International Congress of Women

The International Congress of Women brought women peace activists together on the eve of the entry of the United States into World War I in an attempt to resolve the war and subsequent disputes through impartial, international mediation.

Summary of Event

Women’s opposition to World War I had roots in the Victorian perception of male and female roles, the “coming-of-age” of the first generation of women to have graduated from college in large numbers, and the women’s suffrage movement. In the Victorian view, motherhood, nurturing, and caring provided the core of a woman’s being. Conversely, men were considered to be innately martial in spirit, and it was thought that they might benefit (even if society did not), in terms of resoluteness and hardening of the manly spirit, from the crucible of war. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, women’s caring nature would become sufficient cause for them to embrace issues beyond the confines of the home. This outreach to the larger society was facilitated by the fact that higher education of women was no longer viewed as a societal extravagance. International Congress of Women
Women;peace activism
Peace activism;World War I[World War 01]
Peace conferences;International Congress of Women
[kw]International Congress of Women (Apr. 28-May 1, 1915)
[kw]Congress of Women, International (Apr. 28-May 1, 1915)
[kw]Women, International Congress of (Apr. 28-May 1, 1915)
International Congress of Women
Women;peace activism
Peace activism;World War I[World War 01]
Peace conferences;International Congress of Women
[g]Netherlands;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
[c]Women’s issues;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
[c]World War I;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 28-May 1, 1915: International Congress of Women[03770]
Addams, Jane
Balch, Emily Greene
Hamilton, Alice
Schwimmer, Rosika

Jane Addams (second from left, behind banner) and other peace activists on the Noordam en route to Europe in 1915.

(Library of Congress)

Education and the maternal instinct combined in women’s espousal of a host of causes, including pacifism, women’s suffrage, and campaigns against child labor and in favor of a minimum wage and decent working conditions. The leap from maternalism to humanitarianism, pacifism, and women’s suffrage was neither long nor intricate. Ensuring the welfare of children implied activism to elevate society to a higher, more equitable plane. This elevation required an end to war and the full enfranchisement of women to enable the change. The correlation between pacifism and women’s issues (feminism) was strong, but it was sometimes breakable, as World War I would prove.

The onset of World War I in 1914 was of grave concern to humanitarians such as Jane Addams, who, in her desire for a more equitable, less violent society than a free market could produce, had hoped that human beings had progressed beyond the “need” for war. The fomentation of the peace movement in the United States would grow to include conservative groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1914, Hungarian feminist Rosika Schwimmer and English peace activist Emmeline Pethic-Lawrence toured the United States to advocate the mediation of the conflict by neutral nations. Together with Addams, Schwimmer founded the Women’s Peace Party Women’s Peace Party[Womens Peace Party] (WPP) in January, 1915, as a cornerstone on which a better society might be built. The WPP drafted plans for an international conference of neutral interests that gained support from European organizations such as the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance International Women’s Suffrage Alliance[International Womens Suffrage Alliance] (IWSA).

In February, 1915, Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs Jacobs, Aletta and a group of her fellow IWSA members from Europe drafted a blanket invitation to an International Congress of Women at The Hague. Financing was forthcoming and Addams, chair of the WPP, agreed to preside. The belligerent countries in World War I were almost uniformly opposed to the conference in neutral Netherlands. In fact, the ship carrying the American delegation to the conference, the Noordam, was detained in England for four days before being allowed to proceed. Most of the British delegation was restrained from attending, whereas the Germans sent five delegates and allowed five delegates from occupied Belgium to attend. The press in the United States, Britain, and France was hostile, labeling the group “pro-Hun,” and the American ambassador to Britain likened the Noordam to a cage of doves.

In the face of imposing governmental barriers, fourteen hundred delegates attended the first session of the conference, and twenty-four hundred attended the last. In all, twelve countries were represented, with delegates from 150 different organizations. The American delegation was an illustrious group of forty-seven that included physicians such as Dr. Alice Hamilton, journalists such as Mary Heaton Vorse, social reformers such as Elizabeth Gwendover Evans, union leaders such as Annie Molloy, and political activists such as Belle La Follette.

A Canadian-born member of the Noordam group, Julia Grace Wales, Wales, Julia Grace had proposed a plan under which a group of neutral (nonpolitical) experts would convene to mediate the war—after offering the disputants a menu of proposals that might end the conflict. The actual meetings at The Hague were full of spirited discussion but constrained by a rigid system of rules of procedure, which galled Addams, who was accustomed to the freer give-and-take of American democracy. The press continued to report on the gathering in a biased manner. The German press accused the delegates of leanings in favor of the Allied Powers, the British press regarded the conference as offering a pro-German agenda, and much of the nonaligned press reported the meetings as either underattended or terminated by dispute.

