25 Years of Prominent Women in International Law

2018 marks the 25th year that the Women in International Law Interest Group (“WILIG”) of the American Society of International Law has awarded the Prominent Women in International Law Award.

Over the years, this blog has made many remarkable efforts to ameliorate the lack of history and documentation surrounding the contributions of women to the field international law. Postings highlighting these contributions have sought to raise the profile of the role of women prosecutors at the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals, and of women leaders in academic or government circles. Indeed, IntLawGrrls’ founding editors requested that bloggers identify an international law “foremother,” explicitly highlighting women whose achievements may have been chronically under-appreciated.

WILIG leadership has been pondering similar questions about how to best recognize the role of women within the evolution of international law. As we look backward to document the history of the PWIL award at this milestone, we simultaneously look forward, to contemplate what we hope women will accomplish in the field of international law in the years to come.

Before reporting what we’ve learned about the award, a threshold question:

How did WILIG originate?

Like most of the interest groups at ASIL, as I’ve learned from conversations with this interest group’s founders, WILIG evolved through an organic process. According to Boston Law Professor Emerita Cynthia Lichtenstein, the concept originated at the ASIL Annual Meeting in Boston in 1987. There, Lichtenstein and her colleague, Cleveland-Marshall Law Professor Jane Picker, witnessed a familiar phenomenon: Women’s voices were being marginalized by some of the male voices in the room. Acutely aware of this dynamic, and seeking simply to create a conversation, Lichtenstein made a sign announced a “Gathering for Women in International Law.” She reflects:

“I posted my little sign someplace in the meeting hotel and I got six women.”

Though only six women showed up at that first meeting, word got around. By 1988, the group had formalized as an ASIL interest group that counted 141 members.

Georgetown Law Professor Edith Brown Weiss, the first woman to serve a full term as ASIL President, recalls, “When I first became active with ASIL, I was routinely the only woman in the room, and felt strongly that we should be encouraging young women in IL.” WILIG was part of this encouragement.

v leary indexAnother notable foremother of WILIG was Professor Virginia Leary, whom IntLawGrrls honored at the time of her death, at the age of 82, in Geneva in 2009. The first chair of WILIG, in 1988, Leary was a professor at Buffalo Law and California-Hastings Law, and served as US delegate to the International Labour Organization.

This post must also acknowledge the role of Wellesley Professor evansAlona Evans in paving the way for the birth of WILIG. Evans was the first woman to be elected ASIL President, in 1980, but she only served for several weeks because of her sudden passing. (Prior IntLawGrrls posts here and here.)

The genesis of the Prominent Women in International Law Award appears to have arisen as a solution to a problem that two former WILIG co-chairs Laura Bocalandro and Marcia Wiss observed years ago: a dearth of women on ASIL annual meeting panels. ASIL has worked to overcome this deficit (see 3d comment here), but elsewhere in our field, the phenomenon remains. A Tumbler site All Male Panels is dedicated to shining a light on the problem. IntLawGrrls contributor Nienke Grossman recently highlighted the phenomenon of “Manels” here, and IntLawGrrls contributor Karen Alter recently reminded readers to list their expertise, since, of course, Women and People of Color Also Know Stuff.

Years ago, however, WILIG didn’t yet have the internet to counter the misperception that there was a dearth of qualified women authorities on international law. As one effort to set the record straight, they created the an award designed to call attention to highly qualified women practicing, teaching, and creating international law; that is, the:

Prominent Women in International Law Award

Over the years, the process and means by which the PWIL Award has been given has shifted.  Initially, Wiss explained, the award was given in an ad-hoc manner. As many as four people received the award in a given year at a modest ceremony at Tillar House, with Marcia’s tongue-in-cheek introduction reminding the audience that in granting this award, “there exists at least one more qualified women who is a recognized authority on international law.”

IMG_0267The humble beginnings of the award are also reflected by the simple, yet practical gift that WILIG offered its awardees for many years: a WILIG coffee cup. Many of the esteemed, powerful, and influential cohort of awardees continue to use their WILIG mugs with utilitarian pride. As Wiss remarked, “We all have jobs where we require coffee cups.” For many, this item served as a reminder that none of the awardees arrived at their prominence without hard work, and in some cases, long nights fueled by caffeine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as PWIL recipients shaped the field of international law, the award gained increased prestige. Brown Weiss shared that what is most impressive regarding WILIG’s growth is its spontaneity — fueled by the need women have felt to seek support and mentorship from one another in their professional lives. Wiss explained, “We were prescient when we gave these awards. Maybe the award played a role in all that the awardees accomplished.” This sentiment reinforces one of the goals that my co-chair Tracy Roosevelt and I felt was most important as we developed a public nomination process for the award on the occasion of the 25th anniversary: to highlight the work of women who are already very prominent, but also to draw attention to those women whose accomplishments merit further recognition through this prestigious award. In this way, the award foretold the amplification strategy generated by women staffers in the Obama White House, who repeated key insights made by other women and attributed them to their rightful authors, forcing the largely male staff to attribute the contributions of women to women who had voiced them, and also preventing them from claiming these ideas as their own.

Like much of women’s her-story, some chapters of WILIG’s evolution have been lost along the way.  ASIL, at the 2018 annual meeting, took the welcome step of recognizing these losses through a resolution granting posthumous membership to two women, Jane Addams and Belva Ann Lockwood, both of whom were previously denied membership in the Society.

I welcome your contributions, reflections, and insights in the comments section as WILIG members work together to round out the stories that make up WILIG, and to shed light on the stories of international law foremothers whose contributions have not – yet – been adequately recognized.

A complete list of the awardees of the Prominent Women in International Law Award is available here.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s