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Author Q&A: Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women

Pan American WomenThe next author in our series of Fall 2014 Q&As is Megan Threlkeld. Her new book is Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico. In the years following World War I, women activists in the United States and Europe saw themselves as leaders of a globalizing movement to promote women's rights and international peace. In hopes of advancing alliances, U.S. internationalists such as Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Doris Stevens reached across the border to their colleagues in Mexico, including educator Margarita Robles de Mendoza and feminist Hermila Galindo. They established new organizations, sponsored conferences, and rallied for peaceful relations between the two countries. But diplomatic tensions and the ongoing Mexican Revolution complicated their efforts.

(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies.)

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Penn Press: The divide between U.S. women and Mexican women on the topic of nationalism is an interesting conflict. Could you go into more detail on why Mexican women felt it was so vital to embrace national identity, and why it took priority for them over global feminist cooperation?

Megan Threlkeld: Many Mexican women believed in the basic ideals of the Mexican Revolution. They wanted ordinary people to have greater power and autonomy in their daily lives. They distrusted Porfirio Diaz, a man who had cultivated what many Mexicans saw as a corrupt and exploitative relationship with the United States. They also distrusted U.S. women who did not criticize their own government for its policies in Mexico, even when Mexican women asked them to do so. By the 1930s, when Lázaro Cárdenas revitalized the Revolution and seemed ready to extend women’s rights, it made much more sense for Mexican women to hitch their wagons to “Cardenismo” rather than to a U.S.-dominated international feminist movement.

Had the Mexican Revolution not taken place, would U.S. feminists have succeeded in bridging the gap between U.S. and Latin American feminism? Or was the Revolution what gave the women of Mexico the power to have their voices be heard at all?

That’s a hard question to answer, but my guess is no—U.S. feminists would not have succeeded. The Revolution was a key element in the politicization of Mexican feminists, but there’s no guarantee that without the Revolution U.S. women would have listened any more carefully to what Mexican women wanted from them.

What would you argue were some of the main ways in which U.S. women’s agendas were incompatible with those of Mexican women?

The primary tension lay between U.S. women’s internationalism and Mexican women’s nationalism. Just as U.S. women were trying to forge bonds across borders, Mexican women were becoming politicized within the context of the Revolution. Most U.S. women had very little knowledge of the Revolution and didn’t understand why Mexican women didn’t just embrace internationalism without question. Mexican women were more than willing to cooperate internationally, but they also wanted U.S. women to pressure their own government to change its policies in Mexico.

Could you describe some of the key elements of the “‘Best Kind’ of Internationalism”?

Jane Addams promoted what she called a human internationalism as an alternative to the male-dominated realm of formal diplomacy. Rather than negotiating treaties and formulating international laws, Addams envisioned women working together to create peace through interpersonal understanding, friendly interactions, and shared knowledge and experiences. She wanted to transform relations among nations the same way she had transformed the area around Hull House in Chicago—by encouraging ordinary women to get to know one another.

To what extent does your study of women’s internationalism focus on the complications in cooperation among women in the U.S. and Mexico, and to what extent does it focus on the study of global women’s internationalism’s effect on international relations?

The book is primarily a study of attempts at cooperation among women, but there were several ways in which both U.S. and Mexican women tried to shape relations between their two countries. The best example is the 1922 Pan American Conference of Women (the subject of Chapter 2). U.S. women hoped the conference would help repair diplomatic relations with Mexico, as did both U.S. and Mexican government officials. Mexican women, for their part, hoped to persuade U.S. women to pressure their government to reform its economic policies in Mexico. That hope, however, was not realized.

To what extent is your book a study of U.S. politics in an international context?

Very much, in the sense that it examines U.S. women’s struggles to promote peace, to export suffrage, and to secure women’s rights throughout the hemisphere. During the 1920s and 30s, U.S. women were not only interested in trying to hammer out domestic political agendas. They were very much interested in trying to promote various international causes as well. And they often saw the two as linked—Doris Stevens, for instance, believed that securing an inter-American or an international Equal Rights Treaty would bring pressure to bear on the United States to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

How did the movement of “imperialist feminism” hinder the progress of international feminists?

Imperialist feminists tended to replicate old patterns of national imperialism, like assuming they knew best what Latin American women needed and measuring Latin American women’s status according to U.S. standards. Suffrage is the perfect example—Carrie Chapman Catt believed that Latin American women needed to prioritize the vote over other demands like economic security, and that women without the vote were essentially backward and “uncivilized.” It wasn’t that Latin American women didn’t think suffrage was important, but they wanted to be able to set their own priorities—with guidance, rather than dominance, from U.S. women.

What are your views on feminism today? Do you believe one demographic still dominates feminist agendas today, in an international or national context?

I think of feminism as a process rather than an established ideology. It’s a process of recognizing and affirming the full humanity of all people, and of striving for justice, autonomy, and security for everyone. To me, being a feminist means engaging that process every day, both within the world at large and within myself.

I don’t believe one demographic dominates feminist agendas today, which is as it should be. No one person or group has all the answers, or even all the right questions. The process of feminism demands input from as many people as possible.

What brought you to this specific area of study? Why feminism through the lens of U.S. internationalism and Revolutionary Mexico?

My broader scholarly interest is in U.S. women’s international activism and global consciousness, particularly in the early twentieth century. For this project, I wanted to investigate women’s activities in Latin America because of the region’s long and historically troubled relationship with the United States. I was curious to see how U.S. women would respond to Latin American women who saw themselves as oppressed by the United States. In that sense, Mexico is a great case study. The Revolution was a major challenge to U.S. hegemony in Latin America, and U.S. women did not negotiate that challenge as well as they might have had they collaborated more sincerely with Mexican women.

Is internationalism, in your opinion, still a sound and advantageous movement that is helping to bring about world peace?

“Internationalism” has never been a single, coherent movement, but there are lots of transnational organizations working today to combat disease, to slow environmental degradation, to secure and to expand access to technology, and to address other global problems. Advances in all of those areas represent important paths to peace.

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Megan Threlkeld teaches history at Denison University. Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico is available now.