Loyola University Chicago

Department of History


Professor Berger Explores Early Women Activists for Pan Americanism

Professor Berger Explores Early Women Activists for Pan Americanism

Loyola History Professor, Dina Berger (far right) with some of the women from the Pan American Round Table-Austin. In early April, Dr. Berger was the keynote speaker at the group’s annual convention in Laredo, Texas.

How did women and ordinary citizens shape US foreign policy in Latin America?  Dina Berger, a Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, will explore this question in her new book project “Before the Good Neighbor: Pan American Friendship in the Twentieth Century”.

Professor Berger’s article, "Raising Pan Americans: Early Women Activists of Hemispheric Cooperation, 1916-1944," was recently published in the Journal of Women’s History (v. 27 n. 1 (2015): 38-61), and shares some of her findings.  Loyola’s Gannon Center for Women and Leadership awarded Dr. Berger a Spring 2015 faculty fellowship, and the History Department granted her a writing leave for Academic Year 2015-16 that will allow her to finish the research and to write on this important subject.

To acknowledge her fellowship and find out more about her ongoing work, PhD Candidate Nathan Jérémie-Brink caught up with Dr. Berger and posed a few questions.

As a current fellow, your project clearly embodies the kind of scholarship important to the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership.  What does this fellowship mean for your work?

It means a lot. Above all, the Gannon Center Fellowship gives me a release from my teaching obligations which allows me time to focus on my research. I’ve been traveling to work in archives in New York and Texas in the hopes of finishing all my data collection by May so that I can focus on writing by the summer. The Gannon Center also offers a supportive work environment, providing opportunities to gather together experts on subjects related to one’s project. I couldn’t ask for much more!

Can you tell us a little about your current research?  What compelled your investigations of a more bottom-up approach to Pan Americanism?

In 2007, I presented a paper on the idea of U.S. tourists in Mexico as goodwill ambassadors when a colleague first told me about the Pan American Round Table, the women’s group that takes center stage in this new book. The Pan American Round Table was founded by a passionate group of Anglo-Texans in San Antonio, TX in 1916 dedicated to fostering friendship and understanding between women of the Americas through education. I was immediately hooked, traveled to archives in Texas, and began to construct a larger project on Pan American friendship that has evolved into “Before the Good Neighbor.” The book I’m working on examines the idea of Pan Americanism, or inter-American cooperation, from both the top-down and bottom-up.

Pan America is a term that originated with Simón Bolívar, the South American liberator, in the early nineteenth century in an effort to build regional cooperation to stave off European and U.S. incursions at the time of independence. Decades later, former state department head James Blaine applied the term to all of the Americas when he organized the first Conference of American States in 1889, which focused mainly on creating new commercial opportunities. Out of that conference, representatives agreed that the United States should organize a bureau of information known as the Pan American Union (PAU; today the Organization of American States).

Under American leadership, the PAU became an entity in the broader movement for peace led by Andrew Carnegie, who donated the majority of funds to house it in a lavishly designed building near the mall in Washington, D.C. The PAU, like Carnegie’s Peace Palace at The Hague, became a symbol of peace and took up the cause of improved ties between peoples and nations of the Americas. Thus was born Pan Americanism, or the ideology of inter-American cooperation and friendship.

In the 1910s, the idea of Pan Americanism resonated with groups in key locations, namely elite men in New York City and middle-class women in south Texas. Although these men and women had different motivations for becoming involved, they shared a fundamental belief in the wider benefit that came from inter-American friendship whether it be economic, cultural, or political. What motivated them and others later on, and how they carried out the so-called Pan American mission is what I will examine in this book.

Is there a relationship between the Latin American tourist appeal you explored in your first book, and the educational and civic platforms of American women in this period?  Did Mexican pyramid tours and martinis inform these interests? 

I would argue that it was a symbiotic – Pan Americanism in many ways shaped the tourist appeal of Latin America while tourist encounters contributed (both positively and negatively) to the cause of inter-American friendship. The cornerstones in the promotion of both Pan Americanism and tourism sought to change the way U.S. Americans perceived of their Latin American neighbors. Pan American civic groups, the PAU, and tourist promoters emphasized cultural commonalities, be it the same chic martinis one could find in New York and Mexico City or the same belief in women as civic educators.

Another point is that Pan Americanism and tourism were both largely under U.S. control. Like the power inherent in the tourist dollar, Pan Americanism was a U.S. enterprise. Civic groups like the Pan American Round Table, whose apolitical model of women’s activism expanded throughout Latin America, controlled the language and direction of Pan Americanism. Texas tables raised the money for college scholarships to Texas universities that they offered to young Latin American women and they sent books to Latin American libraries. The power of political and economic privilege meant that Pan Americanism emanated from the United States.

What have been the biggest surprises or most interesting characters in your research on these women?

There are so many surprises but I would have to say that the most interesting characters are the women of the Pan American Round Table past and present. I have researched the history of this group since 1916. Unlike similar groups that formed later in the century, the PART is still an active civic group in Latin America, Texas, and the Southwest. The group is ethnically diverse and has been since its founding. Moreover, the group’s legacy can be found at most Texas universities today in the Florence Terry Griswold Scholarship, a scholarship awarded to Latina college students in honor of the group’s founder.

Members have been gracious in sharing their experiences and interests with me. I recently gave the keynote speech at their yearly state convention in Laredo, TX in April, and will also help them commemorate their centennial anniversary in San Antonio in 2016 by assisting them on a documentary project.