Inter-Allied Women's Conference

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Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger, conference organizer

The Inter-Allied Women's Conference (also known as the Suffragist Conference of the Allied Countries and the United States) opened in Paris on 10 February 1919. A parallel conference to the Paris Peace Conference, it was convened to introduce women's issues to the peace process following the end of the First World War. The women in question had been denied an opportunity to participate in the official proceedings several times before finally being allowed to make a presentation before the Commission on International Labour Legislation. Finally on 10 April, women were allowed to present a resolution to the League of Nations Commission. It covered the trafficking and sale of women, their political and suffrage status, and their inclusion in international education with a focus on the humanitarian rights of all persons of each nation.

Though the Inter-Allied Women were denied many of their aims, it is significant that their efforts marked the first time women were allowed formal participation in an international treaty negotiation. They were also successful in gaining the right for women to serve in all capacities, whether as staff or delegates, in the League of Nations organization as well as provisions for humane labour conditions and the prevention of trafficking in women and children.


The consequences of World War I were profound: four empires fell, numerous countries were created or regained independence, and significant changes were made to the political, cultural, economic, and social climate of the world. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was the initial forum for establishing the terms of peace; it was by design a global conference with representation from 33 nations, concerned with a broad mandate extending to the establishment of a new international community based on moral and legal principles.[1] As such, it called on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to assist in its work, and was the focus of NGO and lobby groups eager to advance their agendas by vigorous advocacy.[2]

As world leaders prepared to gather for negotiations to draft armistice terms, Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to allow women to participate in the peace process and policy making.[3] Concerned with war crimes committed against women[4] and the lack of any women's political agency, though they had fought alongside and provided support for men in the war, French suffragists alerted Wilson in January 1919, calling for women's issues to be addressed at the conference. Though Wilson acknowledged their participation and sacrifices, he refused to grant women an official role in the peace process, arguing that their concerns were outside the scope of discussions and that conference delegates were not in a position to tell governments how to manage their internal affairs.[5]

During the Labour and Socialist International Conference held in Berne, Switzerland, between 3 and 8 February 1919, women participants from the International Women's Committee of Permanent Peace had held a special meeting organized by Rosika Schwimmer. Delegates at the Berne conference resolved that they would support a democratically-formed League of Nations, including women's participation in the Paris Peace Conference.[6] In response, women from the French Union for Women's Suffrage and the National Council of French Women, acting under the leadership of de Witt-Schlumberger, invited international colleagues to meet in Paris in a parallel conference scheduled to open on 10 February 1919.[7][8] They mailed invitations to organizations in all Allied Nations involved in the suffrage movement, asking for delegates to participate in a women's conference to present their views and concerns to the delegates of the "official" conference. In parallel, the French feminists worked to persuade male delegates to support women's involvement,[8] as they were convinced that international cooperation and coordination were required to solve domestic socio-economic problems.[9] Women who responded to the call to participate as either delegates or to bring information about conditions in their countries included representatives from France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as Armenia, Belgium, New Zealand, Romania and South Africa.[10] [11] [12]


The Paris Peace Conference negotiations took place over a five-month period from January to May 1919,[13] while the women's conference convened from mid-February to mid-April.[14] Though their conference did not begin until February, the women immediately got to work and a delegation, led by chair Millicent Fawcett, met with Wilson asking if a Women's Commission could be included in the conference to address concerns of women and children.[15][16] Wilson suggested, instead, that male diplomats on the commission form a Women's Commission to which the Inter-Allied Women's Conference could serve as advisors.[16] On 13 February, Wilson took the request to the Council of Ten — Arthur Balfour (United Kingdom), Georges Clemenceau (France), Robert Lansing (US), Baron Nobuaki Makino (Japan), Viscount Alfred Milner (United Kingdom), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), Stephen Pichon (France), Sidney Sonnino (Italy) and Wilson — along with the Maharaja of Bikaner Ganga Singh (India) and other dignataries.[15][17] Once again the women's proposal was dismissed,[15] with Prime Minister Clemenceau recommending that they be referred to work with the Commission on Labour.[18][Notes 1]

Their dismissal did not stop the women from attempting to gain support from the peace conference delegates. They met with Jules Cambon, Paul Hymans and French President Raymond Poincaré, all of whom agreed that the women's input on such issues as deportations from Armenia, Belgium, Greece, France, Poland and Serbia and the sale of women in Greece and Turkey were pertinent issues on which a women's commission might gather data.[4] In all, the Inter-Allied Women met with delegates from 16 countries, hoping to generate support at least for allowing women to sit on committees likely to deal with issues concerning women and children.[21] A second delegation of women, led by de Witt-Schlumberger, met with the Council of Ten, without Wilson present, on 11 March 1919.[22][23] The delegates who were present agreed to allow the women an audience with the Commission on International Labour Legislation and the League of Nations.[22] While an audience was far less than the women had wanted, allowing them formal participation in an international treaty negotiation was unprecedented.[23]

