Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


FEATURE | winter 2006

Women and Peace: The Legacy
Throughout the 20th century, leading american women opposed militarism and repression, crusaded for peace and freedom, and demanded justice, dignity and human rights for all.

On the eve of World War I, Jane Addams (who founded Chicago's Hull House) and Lillian D. Wald (who founded New York’s Henry Street Settlement and public-health nursing) joined attorney, journalist and equal-rights feminist Crystal Eastman and others to form an organization initially called the Woman’s Peace Party. It became the still-active Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1921. They also founded, with like-minded women and men, the American Union Against Militarism, which spawned the National Civil Liberties Bureau to protect anti-war dissenters and conscientious objectors, which grew into the American Civil Liberties Union in l920.

Eastman wrote the statement of principles that launched the AUAM, “Towards a Peace That Shall Last”: “Our right to protest is established by the unemployment of the waterfronts, the augmented misery of the cities, by the financial depression which has curtailed our school building and crippled our works of good will. War has brought low our conception of the preciousness of human life, as slavery brought low our conception of human dignity."

Almost lost to history until the war in Vietnam and the burgeoning women’s movement of the l960s revived interest in our feminist and activist heritage, these three women made the connections we need now to reconsider. History tends to bury what it seeks to reject, and it was no accident that male-dominated history excised the leadership of great women who made essential connections between sexism, racism, poverty and war.

When Europe plunged into war in l9l4, the anti-preparedness forces — opponents of the engorged profits of munitions makers and the demands of empire-builders — were supported by most Americans. Addams, Eastman, Wald and their allies believed that war would destroy all their progressive efforts to broaden the promises of democracy to insure education, health care, recreation and economic security for all Americans. Their work against privilege and bigotry, their crusade for suffrage and women’s rights, everything they held dear was endangered by war. They believed the people — in a referendum — should vote on issues of war and peace: Only democratic control of foreign policy would guarantee a peaceful future.

To win election in l9l6, President Woodrow Wilson supported them rhetorically, while saber-rattling imperialist Theodore Roosevelt dismissed them as unpatriotic. They were, TR announced, “college sissies,” “peace prattlers,” “degenerate traitors,” undesirables “who ought to move to China.” The peace women condemned the “religion of martial force” and proposed a new order based on world law and economic cooperation, with issues of resources and markets mediated and guaranteed by a society of nations.

Between l9l5 and l9l7 they met with world leaders, traveled to European capitals and held conferences. In l9l5, Addams, Emily Greene Balch (an economist, sociologist and WILPF leader who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946) and Dr. Alice Hamilton (Harvard University professor, pioneer in occupational health and a member of the Hull House community), along with 44 other American women, participated in the International Congress of Women at the Hague. It was called by Dr. Aletta Jacobs of the Netherlands and chaired by Addams.

The extraordinary journey of the American women to join British, German, Belgian and neutral-country women to discuss the causes of war and the future of peace was unprecedented. Courageous and bold, they crossed mine-filled Atlantic waters in April l9l5 to join nearly 1,500 others, many of whom defied their families to attend. The British government held up their ship for four days in the English Channel, and ridiculed them as “Pro-Hun Peacettes.” But the women were convinced that war was “a denial of the sovereignty of reason and a betrayal of the deepest instincts of the human heart.” Unbound by nationalism, they declared themselves citizens of the world, in solidarity against the slaughter of war, committed to a future of sanity and cooperation.

On her return, Jane Addams presented Woodrow Wilson with their deliberations, which became a source for Wilson’s Fourteen Points (his l9l8 statement of principles for a just and lasting peace) and the League of Nations. But the U.S. refused to join the World Court or the League, and the punitive Treaty of Versailles ending World War I led directly to World War II.

The grim events of l9l4 through l9l8 unleashed a century of violence, and transformed the nature of war. Airplanes, missiles, chemical weapons, poison gases and the bombing of cities ended the myth of men at war on isolated battlefields. The genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks in l9l5 introduced a new awareness of the need for human rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt was profoundly influenced by these events, and by her friends Jane Addams and Lillian Wald. She joined their peace efforts, campaigned from l923 to l935 for America’s entry into the World Court, joined famed suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt’s Committee on the Cause and Cure of War, became a lifetime member of WILPF, and spoke and wrote vigorously for peace.

Peaceful Readings

Here are Blanche Wiesen Cook’s suggestions for further readings about peace activism in the 20th century. The first four titles are from the Garland Library of War and Peace, a 360-title reprint series edited by Cook, Sandi Cooper and Charles

Addams, Jane, Emily G. Balch and Alice Hamilton. Women at the Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results, 1915, reissued 1972.

Addams, Jane. Peace and Bread in Time of War, 1922, reissued 1972.

Degen, Marie Louise. The History of the Woman’s Peace Party, 1939, reissued 1972.

Hull, William I. Preparedness: The American Versus the Military Programme, 1916, reissued 1973.

Chatfield, Charles. For Peace and Justice: Pacifism in America, 1914-1941. University of Tennessee
Press, 1971.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1978.

Cook. Eleanor Roosevelt, vols. I & II, vol. III forthcoming, Viking-Penguin, 1992, 1999.

Cooper, Sandi E. Patriotic Pacifism: Waging War on War in Europe, 1815-1914. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s.
University of Chicago Press, 1993.

