Women’s Rights and the Cold War – Re-approaching the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s Historical Role

By Yulia Gradskova

Even though the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) has disappeared from discussions on women’s rights since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its history remains relevant to our understanding of state feminism and transnational women’s rights. Indeed, by the end of the Cold War, the WIDF—founded in Paris in 1945 by women from about 40 countries—became one of the world’s biggest transnational women’s organizations, known for its activity for women’s rights, peace, and anti-colonialism. However, the WIDF occupies an ambiguous position within the history of the women’s movement. While known to researchers as both an important actor in the struggle for women’s rights in a global context, it has been criticized for uncritically praising women’s emancipation under state socialism, while ignoring the double burden and lack of political freedom that women experienced there. The federation was thus an active participant within the Cold War and, during a certain period of time, its victim: accused by the American government of Communist activities between 1954 and 1967, the federation was deprived of its status as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN.  

Figure 1. Cover of the WIDF magazine Women of the Whole World, 1985, Issue 2.

What were the organisation’s achievements and problems? And why did it eventually become almost invisible in historical accounts? In what follows, I propose a few answers to these questions. 

The third WIDF Congress, which took place in Copenhagen in 1953, adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Women. The Declaration demanded quite an impressive bill of rights for all women, regardless of their race, nation or class. These rights included, amongst others: the right to work and the right to choose a profession or occupation, equal pay for equal work, the right to the state protection of maternity and childhood, the right to education and the right of the peasant women to own land.[1] Within their historical context, such demands were brave and challenging. Indeed, parts of Africa and of Asia continued to be occupied as colonies of European countries, where universal rights to education or maternity protection did not exist. In many European countries the principle of equal pay for equal work was far from being realized: in Sweden, for example, special salaries for women (kvinnolöner) ceased to exist only in 1960. Such a broad declaration of rights attracted many new supporters to the organization and, not least led to the WIDF becoming one of the initiators of the International Year of Women, 1975, and an important actor behind the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). [2]   

On the other hand, looking at the history of the WIDF compels us to confront the problem of the ‘Soviet fronts’ (or, organizations sympathizing with the USSR, according to Peterson), and their fellow travelers.[3] The question about how much the Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern bloc influenced this organization continues to be asked by the historians even now, 30 years after the end of the Cold War[4].

Figure 2. The WIDF’s foundation was controversial, due to its association with the Soviet Union. This WIDF communiqué condemns the French Government’s 1951 attempt to dissolve the WIDF.

The materials in the Moscow archive are particularly interesting in this respect. The files of the Committee of Soviet Women, a member of the federation, have preserved not only the protocols of WIDF board-meetings and congresses, but also a lot of classified reports that the representative of the Soviet Committee working in the WIDF Secretariat (from 1951 in East Berlin) wrote to Moscow. These reports suggest that Soviet expectations of WIDF activities included promoting a positive image of the Soviet Union and its foreign policy. The Soviet female employees involved in the work of the WIDF were organized through a hierarchical structure and received a salary from the Soviet state. 

Soviet employees in the WIDF were charged with informing the Soviet state about the WIDF’s internal operations and, in particular, individual opinions and conflicts with respect to the development of the organization and international politics. One report informed Moscow about the position concerning the ‘struggle for peace’ that was taken by one of the WIDF leaders, vice-president, Dr. Andrea Andreen from Sweden.[5] According to the letter, Andreen:

Considers it important that while organizing cooperation with other women’s organizations we [the WIDF] should take the position that is different from one insisting that everything in the USSR is good and everything in the USA is bad. We have to criticize both. She also suggested to make an appeal to the governments of the USA, UK and the USSR demanding a ban of atomic weapons.[6]

It is easy to suppose that such a position did not fully correspond to Soviet expectations. The report shows however, that in the case of Andreen, like in many others, the Soviet representatives did not have the power to give orders or demand certain behaviour from activists from different countries. Still, such classified information helped Moscow to choose their strategies, first of all with respect to cadre issues and the drafting of the WIDF’s official documents. 

