Event, General, Politics, Source, Women's History

A Century of Feminist Foreign Policy – Looking Back for Help Today



In April of 1915, in hopes of stopping World War One, 1,300 feminists from twelve countries representing both sides of the conflict held a historic summit at the Hague – raising their voices against the unbelievable carnage taking place at that moment 104 miles away in Ypres, Belgium.  After mourning the young men who had lost their lives on the battlefield, Dutch physician and key coordinator of the conference, Aletta Jacobs said, “we feel that we can no longer endure in this twentieth century of civilization that government should tolerate brute force as the only solution of international disputes.”

Out of this meeting the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF, now celebrating it’s 100th Anniversary) was born – with a vision of holistic peacemaking through full rights for women, world disarmament, racial and economic justice, an end to all forms of violence, and the establishment of political, social, and psychological conditions which can assure peace, freedom, and justice for all. They immediately sent delegations of women to several countries to plead for an armistice and mediation, and their final resolutions are often credited with influencing Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

For a century, the women of WILPF have been actively influencing local and foreign policy and inspiring generation after generation of new feminists. WILPF’s first International President Jane Addams, who dedicated her life to fighting for women’s suffrage and world peace, was ultimately received by President Woodrow Wilson and became the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her determination and global impact. Emily Greene Balch, WILPF’s first International Secretary, received the same prestigious award in 1946 in part for warning against fascism, and criticizing the western democracies for not attempting to stop Hitler’s and Mussolini’s aggressive policies.

Since those formative years, WILPF has organized dialogues between women in the Middle East, sent delegations of women to North and South Vietnam to oppose the Vietnam War, and worked closely with the UN nearly 15 years ago to establish the first women, peace and security resolution (UN Security Council Resolution 1325) to ensure women’s full participation in all conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict reconstruction processes.

Today, the organization counts thousands of members in 36 countries, acting as a unique hub for not only women of different cultures, but also activists concerned with militarism, human trafficking, violence against women, the environment, and more. It is this union of diversity that creates WILPF’s unique perspective that holistically understands the causes of conflict and what’s needed for peace.

With the centennial celebration upon us, it’s time to shine a light on the exceptional collective efforts of the women of WILPF. Events will be taking place around the world, but the main centennial event will be held where it all began, at The Hague from April 27 – 29, 2015 with an international conference during which WILPF’s International global campaign, Women’s Power to Stop War, will be launched. Featured speakers include the following inspirational global leaders:

  • Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Laureate whose efforts in the Liberian peace movement helped end the war and enable a free election in 2005, won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
  • Radhika Coomaraswamy, Lead Author of the UN Global Study on Women, Peace and Security who was previously the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Watch her comments on WILPF’s 100 years of work, made during her keynote address ‘Women Confronting Isis; Local Strategies and States’ Responsibilities’.
  • Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of WILPF since 2010 who previously served as the Head of Office in Bosnia with the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and later as the Head of Women’s Rights and Gender Unit of OHCHR.
  • Cynthia Enloe, a Professor and leading researcher in gender and international politics, interested particularly in the interactions of feminism, women, militarized culture, war, politics and globalized economics.

At The Hague event, WILPF members will also be presenting and voting upon an inspiring 16 page Manifesto, which declares:

“Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice. We choose nonviolence, as means and as end. We will liberate the strength of women and, in partnership with like-minded men, bring to birth a just and harmonious world. We will implement peace, which we believe to be a human right.”

Since WILPF’s inception, the world has experienced 224 wars. During that same timeframe, women won two important struggles for human rights. The first, of course, was the right to vote in 1920; the second, the right to reproductive freedom in 1972. Jacobs, and the group that formed out of the Hague conference insisted then, and we insist now, on a third human right —the right to be at the peace table; to be part of the decisions to make war or keep the peace.  Fewer than one in 40 of the signatories of major peace agreements since 1992 have been female, according to the UN development fund for women. This needs to change.

Today, there are 50 ongoing violent conflicts resulting in 50 million refugees around the world, and untold death and destruction. The international trade of lemons and toothbrushes is regulated, but not guns and other weapons. Would the adoption of more feminist foreign policy and an increase in women’s participation in peace negotiations put an end to arms and conflict? Probably not. But the point is not to end conflict, but to resolve it without recourse to military violence. The world is missing a powerful opportunity for creating sustainable peace when it turns to military solutions and restricts the participants at peace negotiations to the men with guns.

Now that there is such widespread dismay at the inability of the United Nations to protect people from violence, perhaps it is time to rediscover some of the visions for world government and world law nurtured by feminists and pacifists from the early part of the 20th century – to raise women’s awareness of themselves as an important force for de-militarizing international relations and achieving peace, stability and prosperity for all.

Mary Hansen Harrison (c) April 2015)

Mary Hansen Harrison is President of the U.S. Chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, celebrating its 100th anniversary in the month of April.


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