Resolutions Adopted by the International Congress of Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ten months into World War I, leaders of the women’s movement gathered in The Hague to seek a way to end the war. The International Congress of Women was following in the footsteps of women who had gathered during the previous four decades to raise various social issues. At The Hague, these liberal women sought to end the war by applying pressure to the various governments to negotiate for a solution to their differences. With the war already having ground to a standstill on the Western Front, these individuals optimistically hoped that the resolutions of the International Congress of Women would be taken seriously by leaders of the nations involved in the war. Although this effort did not end the war, some of the provisions were similar to items later contained in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, his plan for an enduring peace.

Summary Overview

Ten months into World War I, leaders of the women’s movement gathered in The Hague to seek a way to end the war. The International Congress of Women was following in the footsteps of women who had gathered during the previous four decades to raise various social issues. At The Hague, these liberal women sought to end the war by applying pressure to the various governments to negotiate for a solution to their differences. With the war already having ground to a standstill on the Western Front, these individuals optimistically hoped that the resolutions of the International Congress of Women would be taken seriously by leaders of the nations involved in the war. Although this effort did not end the war, some of the provisions were similar to items later contained in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, his plan for an enduring peace.

Defining Moment

When women from twelve countries gathered in The Hague, they spoke out regarding the destruction that was occurring in Europe. Although some governments made it difficult for women to attend, in addition to the hardship of traveling in Europe during a major war, about 1,200 delegates attended the session. The large American delegation was led by Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, both of whom would later win Nobel Peace Prizes. Except for France, Russia, and Serbia, women from all the other European countries involved in the war were present, as well as many from neutral nations, such as the United States. The goal was to obtain a just peace among the nations and to establish a means for insuring that peace would continue in the future. Thus, in addition to meeting in The Hague and passing the resolutions, they commissioned a group, headed by Addams, to visit various European capitals. The women requested that neutral governments be willing to be mediators between the two sides in the war, and that the governments participating in the war seek peace. Thus, the International Congress of Women did more than just talk and vote; they tried to put their beliefs into action.

These first nine resolutions, of the twenty passed by the International Congress of Women, outlined the central goal of the gathering. The women tended to be from liberal, progressive, or socialist groups. The American participants represented the newly founded Women’s Peace Party, of which Addams was the president. In the decades prior to World War I, many believed that civilization had progressed sufficiently far to make it possible to overcome problems that had plagued people throughout history. What was needed, according to this view, was to discover the proper way to organize people and the necessary resources to overcome such problems. Thus, prior to World War I, there had been many conferences held and organizations established to do this regarding the problem of war. This meeting of the International Congress of Women was part of that lineage. The American leadership not only visited with European governments, but spent considerable energy trying to get President Wilson to take a strong leadership role in the movement to construct a negotiated peace. Although he did not respond as positively as hoped, many saw the discussions that Addams and others had with him as definitely influencing the Fourteen Points he presented in early 1918. The other outgrowth of the International Congress was the formation of a permanent organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Author Biography

With Germany at the center of World War I, a planned conference for women’s suffrage could not be held in Berlin. With the meeting cancelled, Aletta Jacobs, of the Netherlands, called for a peace conference instead to be held at The Hague. Leaders of women’s groups in a number of nations responded, although not all were allowed to attend. For the American women in the newly founded Women’s Peace Party, this invitation to the Netherlands was the fulfillment of one of the proposals that had been adopted in its January 1915 meeting. With Jane Adams, president of the Women’s Peace Party, chosen to head the International Congress of Women, it might have been anticipated that many of the goals of the American organization became resolutions adopted by the international group. This was not owing to the American group totally dominating the international meeting; rather, it was owing to the International Congress of Women using the already written resolutions to pursue the common focus of all the women present at the meeting.

Document Analysis

The resolutions adopted by the International Congress of Women focused on the war, but went far beyond ending the fighting. The goal of the Congress was to establish a world, in which war would virtually never occur. In their view, part of that vision depended upon all people, men and women alike, having equal rights. Those gathered in The Hague accepted the idea that democracies were less likely to initiate war and, therefore, mandated that foreign policy be controlled by democratically elected governments. Viewing all these things from a perspective that had usually been ignored by governmental leaders, i.e., the women’s perspective, the International Congress of Women desired to forcefully present its vision in such a way as to be taken seriously by the powers that be.

