1930s Campaigns and the Black Uniform of Discrimination

American women's rights activists call the InterAmerican Commission of Women in The Hague (1930). Credit: Library of Congress

"Few international questions present such conflicting and perplexing aspects as that of the nationality of women. It is a modern question... Now [women] have been forced into a rude awareness of the completely chaotic conditions of existing nationality laws." - Muna Lee, 1929

By Deirdre Brennan*

This day, ninety years ago, feminist activists from around the world descended on the Hague to protest a gathering of the League of Nations. While this might sound like the actions of suffragettes of that period, the discriminatory laws these women were in fact protesting were nationality laws. In 1930, nationality laws in all but five countries in the world made distinctions based on sex. A hidden history of statelessness, this article reveals some of the lively and creative ways women of the early twentieth century came together to demand women’s full nationality rights. Looking back to move forward, their activism can provide inspiration for campaigns in the remaining fifty countries continuing to uphold Gender Discriminatory Nationality Laws (GDNL) in 2020.

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Deepti Gurung, her two formally stateless daughters Nikita and Neha, and her formerly stateless husband Diwakar Chettri continue the fight for gender equal citizenship laws in Nepal. Credit: Deirdre Brennan 

In contrast to today’s GDNL campaigns – which struggle to garner the global attention they deserve – the importance of women’s nationality rights was so highly regarded that, at the start of the twentieth century, the International Alliance of Women was renamed the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship. By 1928, when an announcement came that the League of Nations would hold a Conference on the Codification of International Law in the Hague, the women’s alliance quickly sprang into action. A committee was formed and directed by three pioneering feminist lawyers, Chrystal Macmillan from Scotland, Maria Vérone from France and Betsy Bakker-Nort from the Netherlands – an impressive international collaboration. Meanwhile, in the United States, Alice Paul, a leading feminist figure was collating the nationality laws of eighty-four countries. The document, which took two years to put together, contained laws in their original text and translations that had been sent to Paul from feminists around the world (languages included Japanese, Greek, Siamese, Bulgarian, Russian). Again, demonstrating the commitment of women worldwide toward the united goal of women’s equal citizenship rights.

The Conference was fast approaching and yet many feminist scholars and activists were failing to secure membership in their country’s delegation to the Hague. In the U.S. for example, legal adviser Manley O. Hudson (now infamous for writing the definition of a stateless person) was adamant that he did not want women to be part of the official U.S. delegation. Difficult as it might be to imagine the financial implications and logistical barriers, feminist organisations nevertheless managed to send ‘unofficial’ delegates to the Hague. By opening night of the Conference, 13 March 1930, the formal ceremonies commenced to which the feminist were not invited. Instead, they staged a spectacle of their own just two blocks away, speeches and a parade based on the great suffrage processions of the past. A remarkable thirty-five countries were represented amongst the group of women. Each woman carried her respective country’s flag and dressed in colours to symbolise her country’s nationality laws. The closer to full equal nationality rights between men and women, the more cheerful the colours worn by representatives. White meant complete equality, while pink and blue etc. signified some change in the law toward equality. Black symbolised complete discrimination in its nationality laws. A newspaper thus reported that “the Dutch dress was pitch black” and the tragic irony of the location of these protests was not lost on the Dutch activist. Betsy Bakker-Nort observed that the ‘legal situation of women [in the Netherlands] is still based on the obsolete principle of subjection of women to men’. A sentiment, unfortunately, still echoed today.

Momentum by the protesters didn’t wane throughout the month-long Conference. They presented their twenty-five-year commitment to nationality-law reform but were refused an opportunity to speak before the full assembly. Two weeks into the Conference, and with the arrival of the ‘militant’ American feminists, the actions of the women as ‘unofficial delegates’ eventually antagonized the presiding officer of the Conference. The presiding officer Theodorus Heemskerk, was the former prime minister of the Netherlands and long-time enemy of the of the Dutch woman suffrage movement. Heemskerk claimed that the group of women were harassing the delegates. He gave an order to the Dutch police to eject them from the grounds of the Peace Palace and had them barred. Not to be defeated, the women simply regrouped and resumed their protests outside the palace gates. This was all much to the amusement of news reporters who otherwise considered the Conference a rather dull international event. Today, this event brings to question, how disappointed would the 1930s campaigners, with their twenty-five-year commitment to law reform, be to witness the persistence of GDNL almost a century later?

In spite of the colourful and persistent campaigning of feminists at the Hague, the outcome of the Conference was unsatisfactory. The only agreed convention at the Conference was the Convention on Certain Questions Relating to the Conflict of Nationality Laws. The Convention addressed women’s nationality rights only in so far as they wouldn’t become stateless or dual nationals. The Convention’s solution to statelessness still retained the idea that married women’s nationality was conditional, which campaigners understood as inferior. The fact that campaigners in the 1930s did not give up their fight, simply when safeguards against statelessness were drawn up, is a point of inspiration for today’s GDNL campaigns. They stuck to their feminist principles of equality and their continued campaigning, in the aftermath of the Hague Conference, either frustrated or bemused governments. In 1931, activists launched an intensive telegram campaign to the League of Nations. Women all over the world sent telegrams to Council members and in less than forty-eight hours 210 telegrams were received in Geneva. Although international action on the issue was consistently proving impossible, one of the major successes of that period came at a regional level. Thanks to years of advocacy and research by the Inter-American Commission of Women, the world’s first international convention relating to women’s nationality rights was adopted at the Pan American Union Conference in 1933. Article 1, of the Convention on the Nationality of Women, specified that signatories agreed that ‘there shall be no distinction based on sex as regards nationality, in their legislation or in their practice’. In fact, it was the first international convention adopted concerning women’s rights full stop.

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact ending to the 1930s campaigns, but the outbreak of the Second World War certainly played a significant role. While it’s disappointing that the creativity, urgency and collaborative nature of the 1930s campaigns wasn’t maintained for countries following colonial independence, the value of their work is of no less importance. In fact, the unearthing of these century old campaigns only serve as a significant symbol that the eradication of GDNL is now well overdue. It’s also impossible not draw inspiration from the 1930s activists who overcame countless opposition and financial, logistical and linguistic barriers to demand women’s equal nationality rights at the global stage. It’s now up to us now, to honour the work of feminists before us, and to ensure the rights of all women going forward.

*Deidre Brennan is a PhD candidate at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne. Deirdre’s PhD is examining the role of grass-roots activism in ending statelessness, specifically law reform of gender discriminatory nationality laws in Nepal.

This blog is derived from the article Feminist Foresight in Statelessness: Activism against Gender Discriminatory Nationality Laws from 1920 to 2020. The article will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Statelessness and Citizenship Review, with all references and citations found within.