By the middle of the month, on 18 March, suffragists testified before the Labour Commission, giving an overview of women's working conditions.[24][25] The resolutions the Inter-Allied Women presented to chair Samuel Gompers[25], covered a variety of issues including the health hazards of working conditions.[22] There were recommendations on limiting hours worked per day and per week, on establishing a fair minimum wage based upon a cost of living analysis and equal pay for equal work, as well as regulations on child labour, maternity pay, and technical trade education. They also asked for each nation to establish a formal body of women members to analyse and advise on legislative policy liable to impact women.[25] Two trade unionists from the United States, Mary Anderson and Rose Schneiderman, arrived in Paris too late to participate in the presentation to the Labour Commission. Instead, they met with Wilson, to urge that women be allowed to participate in global governance structures. Though he made promises to include women, they were unfulfilled.[26] By the end of March, the women had persuaded delegates to introduce a measure specifying that women could serve in any office of the League of Nations. The resolution was presented by Lord Robert Cecil and received unanimous approval on 28 March.[27]

Lady Aberdeen

Lady Aberdeen, president of the International Council of Women arrived at the conference after the delegates had met with the Labour Commission to assist with preparations for the presentation to the League of Nations. She called together a group of women to prepare a resolution to be read to the delegates. The documents they prepared focused on three key areas: civil status, political status and human rights.[28] Arguing that the civil status of women and children was inadequately addressed in international law, the Inter-Allied Women expressed concern over civil codes which allowed child marriages, condoned the prostituting, trafficking and sale of women and children, and treated women as the chattel of their husbands and fathers. They called for international law to provide protections in these areas,[29] and proposed an institution be established to protect public health and advise the public on hygiene and disease. The resolution pointed out that while women suffered in time of war, they also undertook jobs soldiers could not do and supported efforts to secure the safety and welfare of their countries. They asked for suffrage to be granted to women, enabling them to participate in the process of governance. The women's final point was that provisions should be made to ensure that international education provided training on civilization and the obligations of citizenship with a focus on respecting the humanity, cultures, and human rights of all citizens of each nation.[30]

Seventeen of the Inter-Allied Women participated on 10 April in a presentation to the League of Nations Commission. They insisted women should be given equal access to all offices, committees and bodies of the League and that governments which failed to grant equality to women should be barred from membership.[23] They argued that if people were allowed to have self-determination, women should share in the right to choose their own path. The demands for suffrage and recognition of the civil, political and human rights of women were unsuccessful. However, Article 7 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was incorporated into the Versailles Treaty, admitted women to all organizational positions of the League.[31]


Delegates of the official peace conference refused to see women's citizenship and political agency as an international concern dealing with rights. Instead, especially in regard to married women, the delegates maintained that each nation should have the ability to determine its own citizenship requirements.[32] The Inter-Allied Women's suggestions on education, labour, and nationality were deemed far too radical for implementation and most of them were dismissed without much consideration.[33][34] The final Covenant of the League of Nations did contain provisions "that the member states should promote humane conditions of labour for men, women and children, as well as prevent traffic in women and children".[33]

Many feminists who had initially supported the creation of the League of Nations were disillusioned by the final terms of the Treaty of Versailles. At the Zürich Peace Conference hosted by the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace from 17 to 19 May 1919, delegates vilified the Treaty for both its punitive measures and its lack of provisions to condemn violence. They also expressed disdain for the exclusion of women from civil and political participation.[35] Representatives of the Women for Permanent Peace renamed the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom at the Zürich conference, incorporated many of the ideals of the Inter-Allied Women's Conference in the "Woman's Charter", which they eventually adopted.[34] The International Labour Organization, when it was founded as an agency of the League of Nations, adopted the women's idea of equal pay for equal work in its constitutional preamble.[36] Its governing documents also specified a woman delegate should be appointed to attend the International Labour Conference, whenever issues concerning women were to be discussed.[37]

Women labour leaders, also dissatisfied with the outcome of the negotiations, were intent on participating in the November 1919 International Labour Conference scheduled to convene in Washington. Margaret Dreier Robins, president of the Women's Trade Union League, was convinced that women would again be barred from official proceedings. To prevent such an outcome, she spearheaded the International Congress of Working Women, which convened on 29 October to prepare an agenda of significant points.[38] During the ten days of the conference, the women adopted into their resolution many of the labour standards and workers' rights guarantees that the Inter-Allied Women had proposed.[39] The subsequent attendance at the International Labour Conference of many of the delegates from the Congress of Working Women resulted in the passage of international labour standards for maternity, on working hours, and for child labour (though these were below those proposed by the women concerned).[40]


