Is war ever justifiable? A divisive issue for women peacebuilders

There is no greater challenge to principled pacifism than intolerable oppression. The surge of nazism and fascism made the 1930s a testing time for those who, like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom refused all military options.

Marie Sandell
9 June 2014

This summer, the centenary of the onset of the First World War, historians, the media and peace movements are delving anew into the political circumstances of 1914, asking how and why we allowed ourselves to be led into such an ill-judged conflict. This article jumps ahead to the 1930s when the threatening rise of the ultra-right in Europe and militarist nationalism in Japan foreshadowed a second World War. With little evidence of armed conflict abating, understanding the roots of war have become ever more important to peace movements’ work to eliminate the causes of wars. .

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom has its origins in the First World War, when more than a thousand participants from twelve nations divided by the conflict came together in a women's congress at The Hague in an attempt to bring leaders to the peace table. The League lives on today as a world-wide movement with sections in thirty-one countries. But, as the post-war moment of the 1920s traversed into the pre-war moment of the 1930s, its coherence and conviction were shaken by division and self-doubt. This time, impending war presented peace movements with a serious challenge to belief in total pacifism. When democracy and social justice were being extinguished around us, should the urgency of their defence override the pacifist principle? It is a period that merits careful review, for a similar dilemma faces us even now when tyrannical regimes, as in Iraq in 2005, Libya in 2011 and Syria today, give rise to calls for military action in the name of 'humanitarian intervention' by the 'international community'.

The viciously punitive terms of the 'peace' imposed on Germany and its allies in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, were fiercely condemned by WILPF, as by many others who feared, rightly as it proved, that the poverty and degradation imposed on the peoples of the defeated nations would lead to resentment, resurgence and a renewed threat of war. Indeed in 1922 WILPF organised a special Emergency Conference of women in The Hague to consider 'A New Peace', urging revision of the Peace Treaties.

During the 1920s WILPF’s message of peace, justice and equality resonated with many women and permitted good collaboration between organisations and with the League of Nations. In this period of expansion and optimism its membership grew.  By the end of the decade WILPF had twenty-eight affiliated national groups around the world. However, while 'peace' was a unifying force in the 1920s, it became a considerably more contested issue in the 1930s due to a deteriorating world situation. As members of WILPF, and many other international women’s organisations, worked tirelessly to prevent any further wars, the practical organisation of peace activism became more difficult. And here WILPF was not alone. Most international women’s organisations in Europe were badly affected. For example, most societies lost sections in Italy, Germany and Austria, and associations in Spain and Czechoslovakia were likewise practically inoperative in the 1930s. The totalitarian regime in Italy closed down  women’s societies and forbade women to attend conferences, while German branches were ordered to accede to unconditional submission  to the Führer, recognise the special tasks assigned to women by the Nazi State (i.e. mainly social welfare), exclude Jewish members from the National Board of Officers as well as from the boards of all affiliated associations and local councils, and accept the imposed appointment of Nazi women to leading positions. In Japan too, women’s organisations working for peace experienced difficulties.  

1930s:  Co-operation for disarmament

All the same, deteriorating international relations during the 1930s directed all international women’s organisations more firmly towards peace work, and in particular, the question of disarmament. Disarmament, a vital issue in itself, also had advantage as a campaigning theme over more general calls for 'peace' in that it clearly called equally on all parties to pull back from an arms race. Indeed, this activity resulted in new forms of interaction: greater collaboration between organisations, the widening of regional co-operation, and in particular increased liaison with the League of Nations. For example, in 1930, six women’s international organisations joined forces and presented to the League of Nations an ‘Appeal of Women to the World’s Statesmen’,declaring women’s anxiety for the future and the urgent need for peace work. The same year, a delegation of American, British, French and Japanese women urged substantial reduction in naval armaments at the London Naval Conference.

This upsurge in cross-organisational co-operation is best demonstrated by the disarmament campaign initiated by WILPF in the early 1930s, when it began a petition that was translated into eighteen languages, published and discussed around the world. The campaign grew as it was combined with similar efforts carried out by other organisations and enjoyed the backing of prominent peace activists, including Gandhi. At the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments which began in 1932 ( often referred to as the World Conference on Disarmament  millions of signatures of both women and men from around the world were presented by the representatives of women’s organisations from fifty-six countries.

Women’s extensive work for peace through disarmament during the 1930s received public recognition, and individual women were publicly honoured in a range of ways. Newspapers at the time highlighted how women occupied the centre stage at the League of Nations’ disarmament conference. In particular the appointment of Margery Corbett Ashby, president of the International Alliance of Women, as a substitute member of the British delegation received extensive press coverage. Moreover, in 1931, WILPF president Jane Addams received the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Notwithstanding all this press interest, few histories of the League of Nations credit the contributions made by women to the disarmament campaign and the 1932 Geneva Conference.  Some statesmen of the period, including Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister at the time, while interested in women's work for peace, also suggested that they were rather naïve in their quest for peace. Of course, opinions were sharply divided on the best course of action in dealing with the instabilities of the interwar years. WILPF, from the start committed to uprooting the very causes of war, including inequality, oppression and exploitation, stood out among peace organisations for its political (but not party political) approach to peace.   It often came under attack for its views and activism, and, especially in the USA, was targeted as 'Red' and 'unpatriotic'. Attitudes such as these, in addition to the already difficult political climate, made their work for peace especially challenging in the 1930s. Indeed, the impact of the disarmament campaign was limited, and the political and economic situation deteriorated further towards the end of the decade.

