Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Women’s organization reaches centennial birthday

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom grew out of an era of mass social reform and war.

By Jon Overton

The early 20th century was a turbulent period in world history. Centuries-old empires in Eastern Europe and the Middle East were collapsing, social unrest and revolutions were sweeping across the world, and World War I left Europe in shambles. It was in this era that the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was born.

At the Iowa Peace Network Open House in December, Doris Covalt shared the history of this now century-old women’s organization.

For several decades, middle class women in the West had been active in social reform movements from antislavery to workers’ rights to prison reform.

“Women soon became aware of their own lesser status, and by the first decade of the 20th century, there was a well-organized movement of women demanding the vote in the United States and most countries in Europe,” Covalt said.

As a result, women started seeking the right to vote, giving rise to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in London. The suffrage movement split when World War I began in 1914. Some thought women should support the war effort, while others believed that they should advocate for a peaceful resolution.

Those who sought a mediated end to World War I set up the Hague Congress in Holland, a neutral country during the war. Members of feminist groups from 12 nations met at the conference. It was from this meeting that the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom eventually emerged.

“The publicity, including the press was very negative about this,” Covalt explained. “The women were portrayed as misguided, hysterical, foolish women who think they should have anything to say about world affairs.”

Nevertheless, organized teams, including the prominent social reformer, Jane Addams, formed to lobby officials from both neutral and fighting states to reach an end to the war. They met with heads of government and foreign ministers to encourage them to start negotiations.

While the women were ultimately unable to prevent the war from slogging on for another few years, their efforts influenced the League of Nations (the precursor of the United Nations) and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

Decades later, the Des Moines chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom started in 1962 as the Vietnam War escalated and Civil Rights Movement gained momentum.

Today, the Women’s League focuses on environmental protection, social justice, and opposing war.

Its members “host conferences, hold demonstrations and marches, write letters-to-the-editor, lobby the state legislature, contact local, state, and federal legislators on a variety of social and environmental issues.”

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology.

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