Peace as an Early Woman’s Issue


Today peace is considered a basic women’s right. International social justice declarations recognize that women’s 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, women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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. Europe’s 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 Women’s 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 Suttner’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 Women’s 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 Chicago’s 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 Women’s 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 Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Pro Women's Suffrage, Anti-World War I Images

Why we oppose
votes for men

Because mans place is in the army.

Because no really manly man wants to
settle any question otherwise than by fighting
about it

Because if men should adopt peaceable
methods women will no longer look up to

Because men will lose their charm it they
step out of their natural sphere and interest
themselves in other matters than feats of
arms, uniforms and drums.

Because men are too emotional to vote.
Their conduct at baseball games and political
conventions shows this, while their innate
tendency to appeal to force renders them
particularly unfit for the task of government.

Alice Duer Miller, 1915

Alice Duer Miller, the American novelist and poet, lived from 1874 to 1942.

La Citoyenne, by Hubertine Auclert

This cartoon comes from the cover of a women's rights journal. Under a banner saying 'Universal Suffrage', a man and a woman place their votes into an electoral urn. The man votes for war, the woman for peace. On the urn is written 'World peace, social harmony and well-being of humanity will only exist when women get the vote and are able to help men make the laws.' Beneath the picture it says, 'Woman will only really become a female citizen when she has her full rights.'

In 1905, when Bertha von Suttner accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, she believed a new spirit would triumph, but only vigorous political action would make that happen. Today, there are numerous peace movements which take many forms.

To access international women’s peace organizations  click here

For an activity based on this essay using women’s quotes  click here

For a list of Women Noble Peace Winners  click here

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum