The Origins of Women's Peace Campaigning: Helen Rappaport Charts the Early Efforts of Campaigning Women to Outlaw War. (Cross Current)

By Rappaport, Helen | History Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Origins of Women's Peace Campaigning: Helen Rappaport Charts the Early Efforts of Campaigning Women to Outlaw War. (Cross Current)


Rappaport, Helen, History Today


THE UNLEASHING of therecent `war against terrorism' has once more rekindled the pacifist protest of women, a protest that might seem to many a modern-day phenomenon, born of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. But although such protest has certainly been at its most vocal in the last forty years, an aversion to war was expressed publicly by a woman as long ago as 1408, when the Italian poet Christine de Pisan lamented the never-ending Hundred Years' War as a universal tragedy, arguing that `there is nothing for which wisdom is more necessary than war ... For there is no fault made in any matter less reparable than that which is executed by arms'. It was after the French Revolution, however, and with it the emergence of women's protests about their lack of political, social and economic rights, that their voices were increasingly raised in calling for an end to war and militarism.

It was women's widespread support in Britain and the USA for the abolition of slavery that gave them their first taste of activism. Abolitionism had sprung, in large part, from the burgeoning non-conformist movement. In particular, Quaker tradition, with its unifying sense of humanity's spiritual oneness, had laid the cornerstone of much early pacifist campaigning. Quakers totally rejected war, which they saw as arising from covetousness and greed. Sharing a conviction that humanity could be redeemed from its sinfulness and war-mongering only through the power of Christian love, from 1660 onwards they had begun adhering to their own `peace testimony'. It was also the Quaker community that recognised the equality of the sexes before God, and encouraged women to preach alongside men; the prison reformer and pacifist Elizabeth Fry, for example, was acknowledged as a minister by her own Barking Monthly Meeting in 1811.

The nineteenth-century pacifist tradition was characterised by support from men and women from radical liberal circles (many of these based around non-conformist families such as the Brights, Peases, Sturges, Gurneys and Frys). The first peace societies had in fact been organised in America, on a local scale, in 1815. In June 1816, a Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace -- soon to be generally known as the Peace Society -- was set up in England by Quakers. From the outset, women made up about ten per cent of the membership, but they encountered the same obstacles as in the abolitionist movement. Male leaders, adhering to the conventional view of women occupying a separate and private, rather than public, sphere from men, denied them a voice on committees and in debates.

By the time the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833 in Britain, many women abolitionists and pacifists had already made the natural progression to Chartism and the anti-Corn Laws campaign. The free-trade concepts of a wider and more democratic world community led men such as the radical and pacifist Richard Cobden to look beyond nationalism and sectarianism toward a comprehensive, universal movement for peace, which many women endorsed.

During the 1850s the Peace Society, by now the prime mover in pacifist lobbying not just in Britain but on the Continent, finally responded to repeated calls for women's auxiliary groups, allowing its women members to establish `Olive Leaf Circles'. These did much valuable fund-raising behind the scenes, although some members, `such as the radical Quaker Anne Knight objected to her sex being relegated to `prick our fingers to the bone in "sewing circles" for vanity fair, peace bazaars, where health and mind equally suffer in the sedentary "stitch, stitch, stitch" ...'.

By now, continental peace congresses were being held on a regular basis, yet still the social conventions of the day persisted in excluding women, except as observers. Frustrated by this, they started discussing the establishment of their own internationalist alliance of women.

In 1851 the Peace Congress Committee finally acceded to demands for the greater involvement of women, and mooted the idea of there being female delegates to a congress planned for London that July.

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