Finding female trade union internationalists in the archives

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Cover of International Federation of Trade Unions VIIth triennial Congress London 1936. Cover has an impression of an athletic man standing on a rock having sculpted a new world using a sledgehammer. The image is in gold.

In this post guest blogger, Susan Zimmermann, historian and University Professor at Central European University, Vienna, Austria, describes completing the research for her  book  Frauenpolitik und Männergewerkschaft. Internationale Geschlechterpolitik, IGB-Gewerkschafterinnen und die Arbeiter- und Frauenbewegungen der Zwischenkriegszeit [Women’s politics and men’s trade unionism. International gender politics, female IFTU-trade unionists and the labor and women’s movements of the interwar period] recently published with Löcker Verlag, Vienna, in 2021.

In August 2019 I traveled to Warwick and London for a second time. I wanted to do concluding, complementary research on the Women’s International of the International Federation of Trade Unions, the IFTU, also known as the “Amsterdam International.” For decades, little has been written on the history of the women’s branch of the IFTU and the politics of women’s work the organization pursued. This has historical as well as historiographic reasons. Historically, in the male-dominated labor movement, female trade unionists had to grapple with the marginalization of the “women’s question;” in the world of the non-socialist women’s movements, they were faced with the marginalization of the “class question.” The documents and publications related to the British Trades Unions Council kept in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and in the TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University are an invaluable resource for bringing the IFTU women into the spotlight.

There is no genuine archive of the IFTU, largely because most material was confiscated during WWII by the Gestapo from the former premises of the IFTU in Paris, Rue de l’université 154. Yet rich portions of the genuinely international history of the IFTU can be retrieved through the archives and library of the TUC, which as British branch of the international federation duly documented its international activities. For many years Walter Citrine was the President of the IFTU, while from 1936 onwards Anne Loughlin, who later would become the chairman of the General Council of the TUC, served as one of the five members of the IFTU Women’s Committee. The TUC Library Collections keep all the conference proceedings, the full run of the IFTU journal The International Trade Union Movement, and other key materials. Women are at the very margins of this material, and yet it is this material that can guide us into exploring their contribution to trade union internationalism. When revisiting the Collections in August 2019, I had set aside sufficient time to go after more unlikely and sporadic documents. And indeed, the Collections helped me overcome additional marginalizations that have characterized the historiography, namely the lack of information on the involvement of women from Eastern Europe. Who would have thought that exactly a Souvenir Agenda memorializing the IFTU Congress assembled in Holborn Restaurant, London, from July 8th to 11th, 1936 would include the first and (to date) only photograph of Valerie Novotná, member of the IFTU Women’s Committee, representative of a trade union of domestic workers, and, as the Souvenir Agenda adds, “Chief Woman Officer in the Czecho-slovakian Joint National Trade Union Centre”.

Portrait of Valerie Novotna

Building on a large network of female socialist activists and functionaries, the IFTU Women’s International sought to strengthen the position of women workers, addressing wage policies, women’s unpaid family work, labour protection and social policy, the right to work, war and peace, and the unionization of women. It played an active role in shaping the international politics of women’s work and other elements of the emerging international gender politics of the interwar period.

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