A Defeated Universalism: The Human Rights of Women in Postwar Socialist Europe
The promotion of women's rights on the world stage by the Soviet Union and, after World War II, state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe was frequently dismissed as mere propaganda during the Cold War. While the huge gulf between the rhetoric and reality of women's emancipation remained an undeniable fact of life for most East European women, many of the innovations in internationalizing women's rights at the United Nations were initially inspired or supported by Soviet or East European delegates. Yet the history of attempts to internationalize a 'socialist' vision of women's emancipation through rights by East European states, in particular, has not been explored by social historians.
This project will investigate the ways in which women's rights were internationalized by East European mass organizations for women, international socialist and Soviet-dominated women's organizations and through international organizations such as the United Nations and its specialized agencies. By tracking the conflicts between these state and social institutions and the elite women who were able to act internationally as representatives of East European governments or members of women's organizations, the project aims to reconstruct the social history of a defeated universalism: efforts to construct a discourse of women's human rights in Eastern Europe that would be recognized as specifically 'socialist' and its eventual erosion by competing models of rights and democracy. In so doing, it should broaden our historical understanding of the multiple discourses of human rights – liberal democratic, state socialist and post-colonial – that laid claim to “universalism” in the post-war world.