Beyond armistice: women searching for an enduring peace

Women peace activists meeting in Zurich in 1919 understood the capitalist system of profit and privilege as a root cause of war. Women said it then, and say it now, as they tackle the perennial question facing all peace-seekers: what policies can assure a peace that will endure?

Felicity Ruby Edith Ballantyne
1 September 2014

When more than a thousand women from twelve belligerent and neutral countries met in congress at The Hague in the midst of World War I, they failed in their mission to bring an end to the conflict. But they determined to come together again, whenever the war should end, to shadow the meeting of victors that would settle the terms of peace. This meeting  eventually took place in June 1919, in Paris. However, because the German and Austrian women were not permitted to enter France, the men met in Versailles, while the women's congress was relocated to Zurich, Switzerland. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced while they were there, and these women were among the first in the world to react publicly to its vindictive terms.

That Zurich gathering of 1919 is particularly instructive for the peace and women’s movements of today. It tackled a tough, perennial question facing all peace-seekers. What forward-moving policies, beyond and after mere 'armistice', can assure a peace that will endure?

The women were scathing of the punitive terms that issued from Versailles, convinced that they sowed the seeds of yet more war - and they would prove right.  As British delegate Ethel Snowden put it, 'Germans have to pay five thousand million of British pounds, an incomprehensible sum which they cannot and ought not to pay…The capitalists and imperialists of the conquering countries are compelling German men and women to pay for their own miserable exploits.' And pay they did - long and heavily. The reparations payments were envisaged to end in 1983, but  it was not until October 2010 that the final payment was made.

Letters home from the American women at Zurich in 1919 exclaim at the scarcely recognizable faces of their friends from the defeated countries, for many of them were painfully thin and gaunt. Their hunger derived not from the privations of war but now, one year into the 'peace', from the  food blockade imposed by the Allies. Alice Hamilton wrote from the conference, 'Food is a subject that has never left my mind for a day since I came here.'

The 1919 Zurich gathering is where the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom first took its name. You could say the League was born out of profound dismay at the unjust outcome of Versailles. A worn old volume is our one extant copy of the report of that conference. Holding it in our hands as we prepared this article, we saw anew just how central had been the women's preoccupation with economic issues. The report summarizes the speeches and debates among the women in the several committees into which they divided, each to consider the resolutions and material before the conference from three different points of view; the first was political, the second adopted the lens of the status of women, while the third took the perspective of education, social and ethical questions. 

Ethel Snowden presented the draft resolution of the Political Committee, seconded by Jeanette Rankin, first-ever woman member of the US Congress. It stated, 'By the financial and economic proposals a hundred million people of this generation in the heart of Europe are condemned to poverty, disease and despair, which must result in the spread of hatred and anarchy (sic) in each nation'.

So it was the practical issue of economic justice that preoccupied the women at Zurich. Jane Addams telegraphed President Wilson in Paris demanding that the food blockade be lifted.  He cabled back that 'practical difficulties' and 'extremely uncompromising' attitudes in Versailles made him pessimistic.  Notwithstanding, the women issued a statement on the duty of world citizenship being an end to the starvation suffered in Europe and elsewhere.  They demanded that:

all the resources of the world, food, raw materials, finance, transport, shall be organized immediately for the relief of the peoples from famine and pestilence, just in the same way that all the resources of the allied countries have been organized for the relief of the people from 'the yoke of militarism', so that in this way a great demonstration be given that nations can cooperate and organize to save life as efficiently as they can cooperate and organize to destroy life.

Soon after this resolution was adopted, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence explained that information about the real post-war economic conditions was unreliable, and there was no clear method to deal with returning the world to normal trade and regulations.  She proposed a committee of WILPF experts on economic conditions and industrial dislocation be formed to collect information from governments, media, the Red Cross and other relief societies and actions taken by the Supreme Economic Council established by the Paris Peace Conference.

The women identified capitalism as the principal source of conflict between nations. Anticapitalist thinking was far from acceptable among the social class from which most of these women came. Yet, in a congress resolution in support of a League of Nations, it was the capitalist system, along with nationalist rivalry, that the women identified as the key challenge:

abolition of the rule of any class, and the gradual transformation in all countries of the capitalistic system, by the introduction of equal opportunity for earning and education, so that cooperation in the life of individuals and peoples may take the place of competition, and mutual help replace combat.  We affirm the rights of existence, free development and self-government for individuals and nations.

They called for free trade, the removal of all customs controls, complete freedom of communications, the adoption of a universal system of coinage, weights, measures and stamps and the just regulation of labour.

Economic analysis was inserted into WILPFs Constitution of 1926, with a reference to, 'economic justice for all, without distinction of sex, race, class or creed.'  This was adapted to a set of aims and principles that included, 'the establishment of a just economic and social order founded on meeting the needs of all peoples and not on profit and privilege.'  This was later upgraded to, 'WILPF sees as its ultimate goal the establishment of an international economic order founded on the principles of meeting the needs of all people and not those of profit and privilege'.

WILPF and other organizations working for peace have always found it relatively un-divisive to campaign against militarism and militarization. After all, it is hardly radical to do so. Ending the obscene waste of human and economic resources through military expenditure features in the UN Charter itself (see Article 26) and - even though it is seldom acted upon - is central to the brief of the Security Council.  Far more controversial than challenging the profits of military corporations and states' so-called 'defence' budgets, is pointing the finger at the system that produces, prioritizes and distributes economic resources towards these ends. 

When the USSR disintegrated and the Cold War ended, one celebrated author touted the notion of the ‘end of history’ - there would be no more strife over alternative modes of production. The idea was widely scoffed at, and did not take hold. Nonetheless, what has become widespread during the ensuing two and a half decades is the belief that 'there is no alternative’ to the system that won out over state communism - that we are stuck for all time with neoliberal global capitalism. The left everywhere has become disoriented. There have been encouraging surges of opposition to the policies of the IMF and World Bank, including the World Social Fora. 'Occupy' has challenged the oligarchs on behalf of the 99%. But these movements are proving painfully slow to grow and cohere.

This demoralizing sense of 'no alternative' has impacted on the thinking of the peace and women's movements too. Yet, we are resourced today with factual evidence of the economic oppression and inequality at the root of war, data of a scope and accuracy that the women of 1919 sorely lacked. The UN’s Human Development Report provides us annually with a clear picture of who profits and who lives in poverty.  The recent scandal of the so-called Global Financial Crisis has brought to view hard evidence of the subsidy made available to the financial institutions and individuals responsible, while a hyper-capitalism is imposed upon populations through austerity measures that attack public services, and on labour standards and conditions hard won over decades.

Today, given the palpable rivalry of corporate interests and their national backers for control of resources and markets, peace activism can scarcely afford to ignore the causality of capitalism in militarization and war.











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