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Gendering International Affairs: Winifred Coombe Tennant and the League of Nations Assembly, 1922, by Robert Laker

In the summer of 1922, Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) was selected as a delegate to the Third Assembly of the League of Nations, making her the first woman to ever represent Britain at this international organisation. In this pioneering role, her presence cut against the grain of international politics, magnifying the myriad ways in which gender operated in this arena and provoking varied responses to her foray into this masculine domain. During her time in Geneva, Coombe Tennant actively developed public discourse on the importance of women in diplomacy, drawing on her maternal identity to justify her contribution in this world of seasoned diplomats. Her vocal espousal of this cause undoubtedly won her much respect, helping to normalise the presence of women in diplomatic roles, but it also put her at odds with other women in Geneva, from whom she often sought to distance herself in favour of her male British colleagues.  Although her career as an international parliamentarian was short, her efforts challenged the assumption, commonly held at this time, that a diplomatic temperament was an exclusively male trait and paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Winifred Coombe Tennant’s political career began following her marriage in 1895, when she joined the famous London salon run by her new mother-in-law Gertrude Tennant.  Here she met many of the women leading the campaign for suffrage – Millicent Fawcett, Ray Strachey, Eleanor Rathbone and others – and quickly became a known figure within feminist circles. It was following a successful introduction to David Lloyd George, however, that she entered into mainstream politics. Showing herself to possess a shrewd political mind, she rapidly cemented herself as a close political ally and valued advisor of the Prime Minister and was selected as a Liberal Party candidate for the 1922 general election. It was through this close friendship with the Prime Minister that, in the summer of 1922, she was selected as a delegate to the League and was tasked with being Lloyd George’s eyes and ears in Geneva.

Prominent suffragists were quick to recognise the potential of Coombe Tennant’s ephemeral international platform to create more lasting change. In the weeks before and during her month in Geneva, feminist thinkers such as Margery Corbett Ashby, Elizabeth Macadam and Constance Drexel coalesced around Coombe Tennant, impressing upon her the magnitude of the moment, and discussing their own visions for women in international life. Diplomacy, they reminded her, had long been a gendered arena, its outcomes dictated by the conversations of a small circle of men: Coombe Tennant now had the chance to prove that women, too, had something to contribute to the pursuit of peace.[1]

Despite this intellectual collaboration, Coombe Tennant chose not to associate herself with other women in Geneva. Many historians have characterised women’s engagement with the League in terms of feminist solidarity, arguing that, for many women, the shared experience of being on the periphery of national politics allowed them to more easily build transnational connections.[2] This ‘imagined community’ of women may have existed, but it does not appear that Coombe Tennant considered herself part of it. From the time of her arrival, Coombe Tennant sought actively to distinguish herself from the five other female delegates to the Assembly in 1922, mentioning them in her diary only to caricature their appearances.[3]  Furthermore, when the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom asked Coombe Tennant to recommend a recent resolution to her fellow delegates she instead advised her male colleagues to ignore any approaches made by the WILPF, explaining that she had ‘never seen eye to eye with the people who run the English Section, some of whom were Pacifists during the War and most, I believe, [are] strong opponents of H.M.G’.[4]

While national and political ties were apparently more important to Coombe Tennant than gendered ones, she still resolutely sought to advance the position of all women in international life. From the moment she arrived at the League, she actively sought to publicise a conception of international affairs, founded in maternalistic principles, which held the involvement of mothers in the League to be vital to its success. ‘It is strange to me’, she wrote in her diary on her first day, ‘to imagine how we women endured to be shut out from all this, where the threads of destiny are spun – and where our lives and those of our children have been sometimes bartered for a song’.[5] This was not simply a private conviction. By writing articles, giving interviews, and directly engaging with officials and fellow delegates to the League, Coombe Tennant worked tirelessly to publicise and spark debates at the highest level about the role of women in diplomacy.

The most significant example of this can be seen in Coombe Tennant’s first speech to the Assembly. Addressing the international statesmen who, along with around four-hundred journalists, had gathered for the session, she argued that the democratic legitimacy of this ‘Parliament of the World’ could only be achieved if the totality of its electorate was represented. The League of Nations, she reasoned:

will not reach its full authority and its full power until it has become in some real sense a League of Mothers – for it is from the Mothers of the World that it will receive a dynamic power, a driving force, which is essential to it if it is to accomplish successfully a task which has hitherto baffled all ages and all races – the task of establishing an enduring peace.[6]

By tapping into the highly charged idealism which defined the League’s early years, Coombe Tennant bound up the involvement of women in diplomacy as with the cause of peace itself. The League of Nations, if it was truly to be a new start, could not simply be a rebranding of traditional masculine power politics. Women were needed, Coombe Tennant argued, to provide a counterbalance to male bellicosity. By publicly interpreting the Wilsonian idealism of the day through a gendered lens, she entered an intellectual justification for the presence of women in international affairs into conversations within the highest diplomatic circles.

At the end of September, Winifred Coombe Tennant returned home to Neath and faded into relative diplomatic and political obscurity. But although she was not able to reap the seeds that she had helped sow, she nonetheless had lasting impact, playing an important role in naturalising the presence of women in international affairs. She had consciously endeavoured to ensure that her presence in Geneva would not become a historical exception and made a point of demonstrating that women could be effective representatives of their government above all else. More significantly, however, she had publicised a theoretical framework for diplomacy which was not only compatible with but in fact required the involvement of women to succeed, shaping the gendered order in Geneva at a time when it was particularly malleable. This was Coombe Tennant’s legacy: the creation of a conceptual space in which female delegates could operate, thereby helping write women into the future of the League diplomacy.

Robert Laker is a Swansea University graduate and runner up in the Women’s History Network MA dissertation prize 2020, for his thesis ‘Geneva in Motion: Winifred Coombe Tennant’s Experiences at the Third Assembly of the League of Nations’. He is currently researching the League of Nations Assembly, exploring how this interwar global forum presented new opportunities to the variety of actors who worked in this space. 

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

[1] Swansea, West Glamorgan Archive Service, Constance Drexel to Winifred Coombe Tennant (15 September 1922) D/DT 3984. Margaret Corbett Ashby to Winifred Coombe Tennant (15 September 1922) D/DT 3993.

[2] See for example Ingrid Sharp, and Stibbe, Matthew, ‘Women’s International Activism during the Inter-war Period, 1919-1939’, Women’s History Review, 26.2 (2017), 166. Jan Stöckmann, ‘Women, Wars, and World Affairs: Recovering feminist International Relations, 1915-1939’, Review of International Studies, 44.2 (2018), 220.

[3] Swansea, West Glamorgan Archive Service, Geneva Diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant, D/DT 3978, 41-42.

[4] Swansea, West Glamorgan Archive Service, Winifred Coombe Tennant’s note attached to WILPF resolution, D/DT 3983.

[5] Geneva Diary, 9.

[6] Swansea, West Glamorgan Archive Service, Coombe Tennant Assembly Speech, D/DT 3978.