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The Women's Peace Crusade

John Simkin

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Two days after the British government declared war on Germany, Millicent Fawcett declared that the NUWSS was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not become involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. Despite pressure from members of the NUWSS, Fawcett refused to argue against the war. Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: "She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union."

The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government straight away about the war. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

Most members of the Women's Freedom League, were pacifists, and so they become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign. The WFL also disagreed with the decision of the NUWSS and WSPU to call off the women's suffrage campaign while the war was on. Leaders of the WFL did not believe that the British government did not do enough to bring an end to the war and in 1915 eastablished the Women's Peace Council for a negotiated peace. They were joined by former members of the NUWSS and the WSPU who were against the war. Members included Charlotte Despard, Selina Cooper, Margaret Bondfield, Ethel Snowden, Katherine Glasier, Helen Crawfurd, Eva Gore-Booth, Esther Roper, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Margaret Nevinson, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Mary Barbour.


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The peace movement in the UK during the First World War has not received very much coverage. A great deal was done to suppress the movement. For example, in February 1915 an international meeting of women met in Amsterdam. Several women that had been involved in the struggle for the vote before the war took part, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Chrystal Macmillan, took part. Emmeline Pankhurst (WSPU) and Millicent Fawcett (NUWSS) accused the women of treason and urged their supporters not to attend.

Over 180 women from Britain were refused permission to travel to the meeting. Even so, fifteen hundred delegates representing Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Britain, Hungary, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the United States managed to overcome their government's attempt to stop them reaching Amsterdam.

At the meeting the women discussed ways of ending the war. Delegates also spoke about the need to introduce measures that would prevent wars in the future such as international arbitration and the state nationalization of munitions. As a result of the conference a Women's Peace Party was formed. Other women who joined this party included Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard, Helena Swanwick, Olive Schreiner, Helen Crawfurd, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon and Winnie Wheeldon.

The biggest scandal of the First World War was the government's attempts to fit-up one of its leaders, Alice Wheeldon, with an attempted murder charge. However, that needs its own thread.


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