Jane Addams: Peace, War, and World Order

1915 Hague Conference

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Delegates to the April 1915 Women's International Congress for Peace and Freedom aboard the Noordam with their blue and white "PEACE" banner

The Hague International Congress of Women (1915)

            In her capacity as president of the Women’s Peace Party (WPP), to which she was elected in January of 1915, Addams sets out to mobilize public opinion against the war by networking with like-minded organizations in the United States and abroad.  For instance, the Carnegie Foundation awarded the WPP a grant to support a Chicago theater company’s production of Euripides’ Women of Troy, a reflection on the absurdity of war, which was performed in Chicago and cities across the country.  Then, in March, a group of women’s peace advocates from Belgium, Britain, and the Netherlands, led by Aletta Jacobs, invited Addams and other WPP leaders to an international women’s conference, set for late April, in The Hague, Netherlands.  “The Congress was designed as a protest against the war,” writes Addams, “in which it was hoped women from all nations would join” (Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 9).

            The passenger ship carrying Addams and other American delegates set sail from New York in late April. The Noordam is delayed by the British navy off the coast of Dover for several days, ostensibly because the waters are deemed unsafe for passage.  (A German submarine sank the British passenger vessel the Lusitania on May 15, 1915, two weeks after the conclusion of women’s conference.)  During the delay, Addams gets a brief taste of the war, writing that she “faintly heard booming of canon, and saw air and marine craft of every conceivable make and kind” (Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 10).  (The northern end of the Western Front, along the North Sea border between France and Belgium, lay only a short distance away.) Addams had her doubts about the true reason for the delay, however, intimating that politics might be behind it. “The first English newspapers that came on board informed us of the sharp opposition to the holding of our Congress, lest it weaken the morale of the soldiers.  We were the ‘Peacettes’ and the enterprise loaded with ridicule of the sort with which we later became only too familiar.  During the three days that the ship hung at anchor there was much telegraphing to all the people of political influence whom any one of us knew in England and several cables were sent to Washington” (Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, 10).  Whatever the cause of the delay, the Noordam is finally allowed to proceed and arrives in Rotterdam with little time to spare before the opening of the Congress.

The Hague Congress and the Resolutions

            The International Congress of Women convenes in The Hague, Netherlands, from April 28 to May 1, 1915, about nine months after the outbreak of World War I.  An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 delegates attend from twelve neutral and belligerent countries.  According to Addams’ account, as police “filled the galleries” of the convention hall on its first day, the delegates, having been instructed to avoid the contentious matter of the causes of the war, set out instead to discuss and forge a consensus on the terms of a just peace settlement and the prevention of future wars.  A series of resolutions are drafted during the several days that followed.  Two propositions stand at the center of the Congress’ agenda.  The first calls for the peaceful resolution of international disputes and proposes that the neutral powers engage in non-stop mediation with the belligerent powers to end the war.  The second maintains that women ought to both enjoy equal rights with men, especially the right to vote, and actively participate in politics and government. 

I. Women and war

  • (1) A “protest against the madness of war,” which had resulted in the “reckless sacrifice of human life;”
  • (2) Acknowledgment of the “odious wrongs” committed against women as a result of the war;

II. Towards Peace

  • (3) The conditions of a peace settlement ought to include a “magnanimous and honourable” end to hostilities and the opening of peace negotiations; the requirement that the transfer of territories as part of a settlement have the consent of the people living there; that no country can be denied autonomy and democratic governance; the “democratic control” of foreign policy among all countries; a commitment among all to use “social, moral, and economic pressure” against countries that use force against others; an international agreement among countries to resolve disputes through mediation and conciliation; and equal political rights for women.
  • (4) The “continuous mediation” by neutral countries with belligerent countries. 

III. Principles of a Permanent Peace

  • (5) People have the right of self-government;
  • (6) Governments will resolve disputes between them through arbitration and mediation;
  • (7) The use by all countries of international pressure – in the form of “social, moral, and economic pressure” – against other countries that resort to the use of force. 
  • (8) The democratic control of foreign policy, including “the equal representation of men and women;”
  • (9) Equal rights for women, which will have a peaceful effect internationally because women are the “strongest forces for the prevention of war;”

