Founded in 1915, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is one of the world’s longest-standing women’s peace organisations.
Read about our herstory here!
*Using the word herstory allows us to honour the ways our foremothers have written our story, and how they impacted the wider political, economic and social landscapes around them.
Disclaimer: many of this herstory can be said to have been written from a ‘Global North’ perspective, even though our National Sections from all over the world have a rich and amazing history. This biais is in part due to the fact that most of the easily accessible archives are those of WILPF Sections in the USA, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. We absolutely welcome any contribution to our timeline from other Sections – feel free to email us at email@example.com.
In 1914, suffragettes throughout Europe had planned to meet to discuss the movement’s progress. But as World War I broke out, their plans were disrupted and they never met.
Despite the challenges they faced, they persisted. One year later, 1,136 suffragettes from twelve countries met in The Hague, the Netherlands. Together, they decided to create the International Women’s Congress – later renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – with a goal to develop mediation strategies to end the war and, ultimately, eradicate the root causes of war.
And so, on 28 April 1915, WILPF was born.
Want to know more about our birth? Listen to this audio play about the 1919 Congress we created to open a panel discussion at the Geneva Peace Week 2019.
La Maison Internationale de la Paix (the International House of Peace in English) served as WILPF’s picturesque headquarters as of 1919. It was rented to them by its owner, the man who created Esperanto. Watch this short video dating back to the 1920s for a glimpse of this beautiful house!
In 1926, WILPF’s United Kingdom Section organised The Great Peace Pilgrimage to demand the British Government agree to settle all international disputes through peaceful conciliation and arbitration mechanisms.
During The Great Peace Pilgrimage, 28 women’s and peace organisations united under the banner “Law, Not War” and travelled from all over the UK to reunite in Hyde Park. On the way, they organised meetings and discussions in many different villages!
In 1919, following our second Congress, we were among the very first to denounce the Treaty of Versailles: Our foremothers understood that it created the conditions for future warfare. They also decided to move WILPF’s headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland, to be close to the offices of the League of Nations (which was later replaced by the United Nations).
The members of WILPF spent the 1920s working to promote international arbitration and mediation mechanisms in cases of disagreements between nations.
WILPF is a membership-driven organisation, with members working at the local, regional, and national levels by coming together in semi-autonomous National Sections and Groups.
Between 1919 and 1925, National Sections began cropping up outside of Europe – including in Nepal, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Japan, India, Australia, and Uruguay. By 1921, we had 25 Sections worldwide!
90-year-old WILPF member Charlotte Despard leading an anti-Nazi rally in London.
During this decade, our work also revolved primarily around calling for international disarmament. As more and more members joined us from around the world, we collected six million signatures on our petition demanding global disarmament, which we delivered to the 1933 World Disarmament Conference held in Geneva.
In 1931, Jane Addams, one of WILPF’s founders and our first international president, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – at a time when the FBI had dubbed her “the most dangerous woman in America”. This letter, adressed to the head of the FBI, Mr. Hoover, talks of Jane Addams as attempting to “emasculate national security”.
In the 1930s, our foremothers watch the rise of anti-semitism with much apprehension and mobilised to help Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
In 1936, WILPF issued the “Appeal to the Non-Jews of Europe”, which concluded:
Watch Kay Camp, former President of WILPF’s US Section and later Vice-President of WILPF International, talk about peace missions.
Miss Dorothy Detzer (WILPF) questions the speaker at a United Nations Consultants Meeting, on 17 May 1946.
During World War II, WILPF’s President and Vice-President, Gertrude Baer and Clara Ragaz, were staying on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean. By communicating through circular letters, they managed to coordinate efforts to help refugees and ceaselessly denounced the Nazi regime. They saw that, in the face of fascism, the price of peace was freedom and decided that was too high a price to pay. As Anita Auspurg of WILPF’s German Section wrote at the time:
In 1946, WILPF attended the founding UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco.
At the conference, WILPF promoted the concept of world security based on freedom and justice and not on military power and prestige. Two years later, in 1948, we were granted consultative status as a non-governmental organisation with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Did you know WILPF US lost over half of its members at the outbreak of the Second World War? The argument over whether or not war was justified to bring an end to facism divided the members, as it did for all of Europe. After all, the situation created an opposition between WILPF’s two aims, freedom and peace. Many prominent WILPF members believed that in this case, freedom had to be fought for, even at the price of war.
Art for World Friendship – “Near the Spring Water” by unknown child from Lebanon
After World War II, WILPFers started seeing education as a crucial part of their work. In 1946, a WILPF group in Pennsylvania launched a campaign called “Art for World Friendship” and exhibited drawings created by children from around the world.
The art pieces show how the children envision a world in which all people live together in harmony and equality, and where war has been abolished. The pictures are now part of Swathmore College’s Peace Collection.
In the 1950s, much of WILPF’s work focused on pushing for serious studies on the public health impacts and other effects of nuclear radiation. In part thanks to our advocacy, in 1955, the World Health Organization’s assembly adopted a resolution to “study public health problems related to somatic and genetic action of radiation.”
In 1953, Gertrude Baer, our then-International Secretary, addressed an urgent appeal to the President of the UN General Assembly asking him to throw his whole weight into stopping the war in Korea. Just six months later, the Armistice Agreement was signed.
