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Book Discussion -- The Search for Negotiated Peace: Women's Activism and Citizen Diplomacy in World War I

January 17, 2008 // 2:00pm4:00pm

David S. Patterson, former chief editor of the "Foreign Relations of the United States" series, author; commentators Robyn Muncy, Associate Professor of History, University of Maryland, College Park, and Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; Anna Kasten Nelson, Distinguished Historian in Residence, American University.

There is a largely untold story of American citizen activists in World War I, David Patterson said during a discussion of his The Search for Negotiated Peace, organized by the Division of United States Studies. Part American women's history, part European peace activism history and part diplomatic history, Patterson's volume is a hybrid account of American and European citizens' attempts to influence a mediated peace among the warring nations of Europe during the period of American neutrality (August 1914 – April 1917).

As many of the peace initiatives of that period were led by women, Patterson was particularly interested in the life experiences that propelled them toward peace activism. Many of them, Patterson found, had opportunities for higher education, were single or in a supportive marriage, and had no small children. As a result they had relatively more freedom than men to engage in social reform activities. For these women, the peace movement became another aspect of their social justice activities, which included the management of settlement houses for the urban poor and the suffrage movement.

American social workers and feminists, such as Lillian Wald and Jane Addams, wanted to promote peace among the warring nations of Europe. They responded to appeals from their European counterparts, such as Rosika Schwimmer and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who considered peace activism to be a natural extension of the maternal instinct. In January 1915, American feminists formed the Women's Peace Party, which was led by Addams. It adopted a plan articulated by the Union of Democratic Control in Great Britain, calling for neutral nations to promote peace terms for the belligerent nations.

Aletta Jacobs, leader of the Dutch suffragist movement, then called for an International Congress of Women to take place at the Hague in the spring of 1915. The Congress produced a resolution similar to the platform of the Women's Peace Party, urging neutral nations to engage belligerent nations in peace talks. Women were delegated to share the Congress' resolutions with the leaders of European nations. They drew some positive responses for the mediation plan but the majority of such leaders expressed skepticism.

The Congress sought to gain support from the United States, in particular, for its mediation movement. President Woodrow Wilson, however, asserting that peace talks at the time were premature, would not champion their cause. Even Henry Ford, creator of the Ford Motor Company, unsuccessfully implored Wilson to form a government commission to participate in an unofficial mediation conference of neutral nations. When Wilson refused, Ford hired an ocean liner to take peace activists to Europe. That plan, Patterson noted, became known more for its sensationalism than its effectiveness.

Despite peace activists' failure to engage President Wilson in their efforts, they did, Patterson emphasized, sustain Wilson's interest in the future possibility of a U.S.-led peace mediation as well as influence his plans for international reform. Wilson had spoken with the women activists repeatedly, holding twenty meetings with them at the White House. When he did offer his own peace initiatives, from December 1916 to January 1917, at the behest of peace advocates and his political advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, they failed to sway the belligerent nations. Colonel House, like the peace activists, failed to anticipate the extent to which militarism was influencing those nations. By the time German U-boats threatened U.S. sovereignty in February 1917, peace activists had lost their credibility with Wilson. Nevertheless, women peace activists did have an impact on Wilson's foreign policy initiatives. Without their involvement in the peace struggle, Patterson emphasized, the movement would have evolved more slowly.

The commentators agreed with Patterson's conclusion that the women's initiative strengthened and helped to sustain the peace movements of 1914 – 1917. Undoubtedly, Anna Kasten Nelson added, Wilson drew support from the activists in the promotion of his peace initiatives. Nelson, however, did not see much evidence to support the idea that President Wilson took the peace activists seriously. She asked whether Wilson might have met with the women activists, who were Progressives, because he needed the support of Progressives for his domestic agenda rather than because he thought their ideas had merit.

Robyn Muncy commented that an important component of the women's peace activism, which perhaps was otherwise seemingly naive, was its new view of citizenship. They saw civil society as international rather than as existing only within a particular nation, and their activism suggested that citizens could intervene in other countries without going through government channels. While "visibility and voice do not necessarily convey power," Muncy said, the concerns of American citizens helped fuel an international peace movement that exists to this day. That was no small achievement.

To view David Patterson's presentation, please click here.

To view Robyn Muncy's comments, please click here.

To view Anna Kasten Nelson's comments, please click here.

Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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