Solidarity! Transnational Feminisms Then and Now
Solidarity! Transnational Feminisms Then and Now features 50 years of transnational feminist collections held at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Through a rich array of materials—including posters, newspapers, photographs, and memorabilia—the exhibition explores the promises and limits of global feminist solidarity, while highlighting the key role of iconography in transnational feminist and women of color activism from the 1970s to the present. It reveals the complex, vexed history of international women’s rights, sisterhood, and alliance through the lens of the spectacular United Nations International Women’s conferences held in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and Beijing in 1995. These conferences shaped a new global agenda for women’s causes on the international stage. Women from around the world debated the possibilities of an international feminist alliance and reimagined civil rights for women through conference themes of equality, peace, and development.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study gratefully acknowledges the Helen Blumen and Jan Acton Fund for Schlesinger Library Exhibitions, which is supporting this exhibition.
Exhibition curated by Durba Mitra, acting faculty director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and Richard B. Wolf Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Schlesinger Library Exhibition Committee Members:
- Tamar Gonen Brown, research librarian
- Catherine Lea Holbrook, archivist
With research support from Phoebe Suh ’22.
Registration is recommended. Each reservation grants entry for the individual named in the confirmation only. Please make separate bookings for each member of your party.
To place a request for a group or class tour of the exhibition, please submit this form at least 2 weeks before the date of your desired visit. Please understand that it can be difficult for us to accept short-notice requests. We will do our best to fulfill each request, but occasionally due to scheduling or staffing constraints, some requests cannot be accommodated.
On view Monday, March 27– Monday, October 16, 2023
Monday–Friday, 9 AM–4:30 PM
On April 14, April 25, and May 2, please join us at noon for a tour of the Solidarity! Transnational Feminisms Then and Now exhibition led by our student guides and staff from the Schlesinger Library. Free and open to the public. Registration via Calendly is encouraged.
Solidarity! Transnational Feminisms Then and Now draws from a rich array of transnational feminist materials held at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, including posters, newspapers, photographs, and memorabilia. It explores the promises and limits of global feminist solidarity from the 1970s to the present. By centering the extraordinary poster collection at the Schlesinger Library, the exhibit highlights the key place of iconography in feminist political action.
The posters of global women’s movements from the 1970s onward are iconic. The Schlesinger Library holds one of the most important collections of posters from the United Nations’ focus on women—posters that reflect a critical time of expanding feminist connections resulting from the meetings and debates of the UN International Women’s Year (1975), the UN Decade on Women (1975–1985), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995).
Solidarity! showcases the complex, vexed history of international women’s rights, sisterhood, and alliance through the lens of the spectacular UN conferences held in Mexico City in 1975, in Copenhagen in 1980, in Nairobi in 1985, and in Beijing in 1995. Those conferences shaped a new agenda for women’s causes on the international stage. Women from around the world debated the possibilities of international feminist alliance and reimagined civil rights through conference themes of equality, peace, and development.
This exhibit offers a critical perspective on the enduring visual language of global women at the UN conferences and asks how we might imagine a new iconography for inclusive feminisms today.
Mexico City, 1975
The first UN conference on women, the International Women’s Year Conference, was held in Mexico from June 19 to July 2, 1975. The conference was a pivotal event in the making of a new era of global and transnational women’s rights—“a launch pad for an array of global feminisms,” in the words of the historian Jocelyn Olcott . It featured an official meeting of delegates from 133 member nations alongside meetings of women’s and other nongovernmental organizations at an NGO tribune (called the NGO Forum at later UN conferences). The conference was originally meant to be a stand-alone event as part of the United Nations International Women’s Year (IWY), but at the end of 1975, the UN declared the need for a full decade focused on women. The Mexico City IWY Conference featured key debates that also occurred at the conferences that followed: the differences between First and Third World women in a time of economic upheaval and decolonization, conflicts over nuclear disarmament and global power, and debates about Zionism, racism, and ongoing economic and political colonialism.
The official poster for the conference in Mexico City shaped a wide range of posters for the UN conferences and NGO Forums that followed. The 1975 poster has become iconic: It depicts a stylized dove in which an equal sign and the Linnaean symbol for woman are embedded and an image of our galaxy—symbolizing the universal cause of women—appears. The poster was created by the New York City–based graphic designer Valerie Pettis, age 27 at the time, who donated it to the conference efforts. The image was featured on most posters for the UN International Women’s Year and Women’s Decade and continues to be the symbol of UN women today.
The image represents peace, one of the three themes chosen for the conferences, along with equality and development. The embedded symbols also represent the promise of women’s rights: equality for women. The Linnaean pictogram of the female sex was by the 1960s a key image for U.S. and transnational women’s movements.
The Schlesinger collections feature the official poster of the UN International Women’s Year.
