The Herstory of Women in Peace

This is the story of peacemaking by women.    

The recent growth and spread of women’s peacemaking is one of the most remarkable developments in human history. Women have offered nonviolent alternatives to resolving conflicts by violence. Women have always been peacemakers, but they have been constrained through most of history by masculine social restraints. The activity is universal, but the written record is unfortunately confined to Europe and North America until the nineteenth century. We welcome evidence for women’s peacemaking in every region.

In Medieval Europe, a few saintly women like St. Claire of Assisi provided courageous examples of nonviolent resistance. Not until the Renaissance did noble princesses possess the authority to stop wars, such as an event like the Peace of the Ladies in 1529. The Age of the Enlightenment brought to power a rare woman peacemaker, Tsarina Sophia of Russia, with the ability to achieve significant long-lasting peace treaties. The French and American Revolutions and a parallel movement in Great Britain brought a demand for equality of women, as in Olympe de Gouges’ declaration: “Woman is born free and remains equal to man.”

It was not until end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that women’s peacemaking began as a social movement. British and American women were closely associated with reform causes like the abolition of slavery. This led them to take unexpected public positions, and even speak in public. Their demands were radical, but their means nonviolent. Many of these women reformers were Quakers, whose Society of Friends encouraged women to speak the truth, and reject all violence. Brave women like Abby Kelley of Massachusetts had to assert the right to be heard, so the reform movement was closely associated with women’s rights, including the right to property, and ultimately the right to vote and hold public office (that was yet to come).

These pioneer women reformers knew that the means chosen for reform affected the result: violence bred violence. They deliberately chose nonviolent resistance over the traditional masculine violence. Thus, in 1838 the first nonviolence organization was created, the New England Non-Resistance Society, guided by the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. The women leaders of this Society pressed for the creation of a journal, The Non-Resistant, co-edited by Maria Chapman of Boston. Since this time, women have often taken the lead in teaching and practicing nonviolence.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the movement for women’s vote was closely associated with the quest for universal peace. With the beginnings in Britain and United States, this cause spread to the British dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. At the same time women suffragists advocated peace in the northwestern European countries of Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and France.

Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin from Switzerland founded the first known international women’s peace organization in 1868. The Italian pacifist doctor Maria Montessori pioneered peace education with her first Children’s School in 1907. The first Muslim women led by Fatima Mehtab joined their Hindu sisters with Kasturba Gandhi in the South African Satyagraha in 1913. Before the outbreak of the First World War, women had become recognized leaders of the peace movement. In 1906, Austrian Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her classic book “Lay Down Your Arms!”.

The progress of the peace movement made the outbreak of war in 1914 seem unthinkable. Suffragists like the Pankhursts in Britain were among the strongest opponents of war, challenging conscription and militarization of society. On the continent, Socialist women like Rosa Luxemburg strongly opposed the war as an inherent part of the capitalist system. Women in the neutral states of Netherlands, Switzerland, and Scandinavia looked on in horror, knowing that there was a realistic alternative to the barbarism of the slaughter.

The loss of over 10 million lives and terrible destruction of the First World War greatly intensified women’s involvement in a quest for a nonviolent alternative to war. In the midst of the slaughter, over 1100 women from all of Europe and North America gathered at the Hague Peace Palace in 1915 and sent women to appeal in person to the rulers of the warring powers.

Although these women’s appeals failed, and their advice for a peace without revenge was ignored, the meeting led to the creation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1919). WILPF became the leading women’s peace organization of the interwar period, promoting disarmament, abolition of war, and removing the causes of war. Its leading founder, Jane Addams was the second woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931, followed by her cohort Emily Balch in 1946.

