Important Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille
April is a month of contradictions, when the storms of winter give way to the glorious colors and light of the awakening earth in the northern hemisphere.
April 1 is the day of fools and of the Roman women’s festival of Fortuna Virilis. Presided over by Venus/Athena, Goddess of love, the festival of Fortuna Virilis promoted good relations between women and men.
There’s a connection here, because April is both a month of fools’ wars and of seeking peace. April marks the anniversaries of Martin Luther King’s plea for peace in Vietnam and of King’s death, and of the final US evacuation from Vietnam. April is the month when thousands of young men and boys were slaughtered at Gallipoli in 1914, and the month when in 1917, Montana’s Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin cast a symbolic vote against US entry in World War I.
April is the founding month of the forerunner of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), whose work continues today. WILPF was founded in 1915 as April’s flowers mixed with blood on the European battlefields of World War I. Women’s organizations had tried to prevent the war, and now they were trying to stop it. On April 28, 1915, women from 12 nations, including those already at war, gathered in The Hague, Netherlands. The demands of the International Congress of Women were clear and bold: continuous mediation by neutral nations to end the fighting, formation of a Society of Nations, general disarmament, peace education and women’s rights.
The women of The Hague, like generations of women before them, believed war to be a result of male aggression and competitiveness. Time and again, women as mothers and potential mothers protested sacrificing their sons to men’s wars. They railed against having to pick up the pieces of bodies and lives left shattered by battle. And they linked their own struggles for women’s rights with peacemaking. They firmly believed that with the power of the vote, they could participate in nations’ decision-making and end wars.
Jane Addams presided over the International Congress of Women. As cofounder of Hull House, the pioneer settlement house for immigrants, Addams was well known for her work in social justice and women’s rights. She would become the first president of WILPF in 1919.
Following the Congress at The Hague, delegations of women met with world leaders urging an end to the war. Many of the women visited battlefields to observe conditions there. Jane Addams herself reported that young men were drugged with alcohol to force them to fight. Many of the men told Addams they didn’t want war and “considered the older men responsible for it.” Newspapers and US government officials lambasted Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin and the peace women as unpatriotic subversives out to “demasculinize” men.
The carnage of World War I finally ended in 1918, three years after the Hague Congress. Women won the vote in 1920. But wars and wars’ aftermath continued, and so did women’s work for their own rights, social justice and peace.
As women’s peace movements continued to grow, so did opposition to their efforts. And it was clear that the enemies of peace also opposed women’s rights. The US War Department targeted women’s groups as Bolshevik-inspired. In 1922 it issued the infamous “Spider Web Chart” linking WILPF, the American Association of University Women, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Parent-Teachers Association and other peace-supporting women led organizations with an international Communist conspiracy set to undermine national security. Among the individuals on the chart were Jane Addams and Emily Balch, who together would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, despite continued vicious attacks on their patriotism.
In 1933, at the urging of WILPF and other organizations, a Congressional committee investigated the arms industry. The hearings documented huge profits by arms manufacturers during World War I, and the arms industry’s role in “bribing public officials to vote for higher military budgets and to collude in price fixing,” according to historian Amy Swerdlow.
It is another April. Flowers bloom once more. Fools’ wars go on. The profits of war continue. And the fathers join with the mothers as they still cry out for peace.
The author wishes to thank Barbara Drageaux for providing some of the information used in this article.
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