Conference table with 13 international leaders of the feminist movement. From left to right: Mme Thoumaian (Armenia), Leopoldina Kulka (Austria), Laura Hughues (Canada), Rosika Schimmer (Hungary), Anita Augspurg (Germany), at the center we find Jane Addams (Stati Uniti), then Eugénie Hamer (Belgium), Aletta Jacobs (Holand), Chrystal Macmillan (Great Britain), Rosa Genoni (Italy), Alla Kleman (Sweden), Thora Daugaard (Denmarc), Louise Keilhau (Norway).
From April 28th to May 1st 1915 the International Congress of Women is held in The Hague. This conference, at the time unique for its kind, brought together more than 1000 women from warring and neutral nations with the objective of laying out a plan to end the war and creating conditions for a permanent peace.
This is quite a crucial moment in world’s history for pacifism and feminism: this is the first international pacifist congress organized after the war broke out, and sets up the basis for the still active and worldwide-famous Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
One of the biggest concerns of feminist history is to offer to the public a more holistic, gender-balanced vision of historical facts, in which women are finally recognized for their significance. On today’s date it is fundamental to make justice to those women who worked hardly to achieve global peace, and who hardly found any recognition in history books till recent times.
Jane Addams was entrusted with the presidency of the Congress. A few words have to be spent about this incredible woman, whose biography is a living manifesto of pacifism, feminism and social participation. At the time already national chairman of the American Women’s Peace Party, Jane Addams will become one of the faces of the feminist and pacifist movements thanks to her effort to get the great powers to disarm and conclude peace agreements. After the USA entered the conflict, she started to advocate against the war and was stamped as a ‘dangerous radical’. She will finally be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931.
Another important figure at this congress was Aletta Jacobs, president of the Dutch section of the IWSA (International Women Suffrage Alliance) and Holland’s first woman doctor. During her opening remarks she stated “at the time when there is so much hatred among nations, we, women, must show that we can retain our solidarity”; this theme of solidarity, along with the importance of women inclusion in decision making processes (and thus women suffrage), will be a leitmotiv during the whole congress duration.
The congress ended on the 1st of May with the presentation of a platform from which, many believe, president Wilson took inspiration for his famous speech of January 8th 1918 known as “the fourteen points”. At the end of the three days the delegates in The Hague voted 20 resolutions, which can be grouped in three main areas.
- “Women”: these resolutions were about women’s will of being part of the public life and decision-making processes. Somehow women felt responsible for the war, but also they had no way of intervening in the political choices which could prevent it from happening or stop it. They claimed that influence on men was not enough, and that it was time for women to have their say in foreign and national politics.
- “Peace Treaties, arbitration”: women wanted their role in the future peace negotiations and they claimed that peace should be fair without neither victors nor vanquished. A fair peace, they affirmed, should protect peoples from conquer, guarantee self-administration and democratic institutions, guarantee that international disputes are to be solved with arbitration and that foreign politics left no room for secret agreements between governments and diplomacies.
- “Peace treaties, institutions”: it was recommended that neutral countries set up a conference to create an institution to mediate the peace processes among the warring countries. The American delegation plan the creation of what was later to be known as “society of the nations”, or the present ONU. These institutions, they assert, should be responsible of creating a permanent international court of justice and a permanent international conference to allow cooperation among countries and the recognition of smaller countries at an international level.
To promote these resolutions, they decided to create an international committee: during the months following the conference these resolutions were presented to 13 head of states in the European continent. The committee harshly criticized the Versailles resolutions, since it was very different from their vision of a peace without the revenge of the victor over the vanquished. The International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace remained active until 1919 when it was decided to transform it into a more permanent organization: the ‘Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’. The new organization chose Jane Addams as its international president and Emily Green Balch (another fundamental feminist and Nobel Peace Prize whose biography, for brevity’s sake, I won’t mention in this article) as secretary-treasurer to run its new headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
This article does not make justice to the work that the WILPF has been doing in over 100 years for peace and freedom. The aim of it, though, is to create awareness of the organization’s role during WW1. Not only these women advocated for their rights and freedom, they also fought for a global and fair peace worldwide. They represented a united front in a time of international division, sowed the seed of the creation of a supranational organization such as the League of Nations, and following their recommendations would have avoided us the unfair Versailles Treaties (and this could be pure speculation, but what if WW2 could have been avoided as well?). Nowadays the WILPF holds the consultative status in many UN agencies. The history, unfortunately, is full of stories of people, or groups of people, who dedicated their lives to peacemaking and ended up being shadowed by a bunch of more famous, often white and male ‘counterparts’. On today’s date, it is an honor to remember what the WILPF has done, and will continue doing, for peace and equality; beware though, the fight is not over.
“But fortunately we have seen something of this feminine will which revolts against war. Whenever women have organized, they have always included the cause of peace in their program. And Jane Addams combines all the best feminine qualities which will help us to develop peace on earth.” (From the Nobel Peace Price award ceremony speech, 1931)
Aurora Piergiacomi is a graduate who participated in the 2015 edition of School of Democracy. She is currently studying public and social policy & spanish at the University of Glasgow and has a strong interest in the Latin American region.