By Glenda Sluga

Is it a surprise that we owe the formalization of international thought as a field to a relatively recent book, David Armitage’s 2013 Foundations of Modern International Thought? In this clever assemblage of essays re-reading mainly early modern thinkers, Armitage argues that before the international turn, intellectual historians had shown almost no interest in analyzing the international as a domain of political thought. This was a task abandoned to international relations and international law; even intellectual historians interested in empires and imperialism, or transnationalism, ignored or neglected the international imaginaries or practices that nourished imperialist and colonialist inflected theories of the state, society, and politics. For Armitage, “international intellectual history” is the study of “[r]elations between states, and the multiplicity of non-state relations, taking in the modern era in which the individual is a subject of international law, and international institutions and transnational organizations thickly populate the world.” When it comes to the specific term “international thought,” this was coined by British publicists and litterateurs sympathetic to the League of Nations and nascent international institutions in the interwar era, although the term’s invention is only one clue to a longer history of international thinking. Armitage arrives at that history by asking a really neat question:  “How did we—all of us in the world—come to imagine ourselves in a world of states?”

This is, of course, a question that can be answered as much by the study of women’s ideas as those of the men Armitage discusses. It might seem an uncontroversial point to make, but that’s where we are, still, and why we need this anthology of Women’s International Thought: Towards a New Canon.

The absence of women from intellectual history has been one of its established features. The salient points of that absence in the context of (the) foundations of modern international thought is its dependence not only on preconceptions of who is an intellectual, but more specific to the history of “international intellectual” history, on women’s place (or not) in the older state-focused history of political thought. This anthology, like its companion volume of essays—Women’s International Thought: A New History—has now made it impossible for historians who ignore women as agents of ideas to blame the lack of women’s historical or international thinking.   

It is hard to believe that most historians in the course of their research have not or do not encounter texts written by women on their topics, no matter what the theme. In the 1990s, I was researching a history of ideas of the nation as they were conceptualized and reified in the context of peacemaking in 1919, at the end of the First World War. My overarching thesis was that the political conceptualization of nationality as a defining principle of the peace and the international order was influenced by the rise of new psychological discourses. As the United States, Britain, and France assembled their respective experts to pronounce policy on key peace matters, the psychological realism attributed to nationality and nationalism explained how knowledge about national difference was construed and remade in the setting of peacemaking, and the privileged status given to national “self-determination.” In the course of this research, I encountered texts written by women, even though women were commonly rejected for roles on the national expert peacemaking teams.

For example, Emily Greene Balch, an economist at Wellesley and future Nobel Peace Prize winner, was unsuccessful. Then there were the women brought on board in more or less formal ways: Gertrude Bell, the British “orientalist,” was consulted by the Foreign Office; Sarah Wambaugh, whose text on plebiscites is reproduced in the anthology, was consulted on borders; Ellen Semple, the author of studies on geography in its new anthropological mode, also infiltrated what was otherwise a highly masculine domain of political, geographical, and historical expertise. I discovered Mary Parker Follet’s The New State, and Carolyne Playne’s study of the neuroses of nations —all found their way to my desk. I remember the strange feeling of encountering these women where they were not supposed to be, given the difficulty women had in earning degrees and being accepted into public institutions. Reading them reminded me that it was no coincidence that women were enthusiasts of the new League of Nations, or that one of those enthusiasts, Florence Melian Stawell, coined the term “international thought.” What I failed to ask at the time, and what this anthology makes up for, was: how did they get there, what were they doing there, and which other women should I be seeing and reading?

Women’s International Thought is an extraordinary enterprise, both because it collects names that historians have forgotten and brings them together with those that have remained familiar—at least to historians of women or feminism, whether Jane Addams or Emily Greene Balch, or Helena Swanwick, Rosa Luxemburg or Virginia Woolf. At the same time, putting them into this framing of international thought shifts how we think of them, their importance in thinking through, in distinctive ways, a broad swathe of political issues. Their texts take us from the conventional feminine space of philanthropy—where women’s international activism was first placed in the early nineteenth century—into the mainstream of international thinking and the question, “How did we—all of us in the world—come to imagine ourselves in a world of states?” They contribute to our understanding of the realm of practice as well as interrupt our textual canons; they expand the spectrum of international thinking that we have forgotten, along with forgetting women. There is inevitably more where these came from.

Glenda Sluga is Professor of International History and Capitalism at the European University Institute. In 2020, she was awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant, overseeing a five-year research program on “Twentieth Century International Economic Thinking and the complex history of globalization.” In December 2021, Princeton University Press published her latest book, The Invention of International Order: Remaking Europe after Napoleon. Professor Sluga is also an Australian Research Council Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laurate Fellow, as the recipient in 2013 of a five-year fellowship for “Inventing the International.” She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Royal Society of NSW.

Featured Image: Picture of Jane Addams speaking to a crowd, July 1915. Via Wikimedia Commons.