School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences

Why we need to add women to humanitarian histories: archives, narratives and the production of ethical meaning

This paper aims to provide a systematic reflection on the historiographical implications of both the exclusion and inclusion of women and their voices to early humanitarian history. As Abigail Green has recently shown, the historiography of nineteenth-century humanitarianism is somewhat biased, for it has often been guided by the aim to explore the historical roots of present-day humanitarian concerns and engagement (2014). This produced a limited analytical perspective and the privileging of Protestant, secular, Anglo-American and male-dominated initiatives over other religious, national and female-dominated campaigns. Pleading to broaden the scope of research, Green particularly argues for the need to study the activities of women in order to achieve a more nuanced, contingent and thus properly historical understanding of the making of the early humanitarian enterprise. This paper not only aims to integrate female humanitarian initiatives but also strives to assess if and how the story changes once we explore humanitarian history through the sources produced by different groups of religious and secular women. Introducing different examples of German activist women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it suggests that the inclusion of their voices and interpretations moreover allows us to deconstruct the gender bias and ideologies that dominated much of the male humanitarian writing of that time. By doing so, the paper argues for the need to go beyond essentialist, stereotypical or generalizing understandings of women’s roles in humanitarian campaigning e.g. as idealized care givers, but to study their motivations, interpretations and actions in historically situated encounters and at specific times and places.