Kristen Ghodsee
Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War
Duke University Press, 2018
328 pages
HB $104.95 PB $27.95

Reviewed by Rosy Mack 

If you love to learn about incredible networks of transnational solidarity between activists, this is the book for you. If you geek out to hybrid methodologies, crisscrossing between the historical record, personal testimony and out-of-the way archives, you’re sure going to like this monograph. If you have yet to be persuaded that movements for women’s rights were doing powerful work outside of the West, add this to your reading list.  In short, Kristen Ghodsee’s Second World, Second Sex successfully addresses all of these constituencies with her thoroughly researched, reflexively argued, new book. 

Second World, Second Sex, in a sentence, recovers a history of collaborative labor between women from state socialist and G77, “Third World” countries, through their shared United Nations organizing. She states that the purpose of her book is to “recapture some of the energy and enthusiasm that infused socialist women’s activism,” which has heretofore been erased. But also, she wishes to record their “different vision of activism” in opposition to the dominant liberal feminist strand in Western capitalist societies, which “couched women’s issues within broader issues of social injustice, even as the liberal feminist strand became more dominant in the advanced capitalist countries.”  

Ghodsee devotes the first part of her book to establishing the context for the momentous women’s assemblies of the 1970s and 80s in the run up to, and during the course of, the UN decade of women (1975-85). She begins by reviewing the literature on the “global women’s movement,” persuasively showing that state socialist women’s rights organizing has been omitted from historical narratives. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Ghodsee shows, feminists from “advanced capitalist countries” had control of the means of historical knowledge production – funded archives, accessible travel and academic publishing infrastructure – meaning that the perspectives of US and other capitalist states these events has had much more of an airing (11). In her reading of this scholarly literature, Ghodsee points out that women activists in state socialist contexts are read as “dupes” and lackeys of male communist leaders. 

This reading is unsettled by Ghodsee’s two subsequent chapters, in which she introduces her two main case studies, the national context and women’s organizing in Bulgaria and Zambia. Close reading policy documents and personal testimony, she demonstrates that women’s activists in these states effectively mobilized rhetorical strategies ameliorable to their single-party governance structure to achieve movement goals. In the case of Bulgaria, the women’s committee, through extensive research and use of Leninist argumentation, was able to achieve the most comprehensive childcare provision and reproductive freedom of any Eastern Bloc country. Second in the world, in fact, only to Scandinavian states. Her exploration of exigency does not end here, however. In order to contextualize the conflicts between G77, Eastern Bloc and capitalist states, Ghodsee also devotes a chapter to the history of Cold War anti-communism in the US, elucidating the predicament of women’s rights activists for whom any allegiance to radical left politics risked ideological discrediting of the movement, in addition to personal sanctions from the state. 

The remainder of Second World, Second Sex centers on the key events leading up to and within the UN decade of women, beginning with the Mexico conference in 1975, and ending with the Nairobi in 1985. Ghodsee shows how women’s activists, particularly from the Bulgarian and Zambian delegations, shared skills, resources, and tactics which strengthened their internal organizing. She clarifies that whereas US delegates, and colleagues aligning with them, saw the UN women’s events as spaces to explore issues unique to women, delegations from the G77 and the Eastern Bloc approached such conferences as a means by which women could access the political platform granted by the UN – believing that “feminist struggles could not be separated from issues such as national independence and economic development.” The context of Cold War superpower rivalry, in combination with this difference in perspective, thus set the stage for historically momentous disputes over the language, aims, and content of resolutions during these conferences. Disputes in which Bulgarian and Zambian women, in collaboration with other delegations, used the power of their networks to achieve common goals. 

Methodologically, Ghodsee successfully interweaves a vast amount of multi-modal material within each chapter. In her opening paragraphs, she starts with a self-reflexive account of an oral history interview conducted over the course of her research. These narratives describe the venue of the meeting, her first impressions of her participants, as well as reflecting on the occupational challenges of human-based research: establishing trust, eliciting memory, and attempting to retain some “objective” distance. Ghodsee then integrates the archival documentation at her disposal, offering readings of minutes, policy documents and correspondence to produce vivid accounts of the meetings and behind-the-scenes machinations.

When I started this book, I was rather puzzled about why Ghodsee had chosen to focus on the United Nations as the organization through which to trace these activist networks. Because I work primarily on extra-governmental feminist organizing and production, I was a little suspicious of how this nation-state-oriented body could be the site of any kind of radicalism. However, as Ghodsee persuasively argues, such a preference for non-state or “independent” women’s rights work is rather a parochial position. For the women she centers in her account, performing their work in the context of single-party states, government aligned women’s organizations, were the means by which goals could be struggled for and accomplished. From this exigency, the UN’s conferences on women provided a ground for such activists to meet, form bonds of practical solidarity, and strategically align in order to pass mutually beneficial resolutions in the context of opposition from western capitalist countries.  At times, I found myself contesting Ghodsee’s version of US feminism, which occasionally allowed Betty Friedan’s vision of liberation to stand in for the heterogeneity of action and strategy. However, given Ghodsee’s argument, that US “independent” feminist movements and the more mainstream delegations to the UN gatherings have already received a comparative plethora of scholarly attention, to criticize a lack of nuance here would be unfair. All in all, Ghodsee’s Second World, Second Sex is an incredibly well-researched, accessibly written monograph, which offers an original and persuasive intervention within feminist historiography. The personal narratives and movement stories she draws out are compelling and informative. For a reader interested in feminism, global politics or the potential of solidarity, or anyone with a penchant for archives or oral history, this book is a great read.