Y. Gradskova: The Women’s International Democratic Federation, the Global South and the Cold War

The Women’s International Democratic Federation, the Global South and the Cold War. Defending the Rights of Women of the ‘Whole World’?

Gradskova, Yulia
Global Gender
London 2022: Routledge
212 S.
£ 38.99
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Katherine Speth, Global and European Studies Institute, Universität Leipzig

Cold War history has long been centered around the ideological battle between East and West and their respective political and economic systems. Post-89 scholarship has steadily expanded past this reductionist interpretation of a vast period that involved far more issues and actors than are popularly remembered or recorded in mainstream history. Research investigating “forgotten histories” is thus more accurately understood as a critical rethinking of the way Cold War biases have informed or impaired knowledge production long after the Iron Curtain was lifted. Yulia Gradskova’s book The Women’s International Democratic Federation, the Global South and the Cold War: Defending the Rights of Women of the ‘Whole World? is a work that adds a uniquely balanced perspective to this discussion. Women’s issues were one of the many fronts of the Cold War where the East-West competition of progress and modernity benefited women worldwide. Gradskova’s work builds upon recent research to reinforce the considerable impact of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), previously overlooked and undermined due to its outdated label as a Communist front. The WIDF was founded in 1945 in Paris to promote peace, women’s rights, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism. Their bold transnational activism had the federation banned by French authorities, forcing their headquarters relocation to East Berlin in 1951. Gradskova’s thorough research through the federation’s archives and members’ correspondence includes important interrogations of the depth and efficacy of partnerships with women from the Global South, an invaluable insight to the field.

The WIDF, the Global South and the Cold War reads as responsive to the work of Francisca De Haan, a leading scholar in this field of history “forgotten” due to “continuing Cold War paradigms” as she describes in her 2010 article on the WIDF.1 The next decade produced lively discussion between scholars researching women’s movements and gender history, as they reached beyond the Western progressive narrative and wave theory to uncover the positive sides of state feminism.2 Gradskova’s research is the first to answer De Haan’s call for a more comprehensive history on the WIDF specifically, due to its “key role in the development of a global understanding of women’s rights” (p. 17). Whereas Kristen Ghodsee takes a largely positive perspective on the long overlooked women’s activism out of the “Second World,” as she refers to the Eastern Bloc, Gradskova is notably more critical.3 The subtitle questioning whether the WIDF was truly for women of the „whole world“ succinctly captures her investigation into the sincerity and ultimate efficacy of the WIDF as an international women’s organization. Gradskova skillfully avoids the diluted Cold War binary in a way even Nanette Funk may find intriguing. Funk’s controversial research on state feminism argues that women’s organizations under state socialism did not have agency and posits that research suggesting otherwise is the work of feminist revisionists.4 Gradskova suggests that the book’s focus on women of the Global South should further stimulate this important discussion of agency (p. 18).

The book combines a transnational approach to the study of organizations and Cold War history with a postcolonial approach to women’s rights and feminism. Gradskova sees the WIDF’s foundational ideas on the defense of peace and the rights of mothers and children as “travel[ing] through and subvert[ing] national borders and the ‘Iron Curtain’,” making the former border more permeable than history on both sides generally suggests (p. 4). Gradskova notably recognizes these flows as multi-directional; not top-down from Eastern leaders to Southern members. The geographical and positional sides mutually influenced one another, their encounters resulting in cooperation or contestation. Gradskova pragmatically recognizes that most actors and projects could not be completely unaligned; they either manipulated the superpower rivalry or played into it. Gradskova gives a sense of the Cold War taking place both around and within the WIDF. She contributes to the deconstruction of the image of “uniform and dominated” Third World women through a close reading of their interactions with the WIDF and the nuance of their problems and demands. Gradskova notes the ways in which the modernity exemplified and offered by the Soviet Union and the state socialist system was believed to be superior. Her approach is informed by the logic of Ann Laura Stoler, recognizing the active construction of a hierarchical narrative through the silence and gaps of the archive and the intentionality behind the creation and preservation of the federation’s files.5 Gradskova preemptively addresses an obvious critique of the inherent bias of her main source by interpreting the documents along these parameters, deriving value alternative to the creators’ intent.

Gradskova writes with a logical structure that is effective and easy to follow. Her writing is accessible for a wide audience, with illustrative examples and varying depths of analysis that engage readers both new to and experienced in the field. The early chapters detail how the WIDF worked, explaining the ideology and politics and how they were put into practice and changed over time, particularly as membership became more diverse and leadership more representative. Gradskova openly problematizes the influence of the Soviet Union on the organization while also rejecting a reductionist interpretation of it as a “communist front.” She offers an outside perspective on the WIDF through the organization’s interactions with and attitudes towards other women’s rights organizations. The rest of the book considers the work of the WIDF through specific issues and individual actors and events to address her main interest in the efficacy of the WIDF’s approach to including and assisting women of the Third World. Gradskova traces the founding principle of peace and protecting mothers and children to the later priorities of anti-colonialism and anti-racism in the context of increased connection with women of the Global South. This includes a chapter using a biographical approach, focusing on the contributions and considerations of specific actors out of the Global South and a chapter on the WIDF’s role in the International Women’s Year and the UN decade for women. The table of contents and its chapter titles and sub themes provide a concise guide to the contents of each section, helping readers to find specific topics with ease. The appendix includes a useful timeline of important dates and key figures. This book has something to offer for students and researchers in women’s and gender history, Eastern European history, sociology, politics, and cultural studies. It is also a useful tool for feminist and FLINTA activists interested in a historical look at intersectionality. She names the limits of her work and gives direct calls for further research, as De Haan did before her.

Yulia Gradskova’s research expands the understanding of the WIDF specifically and on the Cold War developments of women’s rights activism more generally. She skillfully refutes the hegemonic Western narrative that led the federation to be “forgotten'', balancing comprehensive insight into the WIDF’s contributions and contradictions. Her interrogation of the WIDF’s relationship with women of the Global South imparts additional perspective to the aforementioned scholarly debate, along with wider discussions around decolonization and human rights. It will most certainly further important discussions around the agency of women’s activists in different contexts through understanding of women’s organizations as important transnational political actors that have, and will continue to engage and impact geopolitical issues.

1 Francisca De Haan, Continuing Cold War paradigms in western historiography of transnational women’s organisations. The case of the women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), in: Women’s History Review 19, 4 (2010), pp. 547–573.
2 “State feminism” is one term scholars use to define the activism for women’s rights that took place under state socialism. It should be noted that many of these women did not self identify as feminist. The research on this activism also diverges greatly from this point, a main contention being whether these women’s achievements were made through or despite the state socialist system.
3 Kristen Ghodsee, Second World, Second Sex. Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War, North Carolina 2019.
4 Nanette Funk, A very tangled knot. Official State Socialist Women’s organizations, women’s agency and feminism in Eastern European State socialism, in: European Journal of Women’s Studies 21, 4 (2014), pp. 344–360.
5 Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain. Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton 2009.

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