During the Second World War French feminist archives, along with others from Belgium, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands, including the International Archives for the Women's Movement, were looted by the Nazis. As the Russians advanced on territories held by Germany, they in turn confiscated the records and took them to Moscow where they were housed in the KGB's secret Osobyi Archive [de] (Russian: Особый архив). Discovered in the early 1990s, Glasnost and Perestroika policy reforms eventually led to the repatriation of the documents to their respective countries of origin. The French archival records were delivered in two convoys in February and November 2000 and catalogued by the Archives Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As the heirs determined that a public archive would be beneficial, the Association des archives féministes (Feminist Archives Association) was founded to create the Archives du féminisme at the University of Angers. After two years of sorting and cataloguing the materials, the archive opened, allowing scholars to begin accessing and assessing the documents.[41]

Because the initial meetings of women with the Peace Conference delegates and the Council of Ten were not part of the official records of the conference[20] and the French archives had been effectively lost,[41] scholarship on the conference did not emerge until the 21st century.[42] These new studies into the Inter-Allied Women's Conference have shown that women were active participants in the peace process, desired to assume public roles in shaping the international policies at the end of World War I, and saw "female self-determination as the corollary of the democratisation of nations".[43] In 2019, the 133rd American Historical Association meeting featured presentations reassessing the import of the Inter-Allied Women's Conference to the peace process in 1919 by Dr. Mona L. Siegel of California State University and Dr. Dorothy Sue Cobble of Rutgers University.[44] Siegel's presentation, In the Drawing Rooms of Paris: The Inter-Allied Women's Conference of 1919, was excerpted from Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War (Columbia University Press, 2019).[45] Siegel concluded that though the Inter-Allied Women did not achieve many of their aims, they legitimized women's participation in international policy making and globalized the discussion of human rights, successes which have continued to the present day.[12]

Conference participants[edit]


  1. ^ The discussion regarding "the ladies" does not appear in the official minutes for 13 February[19] and Glenda Sluga, a historian at the University of Sydney, stated that evidence of the "secret meeting" was found in the archival records of the "American Commission to Negotiate Peace".[20]
  2. ^ In a letter to Carrie Chapman Catt about the conference, Fannie Fern Andrews recorded "Madame D'Amatio Tivoli, Italy". Unsure if the surname is "D'Amatio" and the place Tivoli, Italy or if the surname is "Tivoli".[11] Oldfield cites the surname as "Tivoli".[10]



  1. ^ Charnovitz 2003, p. 61.
  2. ^ Charnovitz 2003, p. 62.
  3. ^ Siegel 2019, pp. 1–2.
  4. ^ a b Ferguson 1919, p. 5.
  5. ^ The Philadelphia Inquirer 1919, p. 4.
  6. ^ Sluga 2000, pp. 506–507.
  7. ^ a b Guerra 2012, p. 76.
  8. ^ a b Siegel 2019, p. 2.
  9. ^ Cobble 2018, p. 29.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Oldfield 2003, pp. 89, 104.
  11. ^ a b c d Andrews 1919, p. 2.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Siegel 2019, p. 9.
  13. ^ Charnovitz 2003, p. 60.
  14. ^ Siegel 2019, p. 1.
  15. ^ a b c d Sluga 2006, p. 106.
  16. ^ a b Siegel 2019, p. 4.
  17. ^ Minutes of Meetings 1919, p. 1013.
  18. ^ Charnovitz 2003, p. 67.
  19. ^ Minutes of Meetings 1919, pp. 1013–1038.
  20. ^ a b Sluga 2000, p. 498.
  21. ^ Siegel 2019, p. 6.
  22. ^ a b c Sluga 2000, p. 508.
  23. ^ a b c Siegel 2019, p. 7.
  24. ^ Charnovitz 2003, p. 68.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i Oldfield 2003, p. 89.
  26. ^ Cobble 2018, pp. 31–32.
  27. ^ The St. Louis Star 1919, p. 1.
  28. ^ Oldfield 2003, pp. 104–105.
  29. ^ Oldfield 2003, p. 105.
  30. ^ Oldfield 2003, p. 106.
  31. ^ Siegel 2019, p. 8.
  32. ^ Sluga 2000, p. 500.
  33. ^ a b Pietilä 1999, p. 2.
  34. ^ a b Sluga 2000, p. 507.
  35. ^ Wiltsher 1985, pp. 200–202.
  36. ^ Cobble 2018, p. 32.
  37. ^ Cobble 2015, p. 214.
  38. ^ Cobble 2014, pp. 1064–1065.
  39. ^ Cobble 2014, p. 1066.
  40. ^ Cobble 2014, p. 1070.
  41. ^ a b Poinsotte 2002.
  42. ^ Sluga 2000, p. 495.
  43. ^ Sluga 2000, pp. 496–497.
  44. ^ Global Feminisms and 1919 2019.
  45. ^ Siegel 2019.
  46. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Oldfield 2003, p. 104.
  47. ^ Cobble 2018, p. 30.
  48. ^ Sluga 2000, p. 506.
  49. ^ The New York Tribune 1919, p. 2.