As part of the American History Research Seminar’s “Women’s Worlds: New Histories of the United States and the World” held in October 2021, Katie Fapp (Oxford) and Alex Penler (LSE) reflect on the United States’ place in the world from the perspective of women’s and gender history. Sharing insights from their doctoral work, they explore how the intersecting histories of empire, nation-building, women’s rights, and public diplomacy shaped the contours of U.S. power and influence in a globalising world between the Civil and Cold Wars – not only placing the United States in the world but bringing women to the centre of its transnational histories. Katie Fapp’s remarks are reproduced below:
In the autumn of 1912, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt was aboard a steamer cutting across the Pacific towards San Francisco. She was taking this opportunity to rest after a long time from home. The suffragist had steamed, railroaded, drove, and sailed around the world over the past year and a half; setting out from Southampton, Catt then ventured onto South Africa, Egypt, the Ottoman Levant, Ceylon, India, Burma, Dutch East Indies, Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan. While Catt had taken tours abroad before in the name of women’s suffrage, this had been her first foray outside of the West, and indeed to the American territories in the Pacific. Her expedition through the Pacific World revealed much about the nature of the international women’s rights movement in this period. Just one example of such is how it provides us with a new way to consider American women’s role in foreign relations history in this region prior to World War One.
As with many other fields, the historiography of women’s rights was not unaffected by the transnational turn. This was a particularly novel consideration for women’s suffrage, a topic previously thought to be only national in scope. The varied activity of suffragists in international and transnational spaces suggested otherwise. Historians have been hard at work researching the many forms that this activity took, however most of this work has focused on the transatlantic. My own work moves our focus away from the Atlantic and towards the Pacific, between the years 1893, when New Zealand became the first self-governing country to enact universal woman suffrage, to 1928, when the first meeting of the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association marked a new page for women’s internationalism in the region. Whilst connections across the Atlantic were undoubtedly easier to make, American woman suffragists nevertheless also sought to support their cause across the West and into the East. They engaged with the Pacific in numerous ways, from admiring their progressive Australasian sisters or petitioning Congress for the inclusion of women’s suffrage in organic acts, to globetrotting in the name of women’s suffrage or reading updates from said globetrotters if unable to travel themselves.