The International Congress of Women convenes on this day in 1915 at The Hague, Netherlands, with more than 1,200 delegates from 12 countries—including Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the United States—all dedicated to the cause of peace and a resolution of the great international conflict that was World War I.
Often referred to as the Women’s Peace Congress, the meeting was the result of an invitation by a Dutch women’s suffrage organization, led by Aletta Jacobs, to women’s rights activists around the world, on the basis of the belief that a peaceful international assemblage of women would have its moral effect upon the belligerent countries, as Jacobs put it during her opening address to the conference on April 28, 1915.
With mourning hearts we stand united here, Jacobs told the assembled delegates. We grieve for many brave young men who have lost their lives on the battlefield before attaining their full manhood; we mourn with the poor mothers bereft of their sons; with the thousands of young widows and fatherless children, and 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. Over the course of the next three days, the congress worked out what they considered an alternative, non-violent form of conflict resolution, calling for a process of continuous mediation to be implemented, without armistice, until peace could be restored among the warring nations. This policy was set forward explicitly in a set of resolutions on May 1. The congress also marked the foundation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization that still exists today.
The American delegation to the congress in April 1915 included two future recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize: Jane Addams, the co-founder of Hull House, a social settlement that served as a welfare agency for needy families in Chicago, and Emily G. Balch, a sociologist who taught at Wellesley College. Another American delegate, Alice Hamilton, was a pathology professor and medical investigator who became the first female faculty member of Harvard University in 1919.
Other prominent international women who gathered at the Hague included Lida Gustava Heymann, one of 28 delegates from Germany; Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse and Chrystal Macmillan from Great Britain; and Rosika Schwimmer from Hungary. Notably absent from the International Women’s Congress were the French, whose government refused to allow delegates to attend the conference, although, as Balch later pointed out, the French women have been the earliest to actually form their national organization in support of the program worked out at the congress. Of the other belligerent nations, Russia, Serbia and Japan also failed to send any delegates to the conference. The British government, for its part, prevented most of its planned 180-member delegation from traveling to Holland by suspending regular commercial ferry service between the British port of Folkestone and the Dutch port of Flushing.