Remembrance Sunday 2013. Tavistock Square London

Peace Pledge Union Peaceowrks Peace Passage London N7 0BT


You may have seen an article in the Guardian several weeks ago in which Kate Adie argued that the contribution of women to the war effort, particularly in World War I, deserved far more recognition. She no doubt had a point but the women she referred to were all involved in one way or another with the ‘war effort’ – as munitions workers, nurses. (In Elsie Inglis’ case as a surgeon), drivers, uniformed non-combatants in numerable support roles behind the lines. Many were exposed to great danger and undoubtedly showed great courage.

But, I would argue, few showed such courage as those women who refused categorically to be part of the war machine at all and instead poured all their efforts into trying to stop the carnage of World War I.
This peace effort developed at first alongside the fight for the suffrage. In July 1914 the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance delivered an International Manifesto of Women to the Foreign Office. (Millicent Fawcett and Chrystal Macmillan were the two signatories) (READ) A copy of this was then taken round all the foreign embassies in London.

Jane Grant at Remembrance Day event, London
This peace effort developed at first alongside the fight for the suffrage. In July 1914 the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance delivered an International Manifesto of Women to the Foreign Office. (Millicent Fawcett and Chrystal Macmillan were the two signatories) (READ) A copy of this was then taken round all the foreign embassies in London. This was followed in August by a mass meeting in London for women and women‘s organisations to protest against the war. Speakers from all over Europe condemned the seemingly unstoppable politics of war and mourned the losses that would be inflicted on women and children who had no influence on the policies that promoted the war.

The next meeting of the IWSA was due to be held in Germany but had to be cancelled because of the war. Millicent Fawcett withdrew from the peace process but Chrystal Macmillan resolutely steered the process of setting up an alternative three day conference in the Hague from 28 April 1915. Invitations to ‘women of all nations’ were sent. 180 British women applied for passports to go although crossing the North Sea and English Channel was extremely dangerous. In the event only 20 passports were granted and only three British women actually managed to get there – Chrystal Macmillan, Kathleen Courtney and Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence. Miraculously 1200 women from 12 countries made their difficult way to the Hague. Resolutions were drawn up by a Resolutions Committee consisting of two representatives of each country.

Resolution 2 Women’s Suffering in War – This International Congress of Women opposes the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare. It protests vehemently against the odious wrongs of which women are the victims in times of war and especially against the horrible violations of women which attend all wars.

Meanwhile the press in Britain and America were critical of the women’s efforts to continue international discussion in time of war: some encouraged their readers to laugh at the women and tried to belittle their efforts, calling them ‘peacettes’ and ‘crankettes, terms reminiscent of previous efforts to disparage the women’s campaign to gain the vote.

Undeterred, in the Hague the conference elected five delegates to take their programme to end the war through mediation to European and US governments. The international team travelled back and forth across Europe and to the US during the summer of 1915, visiting 14 countries and meeting 24 influential leaders, prime ministers, foreign ministers, presidents, the king of Norway and the Pope.

The women urged the political leaders to set up continuous mediation by neutral mediators to end the war. Although each statesman declared himself sympathetic, not one would take the first step. However US president Woodrow Wilson adopted many of their proposals in his ‘Fourteen Points’ which laid the foundations for the League of Nations.

But although these efforts came to nothing as far as ending the war was concerned, out of this came an organisation – the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom – which has been promoting the idea that political leaders have the responsibility to resolve international disputes through negotiation and mediation, thereby creating political solutions, rather than promoting military destruction. It has been doing this ever since and in 2015 celebrates its centenary. I would like to end by celebrating WILPF and all the other peace organisations here today who have been such powerful witnesses to the capacity of women and men to resist war.

(I strongly and gratefully acknowledge the research and writing of Helen Kay in preparing this Talk)