‘The Spirit of Fear Has Paralysed Us’

2 - 1 (1)In April 1915 1,200 women of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance met at the Hague to discuss how to bring about an end to war, not just the First World War, all war. To get there they fought prejudice, rampant patriotism on all sides, and the very literal barriers that war presented to travel. In the course of their three days of peace talks the women agreed that they would take very precise action in their attempt to bring a quick resolution to one of the bloodiest wars the modern world had ever seen.

(The historical information in this article is based on a talk given by Dr Lesley Orr, ‘Women Who Widnae Haud Their Wheesht – Scotswomen who fought for equality’, on Saturday 21st November as part of Previously: Scotland’s History Festival.)

Among these women was Chrystal Macmillan, scientist, philosopher, mathematician and lawyer, graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Following the 1915 talks Macmillan travelled to meet with leaders of neutral countries and present proposals developed by the Suffrage Alliance. She was part of a committee sent to the US to present their proposals to President Woodrow Wilson, some of which was later utilised by Wilson in his Fourteen Points. Interestingly, in 1919 when the Terms of Peace were published by the Versailles Peace Conference these women sent delegates to the conference to critique their terms, which ‘recognise the rights of the victors to the spoils of war, and create all over Europe discords and animosities which can only lead to future wars’, a statement which turned out to be sadly prophetic.

In Glasgow a colleague of Macmillan’s, Helen Crawfurd was campaigning for peace in a different way, involved with the rent strikes, struggles in factories and the shop stewards’ movement, she was focusing particularly on the working women who were so affected by war and mobilising these women to speak out. Crawfurd organised a meeting to launch the Women’s Peace Crusade, a grassroots movement in Glasgow, in 1916. In 1917, post Russian revolution, as Russia began to consider coming out of the war, Emmeline Pankhurst travelled there to speak to women and encourage the country to stay in the war. As a response, Crawfurd, angered by her former ally’s actions, revived the Women’s Peace Crusade and, along with her comrades, developed it into a national campaign:

‘For nearly three years the war has gone on, and we women have been afraid, afraid to trust our own judgement, afraid to speak, afraid to act. The ghastly slaughter of our sons, our husbands, our brothers has gone on and the spirit of fear has paralysed us. We believed our Government until it has been convicted so often of dishonesty that we are forced to think and act for ourselves … The people of Russia have appealed to the common people of every country to let their voices be heard demanding peace without annexations and without indemnities! They have called to us to subdue our Imperialists as they have vanquished theirs … It is to the Common People that the people of Russia have appealed. Shall we remain silent any longer?’ (Helen Crawfurd)

The women’s suffrage movement, formerly split by the divide between the suffragists and the suffragettes, those who advocated constitutional and militant methods respectively, was now split again between those who became part of the propaganda machine and those who stood by pacifist, non-violent principles and fought against the tide of popular and state sanctioned opinion. (A rift that went as far as to divide the Pankhurst family – with Emmeline speaking in Russia and she and Christabel following a deeply ‘patriotic’ route, whilst Sylvia followed a path akin to that of Crawfurd).

Dr Orr mentioned in her talk that Helen Crawfurd’s autobiography is not in print. Of course it can sometimes be accessed in archives, but for all these archives are ostensibly accessible to everyone, they are by no means frequented by everyone. At school we learn about trench warfare and the suffragettes, but certainly in my time we did not learn about pacifists in the large scale, we learned about neither Macmillan nor Crawfurd, not about the mobilised actions of a large number of women actively lobbying for peace talks. A few weeks ago, over 100 years on from the struggle, we flocked to watch Suffragette, a story of women fighting for their civil rights, finally being represented in mainstream cinema. But how long will it be until we see stories like this one represented, stories that still work against the political tide, stories of those who fought against one in a long line of imperial, government sanctioned wars that in their turn proliferate into the unnecessary deaths of millions.

This is a history of this country very little told and very little represented because, just as we pantomimed our way through a remembrance service a couple of weeks ago, we are fed a very specific narrative of history, a narrative of men and also a narrative sanctioned by a predominantly white, male, middle class government heavily supported by corporations that depend on warfare and fear for profit and power. This history, our history, women’s history, is important, not for the way it conforms, but for the way it diverges, for those who spoke up against violence and the movement that continues to this day as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, when women from 25 different countries, many of whom were at war, met to discuss not an end to that war, but an end to all war.

Laura Witz

In 2015 WILPF UK and Clapham Film Unit undertook a project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to commemorate its centenary by making a film about these events.

In the coming year, Lesley Orr (based at the University of Edinburgh) along with colleagues from the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Women’s Library, will be undertaking a project, including a series of workshops, a conference and an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the Women’s Peace Crusade. You can also read her full article about Helen Crawfurd in the Scottish Labour History Journal, volume 50, 2015.