WILPF was far from the sole source of women’s peacemaking in the interwar period. Madeleine Vernet took a more radical stance than WILPF in her League of Women Against War 1921. Dorothy Buxton began Save the Children in 1919; Carrie Chapman Catt founded the antiwar League of Women Voters in 1920; she and Jessie Jack Hooper organized the Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in 1924; Fannie Witheerspoon, Tracy Mygatt and Jessie Hughan were founders of War Resisters League in 1923; Dorothy Day founded the pacifist Catholic Worker in 1930.

Although during the interwar period diplomacy and foreign affairs were still male domains, women gained positions in the League of Nations. Rachel Crowdy of Britain ran the Secretariat from its inception in 1919. Three Scandinavian women were delegates to the League’s first session in 1920. Anna Bugge-Wicksell was given a position on the League’s Mandates Commission, which oversaw colonial trusteeships, an unacknowledged concession that voices of women were important in welfare of former colonies. Nobel Prize winner in physics, Marie Curie and the Norwegian biologist Kristine Bonnevie served on UNESCO’s predecessor, the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation.

Thusfar, the record of women’s nonviolent resistance was largely confined to North America, Western Europe and British dominions. But women led peaceful demonstrations against foreign domination. In Egypt Huda Sha’arwi opposed British rule in 1919. In India, Gandhi encouraged women like Sarojini Naidu to lead nonviolent protests.  

Women peacemakers had foretold that the Great War to end all wars would lead to more war. In the interwar period pacifist woman proposed diametrically opposed approaches to peace. Virginia Woolf’s absolute rejection of war contrasts with Eleanor Rathbone’s advocacy of collective security. This division is mirrored in the views of South American stateswomen Marta Vergara and Dr. Paulina Luisi.

After World War II, peace between nations was short-lived, as male leaders let fear dominate politics. By 1946 the Cold War had begun, a nuclear arms race between the Eastern and Western Blocs. Women’s organizations tried to maintain international friendships, and find ways to avoid nuclear war, but their gatherings were soon divided by ideology.  

While the Cold War went on for over four decades, hope was maintained by the rapid increase and worldwide spread of the only effective alternative to the age-old male resort to war, nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance has taken on many faces, including but not limited to opposition to nuclear war; resistance to militarization and rearmament; ending civil wars; opposing dictators; assisting in recovery from war; and combating root causes of war such as racism, poverty, and destruction of the environment. Although nonviolent action is not always successful, it has resulted in far less loss of life and property than war.

In the West, women’s reactions to nuclear war was carried out by raising opposition to nuclear weapons, notably Peggy Duff’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958; Eva Nordland’s Peace Marches of 1981-2, and Australian physician Helen Caldicott’s Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament in 1982. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, women’s protests against the threat of nuclear weapons were mostly in vain. In the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Sri Lankan stateswomen like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister (1960), have tried to avoid taking sides, fearing the real possibility of nuclear holocaust.

In response to the escalating nuclear arms race, women created new ways of peacefully protesting: British women took on a nonviolent siege of the military base at Greenham Common in 1981; similar women’s encampments were made in 1983 at the Italian women’s Cobweb Peace Camp at Comiso, while in the U.S. women staged the American Seneca Peace Camp (1983-1994), as well as the the Puget Sound Camp planned for 2017.

Other nonviolent protests were carried out by women who took leadership roles in opposing militarization and rearmament of defeated Axis powers in the aftermath of the second World War: Tano Jodai protested in Japan (1921-1965); and Petra Kelly led the Green Party in Germany (1979). Women were also leaders opposing imperialism, for example, Gandhian Vijaya Pandit was active in India (1921-1930), Dr. Alieda Guevara, daughter of Che Guevara worked in Cuba (1985-6), and Assia Djebar was involved in Algeria (1962). In addition, illegal military occupation has been opposed by women leaders in the Western Sahara. Women such as Djimi elGhalia (1981 to present) have been involved in Morocco, Hanan Ashrawi (1974) in Palestine, to name just a few peaceful female protesters.