During the 1960s, the WIDF underwent significant changes due to many factors, including increased membership of women from newly independent countries or countries involved in anti-colonial struggles. The 1970s-1980s saw the WIDF’s biggest international success in this regard. As previously mentioned, during this period the WIDF was active in the UN, in particular before and during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). The WIDF continued to be active not only at the first UN conference in Mexico, but in all further conferences until the end of the Cold War.[7] For example, the WIDF’s General Secretary, Vire-Tuominen, in her report for the WIDF council in 1980, proudly stated that the WIDF had accomplished a lot during the NGO forum in Copenhagen: 

Figure 3. A 1975 Bulletin on the WIDF’s activities

WIDF organized 17 seminars, 2 film projections, and wide distribution of our printed materials including a special issue of our journal prepared during the forum. Our president, Freda Brown, chaired two panels, and our experts participated in several panels.[8]

On the other hand, the development of mass, grassroots radical feminist movements in Western Europe and the USA, often referred to as ‘second wave feminism’, influenced changes in how gender differences were seen by society. In many countries, feminist activism led to changes of legislation on marriage, divorce, work, abortion, as well as on taxation, contributing to more gender equality, and recognition of LGBT rights.[9] Due to these changes in legislation, practice, and grassroots mobilization, the language of the discussions around gender inequality and discrimination in many countries of Western Europe and North America became both more radical and more specific than that which the WIDF could offer. 

The growth of grassroots activism was also in contrast to the WIDF’s centralized structures. Thus, the federation was forced to confront criticism on its lack of internal democracy. In the 1960s such a critique was made by the Italian delegates, and in the early 1980s the organization of French women demanded more democracy in the WIDF’s working routines. The Declaration of the National Bureau of the Union of French Women addressed participants of the WIDF’s 1980 bureau meeting, expressing the French contingent’s discontent with the lack of democratic decision-making.[10] The document also criticized the WIDF’s unlimited support for the viewpoint of the ‘socialist countries’, and the use of the experiences of these countries as a positive example for other countries to follow. The declaration stressed, for example, that the WIDF congresses had to be transformed into a real space for discussion and decision-making, while the role of the administrative bodies like the Secretariat should be diminished.[11]

 After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the WIDF headquarters at Unter den Linden 13 in East Berlin was closed, the WIDF periodical ceased publication, and in the years that followed, the organization’s centre moved to Latin America. However, paradoxically, one of the last issues of the WIDF journal published in 1991 contains an article by Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary General of the UN, who noted that during all these years, the federation had played an important role in promoting equality of women’s rights and wished ‘all the success in your work’ to the WIDF on the occasion of its 45th anniversary.[12]  Thus, it is possible to say that the WIDF’s importance for international women’s rights became particularly visible internationally at the very moment when the Cold War confrontation, which had been crucial to the WIDF’s existence, came to an end. 

Yulia Gradskova is Associate Professor in History, Department of History, Stockholm University. She defended her dissertation in History in Södertörn University/Stockholm University in 2007. You can read more about the WIDF in her book, which is forthcoming through Routledge in 2021: The Women’s International Democratic Federation , the Global South and the Cold War. Defending the Rights of Women of the ‘Whole World’.


[1] Za ravnopravie, schastie, mir. Berlin: WIDF. 1953, 254-255.

[2] de Haan, F., The Global Left-Feminist 1960s. From Copenhagen to Moscow and New York”. In: Ch. Jian, M. Klimke, M. Kirasirova et al. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties. Between Protest and Nation-Building (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 234-236.

[3] Petersson, F. (2013). Caught Between Nostalgia, Anti-Colonialism, International Communism, Transnational Networks and Radical Spaces: A Re-Assessment on the Historiography of the League against ImperialismCoWoPa – Comintern Working Paper, 28, pp. 1-31.

[4] See for example, de Haan, F., Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of Transnational Women’s Organizations: The Case of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), Women’s History Review, 19:4 (2010), pp. 547-73.

[5] The Soviet government usually presented itself internationally as a country aspiring for peace and détente. However, as it is widely known the USSR also participated in arm race and the development of atomic weapons.

[6] GARF 4 106, pp. 36-38.

[7] Ghodsee, K., Revisiting the United Nations Decade for Women: Brief Reflections on Feminism, Capitalism and Cold War Politics in the Early Years of the International Women’s Movement, Women’s Studies International Forum, 33 (2010), pp. 3-12; Ghodsee, K., Second World, Second Sex (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

[8] GARF 3 5077, p. 90

[9] See Gildea, R., James, M. & Warring, A., Europe’s 1968. Voices of Revolt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[10] GARF 3 5077, pp. 268-279.

[11] GARF 3 5077, p. 277.

[12] Zenshchiny mira 1991 (1), p. 9.

Images are the author’s own. Figures 2 and 3 were taken at Arbetarörelsens Arkiv och bibliotek and IISH respectively, and should not be reproduced without the express permission of both Gradskova and the relevant archive.