As well as the long fight to get votes for women, the Suffragette movement was also very much involved in peace campaigning.
I became aware of the extent of this when I was taking part in a monthly peace vigil against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. At the same time, I was researching conscientious objectors in the First World War for A Crimson Dawn, and I wondered if the widespread women’s movement for emancipation had been stopped by the outbreak of the Great War.
Anti-Suffrage politicians at the time were quick to call for an end to the campaign – it was seen as unpatriotic when “our brave boys” were involved in such a desperate struggle. That line sounds very familiar today, doesn’t it?
Yet many of the Suffragette groups did not disband. Many brave women stood up against the government’s jingoistic rhetoric, and kept in touch with their fellow campaigners in the ‘enemy’ countries. They saw the war for what it was – an imperialist expedition that was about grabbing colonies and resources. Ordinary people on both sides were manipulated into fighting in support of a system that kept them subjugated.
In 1915, some of these women even organised a peace conference. Aletta Jacobs (one of the first woman doctors) called the conference to take place in The Hague, and it became the foundation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The conference was attended by Suffragettes from the USA, as well as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence & Emily Hobhouse representing England, and Chrystal MacMillan representing Scotland. In all, there were 1136 delegates from 12 countries. After the conference, they personally lobbied various governments in London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Berne and Paris to sue for peace.
It’s a mark of how far they got under the skin of the political system, with Theodore Roosevelt describing them as “hysterical pacifists… both silly and base”, while Jane Addams was described in the Rochester Herald as,
“In the true sense of the word, she is apparently without education. She knows no more of the discipline and methods of modern warfare than she does of its meaning. If the woman conceded by her sisters to be the ablest of her sex, is so readily duped, so little informed, men wonder what degree of intelligence is to be secured by adding the female vote to the electorate.”
This sort of personal attack is a sure sign that you’ve got them on the run! Jane Adams was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace prize – the first American woman to be honoured with this award.