The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought no peace, but multiple ruinous local wars, all strongly opposed by women, to little effect. The 2000 millennial demand of the UN Security Council in Resolution 1325 for more use of women in peacemaking, prevention, and recovery had little response, except for the token appointment of two women to the Colombian peace talks.  

Throughout history, dictators have often been opposed by women leaders. During WWII, such examples include: Magda Trocmé in occupied France, Sophie Scholl in Germany, and teachers in Norway who resisted Hitler. Asmaa Mahfouz and other brave women protested human rights violations, poor working conditions, and low salaries in the precursor to the 2011 Egyptian Spring.

Jenni Williams of Zimbabwe has carried on her protests against President Mugabe despite multiple arrests and imprisonment (2002-2012). Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became head of Myanmar after decades of protest against military rule (2015). Michelle Bachelet became president of Chile (2006-2010; 2014 to present) after torture by the Pinochet regime. The most recent success has been the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in Tunis in 2011 with leadership from women like Lina Ben Mhenni.

Probably the greatest peace achievements of women have been in ending civil wars. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for their role in Irish peace in the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their role in ending the war in Liberia. Bahia Hariri was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her labors to end the Lebanese civil war (2005). Luz Mendez de la Vega was the only woman to sign the Guatemalan Peace of 1996. Women have also been keys to ending civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Women have been important contributors to recovery after wars. Aloisea Inyumba demonstrated that women can help recover from genocide in Rwanda (1994). The pioneering South African Peace and Reconciliation initiative in which Pumla Godobo-Madikezela took part has had successors in women’s participation in post-conflict reconciliation in Chile, Guatemala, and the Balkans.

Racism has been one of the major causes of war, and women have had a prominent role in using nonviolence to oppose it. Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash were among the many leaders of the American civil rights movement (1954-1968). The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa was led by a Muslim woman Fatima Meer, by Black native Albertina Sisulu, and white writer Nadine Gordimer. Women have been among the leaders for indigenous rights of Australian aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, and Canadian First Nation peoples.

Protection of the environment has always had a close connection to peace. Women have used nonviolent resistance to prevent environmental damage, as in Amrita Devi’s tree huggers (1730), Arundati Roy’s protest against the Narmada Dam (1990s and 2000s), and Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement (established by Maathai in 1977). Wangari also won a Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of the connection between destruction of the environment and resulting war because of loss of resources.  She maintained that planting trees and habitat enhancement would lead to peace.

Great progress has been made with women’s efforts, but the goals seemed to recede in the face of the reality of climate change and the devotion of greater resources to arms, and the proliferation of wars.

Countless women have made significant progress in removing other causes of war including poverty, disease, exploitation, and ignorance. Dr. Nafis Sadik led the UN effort in family planning (1990). The Gandhian, Ella Bhatt was honored for her protection of female farm workers (1977-present). Sadako Ogata spent a decade rescuing refugees from the Rwanda genocide (1994) and from wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia (1991-2001). Ertharin Cousin, most recently the Executive Director of the World Food Programme leads efforts to end hunger and famine (2012-2017).

Women have also pioneered in education for peace: Gladdys Muir began teaching peace at the college level in 1947; Hannah Newcombe started the Canadian Institute for Peace Research in 1961; Elise Boulding promoted international academic study of peace, and is called “The Mother of Peace Education”; Betty Reardon, another peace pioneer, founded the International Institute on Peace Education and believed that peace education starts in primary school.   

In the millennial year 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 called on nations to make greater use of women in ending, recovery and prevention of wars, but progress has been slow. More wars have been started, leaving unfinished sources of additional war. The threat of nuclear destruction is barely recalled, as the possessors of these lethal weapons improve their efficacy, setting a poor example for non-nuclear states. Nations continue to promote the profitable sale of weapons. Women of every land are protesting this terrible state of perpetual war. They offer the life-giving alternative of peace by nonviolent means. We hope that this data base of women peace makers with their creative ways of resisting war will inspire more women (and men) to wage peace.