“Rethinking Women’s Peace Studies,” Women’s Studies Quarterly (Fall/Winter l995), Forcey, Linda and Amy Swerdlow, eds. Includes syllabus of Cook and Sandi Cooper’s course “Militarism, Pacifism, and Feminism in Modern History.”

“WILPF History Issue: Out of the Past, Hope for a Peaceful Future,” Peace and Freedom, the magazine of WILPF (Spring 2004).

Wittner, Lawrence S. Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933-1983. Temple
University Press, l984.

Wittner. The Struggle Against the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 3 vols. Stanford University Press, l993, 1997 and 2003.

To celebrate Catt’s 76th birthday, in January l935, ER delivered a provocative speech — “Because the War Idea Is Obsolete.” She argued that the “out-moded and long-drawn-out cruelty” of war no longer worked. WWI achieved nothing: It did not end war, dismantle tyranny, limit the power of despots, secure democracy or prevent future wars. The Treaty of Versailles, which dismantled empires and crudely remapped Europe, unleashed endless fury. “The world over, countries are armed camps…Private profit is made out of the dead bodies of men. …If we are to do away with the war idea, [we must] do away with all possibility of private profit.” There was no moral gain in war, ER believed; it was bad for the soul.

Moreover, she argued, economic waste and distress anywhere affect people everywhere: As “the rest of the world suffers, so eventually do we.” She rejected the notion that war was merely part of the human condition: “That seems to me like saying that human nature is so made that we must destroy ourselves. After all, human nature has some intelligence.…[and] good will.”

The year 1935 was a bitter one for peace activists. The U.S. Senate, by only seven votes, again refused to join the World Court. Jane Addams, despite her Nobel Peace Prize awarded in l93l, was called a traitor by a new generation of super patriots, added to a list of Reds and in the year of her death named “the most dangerous woman in America.” ER was also on that list of “dangerous Reds,” which included most gallant reformers and peace activists.

ER agreed with Jane Addams, who often quoted Tolstoy that moral principles not put into action are not really believed. In l938, the first lady published This Troubled World to call for new policies that might stem the rush to war. She wanted a world tribunal to try aggressor nations, and sanctions to end the easy flow of U.S. supplies, including munitions, to Germany and Japan. If we really wanted peace, ER insisted, we had to fight for peace before war broke out. She urged women to take the lead, and explore ways to change human nature. We must see, she wrote, that “what serves the people as a whole serves them best as individuals.”

ER’s book was heartfelt and urgent: “How can we study history, how can we live through the things that we have lived through and complacently go on allowing the same causes over and over again to put us through those same horrible experiences? I cannot believe that we are going to go on being as stupid as that.” If our civilization is to survive, she concluded, “our people must turn to love not as a doctrine but as a way of living. …You laugh, it seems fantastic, but this subject [love] will have to be discussed throughout the world for many years before it becomes an accepted rule. We will have to want peace, want it enough to pay for it, pay for it in our own behavior and in material ways. We will have to want it enough to overcome our lethargy and go out and find all those in other countries who want it as much as we do. ..."

After World War II — in the wake of 50 million deaths, the atomic bomb and unbearable suffering — a concerted quest for alternatives to violent carnage and genocide emerged. For a time, it seemed that human rights for all, guaranteed by the work of the United Nations, would forestall war. But the Cold War and competing imperial demands derailed the U.N. and the promises of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The long war in Vietnam created another generation of women peace leaders. WILPF was refortified by younger activists who flocked to its meetings in every state. A great chain of being connected Jane Addams with Kay Camp, Ruth Gage-Colby, Anne Florant, Helen Kusman, Bea Siegel, Trudy Orris; with civil rights activists Virginia Durr, Fannie Lou Hamer, Flo Kennedy; and with a new generation of feminists in Crystal Eastman’s tradition, notably Gloria Steinem. At a WILPF meeting in l966, I met my partner Clare Coss. We worked, and created enduring friendships with Bella Abzug, Mim Kelber, Amy Swerdlow, Cora Weiss and Lyla Hoffman — who were among the founders of Women Strike for Peace, organized in l961 to protest nuclear armaments and nuclear poisons in our food supply, the result of atmospheric tests.

The Cold War ended in l991. But there is no peace, and there has been no victory. Instead we are in the quagmire of “preemptive” war — war without immediate cause — and this administration’s promise of all war all the time, nukes included. Today, as we regroup, we see the proud vision of our foremothers in the work of Betty Burkes, the first African American president of WILPF; Felicity Hill, anti-nuclear advisor to Greenpeace; Cynthia McKinney, Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters — luminaries of the Congressional Black Caucus; poet activists Suheir Hammad, Kathy Engel, Staceyann Chin; the work of transnational human-rights activist group MADRE; and other broad-based movements such as Code Pink, inspired by Medea Benjamin, and United for Peace and Justice, so brilliantly organized by Leslie Cagan.

The peace activists of World War I left us the great legacy of their understanding: War depends on misinformation and propaganda; it destroys democracy and civil liberties. Peace is not merely the absence of war; it requires economic security, health care, housing, education, work, dignity, justice. As we reclaim the history of the women peace advocates, we rededicate ourselves to their efforts to create a world where people count and democracy rules — a world where we have to have more to live for than to die for.

Blanche Wiesen Cook is distinguished professor of history and women’s studies at the John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is completing the third volume of her best-selling biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.