Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I
would write about an historical event that seems to have almost been forgotten
– or perhaps deliberately side-lined.
Delegates at the Hague conference. Jane Addams is second
from the left at the front.
Nine months to the day after the start of the First World War well over 1,200 women from all over Europe, plus Canada and the U.S., met in The Hague for the International Congress of Women. This conference had two major foci:
1. That international disputes should be settled by pacific means.
2. That the parliamentary franchise should be extended to women.
Of the thirteen nations represented at the conference only one – Norway – had extended the franchise to women at the time. Within five years of this conference votes for women had been extended in a further six countries. Two more had done so partially. Indeed, prior to the outbreak of World War 1 in only two nations in Europe was it possible for women to vote – Norway and Finland.
Women clearly understood the connection between political power and the possibilities for peace.
Newspapers of the time criticised the conference as “hysterical, base, silly, and futile.” Women from Germany, Austria, and Hungary were labelled “Kaiser’s cat’s paws” and denounced as German spies.
Despite these attacks and attempts to discredit, 1,136 women attended as delegates and several hundred more as visitors and observers. Hundreds more were unable to attend; either because they were stopped by government decree (as 150 or more from the U.K. were when the Home Office refused to issue passports) or were impeded by the lack of shipping because of the war.
Women who attended risked the opprobrium of families, the disavowal of friends, and the censure of their own governments. Far from succumbing to massive criticism and ostracism, Jane Addams1 (who presided over the conference) summed up the fortitude of the women when she remarked after the conference that:
“The great achievement of this congress is to my mind the getting together of these women from all parts of Europe, when their men-folks are shooting each other from opposite trenches. When in every warring country there is such a wonderful awakening of national consciousness flowing from heart to heart, it is a supreme effort of heroism to rise to the feeling of internationalism, without losing patriotism.”
The congress endorsed a document containing twenty resolutions ranging from protesting the violence against women, to the principles and process leading to peace.2 The document outlined steps necessary towards international cooperation and the need for pacific approaches to conflict resolution to be taught in schools. The role of women in peace processes was noted and included the call for all countries to extend the parliamentary franchise to women.
Participants at this congress did not stop with the endorsement of this document. Following the conference, the document was printed in English, French, and German and sent to European heads of state in May 1915. Furthermore, thirty delegates toured Europe from May until June speaking with political leaders and others. However, the fighting continued.
Today, many of the resolutions from this congress are used as guidelines for many diplomatic negotiations held between hostile nations.
It should be remembered that this conference was held at a time when conferences/congresses were very much the domain of men, and that travel by women (without male company) was largely frowned upon. Furthermore, at that time (in the middle of one of the most brutal wars in history) travel was extremely difficult. It is a tribute to the women who participated that they did so, and were not afraid to show their courage and determination.
Had those twenty resolutions been listened to, and adopted, by the European leaders of the time, the world today may well have been a far more peaceful and cooperative place than it is today.
It still could be, if women continue to stand up for their understandings, and if men would stop and listen.
1. Jane Addams was a leader in the U.S. suffragist movement, a founder of the profession of social work, an activist for world peace, and social reformer. She was once labelled “the most dangerous woman in America. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
2. A PDF of these resolutions is here: https://wilpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/WILPF_triennial_congress_1915.pdf