Today in London’s radical history: anti-war women’s meeting to plan Hague peace conference, 1915

The outbreak of World War 1 brought crisis and division in many of the movements struggling for a better world before the war. Socialists, anarchists, unions – many split bitterly as war propaganda and the frenzy of patriotism ratcheted up.

The suffragette movement faced similar angry divisions. All three of the main Suffragette groupings saw some support for the war effort, usually the majority, and a minority opposing the war, either on pacifist, or on internationalist grounds.

Controversies between the two clearly opposed groups within the National Union of Suffrage Societies, the largest, though not the best known or most prominent, suffragist organization, were sharpened by different notions concerning the preparations and proposals of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) congress in The Hague. NUWSS leader Fawcett unambiguously argued that talking of peace while the German soldiers were not driven back was betrayal. However, Catherine Marshall and Kathleen Courtney, influential members of the NUWSS, refused to follow the instructions of their president and in February 1915 they accepted an invitation from Aletta Jacobs to meet in Amsterdam. At this meeting, which also included the British Chrystal Macmillan, Emily Leaf and Theodora Wilson-Wilson, a Quaker, the Germans, Heymann and Augsburg, and some Belgian and Dutch members of IWSA, the programme of the congress to be summoned on April 28 1915 in The Hague was planned.

The inner clashes within the NUWSS culminated after the return of the British delegation from Amsterdam. Five enthusiastic British women came back from the Netherlands determined to do everything for the success of the congress. These women organized a women-only meeting in Caxton Hall for February 26th 1915. The meeting of the executive board of the NUWSS that took place on March 4 1915 launched a flood of resignations of many influential members. Courtney and Marshall resigned as secretaries and Royden as editor of the journal Common Cause. Courtney subsequently explained her decision: “I have some months felt strongly that the most vital work at this moment is the building up of public opinion on lines likely to promote a permanent peace and I am also convinced that such work is entirely in accordance with the principles underlying the suffrage movement [ … ] The Council, however, made it quite clear that they were not prepared to undertake work of this kind. They passed certain resolutions, it is true, but only on the understanding that they were not to be acted upon [ … ] To my mind, this refusal to do the work which the moment demands, it is also a refusal to recognise one of the fundamental principles of the Suffrage Movement.”

The atmosphere of the April meeting was very tense and even the usually reserved Fawcett expressed her bitter disappointment over the resignation of her co-workers; she was well aware that the successes of the NUWSS were largely a result of the hard work of these women. She particularly regretted the resignation of Marshall, whose delicate parliamentary and by-election work, where she achieved many successes due to her ability to come close to the members of Parliament, would not be easy to supersede.

In the following months the situation within the NUWSS became more acute because Fawcett and her co-workers – particularly Lady Balfour and Helena Auerbach – made an effort to prevent peace propaganda within the organization and to enforce a pro-war attitude. Their activities considerably aggravated the position of the internationalists who remained on the executive board of the NUWSS. The tense atmosphere within the NUWSS is well documented by the letter from Swanwick to Marshall on 22nd March:

“Mrs Fawcett wrote to offer to call on me here yesterday, so I invited her to tea and she came. I was absolutely blunt with her & told her that though we didn’t retaliate, she couldn’t expect us to sit under speeches like those she and Lady Frances had been lately dealing out to us – I tried to make her see that she couldn’t decently call her colleagues traitors & lunatics; but she just flushed & blinked & rambled away over all sorts of quite irrelevant things [ … ] just before she went I told her I intended to resign from the Executive & she implored me not to [ … ] I feel that so long as she dictates to the NU there is no place for me within it.”

According to the list compiled by Marshall at the meeting of internationalists of 9th May 1915, those who sharply refused to talk of peace were Fawcett, Lady Frances Balfour, Ray Strachey, Miss Palliser, Auerbach and Miss Atkinson. On the other hand, at this term resigned Ashton, Isabella Ford, Alice Clark, Courtney, Cary Schuster, Mrs Harley, Marshall, Leaf, Swanwick, Royden, Mrs Tanner and Mrs Stanbury

