In 1921, the Norwegian feminist, lawyer and League of Nations delegate, Anna Bugge-Wicksell, became the only woman member of the newly formed Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC) at the League of Nations. During the next six years she would draw attention to the role of education in the mandated colonies. The PMC was established to monitor governance in the former German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Now ranked according to their supposed level of advancement, the incremental progress of ‘native’ populations in the mandates towards indirect rule was to be managed by member nations of the League. Education would be relegated by the PMC, and by the members that reported to it, at the periphery of its concerns. But as Susan Pedersen has argued, humanitarian talk circulating through the League always exceeded the limits of its agenda. And education in the mandates provides a case in point. 

Prior to her appointment to the PMC, Bugge-Wicksell was a leading woman delegate at the League who was interested in women’s and girls’ rights. She had been shortlisted for the headship of Traffic in Slavery, for example, the position that ultimately went to Dame Rachel Crowdy of Britain. In 1924, a few years after her appointment to the PMC, the Council for the Representation of Women would express its hopes that the commission would improve the conditions of native peoples including women not least through educational reform. Education was being widely promoted by progressives as one of the most powerful adjuncts to creating the kinds of native subjects considered necessary for modernisation. Women and girls were strategic to this vision of social and cultural reform. Perhaps it was for these reasons that education was allocated to Bugge-Wicksell in her new role, despite her lack of expertise in the field. And one of her first actions at the PMC was to establish a thematic structure for its reporting in which education would appear as a stand-alone topic. Over following years, however, the commission – as well as representatives of the mandated powers themselves – was to exhibit little interest in educational reform let alone the conditions of women and girls. 

Anna Bugge-Wicksell, Argus February 4, 1927. Image via Trove, National Library of Australia

Then she went about educating herself in the latest ideas about native education. As the survey reports she wrote during the 1920s would reveal, Bugge-Wicksell was persuaded by the views of experts that teaching among ‘natives’ should be modified. Forms of ‘applied’ education should provide them with basic literacy in local languages (in some cases also in English), training in village industries, and tutelage in western-style regimes of labour, health and hygiene. In her 1924 report, ‘Education Policy’, Bugge-Wicksell underlined the vital moral as well as practical role of such education in colonial reform, welcoming what she saw as the ‘new departure in the educational policy’ being made by several of the administrations in British East and West Africa where teaching in farming, local industries and hygiene combined, in her view positively, with the essential aim of ‘character training [that was] the very keystone of education in Africa, as it ought, indeed, to be all over the world.’ Including the education of women in her vision of empowerment, she concluded that the essential task of education among native peoples was ‘to fit him – in future I hope even her – to be a good citizen’.

Connections were being made at this time between colonial education in Africa and African American education in the southern United States, and Bugge-Wicksell was influenced by these ideas also. Since the previous century, the Tuskagee Institute established by Booker T. Washington had promoted basic literacy and agricultural training for African Americans. In the early 1920s, the New York-based Phelps-Stokes Fund was invited by the Colonial Office to study educational reform in East Africa. The findings of these expeditions, led by Thomas Jesse Jones, a graduate of the Chicago School of Sociology, were published in 1921 and 1922. Near the end of her appointment, Bugge-Wicksell embraced the opportunity to investigate the ‘Negro Education Movement’ in the United States at first-hand, accepting an invitation from Jesse Jones to see ‘Negro Schools’ in action. In the report of her tour in February and March of 1927, she described a range of prestigious African American schools such as the Penn School in South Carolina where she was impressed that African American culture was interwoven into schoolwork; but she most admired one-teacher rural schools staffed by women and men of their own communities. Bugge-Wicksell passed away soon after her return. While ten years later her successor Valentine Dannevig opined that they were never given the attention they deserved by the commission or by the League, the impact of Bugge-Wicksell’s reports on myriad readerships around the world is impossible to gauge.

To learn more about Anna Bugge-Wicksell see Fiona Paisley, ‘Listening with their Eyes and Feeling with their Hearts,’ in League of Nations: Histories, Legacies, Impacts, eds. Joy Damousi and Patricia O’Brien (Melbourne University Press, 2018).

And Fiona’s blog for the Australian Women’s History Network VIDA Blog: ‘ Anna Bugge-Wicksell and Education at the Permanent Mandates Commission’

On Bugge-Wicksell’s successor, see Susan Pedersen ‘Metaphors of the Schoolroom: Women Working the Mandates System of the League of Nations,’ History Workshop Journal 66, no. 1 (2008): 188-207. 

Fiona Paisley is a cultural historian at Griffith University in Brisbane. Her current projects include progressive education and ‘race’ the 1930s; and cultures of internationalism in interwar Australia. Her most recent book is Writing Transnational History with Pamela Scully (Bloomsbury, 2019).