Division: is war ever justifiable?

WILPF and other international women’s organisations all believed that women had a special contribution to make to peace, justice and tolerance, and that their involvement in the disarmament campaign, in particular, was crucial. But these were delicate matters, which caused disagreement and division between and within organisations over what course of action to take. Within WILPF, the League’s principles were repeatedly discussed and debated during meetings and conferences. For example, already at its executive committee meeting in Paris in 1926 some national sections, including the American, British, Polish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, had expressed opposition to the strong wording of WILPF's objective, adopted at the 1924 Washington Congress, which opposed all war, including 'defensive war', a position that made it impossible for members to support the use of 'military sanctions' by the League of Nations as permitted by the Geneva Convention.  The Scandinavian sections also proposed a compromise to the effect that WILPF should accept as members 'educated people' who were  'interested in' pacifism, yet not prepared to support all WILPF's principles.

This debate continued in the League’s paper Pax, where  members joined with the Scandinavian sections in arguing for greater flexibility regarding new admissions, partly to be achieved by providing education on peace questions upon affiliation. Other members, though, stressed the importance of holding to WILPF’s original role of attracting women who were determined to fight for peace, internationalism and social justice under all circumstances. Strength in numbers, they believed was an illusion, if it came at the price of weakening the League's position in such a way that it no longer differed greatly from that of numerous other pacifist organisations - organisations which, they claimed, kept silent and even supported their war-prone governments at the moment of crisis. The opponents of a ‘softening’ of WILPF’s objective, in order to increase its membership,  included prominent members such as Dr Aletta Jacobs, one of the founders of WILPF.

WILPF was always bolder and more visionary than other international women’s organisations, and declared at its 1937 Congress that it sought a ‘New International Order’, far different from the existing situation characterised by disorder and chaos, in which not only individuals but states would behave according to moral laws. Yet, members continued to disagree on the matter of what action to take: while some members wanted to make bold statements, others preferred taking more prudent steps. As pointed out by Catherine Foster, the German and French sections, whose members were feeling the brunt of Nazi politics earlier and more directly than those in Britain, Scandinavia and North America, favoured intense action through an alliance with radical movements, for example the Bolsheviks. 

Thus, even though the WILPF managed to avoid an actual split, the organisation was undeniably weakened by internal disagreement during the interwar period. The Women's Peace Crusade a British umbrella organisation that included the British section of WILPF and affiliates of other international women's associations, was also faced with divisions based on whether or not to take political action, which usually involved closer co-operation with more radical left wing movements as well as more direct action such as strikes and violent demonstrations, as this move was seen as reducing their public appeal and the number of other organisations willing to collaborate with it. This also caused problems for the International Council of Women, whose leading members initially hesitated over whether or not to join the disarmament campaign, as its constitution prevented the organisation from giving its view on political issues such as these. Yet, the fact that the ICW did eventually join, highlights the degree of flexibility deployed by the organisations at this time because of the severity of the instabilities facing Europe.

Sustaining internationalism

At the same time as Europe's collapse into another war began to seem inevitable, demands for national independence elsewhere were destabilising Western empires, and in the process challenging many non-western women’s commitment to international feminism. The 1930s therefore saw a growth of regional co-operation among women outside the parameters of Europe, in the context of growing resentment against colonialism. For example, an All-Asian Women’s Conference was held in Lahore in 1931, and similar gatherings were also organised by Middle Eastern feminists in Damascus and Tehran. Meanwhile, most major international women’s organisations remained silent on the issue of imperialism, a choice that was clearly influenced by their non-political stance, as well as the fact that the topic seemed to have little relevance for western women, who continued to dominate these organisations. WILPF, by contrast, was markedly ‘progressive’ on international relations. Indeed, it was generally more accommodating of differences, not only in its support for anti-imperialism but also in its more radical stance on inequalities. Nonetheless, its peace work and international expansion were inevitably affected by conflicts and disputes in the non-Western context of colonial areas, which prevented local female activists from making full commitments to WILPF’s principle of opposing every kind of war.

Thus, by the end of the 1930s many female peace activists were disappointed by the general lack of an 'international spirit', and especially by the failure of the Geneva Disarmament Conferences. (Corbett Ashby resigned from the British delegation in 1935 over the failure of leadership and Britain’s refusal to support practical measures for mutual defence and security). This was described by a contributor to Pax, who argued that even though there was no shortage of international organisations and congresses, the spirit of international 'preparedness' was hollow and 'degraded to national interests' as compared with earlier times.

Yet, despite the complexities of the interwar period, WILPF’s commitment to transnational co-operation among women to end all wars and to establish equality between the sexes persisted. As another war approached and eventually engulfed Europe, WILPF's contribution to peace took on a more practical and humanitarian dimension that was nonetheless international: assistance to refugees. The League survived not only the challenging 1930s decade but the Second World War itself, and continues today, almost a hundred years from its foundation, to channel the energies of women worldwide in their bid to stop war.




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