The second conference to mark the UN International Women’s Decade was held July 14 through July 30, 1980, in Denmark. It had originally been scheduled for Tehran, and planning started soon after the end of the Mexico City conference. But by the late 1970s, officials were uneasy about the political upheaval in Iran, which culminated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Conference organizers shifted gears and moved the gathering to Copenhagen.
The Schlesinger Library collections include the official UN poster for this conference, which features the dove against an abstract multicolored sunrise. The international status of the UN women’s conferences sparked the production of women’s rights posters around the world. The Schlesinger holds several that mark the occasion of the Copenhagen conference, including some from women’s organizations in Iraq and China. A 1979 poster in English and Mandarin, “We Have Friends All Over the World,” portrays a complicated vision of interracial solidarity and normative femininity that appears on many transnational feminist posters from the era, with typological representations of racial differences between white, Asian, and Black women.
The third official conference of the UN Decade on Women took place in Kenya, from July 15 through July 26, 1985. It reflected extraordinary transnational feminist energy, with thousands of women attending the NGO Forum as well as official delegates at the UN meeting. The conference was a pivotal moment for connections between women from outside Europe and America. Women from the global South attended in record-breaking numbers.
The Schlesinger collections feature a variety of posters from both the conference and the forum, in multiple languages to represent the diverse attendees. The official UN poster features the iconic dove at the center and a sun rising with rays radiating from the dove. From other materials in the collections, we learn about the everyday events of the conference and the forum. The prominent American feminist Charlotte Bunch carefully preserved among her papers the daily newspaper of the NGO Forum, which offers readers a glimpse of the vibrant and often tense exchanges that took place at the gathering, as they had in Mexico City and Copenhagen, newspaper involving conflicts between First and Third World women over issues of neocolonialism, economic inequality, Zionism, apartheid, and racism.
Bringing the Conferences to Life (Nook)
Photographs from the UN International Women’s Year and Decade conferences record the vibrancy and vast scope of the attendees. From a photograph in the Bettye Lane collections, we get a rare glimpse of the official space for the national delegations on June 19, 1975, the very first day of the Mexico City conference. The dove, featured on all official posters and documents, is centered on the stage wall and visible from every angle in the theater, a unifying symbol that sits above national flags. In other photographs, we see delegates from around the world in conversation, often in solidarity and friendship and sometimes in conflict.
The Schlesinger collections include photographs of famous women who attended various conferences, including Betty Friedan, Mother Teresa, and Angela Davis. Most of the women present were less well-known—students, activists, teachers, artisans, visual artists, musicians, publishers, scholars, government officials, agricultural workers, religious leaders, and more. While some women served as official delegates to the UN governmental meeting at the conference, others came to represent small nongovernmental organizations and participated in debates and panels at the NGO Forum, which brought together some of the most marginalized women in the world.
Beijing, 1995: the Complex Legacies of Global Feminism
The Beijing conference took place 10 years after the end of the official UN Decade for Women, from September 4 through September 15, 1995. It was the result of advocacy by member nations and women’s organizations for a conference that would assess the priorities of the UN on women’s issues and create a document specifying areas of action. The official UN meeting was held in Beijing, and the NGO Forum was held in Huairou, a town outside Beijing. It was the largest recorded gathering of women ever, with approximately 17,000 delegates from 189 member nations in attendance at the conference and more than 35,000 people registered for the forum. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then first lady of the United States, declared at the conference: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all ." It was the last official UN conference on women.
The posters from the Beijing conference in the collections utilize a wide range of images, including abstract depictions of figures in motion and drawings of widely recognizable landmarks in China such as the Great Wall. One poster from the China Organizing Committee features an unnamed girl’s face integrated with the dove in front of a map of the world. It represents the “girl child” across the world, the final thematic addition to the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, which identified 12 areas for international action on women’s issues and was passed by 189 member states .
It has been more than 25 years since the Beijing conference. Nevertheless, women’s and feminist movements continue to be global in scope, using iconography that builds on and reimagines symbols from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In 2017, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, women’s marches were held across the United States and around the world. The Schlesinger Library collections feature dozens of handmade posters used during some of US women’s marches after Trump’s inauguration. They recall the slogans and iconography of earlier feminist posters, including “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights!” One from a 2017 women’s march features a trans-inclusive reinterpretation of Linnaean binary symbols for the sexes. The ongoing global and transnational movements for women’s, queer, and trans rights demonstrate the continuing significance of debates about gender and economic inequality, racial and colonial domination, and sexual rights first raised on the international stage during the United Nations Year and Decade of Women.
 Olcott details the tumultuous world of the conference and its representation in media in her study of the 1975 conference, International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History (Oxford University Press, 2017).
 For the text of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for action, see https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/CSW/PFA_E_Final_WEB.pdf. For more information on the twelve areas of action, see https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/csw59/feature-stories. For a history of the rise of the girl-child as a concern in international feminist organizing, see Ashwini Tambe, Defining Girlhood in India: A Transnational History of Sexual Maturity Laws (University of Illinois Press, 2019).