A Brief History of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
Like the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) began out of the horrors of the First World War. It also grew from the first wave of international feminism. As women in Europe and North America were struggling for the vote (suffrage) and equal rights with men, they also were leading the way to more just and compassionate societies. Many of the women involved in the struggle for women’s rights had also been part of the movement to abolish slavery and some were still struggling for equal rights for minorities. Many were working to end child labor and for better housing and working conditions for the poor. They also worked for international peace. In fact, it was widely believed at the time that women would more likely vote for peace and against war–this was an argument many feminists themselves used–that femalWhioe suffrage would transform the world because women were more naturally just and compassionate and peaceful than men. (This belief in female moral superiority was also used by men to argue AGAINST female suffrage.)
While subsequent history has proven that women are just as fallen and sinful as men are, it is true that the early feminists were also campaigners in many moral and social causes, and none more so than the budding peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Thus, the eruption of the First World War in 1914 was seen as a horror and a huge mess by many of these leaders. True, some women rallied round the flags of their various nations–reverting to nationalist militarism–and others, like Alice Paul, used the contradictions of a supposed “war for democracy” when women did not have the vote to put pressure for passage of women’s suffrage. But for many of the leaders of this first wave feminism, stopping the war became the most essential cause of their lives.
The war began in August 1914. In April, 1915, some 1300 women from Europe and North America, both from countries at war with each other and from neutral countries, gathered for a Congress of Women at the Hague in the Netherlands. They were responding to the call of Dr. Aletta Jacobs, M.D., a Dutch suffragist and feminist, who urged that women concerned for peace come to the Hague. The purpose of the Congress of Women was to protest the killing then raging throughout Europe–which would soon spread to Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa and would draw in the United States as well. The Congress issued some 20 resolutions: some short-term such as calls for cease fire and resolution by binding arbitration from neutral parties, and others with more longterm goals–to lay the foundations to prevent future wars and produce a world culture of peace. They called on all neutral nations to refuse to join sides in the war, to pressure the belligerant nations to cease fire and to pledge to help solve their differences through binding arbitration. They called for a league of neutral nations (an idea that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would later use in his argument for a League of Nations–in fact, most of Wilson’s 14 point peace plan came originally from the Congress of Women’s 20 resolutions!).
At the end of the Congress, the women elected small teams of delegates to take the messages of the conferences to the belligerant and neutral states of Europe and to the President of the U.S.A. These delegations managed to visit 14 countries (during wartime!) between May and June 1915. They also decided to form themselves into a permanent organization with an international headquarters and national branches. This beginning of WILPF was first called the International Women’s Committee. They elected Jane Addams (1860-1935) of the U.S.A. as the first president of the Congress and as the delegate to Pres. Wilson. Addams was already famous throughout North America and Europe as a pioneer in what today would be called social work and community organizing. (See Hull House.) Addams had been raised a Quaker, though her father had served in the U.S. Calvary and was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. The adult Addams left her Friends meeting, tried for a time to be a Unitarian (because of their greater acceptance of male/female equality), but eventually became a baptized member of the Presbyterian Church. She had been elected to the Chicago City Council on a reform ticket. Upon returning to the U.S. from the Hague, she not only presented the views of the Congress to President Wilson (who, as I said, “borrowed” heavily from them when he formed his own peace plan), but formed the Women’s Peace Party to try to keep the U.S. out of the war.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the rights of pacifists and conscientious objectors were greatly trampled. Speaking out against the war was prosecuted as treason, as was counseling draft resistance or even refusal to promote the buying of war bonds! Freedom of the press and speech were greatly curtailed–even ignored–during the war fever. Addams, who continued to protest the U.S. involvement in the War, did not end up in jail as so many, but she had her passport revoked and lost much of her prestige, attacked in the press. She was kept a virtual house prisoner for some time. Addams’ younger associate, Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) lost her post as Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College due to her refusal to support the war or sign a loyalty oath. Other International Women’s Committee women in other countries faced similar or worse hardships, some even being thrown into prison for the duration of the war.
When the war ended in 1919, the International Women’s Committee attempted to be true to its promise to hold a parallel Congress to the official peace meetings of the belligerant nations. Because the French government would not allow German delegates to meet in France, the IWC’s Congress met not at Versailles as they’d planned, but in Zurich, Switzerland. A small number of women “ran shuttle” from the Zurich meeting to the governmental deliberations at Versailles–though they do not seem to have made much of an impact. The Treaty of Versailles was so brutal in its treatment of Germany and other defeated nations that historians widely credit it with sowing the seeds of the rise of Naziism and the Second World War. The Women’s Congress denounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as revenge of the victors and correctly predicted that it would lead to another global war. They decided to make the International Women’s Committee permanent, called it the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and stated its purpose as “to bring together women of different political views, and philosophical and religious backgrounds, to study and make known the causes of war and to work for a permanent peace.” That remains the purpose of WILPF to this day.
In 1922, WILPF tried to get the League of Nations to convene a World Congress to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles at a “Conference on a New Peace.”
In 1924, correctly seeing the development and global sale of arms as a major cause of war, WILPF worked to mobilize scientists to refuse to work on weapons of war or on projects funded by the military.
In 1927 WILPF first went to China and Indochina, moving beyond the European and North American scope of its concerns.
In 1931, first WILPF president Jane Addams, now in failing health, was belatedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was too ill to travel to Oslo to receive it. (Addams would finally die in 1935.)
In 1932, WILPF delivered over a million signatures for complete global disarmament to a disarmament conference.
From 1940 to 1945, WILPF found ways to aid victims of fascism, Naziism, and Japanese imperialism.
In 1946, WILPF was at the founding of the United Nations and pushed for the concept of mutual security–urging that security be based on justice and freedom from want, rather than on military might and prestige. WILPF gained official UN status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at that founding meeting of the UN.
In 1946, Emily Greene Balch, first International Secretary of the WILPF, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1958, WILPF sent missions to the Middle East. In 1961, WILPF convened the first of many meetings between American and Soviet women to break down the barriers of the Cold WAr.
From 1963 onward, WILPF was a major force urging an end to the Vietnam War, undertaking investigative missions to North and South Vietnam. In 1971, they went to Chile, where the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) had just toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed military dictator Pinochet, to investigate Pinochet’s human rights abuses.
From Northern Ireland to the Middle East to East Timor, WILPF has been a force for peace. With an International Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, WILPF has a UN Office in NYC, and national “Sections” on every continent except Antartica. There are 36 national Sections in all. WILPF works on peace, disarmament, racial justice, economic justice, environmental health, the democratization of the United Nations (especially the reform of the Security Council), defense of human rights. It also pushes for greater roles for women in negotiating peace treaties since women and children are often disproportionally affected by war and conflict. And it recruits young women peacemakers for the next generations.
As WILPF approaches 100 years of work (2015), it’s vision is still that of its founding:
- the equality of all people in a world free of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
- the guarantee of all to fundamental human rights including the right to sustainable economic development
- an end to all forms of violence: rape, battering, exploitation, military intervention, and war.
- the transfer of world resources from military to human needs, leading to economic justice within and between nations
- world disarmament and the peaceful arbitration of conflicts through the United Nations.
The U.S. Section has a Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA) that focuses on peace education among children.
In addition to Nobel Prize winners, Addams and Balch, WILPF has had numerous amazing members and leaders including Coretta Scott King, Phyllis Bennis (whom I suggested as Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, though no one took me seriously), Evelyn Peak, Dr. Elise Boulding, and many others. I urge women who read this blog to check out WILPF and its national sections and men to pass this page on to the powerful peacemaking women in your life.
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