League of Nations Secretariat

Women in the Secretariat

by Myriam Piguet, PhD student, University of Geneva

When, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, men and women gathered to negotiate and put to paper the Covenant of the soon-to-be-created League of Nations, women's international associations fought to inject an innovative element into the founding document:

“All positions under or in connection with the League, including the Secretariat, shall be open equally to men and women.”

Inserted in Article 7 of the League of Nations Covenant, this sentence made the League of Nations and its sister organization the International Labour Organization the two first international institutions to formally welcome women in their ranks. They were pioneers of equality in the international arena.

Women delegates, international civil servants and women's international associations – such as the International Council of Women and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom – were major contributors of multilateralism. Around these networks, there was ideological diversity and multiple ways to define women’s engagement in the international sphere. Women also had a significant role in the development of international thought outside of women’s questions. Studying their history brings to light the multiple women actors at work in the international system and efficiently “stirs” the narrative dominating the research on international diplomacy.

The situation of women in the League Secretariat

Despite the pioneering nature of the League’s Covenant with regard to gender equality, the condition of work was different for women in the Secretariat than for men. Women predominantly occupied roles in subordinary positions.

Graph showing evolution of women in the secretaria

Myriam Piguet 2022

As shown in the above graph, women were mostly represented in the second and third division of the League of Nations Secretariat, which included all the administrative and mechanical positions, such as secretaries, hand-typists, cooks and cleaners. Ninety-seven percent of the women employed in the League’s Secretariat were part of the Second and Third Division. Among them, a minority were part of the intermediate class, mainly secretaries of sections, who oversaw the administrative work of a whole office and often performed duties above their respective rank without being graded in the professional division of the Secretariat. Only 3% of women working in the League’s secretariat were part of the professional, so-called first division. They were the only women profiting from the advantages of being international civil servants, whereas the employees of the 2nd and 3rd division were considered local staff.

High Level Officials

UN Archives Geneva

Florence Wilson

Florence Wilson is probably the best-known woman official of the League of Nations. As the first chief of the League’s Library, she oversaw the establishment of the research tools at the Secretariat and headed the compilation of its print collection. It has been assessed that Florence Wilson, despite directing an entire service of the organization, was never recognized as a Director. When she left the League Secretariat in 1926, she was replaced by a man who was named Director with an increased salary. Wilson gained the post of Head Librarian through a lucky combination of factors. After attending Library Studies at Columbia University, she was the only US woman with an executive role at the Paris Peace Conference, where she represented the American Library Association. She joined the Secretariat in its early days, and while the directorship was unable to find a suitable male candidate to head the Library, she went from being its interim director to becoming its permanent chief. Wilson developed personal and innovative opinions on international thought, one of these manifested by her questioning the role of diffusion and access to information in international relations. Florence Wilson’s path shows the crucial role of administration and its staff in the establishment of an international organizations’ bureaucracy.


UN Archives Geneva

Rachel Crowdy

Rachel Crowdy, Chief of the Social and Opium Section of the League of Nations Secretariat between 1920 and 1932, was the highest ranked woman in the organization. Yet, similarly to Wilson, she was not graded as director, lowering her salary as compared to other Heads of Sections. Initially, Rachel Crowdy started a nurse career during the first World War, working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment and then the Red Cross. She took part in the war efforts, setting up and directing hospitals on the front lines. In her early days in the League, she directed the Health Section. In this role, she was the only women to take part in League’s mission against typhus in Poland. Thereafter, she headed the Social and Opium Traffic Section, which tackled with traffic in women and children, dangerous drugs, and child welfare. Rachel Crowdy was a pivotal actor in the League of Nations Secretariat, playing a key role in the establishment of the organization’s policy on Social Questions. After her departure, socio-economic matters gradually gained prominence in the League’s efforts. In the 1930s, the economic depression, and the interventionist national political measure that followed, catalyzed a fresh enthusiasm for the League’s special sections. The work Crowdy had initiated expanded and becoming central in the League’s policies. For instance, Crowdy was the instigator of the League Secretariat’s work on the status of women through the establishment of a Committee on Traffic in Women and Children for 1932-33. Both initiatives later helped the United Nations to define its own policy on socio-economic matters and on the status of women.

Born in Jamaica, Una Marson was a renowned writer and poet. She was the first Jamaican women to publish her own journal and in the 1940s she became the first black women to be employed as a journalist by the BBC. In 1932, she settled in the UK where she was active in the League of Coloured Peoples, notably editing its journal. In 1935, she was invited to the Secretariat of the League of Nations as an observer. She stayed for a temporary assignment within the Information Section, being one of the rare individuals of color in the Secretariat. In 1936, she came back to Geneva as the personal secretary of Emperor Haile Selassie on the occasion of his famous speech against the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Her short contract with the League reveals the tenuous links the organization fostered with major civil rights associations while supporting the imperialism of its member states.

