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National NOW Times >> Spring 2003 >> Article

A Proud History of Women Advocating for Peace

by Sarah V. Safstrom, Communications Intern

National NOW officers and board members take time out from a weekend board meeting to attend a March 22 peace demonstration outside the White House.
National NOW officers and board members take time out from a weekend board meeting to attend a March 22 peace demonstration outside the White House. Photo by Lisa Bennett
As the United States government moved closer to the position that war with Iraq was their only solution, NOW and Code Pink, an anti-war organization run by women, worked hard to gain support for peaceful alternatives to the war-hungry Bush posture.

Women have a long history of taking a stand against militarism and the culture of violence. Many women have spoken up and influenced the war machine by founding organizations that encourage peaceful demonstrations and pacifist philosophies. While the legacy of women's peace movements over the last century is inspiring, it is not well known or well documented. The NOW Times presents here a piece of that history.

Leading the Way

Jane Addams—a social reformer, pacifist and founder of Hull House—was appalled when she heard of the outbreak of World War I. In 1914, she led a women's peace parade in New York and encouraged women to stand up against those supporting the war.

In 1915, Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt, a central figure in the final years of the U.S. suffrage campaign, joined other pacifists in Washington, D.C., to rally support for the abolition of the war. Together they formed the Women's Peace Party and created a program for mediation between nations. Later that year, at a women's peace conference, what would eventually be called the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was formed. They rejected the idea that war was inevitable and worked on plans to lay a basis for permanent peace worldwide.

Also working for peace, Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the United States Congress in 1917, announced she could not vote for war when President Woodrow Wilson called for a war resolution in April that year. Catt, at the time working for the National American Woman Sufferage Association feared that a vote against war would brand women and suffragists as unpatriotic. Rankin's vote for peace cost her re-election.

She later became involved in numerous pacifist organizations including Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the National Council for the Prevention of War. In 1940, she was elected to the House of Representatives and was the only member of Congress to vote against entering World War II. After placing her vote, Rankin had to seek shelter in a phone both to avoid angry crowds who objected to her decision.

Addams and other members of the newly-formed Women's Peace Party faced similar disapproval when they were verbally attacked in the press by Theodore Roosevelt who described them as "hysterical pacifists" and called their proposals "both silly and base." Even today, conservatives and war hawks are not above name-calling, painting proponents for peace as un-American and Saddam-sympathizers.

Addams was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931, for her work as a peace advocate. At the time people said she was "the right spokesman for all the peace-loving women of the world." In more modern terms she is the model for all people who believe in a world of peace through communication and understanding.

The Radicals

WILPF paved the way for the new organizations such as the Women's Committee for World Disarmament, formed in 1921. The Women's Committee was considered to be more radical than WILPF and was key in organizing coalitions and gaining public and financial support for disarmament.

The Chair of WILPF, Emma Wold, wrote a letter in August 1921 to Emily Balch, secretary of WILPF: "As women, we do not like to take to ourselves too much credit for what has been accomplished thus far. It is true, however, that at a time when men felt the futility of doing anything on the question of disarmament, the women took hold... It rests with them to carry on the work so well begun."

Historically interesting, the Women's Committee for World Disarmament worked out of the Woodward Building in Washington, D.C., which is the current location of the NOW Action Center and also Code Pink.

Another radical organization, The Women's Peace Union (WPU), was also formed in 1921. The WPU pledged non-cooperation with any war effort. In 1926, the members of the U.S. section of the WPU drafted an amendment that would make the waging of war unconstitutional. Tracy D. Mygatt, another absolute pacifist, worked with the WPU from its inception and was instrumental in advocating against the draft from 1939 to 1940.

Opposition to War Increases

Also in 1921, the women and men of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) stood out in their opposition to war when they lobbied for peace to be taught in public schools so that children would learn of peaceful and non-violent solutions to world issues.

This year, in January, the San Francisco Unified School District unanimously approved a resolution condemning any U.S.-led war on Iraq and urged all schools to host a "public day of discussion" on the topic. The seven members said the war on Iraq would be morally wrong and could have a devastating impact on money that is needed for schools and social services.

In 1924, Carrie Chapman Catt and representatives of several national women's organizations met to discuss working together to produce more effective results and less duplication of effort. As a result, they formed the National Committee for the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW) to emphasize education and promote peace and international cooperation.

The first Conference on the Cause and Cure of the War was held in Washington, D.C., in 1925. Catt, a founding member, was elected chair of the NCCCW, a position she held until 1932.

Recent Anti-War Efforts

During the 1960s the United States experienced a resurgence of anti-war movements in protest of the Vietnam War. In 1962, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) was formed and members picketed the White House, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and the Pentagon to demonstrate their opposition to nuclear weapons and to war.

WSP aims to reduce military expenditures and convert the military budget to civilian spending that addresses human needs.

Since NOW was formed in 1966, the organization has taken strong positions against war, registration and the draft, and has opposed increases in defense spending, nuclear weapons testing and "Star Wars." NOW protested military activity in Indochina (1971), Vietnam (1973), Central America (1985), the Persian Gulf (1991), and pressed for a peaceful resolution in Iraq.

A New Century

Since the Vietnam war, numerous grassroots groups have been organized to oppose war. For example, Women's Action for New Directions (WAND) is a national organization working to empower women to act politically to reduce violence and militarism and redirect excessive military resources towards human and environmental needs. Others include Women for Peace, Women Waging Peace, Women Against Military Madness and most recently Code Pink. Code Pink—a play on the Attorney General John Ashcroft's "Code Red" terrorist alert system—encourages action to deter war through public education, free speech, and nonviolent civil disobedience.

Code Pink, of which NOW is a member, embarked on a campaign of vigils, fasts and a 40-day hunger strike to draw attention to their view against war on Iraq, which they say are being drowned out by "testosterone-poisoned rhetoric."

In February, 12 women delegates visited Baghdad to investigate the potential impact of war on women and children. Founding director of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin, said, "We came away convinced that the weapons inspectors are working, and that war will have a calamitous effect on the civilian population. We are determined to stop the Bush administration from launching this disastrous invasion on a defenseless population."

"Militarism engenders a culture of aggression that encourages domestic violence," says Code Pink spokesperson Kristi Laughlin. "Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush—they use violence against violence, and we are saying that there is a better way. It is time for women's voices to be heard."

NOW's Progressive Feminist Agenda for Peace

  • Expose the Bush administration's exploitation of the tragedies of September 11, 2001 to advance a right-wing political agenda

  • Call for an end to the U.S. campaign of militarism and corporate profit that has contributed to anti-American sentiment around the world

  • Identify the connection between militarism and violence against women, including military sponsored rape and domestic violence

  • Advance equality for women and men in the U.S. military

  • Expose the stifling of political dissent by the Bush administration through policies such as the USA Patriot Act

  • Demand an increase in funding for domestic social services and curtail enormous increases in defense spending

  • Call for an end to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that exacerbates the plight of women and children in these countries, including U.S. military aggression

  • Urge compliance with international law and internationally accepted standards for human rights, beginning with U.S. ratification of CEDAW

  • Support population assistance programs to reduce worldwide poverty

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