Over 50 years later, the Korean Peninsula is still divided and continues to be affected by militarisation, the ongoing arms race, the existence of nuclear weapons, and threats of nuclear action. We are working closely with local activists and organisations who strive to create spaces for dialogue, educate community members and governments about the need for a formal end to the Korean War,
During the 1950s and 1960s, WILPF members – particularly in the US – were under close watch by the FBI.
As WILPF members advocated for the end of the Cold War, they were seen as “commies” – supporters of communism and the Soviet Union. Photos from one particularly memorable WILPF reunion over dinner at the home of Kay Camp (above), then-President of WILPF US, even made their way into FBI files! The US National Section had just hosted a delegation of Soviet women to discuss peace and disarmament.
Watch a video interview with Kay Camp about this incident!
1960s — 1970s
In January 1968, singer and WILPF member Eartha Kitt was invited for dinner by the US First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. She shocked guests by very squarely telling her host: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder kids rebel and take pot.”
In the 1970s, not only did WILPF Sections mobilise at home to protest against the Vietnam War, but WILPF sent several members on a fact-finding mission to both North and South Vietnam. At the end of the trip, WILPF US delegates signed a peace treaty with the Vietnamese Women’s Peace Coalition, which proved to be a very useful tool in WILPF’s advocacy work going forward. In 1973, WILPF members were even invited to visit Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.
Later on, in January 1973, WILPF delegates met in Hanoi with other international women’s organisations to negotiate peace agreements with Vietnamese government officials.
WILPF helped organise the 1974 NGO Conference Against Apartheid and Colonialism in Africa in Geneva and played an active role in the 1978 International Conference for the Liberation of Southern Africa and Against Apartheid in New Delhi, India.
In 1985, WILPF published its first women’s budget, mandating a 50 per cent cut in military spending. It called for the funds to be redirected to development, education, and peace and security for all of humanity.
We’re still campaigning for governments everywhere to move their money from the militaray to education, peace and security. Join our #MovetheMoney Campaign.
In 1983, WILPF launched a signature campaign known as Stop the Arms Race (STAR). WILPF Sections all over the world collected signatures asking NATO to cancel its decision to deploy Pershing missiles. The campaign was concluded with a mass rally on 8 March in Brussels, just as the petition signatures were presented to NATO leadership.
During the 1980s, WILPF started working more closely on the interlinking of patriarchy and the destruction of nature.
In the introduction of WILPF’s 1983 Congress report, Harriet Otterloo – Chairwoman of WILPF’s Göteborg branch – wrote that “Peace means peace with the earth. Peace work includes knowledge of and respect for the earth. If we destroy air, water and soil because of ignorance or ruthless exploitation, we have nothing to live off or on in peace. Therefore the ecology movement is part of the peace movement.’
Today, a lot of our
work still focuses on the environment. Learn about Environmental Peace
by downloading our zine! You can also check out our thematic page on the environment to read up on what we do. We also have an environment working group – suscribe to our mailing list!
In 1983, WILPF co-founded Seneca Camp near a US army base to protest against the imminent deployment of nuclear missiles to Western Europe.
The camp was soon dubbed the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice (WEFPJ) and was reserved entirely for women. Learn more about it in our zine or watch this video.
Protest WILPF participated in at a nuclear weapon base in Scotland, 1998.
1990s and 2000s
In 1995, WILPF’s International Secretariat rented a train! The train brought WILPF members from all over the world to Beijing for the UN’s Fourth Conference on Women.
During their three week-long journey from Helsinki, WILPFers hosted exercise classes, conferences, and strategy meetings, and even performed full moon rituals! Watch this video to join these incredible women as they travel to Beijing.
Since the 1990s, WILPF has also been at the forefront of raising awareness of the economic, social, and political destabilisation and inequalities created by capitalism.
In 2000, WILPF led a coalition of organisations that convinced the UN Security Council to unanimously adopt Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which was the first time the Security Council directly addressed the subject of women and armed conflict.
Since 2001, WILPF has also run the PeaceWomen programme to monitor the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and advocate for its full and rapid implementation. Today, they are called the Peace, Women and Security program: learn more about them on their website!
In 1999, WILPF launched the Reaching Critical Will (RCW) project in order to increase the quality and quantity of civil society participation in international disarmament fora, such as those that take place at the United Nations.
Today, RCW is the formal disarmament programme of WILPF. Give their webpage a visit!
We’ve been on the forefront of advocating for a nuclear-free world since the 1950s, and recently specifically through our Reaching Critical WIll Project.
Our work positioned us as the primary NGO liaison during the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference – producing daily newsletters, hosting daily informal government briefings for NGOsas well as organising and facilitating countless side events!
Since then, we’ve made great pogress towards abolishing nuclear: the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted in 2017. This came into being in part thanks to the efforts of the the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), of which WILPF is a steering group member. That year, ICAN went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize !
The treaty came into force on 22 January 2021! Find out how to encourage your government to ratify it too.
What about today?
Learn more about what we have been up to recently by visiting our microsite, Stories of Feminist Peace 2020, or by watching our Theory of Change video.
Join the movement!
Tell me more about WILPF’s Herstory
If you are curious to know more about our herstory, we’ve put together a list of documents, videos and archives which will guide you on the exciting herstory of our movement, our foremothers and of feminist peace!