Mona L. Siegel


On her book Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

Cover Interview of March 10, 2020

A close-up

It is difficult to crack open this book to a particular page and get a strong sense of the whole. Individual chapters highlight the activism of varying groups of women in different national and international arenas. Initially, many of these women labored in isolation from one another. Over time, though, they would meet. In the aftermath of 1919, as chronicled in the book’s epilogue, most would begin to collaborate as they came to view their own push for gender equity as a part of a broader, global struggle.

rorotoko.comMary Church Terrell Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

A “just-browsing” reader who likes to start at the beginning would make the acquaintance of Marguerite de Witt Schlumberger, a French grandmother who sent five sons to the trenches. Schlumberger organized Western suffragists in Paris to demand that women be seated at the negotiating table. A bit further on, in Chapter 2, a reader’s gaze might by drawn to the 1919 passport photo of Mary Church Terrell, an African American daughter of once-enslaved parents and prominent civil rights activist who came to Paris to champion both racial justice and gender equality. Both she and her college roommate, Ida Gibbs Hunt, were active players in 1919, helping to put pan-Africanism on the ideological map.

The opening lines of Chapter 3 offer an equally enticing introduction to the book. There a reader would encounter Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi as she stares down British colonial authorities, daring them to make her a martyr in the fight for Egyptian sovereignty and universal democracy.

Chapter 4 delivers its own share of drama as German feminist Lida Gustava Heymann publicly embraces French feminist Jeanne Mélin. Mélin’s family brickmaking factory was occupied and dismantled by the German army in 1914, and she lived out all four years of the war as a refugee. Her symbolic reconciliation with the “former enemy” would inspire hundreds of pacifist women at the 1919 WILPF Congress in Zurich to stand and take a public oath “to made good the wrongdoings of men.”

It is tempting to recommend opening the book to Chapter 6. There a reader would learn how it is that working women, many born in desperate poverty, managed to convince the nascent International Labor Organization to call for a minimum global standard of twelve weeks paid maternity leave (a standard the United States has yet to meet today).

In the end, however, if I had to send a browsing reader to one place in the book, I think I would point to the middle of Chapter 5. There she or he would meet Soumay Tcheng, the sole woman appointed as an official delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, as she holds the Chinese foreign minister captive at the point of a “rosebush gun” in order to prevent him from signing the Versailles Treaty. To find out if Tcheng was successful or not, the reader would either need to settle in for a long afternoon of browsing or buy the book.