CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio considers Parliaments of women

Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France
Women's Club in Paris
Ever since the Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote and staged his comedy, the Parliament of Women, in ancient Athens, critics have worried about the implications of women meeting to discuss and take action on issues of mutual concern. One of the most radical demands by women during the early years of the French Revolution was that they wanted separate representation, even a separate assembly in the Estates-General. These women demanded inclusion in the French nation as full-fledged Citoyennes. Since then, the question of women’s political activity has sparked much discussion in various parts of our world.

In 1848, the women who convened the first American women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, invoked the example of the local Iroquois Indians, where women participated in the decision-making of the tribe, to bolster their own claims for political rights and participation. They objected strenuously to the notion that men should do all the decision-making.

In our own time, in democratic or democratizing nations, women have demanded parity in the representation of women in political assemblies. But for a long time, even in Western countries, men strongly opposed the notion that women should sit and deliberate alongside them; they might be “distracted” from official business! After Finnish women won the vote in 1906 (the first in Europe, even before the Norwegians), Finnish women representatives sat down with Finnish men in the first Finnish parliament. This was unprecedented!

In the meantime, in 1888, a small group of progressive women founded the International Council of Women/Conseil International des Femmes. This effort, spearheaded by May Wright Sewall, quickly grew. Sewall’s ultimate vision was to establish a “Permanent International Parliament of Women,” “where not only the questions which are supposed peculiarly to concern womanhood shall be discussed, but where all the great questions that concern humanity shall be discussed from the woman’s point of view.”

Beginning with the World’s Congress of Representative Women, which Sewall organized in 1893 during the World’s Fair in Chicago, and again in London in 1899 and Berlin in 1904, these meetings quickly acquired the label of “women’s parliaments.” They attracted thousands of participants, from all corners of the globe. Other budding international organizations, dedicated to promoting peace or socialism, had invited women to participate and to speak, but even in those settings, women participants felt the need to meet separately, especially so they could discuss “women’s issues” in relation to peace and socioeconomic change. Perhaps the only exception to this rule was the International Abolitionist Federation, which was a “mixed” (men and women) organization from its beginnings in the 1870s. Its goal was to eradicate government regulated prostitution. Today the tradition of women’s parliaments continues with the “Global Summit” for women, organized by Irene Natividad (an IMOW Global Council member) continuing the huge women’s international conferences sponsored by the United Nations between 1975 (Mexico City) and 1995 (Beijing).

Of course, not all meetings of women to discuss change take place in parliaments or in national or international congresses. Women around the world have often felt the need to meet for discussion and to plan action for social and political change. They meet around kitchen tables, or their equivalents such as washhouses and wells, in local settings. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo exemplify this tradition. Many other such efforts remain to be documented. But Clio is sure that women’s political power emerges from collective as much as from individual efforts.

How and when do such “parliaments” of women, small and large come together in your part of the world? and how do such meetings achieve their goals? What can we learn from their examples? Clio welcomes your thoughts about parliaments of women, both small and large, in the past and in the present.