Women and Non-Alignment in the Cold War era: biographical and intersectional perspectives

Visit of Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Yugoslavia, 1976. Courtesy of Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.


WO-NAM will provide crucial insights into the history of women’s participation in the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War era, studying the roles of female leaders, women’s movements and women’s organizations. It will redefine existing interpretations of Cold War history and historiography by conducting groundbreaking research on the significance of Non-Aligned networks in shaping transnational debates on women’s rights within international institutions.
Bringing together women’s and gender history, global history, and intellectual history, the project will answer the following research questions:

  • What was the role of female activists and leaders within the Non-Aligned Movement?
  • How did women’s organizations contribute to nation-building, modernization, and development in their respective Non-Aligned countries?
  • What was the significance of the Non-Aligned Movement in transnational Cold War debates on women’s rights before and during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985)?
  • How did women’s internationalism within the Non-Aligned Movement contribute to an intersectional vision of women’s rights, which viewed women’s oppression as inseparable from wider global inequalities?

WO-NAM will have four research strands:

  1. female leaders and activists’ biographies
  2. grassroots and state-sponsored women’s organizations
  3. international conferences at UN and NAM level
  4. transnational knowledge production

Bringing together women’s and gender history, global history, and intellectual history, the project relies on biographical and intersectional methods to explore the significance of women’s internationalism. WO-NAM will draw on rich and diverse archival collections on women’s activism in its focus on the case studies of Yugoslavia, Egypt, Tunisia, India, and Cuba. The project also includes a survey of existing archival collections on women’s internationalism in Western Europe and the United States, and the creation of a data-base with new digital resources (documents, biographies, maps, oral history interviews).


The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) began in 1961 at a summit in Belgrade as an alliance of newly decolonized, developing countries, who advocated an end to bipolar bloc divisions and supported national self-determination and peaceful coexistence, particularly through a stronger role for the United Nations and its agencies. Still in existence, although lacking the influence it had during the Cold War period, it is one of the longest-running and largest international organizations. In existing scholarly research and in everyday culture, the NAM is generally presented as the prerogative of male leaders engaged in high-level diplomacy, as exemplified by the iconic picture of Tito, Nasser, and Nehru – considered the “founding fathers” of the NAM – together with Sukarno and Nkrumah.

Would we obtain a different picture, however, if we were to consider Non-Aligned interactions and encounters from the perspective of female leaders, state-sponsored women’s organizations, and grassroots women’s movements, given that both the NAM and the transnational women’s movement shared similar values in terms of international solidarity and socioeconomic justice and empowerment? What if we could understand discussions over women’s emancipation as having been an intrinsic component of broader utopian imaginaries of decolonization, development, and modernization?

During the Cold War, female leaders from different developing countries, such as Indira Gandhi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Vilma Castro Espín, and Vida Tomšič came to the fore as international actors. As a result of cross-border solidarity initiatives between the NAM countries, female journalists, experts, technicians, artists, and students, as well as administrators and politicians traveled between the Global East and the Global South not only to improve their education and career perspectives but also to express their political convictions and share expertise. Up until the Yugoslav breakup, socialist Yugoslavia was a key site of women’s transnational encounters. One example was the UNFPA-sponsored seminar on planned parenthood for women from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, organized at the University of Sarajevo between 1986 and 1991 by Dr. Nevenka Petrić, a Serbian Partisan, poet, scholar, and reproductive rights activist.
By focusing on East-South and South-South women’s encounters and debates, WO-NAM will provide crucial insights into the history of women’s participation in the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War era, fundamentally revising and revitalizing existing interpretations of Cold War history and historiography.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, speaking at the Non-Aligned Summit held in Belgrade in 1961. Courtesy of Museum of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
UNFPA-sponsored seminar on women’s emancipation and planned parenthood, Sarajevo 1986. Courtesy of Voja Lalich.

Taking Non-Aligned women’s networks as a vantage point, WO-NAM will be the first project to address how female leaders and activists from the Global East and the Global South intervened in a variety of international institutions that were part of, or affiliated to, the United Nations, in order to shape ongoing debates on women’s rights, family planning, and development. To achieve its goals, the project will focus on the biographies of key activists based in Yugoslavia, Egypt, Tunisia, India, and Cuba, whose engagements at the national and international level permits a transnational comparison. Alongside biographical and autobiographical writings, the project will explore the personal archival collections left by many of these pioneers in their respective countries. The key figures that the project studies were simultaneously active in different transnational arenas, notably the UN conferences on women held in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985) during the UN Decade for Women, as well as expert meetings promoted by countries affiliated to the NAM on the issue of women in development. Transnational debates on family planning will also be examined as well as cross-border encounters within NGOs such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), founded in 1952, which had a consultative status at the UN and played a major role in global population debates in the 1960s and 1970s. 
The biographies of the key figures selected for the project can be defined as ‘Non-Aligned’ not only since women’s activism unfolded in countries belonging to the NAM, but also because their engagement did not always ‘align’ with a predefined socialist or feminist agenda, or with existing national or international politics, despite occurring in institutional settings. Pioneering female leaders were active in several arenas simultaneously, working as intermediaries between nation-based, state-sponsored women’s organizations, and international institutions.