Organizing committees for the preparation of the Hague Women’s Peace Conference conference were formed not only in London, but the movement quickly expanded also to Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin. The number of applications to the congress at The Hague reached 180 delegates, including the representatives of all possible British women’s organizations. The Hague congress aroused great interest among the British women activists and few organizations criticized it. Together with the nationalists of the NUWSS, the suffragettes of Emmeline Pankhurst stood against the peace activities and condemned the Hague conference, declaring that it is necessary to defend France and “to prevent her being crushed by the over-sexed, that is to say over-masculine [ … ] Germany. This terrible business, forced upon us, has to be properly finished to save us from the danger of another war perhaps in ten years’ time”. Sylvia Pankhurst, who enthusiastically supported the Hague congress with other members of the East London Federation, was rebuked by the wealthy Lady Astor (who became in 1919 the first female Member of Parliament). She told Pankhurst she would not have provided the Federation with her valuable patronage if she had known Sylvia would attend the congress.

The British government was also irritated by the notion of so many women setting out to the war-stricken continent. On 16th April 1915 the delegates were refused permission to travel to Holland by the Permit Office; moreover the Permit Office cancelled even those permissions already issued:

“His Majesty’s Government is of opinion that at the present moment there is much inconvenience in holding a large meeting of a political character so close to the seat of the war.”:

Marshall immediately appealed to the Home Office, which promised her permission for twenty-four chosen delegates.

The Admiralty then coincidentally closed the North Sea to shipping, however, the women found out that one more boat was sailing the following day from Tilbury. The delegates on the authorized list made every effort to board that boat; even Ashton and Royden arrived from remote parts of the country at dawn. However, the authorities continued to postpone the issue of permission until no boat was available. The disappointed women lodged at a hotel near the Tilbury dockside and waited there for ten days until the end of congress; only then did they decide to return home.

In spite of these setbacks, the British women were represented at the congress by three peace activists; Macmillan and Courtney were already in the Netherlands and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence arrived, despite danger and postponements, with the American contingent. Schwimmer (a Hungarian working for women’s organizations in London) travelled independently via Scandinavia. These women joined approximately 1,200 delegates from many countries, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the United States, and predominantly, of course, from the Netherlands. German delegates were stopped at the border and only twenty-eight of them crossed.

The gathered delegates were welcomed by Aletta Jacobs. The most important decision of the congress was approved on the last day when Rosica Schwimmer proposed, instead of a written resolution, to elect envoys who would be sent personally with the resolutions of the congress to the heads of both belligerent and neutral countries. This proposal provoked strong resistance but the emotive speech by Schwimmer finally convinced the delegates to support it. Among other things she said: “lf brains have brought us to what we are in now, I think it is time to allow also our hearts to speak. When our sons are killed by the millions, let us, mothers, only try to do good by going to kings and emperors.”

From May 1915 two groups of envoys operated in Europe and America, appealing to the rulers of the leading world powers to stop the war and renew peace. The first group of women was led by Jane Addams and Aletta Jacobs. The second group, led by Schwimmer and Macmillan, negotiated with the Swedish foreign minister, who was willing to host a mediating conference if the women brought him notes from two governments, one on either side, announcing that such an initiative would not be unacceptable.

The envoys almost achieved their objective when the British and German foreign ministers agreed not to oppose such a conference. After Addam’s departure to the United States, Schwimmer also decided to sail to America where President Woodrow Wilson received them. Although it seemed the women’s envoys came near to achieving their purpose, no statesman dared to grasp their appeal and call a mediating conference.

In Britain, news from the congress arrived through a telegram sent by Courtney from The Hague; she announced that despite the absence of 180 British women the meeting was a great success. On 11th May a conference chaired by Marshall took place in London at Central Hall, where the delegates decided to found a new organization, which at its first annual general meeting in the autumn adopted the title Women’s International League (WIL). The society announced it would struggle for “linking together two movements felt to be vitally connected: the Women’s Movement and the Pacifist Movement”. WIL was founded particularly thanks to the support of the leading suffragists; Swanwick was elected as the chair, with Royden, Ashton and Courtney as her vice-chairs, Ford and Marshall became members

Of the executive committee. Yet the membership was much wider and was not confined just to the rebels of the NUWSS; within a year the membership of the WIL increased to 2,458 members affiliated in thirty-four branches.

This account is lifted from this great report on the British women’s peace movement in WW1

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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