citizens and elites alike while simultaneously ameliorating the criteria of library services on a global scale.  (20, 22).

However, unlike early twentieth-century feminist internationalists, such as the members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) who often treated the nation as detrimental and antithetical to women, Andrews, Follet and Wilson did not discredit the state as an actor (4).[5] Wilson’s ideas of a creating and informing an international society were deeply rooted in the idealization of American democracy as the standard on which new, non-Western democracies should base themselves (22). Andrews shared this conviction, touting cosmopolitanism and internationalism as American heritage and, as such, not only the standard by which a world society should be based, but also as the model with which to civilize the non-white world.[6] Her curricula emphasized American exceptionalism and, after World War I, were revised to be more sympathetic towards American militarism and expansion (9).  Follet’s work was geared towards enabling civic engagement among immigrant populations to achieve autonomy, promoting American democratic practices, and advancing conflict resolution within the United States.  It was her belief that acknowledging and articulating differences within group relations would not only unite varying peoples but would also give rise to a “new kind of national state...a world state” (14).  The American exceptionalism within the internationalist agendas of Andrews, Follet, and Wilson are emblematic of the United States’ approach to international thought and international relations during the American Century and prefigure American women’s participation in international organizations during the Cold War.[7] Consequently, Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler’s work evokes additional questions regarding the prerequisites for women’s participation both in international thought and international mobility.[8]

Within their professional domains, each woman experienced career recognition as well as gendered obstacles and saw their work either usurped or overshadowed.  While they remain absent from disciplinary histories, the legacies of their ideas and expertise are influential both within and beyond their respective fields.  In this way, it is appealing to think of Andrews, Follet, and Wilson as feminist activists, pursuing the advancement of women as professional pioneers who excelled in their chosen fields.  However, neither woman’s professional assessments advocated explicitly feminist ideals.  Rather, Andrews, Follet, and Wilson were ‘social feminists’ who believed that (white) women held gendered duties to society, with professionalism being the medium through which to execute their obligations (4).[9] This further discrepancy, then, between Andrews, Follet, and Wilson and recognizably feminist internationalist women such as those who joined the WILPF, reveals the additional benefits of moving beyond the histories of networks and organizations, including the ability to engender a new analytic lens as well as new discursive spaces. Historically, women in advocacy networks have predominantly called upon the shared experience of motherhood to create unity among themselves as well as validate their expertise, and presence, in social and political affairs.[10] While Andrews, Follet, and Wilson were certainly adherents of middle-class virtues, their work and agency are presented outside the explicit rhetoric of marriage and maternalism. Indeed, of the three subjects of the case studies, Andrews is the only woman who is identified as being married.  Subsequently, the article inspires curiosity into how early twentieth century professional women viewed themselves and their societal obligations outside of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity while demonstrating how to present the professional and intellectual accomplishments of women beyond such parameters.

Furthermore, in acknowledging that Andrews, Follet, and Wilson did not have to be recognizably feminist in order for their contributions to be deemed significant, Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler’s article suggests a reevaluation of how women outside of traditional feminist or advocacy networks may be recognized as activists (5). Along these lines, the article encourages scrutiny into the relationship between women’s intellectual identities, women’s internationalist thought, and the evolution of women’s feminisms—from ‘social’ to second wave and beyond.  Reexamining how women may be considered activists entails further inspection into women’s relationships to the state, in terms of their own political, intellectual, and cultural allegiances.  Indeed, for scholars of women’s transnationalism, in particular during the American Century, this opens the exciting potential of interrogating women’s designated role as moral guardians and as the embodiment of national mores. Effectively, such investigations enhance women’s intellectual identities, professional aspirations, and individualism while simultaneously advancing women’s historical agency beyond the prescripts of maternalism, domesticity, and ideological vanguard.

These questions, among many others that are inspired by Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler’s work are in many ways brought to life by their compelling approach in resisting “recovery history” (2).  That is, by maintaining a steady spotlight on the individual ideas and contributions of Andrews, Follet, and Wilson, as opposed to inserting them into intellectual, diplomatic, or social traditions in which they may not have belonged, the article offers a more comprehensive understanding of disciplinary histories and their historical agents, while illuminating how little is known, and how much is yet to be learned, regarding the contributions of individual professional women within international, intellectual, and diplomatic histories. Moreover, the authors allow their subjects to be portrayed as they saw themselves: as theorists and as women of expertise.  By examining the new locations and new forms of expertise that women cultivated and through which they voiced their thoughts on the international, Huber, Pietsch, and Rietzler successfully challenge scholars to mine women’s professions for lost voices of international thought, as well as to reconfigure what qualifies as international thought, where international thought can be found, and who qualifies as an international thinker. In doing so, they inspire scholars across eras and disciplines to excavate unexplored terrains for the voices, motivations, and contributions of historically omitted women.


Jennifer Chochinov is a Ph.D. candidate in History at King’s College London.  Her thesis concentrates on undergraduate American women who studied abroad in Western Europe during the 1950s and 1960s. Supported by a uniquely curated archive, her work explores women’s individual histories of study abroad in relation to Cold War transnationalism and American empire.



[1] David F. Labaree, “Learning to Love the Bomb: the Cold War Brings the Best of Times to American Higher Education,” in Marc Depaepe and Paul Smeyers, eds., Educational Research: Discourses of Change and Changes in Discourse (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016), 104-105.

[2] David F Labaree, “Learning to Love the Bomb,” 105; Jonathan Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Noonday Press, 1991), 199.

[3] Emily S. Rosenburg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 7.

[4] See: Helen Laville, Cold War Women: The International Activities of American Women's Organisations (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Glenda Sluga, “Women, Feminisms and Twentieth Century Internationalisms,” in Glenda Sluga and Patricia Clavin (eds.), Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) , 61-84; Christine von Oertzen, Science, Gender, and Internationalism: Women's Academic networks, 1917-1955 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Imaobong Umoren, Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

[5] Nancy M. Forstell and Maureen Anne Moynagh, Documenting First Wave Feminisms, Volume I: Transnational Collaborations and Crosscurrents (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 162-163.

[6] See also: David Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Jonathan Zimmerman, Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[7] See: Henry Luce, “The American Century,” Life, 10 (17 February 1941), 61-65.

[8] See: Helen Laville, Cold War Women; and Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 149-166.

[9] Naomi Black defines “social feminism” as the experiences and values identified with women.  See: Naomi Black, Social Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 1-2.

[10] See: Keisha Blain, “‘We Want to Set the World On Fire’: Black Nationalist Women and Diasporic Politics in the New Negro World, 1940-1944.” Journal of Social History 49:1 (June 2015): 194-212.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jsh/shv032; Joanne Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Glenda Sluga, “Women, Feminisms and Twentieth Century Internationalisms,” 66.