Thanks to its international and interdisciplinary team of experts with combined expertise in women’s and gender history, global history, and intellectual history, WO-NAM will provide the first long-term history of women’s Non-Aligned activism, placing the agency of female leaders, women’s movements, and women’s organizations from the Global South and from Yugoslavia at its center.
WO-NAM includes two groundbreaking aspects:

  1. the concept of intersectionality will be applied systematically to the analysis of transnational women’s history in the Non-Aligned countries – particularly to the study of individual biographies, women’s organizations, international women’s conferences, and transnational knowledge production;
  2. the project will highlight how Non-Aligned debates over gender and development in the Global South can be taken as precursors to the concept of intersectionality.



  • 19-22 June 2024: “Gender and History Beyond Boundaries”. IX Congress of the Società Italiana delle Storiche, University of Palermo, panel “Approcci intersezionali e globali alla storia dei diritti riproduttivi durante la Guerra Fredda”, coordinated by Chiara Bonfiglioli and Bruno Walter Renato Toscano. Speakers: Maud Anne Bracke (University of Glasgow), Chiara Bonfiglioli, Bruno Walter Renato Toscano, discussant Alessio Ponzio (University of Saskatchewan).
  • 27-28 May 2024: international conference: “Turning the map upside down Connected Histories of Decolonization, Third Worldism, and Radical Activism”, University of Turin. Papers by Chiara Bonfiglioli on “Anti-Malthusianism Between Yugoslavia and the Global South: Reproductive Rights from a Non-Aligned Perspective” and Bruno Walter Renato Toscano on “The Enduring ’68: Women of Colour, Thirdworldism and U.S. Solidarity with Global South”.
  • 21 May 2024: online workshop on the New International Economic Order, CAS Rijeka, organized by Paul Stubbs, with papers by Chiara Bonfiglioli, Anna Calori, Sue Onslow, and Sam Nicholls.
  • 15-17 May 2024: international conference “Postcolonial, Decolonial, Postimperial, Deimperial”, organized by Jeremy Walton at the University of Rijeka. Paper by Chiara Bonfiglioli on “Women’s Non-Aligned encounters: internationalist dialogues during the Cold War”.
  • 14 May 2024: seminar “Kristen R. Ghodsee: From Notes to Narrative. Seminario per laureandi e dottorandi sulla scrittura etnografica” - Malcanton Marcorà (Sala Geymonat). With intervention by Kristen R. Ghodsee (University of Pennsylvania). In dialogue with Matteo Benussi and Chiara Bonfiglioli.
  • 13 May 2024: Lectio Magistralis “Valchirie Rosse: Lezioni Femministe da 5 Donne Rivoluzionarie Dimenticate” - Ca’ Bernardo (Sala B). With Intervention by Kristen R. Ghodsee (University of Pennsylvania), presenting the volume “Valchirie Rosse: Le rivoluzionarie dell’Est Europa” (2024). In dialogue with Chiara Bonfiglioli, Duccio Basosi and Bruno Walter Renato Toscano.
  • 18 April 2024: international workshop on Communist autobiographies, organized by Paolo Capuzzo at the University of Bologna. Paper by Chiara Bonfiglioli on "Pioneers of women's economic development: the biographical narratives of Devaki Jain and Vina Mazumdar".
  • 5 April 2024: annual conference of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) 2024. Roundtable “Wither internationalism? Decolonisation narratives and the (im)possibility of supranational feminist, socialist, and pacifist solidarities”. Chaired by Kristen Ghodsee (University of Pennsylvania), with interventions by Chiara Bonfiglioli, Agnieszka Mrozkik (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Adriana Zaharijević (University of Belgrade).
  • 5-6 March 2024: seminar Femminismo, comunismo e antifascismo negli anni Venti e Trenta del Novecento” - Malcalton Marcorà (Sala Milone), Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. With interventions by Dr. Daria Dyakonova (International Institute in Geneva; “La Sapienza” University of Rome), presenting the volume “The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922. Proceedings, Resolutions, and Reports” (2023), and by Dr. Isidora Grubački (Institute of Contemporary History, Ljubljana), on ”New feminism” and antifascism in the 1930s: the Women’s World Committee against War and Fascism from the Yugoslav perspective. In dialogue with Chiara Bonfiglioli, Bruno Walter Renato Toscano and Minja Bujaković (EUI).


  • 29 November-4 December 2023: annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), paper by Chiara Bonfiglioli on “'Updating Malthus' Population Theory Is Out of the Question Today': Nevenka Petrić and Non-Aligned Alliances against Neo-Malthusianism” within the panel “Yugoslav Non-Aligned Encounters in the Global South III: Development Policies”.


Chiara Bonfiglioli


She is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at Ca' Foscari University of Venice. She previously taught Gender and Women’s Studies at University College Cork, where she coordinated the one year interdisciplinary Masters in Women’s Studies. She is the author of “Women and Industry in the Balkans: The Rise and Fall of the Yugoslav Textile Sector” (I.B. Tauris, 2019).

Bruno Walter Renato Toscano


He is Post-Doc fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of Pisa with a dissertation in U.S. History entitled “Their struggle is our struggle”: the Third World Women’s Alliance and the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression between anti-imperialism, reproductive rights, and transnational activism (1970-1989). He is the author of the book “Pantere nere, America bianca. Storia e politica del Black Panther Party” (Ombre Corte, 2023).