About Women and Social Movements, Development in the Global South, 1919-2019 


Editor: Jill Jensen


As an emerging field of study, historicizing the gendered history of development programs offers an opportunity to evaluate women’s global history in new and exciting ways. At its core, this database chronicles feminist activism in relation to development, a somewhat complicated term but involving cultural, economic, social, and technological change that has been most often associated with modernity, “progress,” and economic advancement. Importantly, all these stated aims led to incredibly unequal outcomes, for women in comparison to men, and for those living in the “developing world” (here noted as the Global South) in comparison to the industrialized, and much more wealthy and powerful, North.  

Through the collection of documents that reflect the evolution of transnational feminism, Women and Social Movements, Development in the Global South, 1919-2019 (WASD) highlights individual efforts, organizational initiatives, and socio-cultural projects led by or for women. The database reflects upon how women have negotiated power and status regarding private or public programs centered on economic and social rights and greater inclusion. In doing so, it highlights the historical problem of women’s invisibility within mainstream international development programs, foreign aid regimes, and approaches to technical assistance (described below).

Since the 19th century, women as activists engaged in transnational communication—in the early years surrounding the humanitarian anti-slavery movement and the fight for women’s suffrage.

Beginning in the 20th century, international focus centered in the “status of women” through the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization—in terms of safety and security, citizenship, expanded suffrage, and economic and social opportunity.

With the foundation of the United Nations and the eventual inclusion of newly independent nations from colonial empires, transnational attention turned to world poverty and the plight of men and women in the Global South. It was this era that stimulated widespread programs of technical assistance (TA), which involved targeted programs to address development needs. Undertaken by many UN entities, including the International Labor Organization, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization, or bilateral agencies, like US AID, the Peace Corps, or the Swedish International Development Agency (to name just a few), these TA consultations were designed to build local capacity, so to deal with a specific set of challenges. In the early years, though, women’s needs were primarily ignored.

In the 1960s, things began to change. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) came into being and included many single-agency and cooperative initiatives regarding women worldwide. By the 1970s, global feminist activism had been concertedly pressed forth so to realize International Women’s Year, with equality, peace, and development as three stated goals; this was to be followed by the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). Women worldwide wrote and published an incredible volume of letters, articles, and short-run newsletters, most of which never made their way into historical accounts, yet are included in this project.

In the years that followed, new multi-national organizations emerged, including the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Research, Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). Many of these agencies have been brought together under the heading of UN Women, as a “global champion for gender equality” (https://www.unwomen.org/en).

Meanwhile, national and regional activism led to the recognition of organizations like the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA), Association for Women in Development (AWID), and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), among many others.

Both intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sponsored a plethora of commentaries, reports, and proposals in support of women’s rights, gender equality, and monitoring the impact of development on the poor—especially for women and girls, in what has come to be known as the feminization of poverty. The conversation continues as to how best to support alternative development strategies for a fairer and more equitable future.

WASD combines social science-oriented attention to Development Studies—primarily through the lens of economics, international relations, sociology, anthropology, or foreign aid—with organizational and personal activism. The aim is to provide source material that give voice to the many who have been involved in transnational feminist/women’s movements in the name of communities in the Global South over the course of a century. As a field of inquiry, the database is deeply rooted in history: Development was a nationalist project in the era of colonialism and became a multi-national ambition since the founding of the United Nations (UN). Study of the history of women and development, in its many guises, is an emerging sub-sector of global or transnational history, including the history of capitalism, empire and post-colonialism, and gender and human rights.  As the latest collection in the Women and Social Movements Library, this database thus contextualizes gender and struggle on a global scale.

As has been the case with most archival-based projects, the events of the past two years have made digitizing primary source material incredibly challenging. National, regional, and institutional closures have all, over time, led to backlogs and the necessity for continued fortitude. There are additional archival collections that will be added to Women and Social Movements, Development in the Global South in the coming months. These include several from the US National Archives and Records Administration, several held at the Senate House Library at the University of London, and a series of publications from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies from the 1970s through the 1990s, including by Ester Boserup, “Women and their role in peasant societies” (1974); Hilary Fisher, “Agricultural change and the role of Kikuyu women in Kenya” (1982); and Naila Kabeer, “Cultural dopes or rational fools? Women and labour supply in the Bangladesh garment industry” (1991) (to name just a few titles out of many). We appreciate your patience as we continue work on this innovative and humanizing database project.


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