Feminism's Forgotten Free-Trade Past

Marc-William Palen | 23 April 2024

Gender History | Modern History | Book Launch 

1921 WILPF Executive Committee: Front row, left to right: Cornelia Ramnodt-Hirschmann, Gabrielle Duchêne, Lida Gustava Heymann, Yella Hertzka, Jane Addams, Catherine Marshall, Gertrude Baer. Back row, left to right: Emily Greene Balch and Thora Daugaard. WikiCommons, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1921_WILPF_Executive_Committee.jpg [accessed 23/04/24].

A fragmenting world of trade wars. Food insecurity despite an abundance of food. [1] Food wars waged between eastern European states. [2] A broken Brexit Britain undermining European unity and causing high food prices. [3] The resurgence of right-wing nationalism. [4] Human rights under attack. [5] Children starving from wartime blockades. [6] The world disorder, food insecurity, and trade wars of 2024 would have looked all too familiar to the international women’s peace movement of a century ago.

Feminists back then tended to see themselves as the mothers of the world, believing that women’s active participation in politics would curb or counter men’s militant predilection for nationalism and war. ‘First wave’ feminist internationalists numbered among the leaders of the early-20th-century fight for world peace, what Harriet Alonso has described as 'the suffragist wing' of the international peace movement from the First World War onwards. [7]

Free trade was a key – but oft-overlooked – ingredient to their feminist vision for a peaceful world. Chicago social reformer Jane Addams, the figurehead of the international women’s peace movement, emphasised this free-trade dimension throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Jane Addams made landfall in Europe in early July 1919 to bear witness to the destructive aftermath of the First World War. Addams’s main concern was the famine afflicting millions of Europe’s children.

Addams’s 1919 trek marked the beginning of what would become a multi-year European humanitarian mission of a new left-leaning feminist organization: the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which remains active today. Addams was WILPF’s inaugural president.

Addams experienced her first of many encounters with Europe’s malnourished children during a stopover in Lille in northern France. There, inside a schoolhouse, Addams looked on as a physician examined them by the hundreds. ‘Stripped to the waist’, the children looked more like ‘a line of moving skeletons; their little shoulder blades stuck straight out, the vertebrae were all perfectly distinct as were their ribs, and their bony arms hung limply at their sides’. [8]

Adding to the shocking scene, an unnatural quiet hung over the makeshift emergency room. This was because the French physician on duty had lost his voice, a side effect of wartime shellshock. He therefore had to whisper ‘his instructions to the children as he applied his stethoscope and the children, thinking it was some sort of game, all whispered back to him’.

Addams encountered similarly appalling scenes in Switzerland and Germany. The 1919 WILPF mission’s findings reinforced her belief that securing the peace had just begun.

Addams therefore led another WILPF humanitarian mission amid the hot summer of 1921, this time to southeastern Europe, where they again encountered mass hunger. ‘Food resources which were produced in Europe itself and should have been available for instant use,’ Addams wrote, ‘were prevented from satisfying the desperate human needs, because ‘a covert war was being carried on by the use of import duties and protective tariffs’, which the war’s food blockades had legitimized. [9]

These small starving European states, seeking self-preservation, mistakenly ‘imitated the great Allies with their protectionist policies, with their colonial monopolies and preferences.’ To Addams, such suffering in the name of ‘hypernationalism’ only amplified the need for a new international system of ‘free labor and exchange’ The world faced a clear choice: either ‘freedom of international commerce or international conflict of increasing severity’.

To meet world food demands, her envisaged free-trade order would also require supranational regulation of global transportation lines to counter ‘the ambition of rival nations’. She called her cosmopolitan vision ‘Pax Economica’. 

As Addams’s 1921 European diagnosis above illustrates, the economic cosmopolitan vision of first-wave feminist peace internationalists was key to their understanding of what was undermining the global capitalist system – and also how they sought to fix it.

These predominantly Western, middle-class, white women stuck to the belief that protectionism — and the ensuing trade wars and geopolitical conflicts that followed in its wake — paved the economic foundations for imperialism, war, and hunger.

