CLIO TALKS BACK: The women’s peace petition at the World Disarmament Conference, Geneva, 1932

Records of the WILPF, Swarthmore College Peace Collection
Parading the petitions to the conference
A time-honored way for women in industrializing societies to express their political views or demand political change was by petitioning their governments, and later international organizations. Petitions demanding the end of slavery represented a significant number, as did petitions to end married women’s legal disabilities, to claim access to the vote, and ultimately to demand peace. A few examples follow.

In 1853, British women presented a petition against slavery, addressed to the women of the United States, and signed by 500,000 women. The organizers of this petition presented it to the famous antislavery novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1885, 15,000 women petitioned the Dutch parliament to put a halt to trafficking in women.

In 1919, Japanese women associated with the New Woman Association (Shin Fujin Kyokai) petitioned the parliament (Diet). They first demanded citizenship for women, including the vote. Then they called on the state to protect women by requiring men to be tested, before marriage, for syphilis, and permitting already infected wives to sue for divorce and collect monetary compensation for medical expenses incurred as a result.

In Europe, following the unprecedented killing and devastation of World War I, women activists from many countries, including some in which women did not yet have a vote, worked to understand the causes of war and to seek its prevention. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, devoted to outlawing war forever, gave them great hope, but the signers of the agreement seemed to honor it only by ignoring it.

In anticipation of the World Disarmament Conference (held in Geneva beginning in early February 1932), a joint Disarmament Committee of the Women’s International Organizations represented at the League of Nations launched a worldwide campaign to collect signatures for a huge petition for peace. They gathered signatures from eight million women in fifty-six countries around the world; of those, six million had been gathered by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (W. I. L. P. F.), headquartered in Geneva. Rosa Manus of the Netherlands coordinated this enormous effort.

On the sixth of February, 1932, the women’s committee delivered truckloads of petitions for peace and disarmament to the floor of the disarmament conference. This dramatic action, preceded and succeeded by public exhibit of the petitions, attracted considerable coverage in the press. The impact of this women’s initiative was heightened by news that Japanese planes were dropping bombs on Shanghai, China – a premonition of what might soon happen elsewhere in the world..
Records of the WILPF, Swarthmore College Peace Collection
Peace women walking to the Peace Congress, Geneva

Presenting the petitions on the floor of the assembly to a mostly-male audience, Mary A. Dingman, president of the World’s Young Women’s Christian Association, declared:

“Behind each of these names stands a living personality, a human being, oppressed by a great fear, the fear of the destruction of our civilisation, but also moved by a great will for peace, that cannot be ignored and must not be denied.”

The women organized a great demonstration that afternoon, and continued to sponsor events emphasizing their determination to forward peace.

Unfortunately the World Disarmament Conference failed to produce the desired results, and the build-up of armaments by many countries continued through the 1930s, ultimately erupting in what we know as World War II, where fighting took place in virtually every part of the world. The women of W.I.L.P.F., joined then and since by many other groups, continued to agitate for disarmament and peace, and still do so today.

Source: Miss Dingman’s remarks, as quoted in Adele Schreiber, “Woman at the Disarmament Conference,” Jus Suffragii, 26:6 (March 1932), 55. Jus Suffragii was the publication of the International Alliance of Women (known before 1926 as the International Woman Suffrage Alliance), one of the members of the Joint Committee of Women’s International Organizations represented at the League of Nations.

See also: Pax International 7:4 (March 1932). Pax International was the publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Online Exhibit of W.I.L.P.F. at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

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