The first two resolutions present the “horror of war” and the suffering it inflicts upon everyone, with a special emphasis on the way women traditionally have been treated in wartime. Having acknowledged this, the Congress of Women then turns to ending the current conflict. The members note that people in all nations accept their own government’s version of events, typically one that depicts citizens as fighting for “their national existence.” Whether the women gathered in The Hague believed these things themselves was irrelevant. Their proposed course of action was based on what average citizens, in the countries fighting each other, believed. Those who drew up the third resolution observe that if the masses in each country desired only the continued existence of their country, as opposed to the annexation of new territory or the conquering of a foreign people, then peace should be simply a process of separating the opposing armies and having other nations mediate problems between rivals. By repeatedly stating that territory can change hands only with the consent of the residents (both men and women), the writers suggest that it is relatively easy to keep nations intact. Given, however, that the major combatants were monarchies of one form or another, the Congress members’ insistence that a “democratic parliament should not be refused to any people” must be viewed as a sticking point for those combatants (if the call were heeded at all).

The members of the International Congress of Women were strong believers in mediation, or negotiation conducted through a neutral party. They felt that the current war could be ended and the problems that had started the conflict solved by mediation. In the future, they observe, there should be mediation and arbitration to solve any such new issues. This ideally would be supplemented by intense international pressure brought to bear on any country that seemed to want to turn to war.

The last major point in the first nine resolutions adopted by the Congress concerns the importance of democracy for a peaceful world. Because most of those gathered in The Hague were supporters of granting the vote to women, the democracies envisioned were those in which there were “equal political rights” for both men and women. If this came to pass, the women believed that the foreign policies of the various nations would be much more peaceful than they had been in the past. Thus, the expansion of government to reflect the views of more people would, from the International Congress of Women’s perspective, bring about peace not only in the case of World War I but in the foreseeable future. The eleven resolutions not printed in this excerpt conclude that an international organization of nations should continue to seek peaceful solutions to problems, and women should be included in the peace talks to end the war.

Essential Themes

The women gathered in The Hague focused upon three major points. These were peace, gender equality, and democracy. Peace, the first of their points, was something that most people desired. However, there were major differences between the sides in the conflict that kept the war going for another three and a half years after the conference. The peace “based on principles of justice” that the women sought was not reflected in the Treaty of Versailles, which was adopted following the hostilities. The women were not allowed to participate directly in negotiating the end of the war, but the leadership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom kept up with the process and declared that the treaty would lead to another war. Although President Wilson did reflect the ideal of a just peace in his Fourteen Points, his desires ultimately were not taken any more seriously than were the women’s.

The other two major foci of the resolutions were, together, supposed to make the nations, and the world, more peaceful. Gender equality in politics was something that was gained quickly after the war, at least for most European women; yet at the same time, it is still not in place for all today. In most of the nations that were the major participants in World War I, women had the right to vote within five years. However, while most European and North American women did gain the right to vote, the “equal political rights with men” was not really attained at that time because many voters of both genders did not take women candidates seriously, or give them an equal opportunity to serve in government. On the other hand, the goal to have foreign relations handled by democratically elected governments was initially accomplished. Even then, however, not all governing systems ended up being stable, meaning that the women’s goal of peace was never attained. According to recent studies, the women of the Congress were correct in their belief that democracies have tended to be less belligerent than non-democracies, but because of problems in post-World War I democracies, such peaceful qualities did not endure. There is no clear support for the assertion that having both women and men vote, or serve in the government, will make the world more peaceful. The women who joined in the International Congress were hopeful that they could change the world, from a place of war to one of enduring peace. While that goal was not reached, the members did develop an ongoing organization to continue the push for that vision. They also gave a foundation to many later individuals who sought to make the world a place of greater equality for all people.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Adams, Jane, Emily Greene Balch, and Alice Hamilton. Women at the Hague: the International Peace Congress of 1915. 1915. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2003. Print.
  • International Congress of Women. Report of the International Congress of Women: The Hague–The Netherlands, April 28th to May 1st, 1915. Chicago: Woman’s Peace Party, 1915. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • Patterson, David S. The Search for Negotiated Peace: Women’s Activism and Citizen Diplomacy in World War I. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
  • Sklar, Kathryn Kish, and Kari Amidon. “How Did Women Activists Promote Peace in Their 1915 Tour of Warring European Capitals?” Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000. Ed. Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, May 1998. Web. 31 May 2014.
  • Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “History.” wilpfinternational.org Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, n.d. Web. 31 May 2014.
Categories: History Content