Did you know that WILPF is 98 today? To celebrate such a special occasion, we are making us one of the best presents we could ever have: we are remembering our history and the beginnings of our peace organisation with WILPF historian Helen Kay.

Helen has kindly accepted to answer our interview, providing interesting and curious insights about our history… and also an encouraging message for the future. Read the interview below.

The publication “Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience” mentions the “hidden history” of the peace movement opposition to the First World War. Which are, in your opinion, the key moments of the “hidden history” of WILPF that every WILPF member and supporter should know?

Peace delegation 1915– In April 1915, 1200 women from 12 countries braved the difficulties of travelling in wartime, in ship across the Atlantic, by boat and train across Europe, to meet together at The Hague in order to protest against the horrors of the war and to discuss how to prevent future wars.

It was a noisy meeting, as they chose to work in only three languages: French, German and English. In little groups, they helped each other to interpret back and forward to understand each other and created 20 resolutions that still have resonance today.

The Congress, then, elected five women to take the message to all the Heads of State in Europe and USA. The women met with 21 Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, a King and the Pope. They urged the statesmen in neutral states to set up mediation to end the war, and obtained agreement from the leaders of the belligerent nations that they would not obstruct such mediation.

They were well received but each political leader said they would only act if somebody else took the first action: sadly not one political leader would take that first step and the slaughter continued for three more years till 1918.

However; from this beginning, WILPF has always tried to provide a gendered analysis of the causes of war, a feminist perspective on to resolve international disputes by peaceful means and has publicised how we might prevent international conflict in the first place.

Which historical anecdote or personality do you find the most interesting or inspiring?

– I am most interested in Chrystal Macmillan, who was born in Edinburgh in 1872, and who was a committed and very active campaigner in the suffrage movement in Scotland. She became one of the main organisers for the International Women’s Congress (IWC) at The Hague in 1915.

She was a remarkable woman: the first woman to graduate in Science from Edinburgh University, with first class degree in mathematics. In 1908, she spoke in the House of Lords to claim women graduates’ right to vote in Parliamentary Elections in Scotland. Later, in 1924, she became a barrister in London, but she campaigned all her life for women to be treated as equal citizens as men, politically, economically, socially and legally.

She was perceived as rather strict in her role as chair of Resolutions Committee at the IWC, but she was elected by Congress as one of the women to visit the Heads of State in 1915. Again, in 1919, the women meeting at the second Congress in Zurich elected her to take the message to the men meeting at Versailles: the women saw the Treaty of Versailles as flawed, unfair and likely to lead to another war.

Photo of WILPF historian Helen Kay

WILPF historian Helen Kay

Why is WILPF’s peace engagement particularly relevant nowadays? Which lessons can we draw from the past to improve our peace efforts for the future?

– This is a big question: the short answer is to ‘keep going’!

The strange thing is that when you get politicians to really stop for a moment and listen to WILPF analysis, they say: ‘Well now, that sounds sensible’ – the statesmen said it in 1915!

Nowadays, women politicians have joined the men in accepting that WILPF usually has something sensible to say. One day we will get the political leaders to act upon the WILPF analysis and recommendations for peaceful resolution of international disputes.

When asked about the role of our Section in the UK throughout WILPF’s history – a rather big question, indeed! – Helen said that she is making researches and she promised she will answer in the future.

In the meanwhile, you can take a look at “Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience”, a beautiful publication put together by a committee of representatives of various peace organisations, including WILPFers Helen Kay and Katrina Gass.

We are proud to be the oldest women’s peace organisation in the world and we will strive to carry on working towards peace, human rights and women’s security for many more anniversaries.

Happy anniversary to us all!