CLIO TALKS BACK: May Wright Sewall organizes the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace, 1915, in San Francisco, California

The International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace
A second women’s peace conference opened in San Francisco during the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. This exposition had been planned with the intention of announcing to the world San Francisco’s recovery from the devastating earthquake of 1906, and in May 1914 the President of the upcoming exposition, the Hon. Charles C. Moore, had personally recruited May Wright Sewall (1844-1920) to organize a conference of “women workers” (a term that included paid workers, educators, and other unpaid workers such as philanthropists and reformers).

May Wright Sewall, from Indiana, was internationally-known as a founder and past president of both the National Council of Women of the United States and of the International Council of Women (ICW, 1899-1904), and had long engaged in work for peace. For a decade she had chaired the Peace Section of the ICW. With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, Sewall turned the focus of the conference toward consideration of peace. In the conclusion to her call to conference, Sewall wrote: “War is out of harmony with all the agencies of modern Civilization. War destroys Civilization – War denies the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, those two basic principles out of which all that we most value in modern life has been developed.”

Mary Wright Sewall
The International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace opened on July 4th – Independence Day – 1915. According to official records, over 5000 persons attended, of which some 600 were from the Bay Area. Many more might have attended from abroad, but the war raging in Europe greatly hindered transatlantic travel, especially following the sinking of the great ocean liner Lusitania in early May. The accompanying photo shows Sewall (center) and members of her organizing group.

This conference followed on the heels of the International Congress of Women which had met at The Hague in late April (see Clio’s previous blog on this). What had changed was that in the meantime Jane Addams and others had organized the Women’s Peace Party, and Sewall quickly aligned her effort with the mission of the WPP.

Sewall reminded those in attendance of the the American suffragists’ “Second Declaration of Independence,” which had been presented at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. She anticipated a third such declaration at the San Francisco conference, which she called a “Declaration of Independence Against War.” As the concluding conference speaker, Sewall succeeded in snagging William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, who had recently resigned as President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. Hostile to the possibility of American intervention in the war, Bryan came out strongly in favor of national woman suffrage (California women had obtained the vote by state referendum in late 1911) and applauded women’s interventions for peace. “Men ought to vote for woman’s suffrage because they need the aid of woman to accomplish the things that ought to be accomplished.” . . . “I believe that one of the results of this great war, this awful war, . . . is the advancement of the cause of woman’s suffrage.” Men will vote for women’s suffrage, Bryan insisted, “not from ‘chivalry,’ not from a ‘sense of justice,’ but because they want woman’s help to stem the tide of militarism.”

The Preamble to the resolutions adopted by the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace read as follows:

“This Conference, organizing no new movement, represents the Spirit of Co-operation; and its members, adopting the Women’s Peace Party as their specific channel of influence, declare their desire to work with and in all existing societies whose object is the PEACE of the world.”

The Resolutions passed remind us of the unprecedented engagement of women leaders with issues of war and peace in 1915:

I. We women workers here assembled declare that this Conference is a protest against the fallacious doctrine that any nation can secure Peace by preparing for War.
II. We demand that patriotism be redefined, and that Greed, Arrogance and Rivalry, which are considered vices in individuals, be not accepted as virtues in nations, and to this end such changes in school books, in instruction and in patriotic observances as will induce loyalty to an international idea.
III. We protest against the misuse of public funds in all countries for the glorification of war, and against all insidious agencies through which militarism is encouraged in youth.
IV. We protest against military drill in all schools and academic institutions.
V. We declare that the time has arrived for crystalizing international sentiment into international institutions. Inasmuch as International Law is now only nominal, we demand that: (a) The people of the nations shall create an international legislative body, necessitating an international court and international police. (b) That there be further created an International Council of Investigation and Conciliation to which all international disputes must be submitted.
VI. This Conference endorses that resolution adopted by the recent International Congress at The Hague which provides for an international meeting of women in the same place and at the same time as the Conference of the Powers which shall frame the terms of the peace settlement after this war, for the purpose of presenting practical proposals to that Conference.
VII. We protest against secret treaties and demand that in future all treaties proposed between governments be made public before being ratified.
VIII. This Conference urges that women be permitted to share political rights and responsibilities both nationally and internationally.
IX. This International Conference urges a general, gradual disarmament of the nations.
X. This Conference recommends that the right of capture be abolished and that no disposition of territory be made contrary to the expressed interests and wishes of its inhabitants.
XI. This Conference urges that the governments of the neutral nations create a Conference of the Neutral Nations for the purpose of mediating between the warring Powers until Peace can be secured.

Source: See the conference proceedings edited by May Wright Sewall: Women, World War, and Permanent Peace (San Francisco: John J. Newbegin, 1915), 220 pages. Resolutions on pp. 164-165.