Nevertheless, the accomplishments of the conference were significant. The participants somehow managed to avoid placing blame for responsibility for the war or for the use of some of the more heinous instruments (poison gas among others) employed in the war. Instead, the delegates focused on the purpose of the convention: establishment of a peace mechanism. They engaged in considerable philosophical give-and-take with respect to immediate peace and peace with justice, the acceptability or unacceptability of some wars, and the unique role of women in the peace process.

The landmark of the meetings was agreement on a set of principles necessary for a lasting peace. Among the conditions the participants agreed to were the following: that conquests should not be recognized by nondisputants; that democracy should be the rule, and foreign policy should be subject to the democratic process; that all governments should agree to submit international disagreements to mediation or arbitration; that nations that resort to arms in resolving disputes should be subject to economic sanctions; and that women deserve political equality with men. President Woodrow Wilson later complimented Addams on the peace proposals and reportedly used them as guidelines in establishing his Fourteen Points. Fourteen Points

Additionally, the congress created the International Committee of Women for a Permanent Peace, International Committee of Women for a Permanent Peace which was intended to have a role in the postwar peace process. Rosika Schwimmer convinced the congress of the viability of her quixotic proposal that a delegation should physically present the leaders of belligerent and neutral countries with the findings and recommendations of the conference. To that end, Jane Addams, Aletta Jacobs, and Alice Hamilton set off to visit political leaders from France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Belgium. Concurrently, Schwimmer, Emily Greene Balch, and a second group journeyed to Russia and the Scandinavian nations to share the congress’s recommendations.


Despite the success of the congress itself, when the delegates returned home from The Hague in the summer of 1915, having facilitated communications among belligerents and neutrals, they realized there was little chance for government-sponsored mediation to succeed. There was a possibility, however, that private-sponsored mediation might fill the void. In a move that seemed more fancy than substance, delegate Rebuke Shelley arranged a meeting between American automobile magnate Henry Ford Ford, Henry and Rosika Schwimmer, with the goal of obtaining financing for a private war-mediation effort. The two made a colorful pair: Ford was self-educated, entrepreneurial, isolationist, and anti-Semitic in his preferences, whereas Schwimmer was European, educated, radical, and Jewish.

Surprisingly, Ford agreed to fund a new venture by the International Committee of Women to bring the instrument of independent mediation to all concerned parties. Previously, Ford had unsuccessfully tried to get President Wilson to accept the idea of a mediated peace. Undeterred, Ford chartered the ocean liner Oscar II, quickly dubbed the Peace Ship, to transport the American women’s delegation abroad. The contingent that sailed on December 4, 1915, consisted of fifty-seven delegates from a spectrum of vocations, a clutch of animated reporters, and more than a few hangers-on wishing to benefit from an all-expenses-paid ocean vacation. The voyage did not proceed as smoothly as the congress at The Hague, however. Instead, bickering, political infighting, and mistrust were fueled by ever-skeptical reporters in search of a story.

When they reached Europe, the delegates found their input unwelcome in what was regarded as a European affair. Wilson’s call for military preparedness in the face of aggression had weakened the American peace movement. On December 21, Ford returned home, claiming illness. The Peace Ship had failed, yet it had succeeded in convening a conference of neutrals: the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation, Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation conceived in Stockholm, funded by Ford, and convened in January, 1916. This six-nation group conducted studies, authored peace proposals, and was willing to put itself in the service of belligerents. German resumption of full-scale submarine warfare and Ford’s withdrawal of funds, however, led to the conference’s demise in the summer of 1916. International Congress of Women
Women;peace activism
Peace activism;World War I[World War 01]
Peace conferences;International Congress of Women

Further Reading

  • Chatfield, Charles. For Peace and Justice. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971. A well-documented, readable text that provides insight into the American pacifist movement from 1914 to World War II.
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Biography of Addams discusses the political and cultural influence of her activities both on her own time and on the generations that followed. Includes chronology, list of Addams’s books, and index.
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke, and Sheila Tobias, eds. Women, Militarism, and War. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990. A collection of essays in the politics and social theory of the feminist movement in its focus on war and pacifism.
  • Lundarini, Christine A. The American Peace Movement in the Twentieth Century. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1994. An instructive, alphabetically arranged compendium of articles on historical factors in the American peace movement.
  • Randall, Mercedes. Improper Bostonian. New York: Twayne, 1964. An excellent biography of Emily Greene Balch, professor, reformer, humanitarian, and pacifist.
  • Schneider, Carl J., and Dorothy Schneider. Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking Press, 1991. A full and engaging record of the roles American women played during World War I, both in the peace movement and in military service.
  • Sharer, Wendy B. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Examines the writing and speaking practices of the women who were active in political organizations in the years of the suffrage movement and immediately after. Includes illustrations and index.

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First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment