- Paula Nörr
Who writes history? A detour beyond the official narrative of history
Whether at school or in university, most of us learned about the Paris Peace Conference as a crucial event in European history. Are you not familiar with it? Or have you forgotten about it by now? No worries, I will provide you with some key facts about the spectacular event before we go beyond the official narrative. By exploring a concurrent event with the Paris Peace Conference, namely the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference (IAWC), this article sheds light on the role of women in history and how gender inequality had an impact on them. Since gender inequality is a prevailing structural problem in international decision-making, we should be cautious not to repeat mistakes of the past and take into account the lessons history teaches us.
The Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919 and 1920 at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris to establish the terms of peace in Europe after World War I. Although it is often referred to as the “Versailles Conference”, only the first of several treaties was signed in the historical palace of Versailles. Diplomats from 32 countries, representing the victorious Allies, came together to negotiate and write history. The conference resulted in the League of Nations and five peace treaties that rearranged the maps of Europe, parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, and also drew new national boundaries. The five major powers, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States blamed the losing nations of Germany and its allies for the war and imposed penalties and reparations on them. This caused political resentments that considerably impacted the historical development of Europe in the inter-war period.
The leaders of the four main allied powers, Prime Ministers Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and US President Woodrow Wilson became known as the so-called “Big Four”. Have you noticed something? No? Well, that is not surprising. Gendered history is the mainstream, and we are used to hearing primarily about the great achievements of male politicians and diplomats. And yes, for the greatest part of history, women did not participate in diplomatic and political talks. But, believe it or not, there were still women living and politicizing at that time. After World War I, a group of women leaders in the international women’s suffrage movement was sick of not being allowed to sit at the negotiating table. Under the leadership of Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger, they were determined to establish fundamental social, economic, and political rights for women. Being denied seats at the official Paris Peace Conference, Valentine Thompson, Margery Corbett Ashby, Florence Jaffray Harriman and Jane Brigode among others started a counter-conference, the IAWC, which convened in parallel from 10 February to 10 April 1919.
The main activity of the IAWC was to lobby Wilson and other delegates of the Paris Peace Conference to admit women to the Conference. And the ladies succeeded in doing so, at least to some extent: Seventeen delegates from the IAWC were heard by the Conference’s Commissions for International Labor Legislation and by the League of Nations Commission on 10 April 1919. It was the first time in Western history that women were allowed to participate formally in international decision-making and treaty negotiations. On that occasion, they presented a resolution that concerned the trafficking and sale of women and children, the political status and suffrage of women, and the imperative establishment of education as a human right of all persons in each nation. Although the women did not achieve a lot of their objectives, they were at least successful in securing the right for women to serve in the League of Nations for all positions. Their historical achievement was documented in Article 7 of the Covenant of the League of Nations: “All positions under or in connection with the League, including the Secretariat, shall be open equally to men and women." Furthermore, their proposed provisions for fair labor conditions and the prevention of human trafficking were adopted by the Conference. With the women’s concrete achievements, both women’s rights and human rights were introduced in international policy-making. The discussion of these crucial rights thereby eventually found a global platform and achieved to attract attention in the newly established world order.
Owing to the brave and ambitious women of the IAWC, we nowadays perceive the participation of women in international politics as a matter of course. While inclusivity and representation are carefully considered at EuroMUN, there are other crucial political events that significantly lack an awareness of gender inequality. The Munich Security Conference 2022 for instance sparked a vibrant discussion about women’s involvement and representation in international diplomatic talks after a photo of an all-male CEO lunch went viral. This image shows that still today women are not only underrepresented, but often completely absent in international decision-making. It mirrors the prevalent power structures and gender inequalities in our current societies, where in political discussions women’s voices are either muted or neglected. Some governments try to reduce gender inequalities more systematically by adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy. This political framework intends to guarantee human rights and equity through diplomatic relations, thereby achieving a more peaceful and inclusive human living globally. A substantive body of research indicates that countries with more gender equality benefit from good, stable governance and are less likely to experience war. By now, we all know that states in conflict are more likely to achieve enduring peace when female political stakeholders are involved in peace negotiations. And yet, political leaders stick to “traditional” procedures, where women and LGBTQIA+ often do not take a seat.
Seems like nothing has changed really since 1919? Of course, that is not true. Offices of several high-ranking and influential political positions are, or were already, held by women. Yet, societies and politics of today suffer from structural gender inequality, intersecting with other categories of inequality. The mere adoption of gender equality as a term on the agenda is still not sufficient. Since our processes and mindsets are so embedded in the patriarchy, it is about a change of seemingly eternal structures. Acknowledging the generous concessions that have been made in terms of gender equality in the last decades, I see similarities between global politics today and in 1919. Until today, women have to work hard – harder than men – to take part in political decision-making, especially in an international setting. And like in the interwar period, our world is experiencing a transformational process of a kind that hasn’t been seen since World War II or at least since the fall of the Berlin wall. With the climate crisis, rising populism, and globalization out of control we are facing serious challenges. If we aim to tackle these problems effectively and peacefully, we need to discuss them in a more diverse, inclusive and diplomatic setting.
Contemporary challenges and the question how to deal with them are now the main concern of another historical event, EuroMUN 2022. What does this all mean for EuroMUN 2022 then? Participants will debate, find solutions, and take decisions just as the delegates of the Paris Peace Conference did. The difference is that these big men have made great decisions once and for all. The participants of EuroMUN, on the contrary, are just getting warmed up. They are the decision-makers of tomorrow. As such, it is important to take opinions into account that do not fit in the mainstream. They should therefore listen to the quiet voices and give room to speak to those who do not have a voice at all. Until today, human rights and women’s rights are threatened and need to be defended.
History is important because it teaches us lessons. Even those chunks of history that are not part of the official story or cannot be found in history books do. One is: Just because women are not mentioned in history, it does not mean that women have not played a role in it. Another is: we live in a society that is embedded in patriarchal structures, where people are hindered to live their full potential. At EuroMUN you should learn from history and not repeat mistakes of the past. Write your own history, all, together.