Women Step Up

Taking Agency in the Post-War World

Imagine your home was under attack. Explosions, threats, rubble, sadness, all part of your daily reality. Could you sit back and watch, accepting that someone else had it all under control? By the end of WWII, many women living in Western Europe felt this lack of agency had gone on long enough. One such woman, Eugénie Cotton, stepped up and took action by founding the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Cotton firmly believed that “in a world determined to change the state of things that has led men to fight two horrible world wars within 25 years, the new element, the power of the mass of women active in public life, can and must be of very great importance.”[1]

Worldwide Activism

Women hard at work at the “World Gathering of Women for Disarmament”. Featured on the cover of the “World Gathering of Women for Disarmament” pamphlet. Retrieved from

The WIDF’s founding congress, held in Paris in November 1945, was attended by approximately 850 women from 40 different countries.[2] They called for “shared action to organize women in all countries of the world to defend their rights and to achieve social progress” and for “strengthening the friendship and unity among women in the whole world.”[3] In fact, one of their biggest strengths as an organization was their anti-colonialist work — particularly in Vietnam and Algeria.[4] They were quite progressive in this way, seeing any threat of oppression as a threat to women and therefore worth fighting against.

World Gathering of Women for Disarmament

A clipping from Women of the Whole World magazine inviting women from all over to attend the “World Gathering of Women for Disarmament”. Courtesy of the Marjorie Lamb Fonds at the John M Kelly Library of St Michael’s College.

One of the methods through which the WIDF accomplished its goals was the distribution of their Women of the Whole World magazine, which was regularly published in five languages.[5] The magazine was vital for promoting events such as their ‘World Gathering of Women for Disarmament’ in Vienna 1962. Because of the Cold War, disarmament was a huge concern throughout the 1950s and 60s. The issue drew in “over 300 women from 59 countries of all five continents.”[6] A diverse group of presenters spoke to the importance of disarmament for women’s safety and prosperity. A series of demands, including the “ending of nuclear tests and destruction of atomic stockpiles” and the “peaceful settlement of all differences between states by negotiation,” was drafted and sent to the United Nations.[7]

The WIDF is Accused of Being Communist

The Cold War also had a lasting and unfortunate impact on the WIDF’s history in the West. Because of the threat of fascism in Europe, many of the organization’s founding members were openly communist.[8] This drew the attention of North American anti-communist groups such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, who insisted that the WIDF was only interested in luring “gullible women into the Communist sphere.”[9] This discrediting of the organization has kept many of its contributions from being included in Western feminist histories.

I come from a long line of feminists, of women who care about the continued safety and equality of all women. Organizations like the WIDF were vital in demonstrating to women everywhere that they have the power to speak for themselves, enact change, and take agency. In the last 100 years, brave women have changed the world, and I only hope I can continue to carry the torch.


Cassandra Curtis comes from a long line of English Montrealers. She developed a passion for choir music at a young age and studied classical voice at Vanier College. She then earned a BA in History from Memorial University in St John’s, Newfoundland, with a strong interest in ethnomusicology. Currently, Cassandra is a student in the Museum Studies Master’s program at the University of Toronto and hopes one day to work with historical collections.

[1] De Haan, 2010

[2] De Haan, 2010

[3] De Haan, 2010

[4] McGregor, 2016

[5] McGregor, 2016

[6] Cotton et al, 1962

[7] Cotton et al, 1962

[8] De Haan, 2010

[9] De Haan, 2010

“The power of the mass of women active in public life, can and must be of very great importance.”