If humanity is to survive for several more centuries, war must be abolished.
War conducted with modern weaponry will, sooner or later, devastate our planet. But wars are generally endorsed by political elites and can mobilize strong public support. Opponents of an ongoing war are frequently labeled traitors and chastised accordingly.
Women have often been in the forefront of struggles against war. An important example of this is the feminist struggle against World War I, which led to the “Open Christmas Letter” of 1914. When World War I started in 1914 the women’s liberation movements in most of the combatant countries split into a majority nationalist sector supporting the war effort, and a minority (often a small minority) pacifist sector opposing the war. The nationalist sector of the women’s liberation movement typically hoped energetic female patriotism would win significant political concessions for women.
In 1914 this political bifurcation occurred in England, France and Germany, all of which had notable women’s liberation movements. One of the first English women to speak out against the war was the eminent feminist Sylvia Pankhurst. To do this she had to break with her mother and sister, both of whom were keen supporters of the English war effort. At about the same time, a United States women’s rights journal published two letters from German female activists denouncing the criminal war and asserting that: “True humanity knows no national hatred, no national contempt. Women are nearer to true humanity than men.”
In response to these German letters Emily Hobhouse, an English feminist famous for her work against British concentration camps in South Africa, composed a peace-promoting letter which she called a “Letter of Christmas Greeting”. Hobhouse circulated this letter among English feminists of the anti-war persuasion obtaining 101 signatures including that of Gandhi’s wife.
The letter was about two pages long and said (among other things): “Is it not our mission to preserve life? Do not humanity and common-sense alike prompt us to join hands with the women of neutral countries, and urge our rulers to stay further bloodshed?” This Letter of Christmas Greeting was sent to German women via the United States, which was at the time a neutral country.
In the spring of 2015, 155 German feminists responded (again via the USA) to their English sisters writing: “women of the belligerent countries, with all faithfulness, devotion, and love to their country, can go beyond it and maintain true solidarity with the women of other belligerent nations, and that really civilized women never lose their humanity.”
The upshot of the Open Christmas Letter and the subsequent exchanges between feminists was a concerted effort for a negotiated end of World War One. The approach suggested by the anti-war feminists became known as the Wisconsin Plan because it was proposed by Julia Grace Wales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin.
According to this plan, a conference of intellectuals from neutral countries would draft peace plans based on two principles: 1) no country should be humiliated by the peace settlement, and 2) the settlement should not induce future wars. These peace-loving intellectuals would develop a series of plans based on these simple principles, and simultaneously negotiate with the warring nations until an mutually acceptable peace plan was found.
The Open Christmas Letter also produced an international peace conference of women. The conference was held at The Hague from April 28 to May 1, 1915, and was attended by over 1,000 female anti-war activists. The women’s peace conference endorsed the Wisconsin Plan as the most hopeful way of ending World War I.
Although the feminist initiatives associated with the Open Christmas Letter did not end World War I — the slaughter continued for three more years — these initiatives certainly strengthened the connection between feminism and pacifism. They also led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which has been an energetic force against war and militarism ever since.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs Fridays in the Colorado Daily.