Susan Zimmermann’s research has been concerned with bringing to bear a critical perspective on the past and present of global inequalities and the unequal international division of labour, as they inform key themes in modern history and interdisciplinary studies. She is also interested in developing research perspectives which simultaneously inquire into and integrate the study of class, gender, and other categories of difference and unequal social relations. During her leave and sabbatical (2016-2018) she is working on two projects.
One is the book manuscript entitled International Labour Standards, Women’s Work, and Unequal Development. The ILO, woman internationalists, and globalizing gender politics, 1919-1939. This study addresses a number of puzzles enshrined in international argument and conflict over special labour protection for women, as well as legal restrictions on women in the world of work. This conflict concerned industrial labour policy with an implicit focus on the Northern hemisphere, the construction of labour standards for bonded labour with a focus on the Southern hemisphere, and the connection between international politics pursued in both of these contexts. The study argues that the clash between legal equality and differential (labour) legislation is best understood not as tension between equality and difference; rather it can be conceptualized as an uneasy negotiation between politics prioritizing the reduction of gender disadvantage versus politics aimed at curbing class and race disadvantage, or aimed at overall social transformation. Divergent political visions regarding the global integration of ever broader strata into commodified labour relations, together with related ideas about social reproduction, formed a crucial point of reference in how diverse actors positioned themselves in relation to these questions. The struggle amongst and between labor reformers and organized women in the interwar period formed an important point of departure for, and foreshadowed core dilemmas of, international gender policy in the post-1945 period.
The second project, entitled Women and Trade Unions in Europe and internationally, 1920s to 1980s explores, simultaneously and from a comparative perspective, the histories of socialist and communist trade union women and trade unions’ gender policies in the short 20th century. The focus is on the Women’s Committee of the International Federation of Trade Unions in the interwar period, and activism on behalf of working women, as well as international networking, within the National Association of Trade Unions in state-socialist Hungary. Trade union women who aimed to combine progressive labor and gender policies often struggled with their ‘troubled’ position in highly masculinist organizational contexts. Being part of organizations that often privileged and contributed to the construction of a core working class, these women aimed to represent and promote the interests of marginalized and particularly exploited segments of the labor force. At the same time, trade unions often functioned as means to control labor militancy and workers’ resistance. This project explores how trade union women made use of and tried to expand or alter the space of action so variably construed. In focusing on working women and trade union policies in different political and economic systems, it aims to develop more inclusive and more reflective conceptualizations of labor history.