The best history books to prove that feminism is a century-old global phenomenon

Mona L. Siegel Author Of Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War
By Mona L. Siegel

Who am I?

When I was at university in the 1980s, I thought I wanted to become the ambassador to France. Then one of my roommates made me promise to take a women’s studies class—any class—before I graduated. I opted for “The History of Women’s Peace Movements.” Descending into historical archives for the first time, I held in my hands crumbling, 100-year-old letters of World War I-era feminists who audaciously insisted that for a peaceful world to flourish, women must participate in its construction. My life changed course. I became a professor and a historian, and I have been following the trail of feminist, internationalist, social justice pioneers ever since.  

I wrote...

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

By Mona L. Siegel,

Book cover of Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

What is my book about?

As World War I drew to a close, statesmen and diplomats descended on Paris, promising to build a new international order rooted in peace, justice, and democracy. Women demanded they live up to their word. Excluded from the negotiations, female activists met separately and insisted boldly that peace would never be secured to the exclusion of half of humanity. My book follows dozens of remarkable women from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America as they demanded women’s right to dignity, security, and equality in civil, political, and economic life. It shows how, in the watershed year of 1919, nascent feminists from across the world transformed women’s rights into a global rallying cry.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women's Suffrage in China

Why did I love this book?

One of the shocking discoveries I made while researching my book was that China was the only Allied power to appoint a female delegate to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Readers of Edwards’s book will be less surprised. While British suffragists of the early twentieth century were busy planting bombs in postboxes, Chinese women were taking up arms to overthrow the Qing dynasty and smashing the windows of the newly opened parliamentary chambers to demand their nation codify citizens’ political rights “regardless of sex.” This book tells their story and puts the lie to the myth that women’s rights only became a priority in China decades later, when Mao Zedong proclaimed that women “hold up half the sky.”

By Louise Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gender, Politics, and Democracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first exploration of women's campaigns to gain equal rights to political participation in China. The dynamic and successful struggle for suffrage rights waged by Chinese women activists through the first half of the twentieth century challenged fundamental and centuries-old principles of political power. By demanding a public political voice for women, the activists promoted new conceptions of democratic representation for the entire political structure, not simply for women. Their movement created the space in which gendered codes of virtue would be radically transformed for both men and women.

Book cover of Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt

Why did I love this book?

Readers of my book frequently tell me how surprised they are by Chapter 3, which tells the story of the fearless Egyptian women who took to the streets in 1919 to demand an end to British colonial rule and the establishment of a democratic state. To those readers interested in learning more about Egypt’s female revolutionaries, I happily point to Margot Badran’s pathbreaking scholarship and, in particular, to this book, which explains why feminism and nationalism ran hand-in-hand for so many Egyptian women in the early twentieth century.

By Margot Badran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Feminists, Islam, and Nation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The emergence and evolution of Egyptian feminism is an integral, but previously untold, part of the history of modern Egypt. Drawing upon a wide range of women's sources--memoirs, letters, essays, journalistic articles, fiction, treatises, and extensive oral histories--Margot Badran shows how Egyptian women assumed agency and in so doing subverted and refigured the conventional patriarchal order. Unsettling a common claim that "feminism is Western" and dismantling the alleged opposition between feminism and Islam, the book demonstrates how the Egyptian feminist movement in the first half of this century both advanced the nationalist cause and worked within the parameters of Islam.

Book cover of Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement

Why did I love this book?

When global diplomats formed the League of Nations in 1919, feminists were forced to lobby for women’s rights from outside the halls of power. As a small measure of progress, after World War II six states would appoint women to the 1945 conference charged with drafting a charter to govern the League’s successor: the United Nations. Half of the female delegates were appointed by Latin American nations, and together, the three feministas would lobby tirelessly to ensure that the UN Charter bound the body to promote human rights “without distinction as to race, language, religion, or sex.” Marino’s fabulous book explains why, in the 1920s and 1930s, Latin American feminists came to play such an outsized role in the global quest for sexual equality and human rights.

By Katherine M. Marino,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Feminism for the Americas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book chronicles the dawn of the global movement for women's rights in the first decades of the twentieth century. The founding mothers of this movement were not based primarily in the United States, however, or in Europe. Instead, Katherine M. Marino introduces readers to a cast of remarkable Latin American and Caribbean women whose deep friendships and intense rivalries forged global feminism out of an era of imperialism, racism, and fascism. Six dynamic activists form the heart of this story: from Brazil, Bertha Lutz; from Cuba, Ofelia Domingez Navarro; from Uruguay, Paulina Luisi; from Panama, Clara Gonzalez; from Chile,…

Book cover of Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks

Why did I love this book?

All authors regretfully leave some things out of their books. If I had written a seventh chapter to mine, it would have focused on Indian feminists like Sarojini Naidu and Herabai and Mithan Tata who conducted a full-throttled campaign for the British Parliament to endorse women’s political rights in the 1919 Government of India Act. Fortunately, Mukherjee’s book tells this story in compelling detail. Based on research into previously ignored sources, this book follows Indian feminists’ battles as they pressed for women’s suffrage, initially within the constraints of the British empire and later, as anticolonial battles intensified, side-by-side with Gandhi and other nationalists fighting for Indian self-determination.

By Sumita Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Indian Suffragettes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Popular depictions of campaigns for women's suffrage in films and literature have invariably focused on Western suffrage movements. The fact that Indian women built up a vibrant suffrage movement in the twentieth century has been largely neglected. The Indian 'suffragettes' were not only actively involved in campaigns within the Indian subcontinent, they also travelled to Britain, America, Europe, and elsewhere, taking part in transnational discourses on feminism,
democracy, and suffrage. Indian Suffragettes focuses on the different geographical spaces in which Indian women were operating. Covering the period from the 1910s until 1950, it shows how Indian women campaigning for suffrage…

Book cover of Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World

Why did I love this book?

Sri Lankan historian Kumari Jayawardena’s book Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, published in 1986, is the canonical work that continues to inform and inspire much of the contemporary scholarship on feminism in the Global South. Her preface lays bare the political stakes of this historical project: “Those who want to continue to keep the women of our countries in a position of subordination,” she explains, “find it convenient to dismiss feminism as a foreign ideology... It should, therefore, be stressed that feminism… has no particular ethnic identity.” For those seeking to reclaim the indigenous origins of feminism outside Europe and North America, this book remains the fundamental starting point.

By Kumari Jayawardena,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For twenty-five years, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World has been an essential primer on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of women's movements in Asia and the Middle East. In this engaging and well-researched survey, Kumari Jayawardena presents feminism as it originated in the Third World, erupting from the specific struggles of women fighting against colonial power, for education or the vote, for safety, and against poverty and inequality. Journalist and human rights activist Rafia Zakaria's foreword to this new edition is an impassioned letter in two parts: the first to Western feminists; the second to feminists…

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