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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


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letters to a peace lover

1
Recently a letter was sent to the Prime Minister begging that whatever Germany might do to us, we ourselves should not sink to the level of bombing German women and their children in open towns. Six women signed it - Storm Jameson, Maude Royden, Sybil Thorndike, Rose Simpson, Norrie Fraser and myself. We pointed out that the Government's own avowed intention of winning the sympathy of the German people would be ruined by this terrible expedient. Even, we said, if we had to face the bombs of the German Air Force, we would rather trust to defence than to reprisals. It would not help us that German women and children should join us in our agony, while refusal to retaliate would win us the moral support of powerful neutral opinion.

The Prime Minister replied to Mrs Fraser, who organised the letter, that 'he fully sympathises with the object which you and your co-signatories have in view', and enclosed a copy of his own cautious statement made in the House of Commons on September 14th.

Copies of our letter were sent to many important journals, beginning with 'The Times'. Only two leading newspapers - the 'News Chronicle' and the 'Manchester Guardian', which printed it in full - gave it any publicity. Shortly afterwards, I received a letter of abuse from an unknown woman contemporary.

'We are at war,' it stated furiously, 'with the German nation ... If we suffer setback and calamity and individual misery at the hands of German bombers, then let us, without hesitation and with all the powers of our resources, BOMB THEM in return ... There is no reason whatsoever why German women should be spared anything that our own people have previously experienced at the hands of their menfolk.'

I do not think that my inflamed correspondent is typical of normal British opinion, but an increase of suffering, especially among civilians, will cause her pitiable vengefulness to spread. Even if we win this war, this spirit of hatred is guaranteed once more to lose us the peace.

So wherever you find similar bitterness, please do your best to combat it - not by provocative attack, but by example of your own capacity for pity. As a lover of peace, it is one of your chief tasks to keep alive the healing power of compassion.


2
In the Introductory Letter of this series, I told you how I received sudden outbursts of correspondence urging me to support various schemes by which women might stop the war.

Many of these suggestions were admirable. They merely overlooked the important fact that national protests made by one sex, or by both, require not only burning sincerity but long and untiring organisation in order to be effective.

So far the women capable of such organisation have been drawn from an extremely intelligent but very small minority. Among peace societies open to both sexes, they are usually fewer than the men. In the Peace Pledge Union, for instance, less than a third of the total membership is composed of women.

This tardiness must seem to you a strange phenomenon when you contemplate the heavy cost to women of human life as such. Even the present war, in which danger threatens all ages and both sexes, has so far brought to women a larger share of that waiting grief which for most people is harder to bear than perilous experience.

Perhaps we must admit that women's education, in its modern form has not yet lasted long enough to make more than a few of us politically-minded. Women as a sex still tend to live too much within four walls, and to be mentally anaesthetised by those accumulations of domestic detail which are all too often an antidote to thought.

But now, at last, after three months of war, women from many societies are planning a great campaign which will not only voice the passionate biological revolt against war that inspired my correspondents, but will demand from the Government a promise to use the method of negotiation as an alternative to the present barbarity. Their object is not, as so many opponents of the peace movement falsely assert, to obtain peace 'at any price', but to seek, in collaboration with belligerents and neutrals, some common factors of agreement which will permit peace terms to be discussed round a conference table.

With Mary Gamble as chairman, and Sybil Morrison as honorary secretary, the leaders of this campaign are organising a big demonstration in London on Saturday, December 16th, of which the chief feature is a mass meeting at the Central Hall, Westminster. Their purpose is to awaken women throughout the country to a sense of responsibility which will lead them to press for a peace based on freedom and justice, beginning at home, like charity, with the peoples within the British Commonwealth.

You will, I hope, give this enterprise all the support in your power and help to make it known. It needs the co-operation of men just as much as women, for wherever periodic initiative may arise, it will only be by men and women working together that war will be finally brought to an end. Already a number of distinguished men are working behind the scenes for the women's campaign, but more collaborators of both sexes are needed.

Fortunately there are precedents from the last war to show how swiftly world-wide movements can arise from such simple beginnings. One is supplied by the Women's International League, which started in February 1915, with a call from Dr Aletta Jacobs for an international committee of women to meet on Dutch soil and discuss methods of arbitration. When the congress met in April, women from twelve countries, both belligerent and neutral, came to The Hague. More than forty from America, including Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt, braved the minestrewn waters of the Atlantic to attend it. With them came Mrs Pethick Lawrence, who had originally gone to the United States to speak on women's suffrage.

With Chrystal Macmillan and Kathleen Courtney, she was one of the only three Englishwomen who succeeded in attending, for the British Government suddenly closed the North Sea to one hundred and eighty others waiting to go across. French women, too, were forbidden by their government to attend.

Nevertheless, a thousand members succeeded in joining the Congress, and the peace proposals drawn up were used by President Wilson when he drafted his Fourteen Points.

Today I cannot think of the Women's International League without recalled Mrs H M Swanwick, first chairman and later President of the British Section. For years she was affectionately known to Winifred Holtby and myself as 'HMS', and we spent many eager summer afternoons discussing the state of the world with her in her little garden of her house at Kew which her skill in rearing of choice flowers and shrubs had made so decorative. We were sorry when she went to live less accessibly at Maidenhead, and our overcrowded lives made visits more difficult.

Long before Mrs Swanwick became our personal friend, I remember her as British substitute-delegate to the League of Nations Assembly during the two periods of Labour government. In later years she used to begin her reminiscences of these occasions with the phrase - 'When I was grand...'. I can still picture her vigilant blue eyes which could be both fierce and gentle, and the fair hair which, even in her old age, kept its glint of gold.

But her most striking quality, as you too may remember, was the deep, beautiful voice in which her speeches were made. She was one of the few women delegates at Geneva who steadily refused to be relegated to 'Humanitarian Activities', which Foreign Secretaries and Civil Servants were apt to regard as providing a convenient political mortuary for their female colleagues. In 1924 she addressed the League Assembly in a fine speech on disarmament which wound up the debate on the Geneva Protocol.

In foreign affairs she was one of the best informed people I have ever met. Her lifelong work for world-peace and the liberation of women was based upon keen intellectual knowledge and wide reading. When she retired from active life, she made me a present from her library of several volumes upon which her own writings on the position of women had been based. They stand on my shelves at arm's length from me as I write this letter, with the initials 'HMS' scribbled on their fly-leaves in her graceful handwriting.

Those of us who were her young admirers in the heyday of her influence can only grieve that her brave and valuable life should have ended in a sense of defeat. But the memory of her seventy odd years of courageous achievement will survive the eclipse of that last dark hour. She did not, I think, believe in personal immortality; yet I have known few men and women of whom I feel it to be more true that 'death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight'.

 
      

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