UN Archives Geneva

Julliene Piachaud at the center of picture. Picture of the Central bureau of stenography and dactylography

At twenty-seven, Julienne Piachaud was overseeing the biggest department of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, its stenographic pool. Containing more than fifty employees, it mainly employed young women recruited locally in the French and Swiss areas, and more rarely coming from the United Kingdom. Despite the size of her office, Julienne Piachaud was barely part of the intermediate class and paid less than her male colleagues heading other general services. The tasks of the stenographic service were vital for the League to function as bureaucratic machinery and required a large number of workers. Moreover, hand-typist and secretaries indirectly participated in executive tasks, by assisting in meetings, translating, answering phones and letters, participating in fostering the relationships of the league with people from the outside.

UN Archives Geneva

Liba Hersch

Liba Hersh was a polish doctor of Medicine but she was only a junior assistant at the League of Nations Secretariat. She was in charge of putting together the statistical yearbook of the League, responsible for gathering the data, translating them into multiple languages, and ordering the results. She had multiple short term appointments and was never able to secure a permanent contract. One of the explanations is pretty common for international civil servants: she was not hired because of her expertise, but because she spoke several sought-for languages. Hersch never reached the position of Member of Section despite being a M.D. Men placed in the intermediate class were often junior officials promised to an executive career in the Secretariat. Women of the international class, instead, often ascended from the lower grades of the second division, or were hired in the intermediate class by superiors who figured that they would remain secretaries for the rest of their career. Yet, Hersch was not performing the work of a secretary of section, but rather the work of a junior official. Despite her young age, she never had the occasion to climb the ladders of the Secretariat, and remained at the same rank until she left in 1940.

Further readings

On the relationship of the Secretariat with women’s international associations:

R1347/22/51532/51532 - Various correspondence with the National Council of Women of Great Britain, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1926-1927

R1353/22/58759/58759 - Joint Standing Committee of Women's International Organisations - Meeting of March, 1927, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1927

R3603/50/31449/31137 - Collaboration of Women in the Organization of Peace - Correspondence with the Liaison Committee of major women's organizations, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1931-1933

On women’s representation in the League’s Secretariat:

R3585/50/9105 - Correspondence with Council for the Representation of Women in the League of Nations, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1928-1933.

R3958/5A/24347/394 - Correspondence with: - Liaison Committee of Women's International Organisations, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1936-1939.

0000676854_D0004 - Untitled, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, n.d. (League of Nations, Collaboration of Women in the Organisation of Peace, Report by the Secretary-General, A.10.1932., Geneva, August 25th, 1932.)

S957/266S958/267S954/263S955/264 & S956/265 Sub-Sub-Series on the Appointment Committee.

S541-1/1/11 - Women and the League - March 1932 - September 1934, Geneva, League of Nations Archives, 1932-1934

Housden, Martyn, Crowdy, Rachel Eleanor: League of Nations’ Social Affairs Section, 1919-1931, IO BIO: Biographical Dictionnary SGs IOs. [https://www.ru.nl/publish/pages/816038/crowdy-re-4february2014-may2021.pdf].

Huber, Valeska, Pietsch, Tamson et Rietzler, Katharina, « Women’s International Thought and the New Professions, 1900–1940 », Modern Intellectual History, vol. 18, no 1, 2019, p. 1‑25.

Ikonomou, Haakon, « Underpaid and Overperforming: Interwar disarmament and the woman that made sense of it », History Matters [http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/underpaid-overperforming-interwar-disarmament-woman-sense/]

Leigh Eisenberg, Jaci, American Women and International Geneva, 1919-1939, Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement Graduate institute of international and development studies, 2013.

L’escouade, 100Elles*: pour une féminisation de la mémoire collective genevoise, Chêne-Bourg, Georg, 2020.

Ohene-Nyako, Pamela, Piguet, Laure et Piguet, Myriam, « Historical Women Take the Streets of Geneva: Restoring the Legacy of International Organizations’ Working Bees ».

Pedersen, Susan, « Metaphors of the Schoolroom: Women Working the Mandates System of the League of Nations », History Workshop Journal, , no 66, 2008, p. 188‑207.

Piguet, Myriam, « Employées à la Société des Nations : carrières et conditions de travail, 1920-1932 », Monde(s), N° 19, no 1, 14 juin 2021, p. 51‑72.

Sluga, Glenda, « Add Women and Stir: Gender and the History of International Politics », Humanities Australia, vol. 5, 2014, p. 65‑72.