Through organizations like WILPF and Fanny Garrison Villard’s New York City-based Women’s Peace Society (also formed in 1919), feminist peace internationalists argued that free trade instead promised a panacea of cheap food, prosperity, political emancipation, anti-imperialism, and peace. More than their male counterparts, feminists emphasised free trade’s association with food security, democratization, and social justice.

For one thing, the free market’s ability to break up the militant and monopolistic power of protectionist ‘big business’ upon foreign policymaking would create a more conducive political environment for the expansion of women’s suffrage.

For another, free trade’s dual promise of peace and cheap food meant putting an end to the poverty, violence, and starvation that women and children invariably encountered during and after tariff wars and military conflicts.

Jane Addams, in her long-held role as international president of WILPF, continued to argue for free trade as a prerequisite for world peace until her death in 1935.

During an NBC radio interview in 1932, a year after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Addams was asked to explain the feminist peace movement’s free-trade advocacy. She argued: ‘we believe . . . that unrestricted intercourse between nations must in the long run make for better understanding and good will’ and that ‘freedom of trade intercourse is essential to national prosperity’.

Addams and the women’s peace movement received a welcome boost to their numbers and lobbying power soon thereafter, once the National League of Women Voters and the Young Women’s Christian Association enlisted to join the free-trade fight.

Their added support brought Addams’s envisaged new international economic order — her Pax Economica — closer to reality once they allied with the ‘Father of the United Nations’, Cordell Hull, who served as Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944. Together, Hull and the women’s peace movement went to work liberalizing US and world trade throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Their efforts helped lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the World Trade Organization as well as subsequent ethical free trade movements like Fair Trade, which officially began in 1968. [10]

Recovering the feminist free-trade tradition of Jane Addams and the interwar women’s peace movement expands our understanding of feminist contributions to the foundations of International Relations, as well as their role in creating a more liberal economic order in the 1940s, the remains of which appear to be collapsing in real time.

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter and author of Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World (Princeton University Press, 2024).


[1] Gita Gopinath, 'How Policy Makers Should Handle a Fragmenting World', Foreign Policy, February 6th 2024, https://foreignpolicy.com/2024/02/06/how-policymakers-should-handle-a-fragmenting-world/ [accessed 23/04/24], Indigo Oliver, 'Ukraine is showing the world how small farmers can fix our system', New Republic, October 27th 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/168304/food-supply-pandemic-war-ukraine-covid-farming [accessed 23/04/24].

[2] Karl Badohal, 'Poland mulls wider ban on Ukrainian food imports as farmers warn of more protests', Reuters, February 27th 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/polish-farmers-rally-warsaw-against-eu-policies-ukraine-imports-2024-02-27/ [accessed 23/04/2024].

[3] Liz Cookman, 'Blankets, Food Banks and Shuttered Pubs: Brexit has delivered a Broken Britain', Foreign Policy, February 1st 2023,  https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/01/brexit-britain-recession-economy/ [accessed 23/04/2024].

[4] John Kampfner, 'Right-wing Populism is set to sweep the West in 2024', Foreign Policy, December 26th 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/12/26/right-wing-populism-are-set-to-sweep-the-west-in-2024/ [accessed 23/04/2024]. 

[5] 'Human Rights are Under Attack: Who will protect them?', World Politics Review, December 4th 2023, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/human-rights-are-under-attack-who-will-protect-them/ [accessed 23/04/2024].

[6] Megan K. Stack, 'Starvation is Stalking Gaza's Children', The New York Times, February 29th 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/29/opinion/gaza-israel-palestinians-starvation.html [accessed 23/04/2024].

[7] Harriet Hyman Alonso, The Woman's Peace Union and the Outlawry of War, 1921-1942 (New York, 1989), p. 9.

[8] Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in time of war (New York, 1922), p. 168. 

[9] Ibid., p. 240. 

[10] Andrea Franc, 'What fairtrade was originally about: The Haslemere Declaration of 1968', Imperial and Global Forum, May 3rd 2018 https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2018/05/03/what-fair-trade-was-originally-about-the-haslemere-declaration-of-1968/ [accessed 23/04/2024].

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