Today peace is considered a basic womens right. International social justice declarations recognize that womens civic and social rights cannot exist without a stable, peaceful society. When society is chaotic and violent, it usually is women who are kept at home; with restricted mobility, their ability to attend school or work is limited. During war, womens responsibilities for sustaining their families increase. Prostitution, the trafficking of girls. and women and wartime rape become endemic. And, women become refugees in higher numbers than do men.
The linking of peace with womens human rights is not a new concept. Since the late 19th century, women activists connected the need for an organized peace keeping system with the protection of womens civil rights. In the decades before World War I, rivalry among the European Great Powers had led to a build up in armaments. The glorification of nationalism and of armed strength found support among many people. War was seen as not only inevitable but as the purest kind of patriotism. Europes increasing militarism was challenged by activists who felt women were best positioned to counter it. This reflected the 19th and early 20th century notion that women were more innately inclined toward pacifism than were men, and were the more moral of the two sexes. As defenders of the moral life against the supposed innate militarism of men, some women felt that their natural mission was to try and prevent war.
There was nothing new about women organizing and acting separately from men on the issues of peace. As early as 1820 American women came together to form the Female Peace Society. In 1854, Frederika Bremer, a Swedish feminist, formed the first trans-national peace group, the European Womens Peace League. She said, separately we are weak and can achieve only a little, but if we extend our hands around the whole world, we should be able to take the earth in our hands like a little child. By the 1890s international movements against war were increasing, creating strong international ties among women from many countries and diverse backgrounds. Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttners successful anti-militarism book Lay Down Your Arms helped. Her fame gave her the clout to influence her friend Alfred Nobel to create a prize for peace which was to be granted to deserving people whether they be a Swede or a foreigner, a man or a woman. von Suttner won the Nobel Peace prize in 1905.
Peace groups had strong ties to international suffrage groups, further strengthening the creation of pan-national womens peace movements. Women who could not vote and had no say in the matter of war or peace quite naturally linked the issues of suffrage and peace in these militaristic years. Some naively believed that if women had a voice in national and international affairs, war would cease forever. Socialists also took up world peace as a major issue. Detractors were quick to criticize the convergence of these causes. In the United States, the National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage pointed out that: Pacifist, socialist, feminist, suffragist, are all parts of the same movement - a movement which weakens government, corrupts society, and threatens the very existence of our great experiment in democracy.
Beginning in 1899 a series of peace conferences were held in Europe at the Hague to discuss ways to initiate international arbitration and mediation tribunals. At the 1915 Hague Conference, a Congress of Women was held. Although some countries forbade their womens groups from attending, hundreds of American and European women from twelve countries came together to try to stop the slaughter of World War I. A prominent American, Jane Addams, chaired the Womens Peace Party. Addams, who was awarded a Noble Peace Prize in 1931, believed that fighting burns away that finely tempered sense of justice, and that her work with emigrants from all countries at Chicagos Hull House was the model for democratic development across national barriers and race and class.
The outbreak of World War I split feminist organizations along pacifist and nationalist lines. Most groups dropped both their suffrage actions and calls for peace to redirected their energies into war-related work. Pacifists did achieve some goals, however. The Womens International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which is still in existence, grew out of the Hague Congress, and in the United States many of the proposals of the Congress of Women at The Hague were later embodied in President Wilsons Fourteen Points.
Pro Women's Suffrage, Anti-World War I Images
Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum