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VERA BRITTAIN - WOMEN AND PEACE

 
 

Introduction

- vera and the ppu
- vera on women and peace
- ppu women's campaign
- vera at war for peace
- references


vera brittain selected text

- to mothers especially
- letters to peace lovers
- women must awake to
  save humanity

- women and pacifism
- methods of barbarism


Available
complete text, illustrations and additional material as pdf file

- short biography
- memorial
- PPU archives


Peace Pledge Union
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ppu's women's peace campaign

One organisation through which women were able to organise and to work for peace in the late 1930s was the Peace Pledge Union, which recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. In October 1934 Canon Dick Sheppard made his private, national appeal through letters in the British press, asking the men of Britain to pledge themselves to 'renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly (to) ... support or sanction another'. His appeal brought an immediate response, but wishing first to assess and to consolidate his support, Canon Sheppard did not form any coherent or official body until July 1935. The Sheppard Peace Movement, as it was initially named, became the Peace Pledge Union in May 1936. It should be noted that Sheppard's appeal to renounce war was not widened to include women until 1936. (20) But by September 1937 roughly 64,360 men and 18,670 women had signed pledge cards and by the summer of 1939 these figures had grown to roughly 86,000 men and 43,000 women. Women in the Union consistently comprised a third of its overall membership. (21)

The Peace Pledge Union was a very active organisation. Some of the most popular forms of publicising peace used by the Union were poster-parades, mass demonstrations and open-air meetings - although the English weather was not always on the side of the organisers of the latter!

The attitudes of the general public towards pacifists in the opening months of the war were very mixed, including attitudes of overt hostility, studied indifference, latent sympathy and open admiration. Mass Observation, the pioneering social survey organisation, conducted a survey in Fulham, a mostly working-class district of London, in April 1940. Respondents were asked what they thought about pacifists and some of the answers gathered included:

Bloody awful. If we were all pacifist the Fuhrer would be here tomorrow.
I think they're a lot of twirps.
Needs a lot of pluck, don't it?
I reckon they're bloody heroes. (22)

It was against this not altogether encouraging backdrop that the Peace Pledge Union's Women's Peace Campaign emerged.

The Campaign was not launched by the PPU's Council or Executive Committee but began with a Liverpool woman's solitary march from Liverpool to London in September 1939. Mary Taylor carried a banner which bore the words, 'For the Sake of Children Everywhere, I appeal to Men to Stop This War'. Her effort was reported in the middle pages of 'Peace News', the PPU newspaper. (23) On 14 October 1939 Taylor led a women's peace march through Liverpool (24), and by the end of that month her idea began to find a response; it was reported that more than forty women had marched through London's West End. (25) On Friday, 3 November 1939, 'Peace News' reported that on the preceding Tuesday a procession of women, which stretched out of sight, had marched for peace through Holborn. On Wednesday a second parade had left from the Methodist centre in Kingsway which the police tried to stop. The marchers had demanded to know 'what new regulation they were infringing...' and since an answer could not be supplied, they were provided, instead, with 'a huge and very benevolent sergeant in a blue steel helmet'. It was at this point that some PPU officials began to respond to the women's protest.

In mid-November, John Barclay, the PPU's National Group Secretary, proposed a peace march by all the women of Great Britain. (26) The response was apparently very encouraging (27) and by the end of November the Peace Pledge Union established a Women's Committee under the direction of Mary Gamble, and the Women's Peace Campaign came into being. (28) The opening of the campaign was marked by a rally in the Central Hall, Westminster, on 16 December 1939. In 'Peace News' Gamble declared:

This campaign is designed not only to give expression to women's revolt against war, but to their demand that the Government should, at the earliest possible moment, use the method of negotiation to secure a lasting peace. (29)

But the women's initiative brought an immediate reaction from the police. The organisers had planned that women would walk in silence from the Embankment to Central Hall for the meeting. Sir Philip Game, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, however, banned the march as politically motivated.

The ban was imposed in accordance with an order issued under the Defence Regulations by the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, on November 28, prohibiting 'processions of a political character' in the London area for three months dating from December 2. (30)

Undaunted the Women's Peace Campaign committee made plans for a national campaign in February 1940, declaring Saturday 17 February 1940 Women's Peace Day. Arrangements were made for processions in Newcastle, Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester. (31) Yet the results of the day, even in light of the unusually bitter weather, were decidedly disappointing. In Central London 140 women marched; in Cardiff 53; in Nottingham 30 and in Manchester 116. (32) Nevertheless the Women's Peace Campaign persisted and in mid-March announced the launching of a nationwide petition:

We women address this appeal to the governments of the nations to stop the war and meet together to discuss peace. (33)

The campaign hoped for one million signatures, obtained by going to 'every tea party, sewing party, church service or Guild and ... (asking) to be allowed to explain the appeal and invite signatures'. But by the end of April it was apparent that the petition and the Campaign were both floundering. The 'bore' war had become a real war. The totality of the demands made by escalating conflict bit into the fabric of English life and the strictures and exactions upon society and the wholehearted response of the vast majority of the population meant that pacifist were exceedingly hard pressed in maintaining their witness. Of the petition, Sybil Morrison, the secretary of the Women's Peace Campaign, admitted:

The invasion of Scandinavia has, of course, made it much more difficult now to approach people about signing an appeal for negotiations because opinion is hardening against the pacifist. (34)

One woman probably captured the emotional response of many:

In the last war I personally used to think it rather brave of conscientious objectors to stick to their principles but that was because my boy was safe in his cradle. Now that he is fighting I feel very angry with them ... The sight of a notice in the window with the words 'Peace Pledge Union' now makes me furious. (35)

On June 21, one day before the French surrender, Morrison, in an article entitled 'Women's Peace Campaign Must Go On', implicitly acknowledged that support and enthusiasm for the campaign was rapidly waning. (36) Indeed news of the campaign virtually disappeared from the pages of 'Peace News' until December 1940. This eclipse of the nationwide, public campaign of the Women's Committee can undoubtedly be largely explained by the increasingly perilous situation of the Allied and British war efforts against Nazi Germany in the second half of 1940. The pressures of campaigning for a negotiated peace under such circumstances were colossal. But there were also other considerations. Although the campaign sought to mobilise women, its central theme was a call for a negotiated peace. This, however, duplicated the Peace Pledge Union's official Stop-the-War campaign launched within days of the outbreak of hostilities. The Stop-the-War campaign, from its inception, was beset by difficulties and differences within the Union as to its appropriateness and effectiveness. These divisions within the PPU concerning the campaign only escalated in gravity as the war proceeded. The Women's Peace Campaign unfortunately suffered an identical fate and because it was a second-string effort its fortunes faded even more rapidly.

In December 1940 the low-profile successor to the Women's Peace Campaign made its appearance in the form of a weekly 'Women's Section' column in 'Peace News'. (37) But the column, which continued the appeal for a negotiated peace, had a decidedly humanitarian as opposed to socialist or feminist orientation and was phased out after only seven months. This was probably because by the summer of 1941 differences over the pacifist campaign for a negotiated peace had produced a 'distressing division ... that involves a conflict of opinion which is weakening to our witness and may easily be damaging to our unity'. (38) The state of the debate within the PPU was summarised in a pamphlet written by Alex Wood, the PPU's chairman, and published in late 1941. Wood concluded:

The end of the fighting is the first condition of a successful attack on the evil ... (of war). Peace by negotiation is therefore always our policy although not always our tactic. We can never retreat from it although at any given moment it might be unwise to campaign on it. (39)

The Women's Committee's effort collapsed in the summer of 1941. (40) The Peace Pledge Union's main campaign for a negotiated peace persisted, however, until the autumn of 1944, when it too was forced to be abandoned. This was probably mainly on account of a critical dilemma crystallising in the minds of a number of pacifists.

If the Nazis have really been guilty of the unspeakable crimes circumstantially imputed to them, then - let us make no mistake - pacifism is faced with a situation with which it cannot cope. The conventional pacifist conception of a reasonable or generous peace is irrelevant to this reality. (41)

It was a dilemma not faced directly by pacifists before the end of the war. (42)

 
      

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