Some of the best-known images of women during the First World War show them engaged in work previously done mainly by men: driving buses, delivering post, toiling on the land and working long hours in the munitions factories and shipyards. The images reflect the reality, namely that thousands of women, despite not having the vote, felt it was their duty to help a nation at war.
However, these images do not tell the whole story. Not so well recorded is the fact that considerable numbers of women resisted militarism and worked for peace. The arrival of war in 1914 split the suffrage campaign. In Britain, women led by Emmeline Pankhurst who had been at loggerheads with the government for years, now threw their support behind the government.
Other activists, including Catherine Marshall, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Maude Royden and Helena Swanwick, stood against war and demanded peace. Women worked tirelessly to support male war resisters and conscientious objectors (COs), often risking imprisonment. They also organised demonstrations, wrote pamphlets and spoke out publicly. But one of the most remarkable initiatives was the Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague in 1915.
Call to women
In April 1915,a Dutch suffrage organisation, headed by Aletta Jacobs, issued a ‘Call to the Women of all Nations’, inviting activists to an international women’s congress against ‘this horrible war’.
More than 1,200 women from 12 countries, including Britain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the United States attended the congress. With patriotic and bellicose fervour sweeping through Europe, women taking part in the congress were vilified.
In Britain, the government actively prevented women delegates from attending by suspending regular ferry services between Folkestone and Fleshing. Seizing on this, the Daily Express lampooned the women, describing them as ‘peace cranquettes’ and producing a cartoon showing a woman sitting forlornly on a suitcase. From a potential 180 delegates, only four British women attended: Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse, Chrystal Macmillan and Kate Courtney.
Some 60 American feminists attended, including Jane Addams, who was elected president of the congress, and Emily Balch. Hungarian activist Rosika Schwemmer attended as did Lidya Gustava Heyman, one of 28 delegates from Germany.
The Women’s Peace Congress opened on the evening of 27 April. In her opening statement, Aletta Jacobs, president of the Dutch suffrage society, addressed the congress with these words: ‘With mourning hearts we stand united here. We grieve for many brave young men who have lost their lives on the battlefield before attaining their full manhood; we mourn with the poor mothers bereft of their sons, with the thousands of young widows and fatherless children, and we feel that we can no longer endure in this twentieth century of civilisation that government should tolerate brute force as the only solution of international disputes.’
Over the course of the next three days, the women debated strategies for alternative, nonviolent means of conflict resolution, finally calling for a process of continuous mediation.
On 1 May, the congress issued a list of 20 resolutions, some directed towards ending the immediate conflict and others with longer-term aims designed to end war and lay the foundations for lasting peace. These included disarmament, equality between women, men and nations, and the setting up of an international institution that would continuously mediate to prevent future wars from occurring.
Finally the congress decided to send women to the governments of various countries, neutral and warring, to present their proposals and urge an end to the war.
Small delegations of women visited 14 countries during May and June 1915. Jane Addams met with US president Woodrow Wilson, who later said that the congress’s peace proposals were the most impressive he had seen. Apparently he included some of them in his 14 peace proposals, which were not adopted when the war finally ended.
The Women’s Peace Congress did not end the war but one lasting achievement was the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which was set up during the congress and continues its work for world peace to this day.