CLIO TALKS BACK: The Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague

Women convene at the Hague in 1915
One hundred years ago this month (April 1915), in the midst of a major war on the European continent, a contingent of women associated with the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) convened a congress in the Netherlands to discuss the prospects for peace. The previous fall, the IWSA had been forced to cancel its next congress, scheduled for Berlin, because of the outbreak of war. The initiative to meet in the spring came from women such as the pioneer Dutch physician Dr. Aletta Jacobs, who were concerned that the world’s women had no voice in matters of war – or peace.

The International Congress of Women, which met from the 28th of April through May 1st, 1915 in the The Hague, the capitol city of the Netherlands, made front-page news in the world’s newspapers. The American peace activist Jane Addams presided at the congress, which was attended by some 1500 women. Many others who had planned to come (especially from England) were blocked when the Allies “closed” the North Sea.

The organizing committee had decided, in the interests of fruitful discussion, to place “off limits” three burning issues concerning the war itself. These issues were (1) the causes of the war; (2) the manner in which it was being conducted; and (3) the responsibilities incumbent on the belligerent parties. It was clear enough that the German army had first invaded Belgium, a neutral country, and then France, and had occupied considerable territories in both; its soldiers had destroyed buildings and cultural property (including the famous library in Louvain), they had raped, pillaged, and plundered wherever they went – such misbehavior fostered immense public outrage once it was known (although the German women claimed to know nothing of this, probably due to heavy censorship of war news in Germany). So questions about the causes and consequences of the war were very controversial and evoked extremely emotional responses.

These issues would undoubtedly have made rational debate impossible, but they were also the issues which provoked the leaders of the major French feminist associations as well as their counterparts in allied England and those in Germany (whose armies had purposefully invaded Belgium and then France) to refuse to participate. In their “Manifesto addressed to the Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague,” the French feminist leaders argued that these three issues (causes, conduct, and responsibility) were precisely the issues that needed to be discussed. They refused to participate in the women’s peace congress unless their German counterparts disavowed and apologized for the actions taken by their country’s government and its armed forces.
“Have they disavowed the political and civil crimes committed by their government? Have they protested against the violation of Belgian neutrality? against the attacks on human rights [droits de gens]? against the crimes of their army and navy? If their voices have been raised, it was too weakly to be heard even faintly in our violated and devastated lands. We cannot renew our collaboration until, for them as for us, respect of the law will be the foundation of all social action.” 
And, the French women added:
“. . . is this the moment to speak about this future peace? None of us think so, and it is with a sad astonishment that we have found in your program [a call for] the conclusion of an armistice. How could we think of this, while our provinces are under the yoke of the enemy, when martyred Belgium stands before our eyes?” 
At the Women’s Congress, those who were able to come to The Hague were highly motivated to impress on the world that women’s enfranchisement, their full participation in political decision-making, would lead to the end of war as such. Following their deliberations and votes on a series of twenty resolutions, they formed delegations to speak to civil government leaders in fourteen European capitals about peace. They envisioned a “conference of neutral nations as an agency of continuous mediation for the settlement of the war.”

Many men declared openly that women should stick to their knitting and stay out of both national and international politics, but others praised this remarkable initiative, which represented the first major intervention of women in international affairs. One prime minister was reported to have said, concerning the proposal for an ongoing conference of neutral nations, that “Yours is the sanest proposal that has been brought to this office in the last six months.”

Many of the resolutions passed by the International Congress of Women would show up subsequently among President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points,” forming a basis for negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles after the Germans capitulated on 11 November 1918.

The French and German feminists finally resolved their differences in a closed meeting at Geneva in 1920, when the French accepted the German women’s apologies.

(1) “Manifesto addressed to the Women’s Peace Congress at The Hague by the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises and the Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes. To the Women of the Neutral Countries and the Allied Countries,” in La Française, no 346 (24 Avril 1915). Transl. Karen Offen. 
 (2) “Manifesto Issued by Envoys of the International Congress of Women at The Hague to the Governments of Europe and the President of the United States,” in Women at The Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results, by Jane Addams, Emily G. Balch, and Alice Hamilton (New York, 1915; reprinted in several recent editions). 
 (3) Towards Permanent Peace: A Record of the Women’s International Congress held at the Hague, April 25th – May 1st, 1915 (June 1915).