Haefner on Ghodsee, 'Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War'

Kristen Ghodsee
Julianne H. Haefner

Kristen Ghodsee. Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 328 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0181-2; $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0139-3.

Reviewed by Julianne H. Haefner (Central Michigan University) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55334

In June and July of 1975, over two thousand participants from 133 United Nations member states descended on Mexico City for the First World Conference on Women. Participants from the First World and the Second/Third World primarily differed on whether the conference was supposed to only discuss women’s issues or whether the activists present should also discuss other matters, including issues like South African apartheid or the peace process in the Middle East. The activists from the Second and Third World argued that women should in fact discuss all matters that their male counterparts were discussing at the UN. This meeting in Mexico City was not the only one during the 1970s and 1980s that drew participants from First, Second, and Third World nations. Kristen Ghodsee’s book Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War examines the activism of women in two Second World nations, Bulgaria and Zambia, and their contributions to a range of meetings of women activists during the Decade for Women (1976-85). Her main argument is that in the writing of history the contributions of the women from Eastern Europe and socialist-leaning African nations have been largely obscured by giving credit to women from the West in advancing women’s rights throughout the Decade for Women. Ghodsee’s main purpose in writing this book is to uncover this forgotten history of the Cold War to show how women from the Second World championed women’s rights much earlier than some of their Western counterparts.

Second World, Second Sex is divided into two main parts. In the first part of the book, Ghodsee discusses some of the context of the Cold War and feminism. In this part she also presents two case studies of women activists: Bulgaria and Zambia. She examines the contributions Zambian and Bulgarian women made to the advancing of women’s rights in their respective countries. For example, the Women’s Brigade in Zambia organized classes to fight against infant mortality and taught women how to use the decimal-based currency, an important precursor to become economically involved in Zambian society.

The second part of the book focuses on some of the individual events throughout the Decade for Women. Throughout the Decade for Women female activists from across the world convened in multiple places, from training courses to workshops to conferences, allowing many of these women activists to cross paths. While the activists displayed solidarity for their shared causes, tensions still developed between representatives from different nations, and in particular between First World and Second/Third World nations.

Geopolitical issues and topics contributed to tensions between the activists from different parts of the world. This is evident, for example, in the debates about whether or not to include the word “Zionism” in the final conference document of the 1985 World Conference on Women in Nairobi. The US delegation threatened that it would leave the conference if Zionism was to be included. Some nations concurred with this sentiment, but Eastern bloc nations and some of their allies tried to purposely antagonize the United States on this matter and advocated for the inclusion of the term. On the final day of the conference several delegations, among them the US, the Soviet, and the Palestinian, met up in private to discuss the matter. Finally, under pressure from the Kenyan government a compromise was reached and the following statement was included in the final conference document: “all forms of racial discrimination” (p. 213). This compromise was largely considered a victory for the US.

Of course, relations between the Eastern bloc countries and the African nations were not without tensions either. Racism, for example, was persistent in the Eastern bloc and many African women spoke of the racism they encountered at some of the events. For example, one Zambian woman recalled instances of segregation and discrimination when she attended a training course in the German Democratic Republic. Despite proclamations of solidarity from the Eastern European activists, stereotypes about Africa and African culture persisted.  

Throughout her work Ghodsee continues to make connections between the story of Zambian and Bulgarian women activism and today’s feminist movement. She remains critical of today’s liberal feminism and its connections to capitalism. Ghodsee closes the book by pointing toward the future of feminism, expressing her hope that “this book contributes to building a future in which feminism is no longer the handmaiden of neoliberal capitalism but a broad-based social movement that fights ignorance, prejudice, and injustice in all its form” (p. 243). One can interpret part of Ghodsee’s work also as a call for action, challenging today’s feminist movement.

Ghodsee draws her evidence from a variety of sources: Bulgarian and Zambian government archival sources, personal archives, and oral interviews with many of the activists conducted by the author herself. She skillfully weaves the different sources together to provide a cohesive narrative. Methodologically Second World, Second Sex can serve as a building block to merge oral interviews and archival sources, providing a nuanced and human-centered understanding of historical developments.

The book has multiple strengths, among them centering the narrative on women and their activism, and secondly focusing on women from Second World nations. The book adds layers to multiple histories and can be beneficial for a number of historians. Often the story of the Cold War is told from the perspective of the United States, its European allies, and the Soviet Union. But Ghodsee’s focus on Zambia and Bulgaria provides a different understanding of the events surrounding the Decade for Women, one in which the Cold War superpowers remain side actors. Thus, the book makes valuable contributions to the study of the Global South, and placing the women in Zambia and Bulgaria as main actors shows their agency in the larger narrative of women’s rights and the Cold War. In addition, Ghodsee’s work also illuminates the global networks and connections between women’s rights activists throughout the Cold War.[1]

Additionally, the book is very readable; Ghodsee’s writing style of incorporating oral interviews with secondary sources and archival sources makes for an enjoyable read. The author does at times discuss her personal recollections surrounding some of the interviews, but this does not take away from the overall objectiveness and academic rigor. On the contrary, Ghodsee’s personal recollections add positively to understanding the craft of oral history. Obviously, any kind of oral history can have its pitfalls, something the author readily acknowledges. It is helpful for the reader that Ghodsee did not just rely on the oral interviews but also supplemented the personal memories with other sources to verify and fact-check.

For the most part the book is a well-rounded account of the events. However, it would have been helpful if the author had engaged more with news coverage of the events during the Decade for Women. Did any major news outlets report on the events? How were these reports framed and presented? Did news media outlets report on the events as being just focused on domestic matters, or did they include reports about the above-mentioned debates regarding the term “Zionism”? This would have added another dimension to the story and would have given an impression of how this kind of activism had been viewed outside of the activist circles.

Overall, Second World, Second Sex is an excellent account of women’s activism in Bulgaria and Zambia throughout the Decade for Women. Using oral history and archival sources, the author skillfully examines this forgotten Cold War history. Her work makes meaningful contributions to a range of historiographies, from activism, to feminism, to the Cold War. Her work is particularly meaningful because it places women in these Second World nations at the forefront of the narrative.


[1]. Other works that discuss women’s rights, global developments, and the Cold War include Karen Garner, Shaping a Global Women’s Agenda: Women’s NGOs and Global Governance, 1925-1985 (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2010); Yulia Gradskova, “Women’s International Democratic Federation, the ‘Third World’ and the Global Cold War from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s,” Women’s History Review 29, no. 2 (2020): 270-88; Bonnie Smith, Women’s History in Global Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); and Lucy Delap, Feminisms: A Global History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Julianne Haefner is a doctoral candidate in Central Michigan University’s transnational and comparative history PhD program. She is currently working on her dissertation exploring US foreign policy toward Angola under the Gerald R. Ford administration (1974-77).

Citation: Julianne H. Haefner. Review of Ghodsee, Kristen, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women's Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55334

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.