British Women and International Development, c.1950s – 1970s

Sophie Skelton PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham

British women have a long history of participating in international developmental activities in various different guises, as the wives of Victorian missionary ‘civilisers’ and as assistants in the colonial development and welfare practices of the inter-war period. Whilst in these contexts, developmental activities had been confined to the periphery of organisational activity, by the late 1950s, development came to feature at the centre of British women’s organisation’s international programme. This post-war prioritisation of development continues to impact on the activities of British women’s organisations today.

The origins of this process date back to the immediate post-war years. Inspired by a new sense of duty and internationalism, British women’s organisations including the Women’s Institutes, the Townswomen’s Guilds, the National Council of Women in addition to smaller, more centralised organisations such as the Six Point Group, embraced the new international institutions that had formed as a result of War with a newfound sense of purpose, one which allowed them to join new organisational partners. British women’s role in international affairs was conceptualised as organisationally necessary, as vital for a new age that demanded international connectivity both in economic and political terms.

In the late 1940s, world peace was taken up by a broad spectrum of British women’s organisations as a potentially powerful means of bringing women together from diverse political, social and cultural backgrounds to co-operate on both national and international levels. According to these groups, women offered their own ‘distinctive and positive contribution to the preservation of peace throughout the world’ based on specifically on their roles as wives and mothers. Several attempts were made in Britain during the late 1940s to form a new women’s peace movement that united both middle class and working class women and linked the fight for peace directly to women’s international rights.

However, it was the failure of peace to unite women across social and political lines in the face of the ‘red scare’ following the heightening of Cold War tensions in the early 1950s, that effectively positioned international development as the convenient space for British women to act out these new post-war international commitments. To fight for peace had become synonymous with Communism and women members of these organisations worried that the issue had simply become ‘too political’. The prioritisation of the UN’s ‘technical assistance’ program in the 1950s then, was both pragmatic and deliberate. Leading members of both international and British women’s organisations agreed that the key tenets of peace could be translated – through the UN based technocratic approach – into apolitical action. Women’s organisations could work indirectly for peace by ‘promoting human relations and helping to raise the standard of living for people throughout the world’. Their work in this field during the late 1950s aimed to highlight women’s role the developmental process to ensure that they were ‘remembered’ in the administration and delivery of technical assistance projects throughout the world.

Whilst this move into development helped to make women’s role in the development process more visible, the results of this new international priority within Britain were informed directly by histories of imperial power. British women’s organisations continued to utilise the resources and approaches they had used under colonialism in a developmental context. Thus the welfare-based information courses that formed the basis of British women’s early development activities in the late 1950s and 1960s continued to conceive of women in the global South in terms of their gender and cultural ignorance and thus assumptions about priorities and Western superiority were left uncontested. Projects that aimed to combat illiteracy amongst women formed a key part of the British agenda, as did training in appropriate forms of ‘mothercraft’ and nutritional education.

The Freedom from Hunger Campaign, launched in 1961, was the catalyst for wider British women’s organisations entry into contemporary international development. The Campaign’s populist approach to the problems of hunger fitted suitably with wider organisational aims that excluded politics. The Campaign proved tremendously popular amongst women’s organisations within Britain, and helped to cement the issue of international development more firmly into organisational consciousness. Over the course of the 1970s, British women’s organisations secured membership on the UNESCO and UNICEF UK national commissions and on the Standing Conference for the Second Development Decade. The Women’s Institutes formed their own campaigns to fight nutritional blindness in India, and had forged links with Oxfam and the World Development Movement. The National Council of Women Guilds has popularised the UNESCO gift coupon scheme amongst its wider national membership since the 1960s, and was particularly vocal about the provisions made for women in the Band Aid/Live Aid Programme in the 1980s.

The involvement of British women in contemporary international development was as much of a product of circumvention as it was of history. The desire to avoid political controversy helped to set out a significant, and evidently long-lasting, international priority.


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