IV. International Cooperation

  • (10) Without delay another international conference of women will be held following the war;
  • (11) The formation of a “Society of Nations,” including courts for arbitration and for the interpretation of treaties and the law of nations; a permanent institution, in which women are represented, that is dedicated to promoting international cooperation and the advancement of the rights and interests of “small nations,” “weak nations,” and “primitive peoples;” and a “permanent Council of Conciliation and Investigation” to settle discrepancies among countries related to economic affairs, and issues related to population and “social and political standards;” 
  • (12) General disarmament as the most effective means to reduce the risk of war;
  • (13) Free commercial relations among countries, as well as freedom of the seas and open trade routes globally; and countries ought to refrain from intervening in each other’s internal affairs in order to support the investments of private enterprises; 
  • (14) Countries ought to outlaw secret treaties, and all treaties must be approved by national legislatures; domestic and international efforts ought to be made to study scientifically “the principles and conditions of permanent peace” with the goal of forming an “International Federation” of countries;
  • (15) Women ought to have an equal voice with men in national and international politics;

V. The Education of Children

  • (16) Children ought to be educated in a manner such that “their thoughts and desires may be directed towards the ideal of constructive peace;”

VI. Women and the Peace Settlement Conference

  • (17) The countries participating in the post-war peace conference ought to pass a resolution that gives women the right to vote;
  • (18) The national delegations attending the peace conference ought to include “representatives of the people” and include women;

VII. Action to be Taken

  • (19) The International Congress of women commits itself to reconvening at a time concurrent with the post-war peace conference for “the purpose of presenting practical proposals to that Conference;”
  • (20) A delegation of women attending the International Congress pledge to meet with the heads of state and government of belligerent and neutral countries in Europe, and with President Wilson, in “order to urge the governments of the world to put an end to [the] bloodshed and to establish a just and lasting peace.”
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The Hague Conference Platform

Addams’ closing address

            Addams gives the Congress’ closing address.  She singles out those who had travelled from belligerent countries, calling their presence at The Hague “an act of heroism.”  “Even to appear to differ from those she loves in the hour of their affliction or exaltation,” she said of these women, “has ever been the supreme test of a woman’s conscience” (Addams in Fischer and Whipps, eds., 75).  Addams declares all the delegates “precious instruments” whose commitment to peace “constitute[s] a spiritual internationalism” (Addams in Fischer and Whipps, eds., 76), a force that, she imagines, will rise over time and counter the destructive forces of extreme nationalism and patriotism.  Furthermore, she compares the women favorably to Tolstoy, Kant, and Grotius.  “Each in his own time, because he placed law above force, was called a dreamer and a coward,” she says, “but each did his utmost to express clearly the truth that was in him and beyond that human effort cannot go” (Addams in Fischer and Whipps, eds., 77). Mindful of the historical significance of the Congress, Addams underscores the role of women – whose “primitive human urgings to foster life and to protect the homeless” must be translated into political action as a counterweight and, ultimately, a substitute to inter-state diplomacy and war.  She represents The Hague conference as an antidote to the charge she imagines might one day be leveled against women for having “refused to accept the challenge” of mobilizing against the war and having “failed to asset clearly and courageously the sanctity of human life” (Addams in Fischer and Whipps, eds., 78).

            Addams observes after the war that her participation in The Hague Congress is a turning point of sorts in her life.  She describes herself as a woman who, by “temperament and habit,” strongly favors the “middle of the road.”  At The Hague Congress, however, Addams writes that she and others found themselves “convinced that in order to make the position of the pacifist clear it was perhaps necessary” for them to “be forced into an unequivocal position” of unwavering opposition to the Great War and all wars.  Considering the government’s censorship that followed America’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917, Addams found herself “devoutly grateful” (Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War: 77) for the opportunity afforded by The Hague conference to take a firm stand against the war.  From the time of Carnegie Hall speech, and continuing through the remainder of the war – and beyond, Addams’ uncharacteristic decision to court controversy would, much to her earnest regret, also cost her the high esteem of many of her fellow countrymen.  

            Louise W. Knight neatly summarizes Addams’ experience at The Hague.  “Lest the women doubt that they possessed the kind of power needed to change the world, [Addams] assured them that they did.”  Quoting from Addams’ address to her fellow women delegates, Knight continues.  “’Our protest may be feeble but the world progresses…only in proportion to the moral energy exerted by the men and women living in it; social advance must be pushed forward by the human will and understanding united for conscious ends.’” Addams, Knight continues, “was sharing with them the conviction that had shaped her life, that progress came from putting organizing spirit – collective moral energy – into action.  The women of the congress, by putting their own convictions into action, gave them same moral energy back to her” (Louise W. Knight, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, 2010, p. 202).  

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