The geography of the matter: transnationalism and interwar British women's philanthropy

Eve Colpus (University of Oxford)
24 October 2010





This paper explores the transnational dimensions of British women’s philanthropy between the First and Second World Wars. Its starting point is an article in The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) 1934 almanac which discussed women’s social action. According to the article, ‘The geography of the matter’, was to be found in the ‘little homely ways’ in which women performed good works. Because historians have tended to equate women’s philanthropy with parish- and domestic-based methods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there has been an understandable tendency to assume that where it was still operating in the twentieth century it remained bounded in its scale of operation. However, far from promoting a delimited scale of operation, the YWCA’s commentary was part of a broad worldview which cultivated transnational methods and thinking. This paper will argue that in the interwar years discourses of domesticity and religion continued to undergird women’s philanthropy but they were recast in order to position it as transnational – both in terms of its crossing of national boundaries and its engagement in processes of cultural exchange.

The paper examines these questions through focusing on four celebrated contemporary British-born philanthropists: Evangeline Booth, Lettice Fisher, Emily Kinnaird and Muriel Paget. These women were active in different philanthropic milieux, representing between them devout Christian social work, liberal educated reform and cosmopolitan humanitarianism. Through analysing these women’s letters, public addresses and media publicity, as well as literature of the charitable organisations with which they were connected, the paper seeks to explain how and why interwar female philanthropists negotiated the boundaries between older discourses of women’s public activity and newer gendered ideas about personal service, voluntary expertise and religious universalism. Critical to all these debates, I will argue, was the idea that female philanthropists were part of a global community of reformist interwar social activists working towards redefined goals of social improvement. This involved them in both an intellectual and a practical process. In the interwar years established codes of British women’s philanthropic effort were drawn onto a geographically and philosophically enlarged canvas, developing creative and expansive socially-reformist visions.

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