Women, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow

René Wadlow

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) held its Centennial Congress 27-29 April in The Hague, Netherlands, where at the end of April in 1915 some 1500 women gathered from both belligerent and neutral countries to try to end the hostilities. The congress called for mediation to stop the war and for steps to prevent future wars with a World Court, universal disarmament, and the right of all peoples to self-government.

WILPF, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and the War Resisters’ International (WRI) were all created as a response to the outbreak of the First World War. In the founding of these peace organizations, there was a good deal of common membership. Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961), founding members of WILPF were also FOR members; both women were later Nobel Peace Laureates. Another FOR women member, Tracy Mygatt, was a founding leader of the War Resisters’ International. Many of the founders of the three organizations were members of the Society of Friends and also active in Quaker peace activities. Yet the three peace organizations have kept some of the distinctive spirit and style of their origins: IFOR – a Christina organization become in recent years multi-faith, WILPF – with suffragist-feminist roots is focused on the role of women in peacebuilding and on violence against women, WRI which developed from anti-conscription efforts during the First World War has a focus on conscientious objection and the abolition of war through individual action. (1)

The headquarters of WILPF is in Geneva, and its main focus from the 1960s on has been on disarmament and arms control. Thus, I have had the most constant contact with WILPF, as I was teaching at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies in Geneva, and especially in the 1970-1980s focused on arms issues. I worked closely with the WILPF staff and often met visiting WILPF officers coming to Geneva for UN meetings. There was also a good deal of interaction with the Quaker Office to the UN in which I was active. Elise Boulding, Chair of WILPF at the time was a Quaker who had focused her sociological research on the role of women. I had known earlier her husband, Kenneth, an economist interested in development issues and later in peace research. Dorothy Hutchinson who was chair of the US section of WILPF and later international chair was active in Quaker circles, as well as in the role and potential of the United Nations.

I learned much of the techniques of representing an NGO at the UN from Gertrude Baer (1890-1981) who had moved from Germany to Geneva in 1924 to be near the League of Nations and to work in the WILPF office. The League of Nations had no official consultative status procedures for NGOs as the UN has developed. Thus WILPF and the British Quakers were the only permanent NGO representatives around the League and had to discover ways of interacting with League delegates and secretariat as well as with the International Labour Organization also in Geneva. Disarmament had been an important − if unsuccessful − activity of the League, and WILPF was particularly active in the lead up to the 1932 Disarmament Conference.

Members of WILPF were particularly active in what is now called “Track II diplomacy “ − finding ways through informal discussions to influence official diplomacy. Much of the early WILPF efforts are due to Rosika Schwinner (1877-1948) who was a leading participant in The Hague founding conference and who became the long-serving Vice-President of WILPF. At the founding conference, she urged that the resolutions, especially on a mediated peace, be taken and presented to government leaders. The WILPF messengers were given vague replies of good will and “it would be a good idea if something were done.”   Rosika Schwinner took these messages to the USA in the hope that President Wilson would do something. Henry Ford, of Ford car fame, was strongly opposed to the war − or at least to US participation in the war. Ford and Schwinner went to see Wilson in Washington, and Schwinner showed Wilson the replies of other governments. Wilson, who could also write vague messages of good will, saw the replies for what they were but added his own vague “it would be nice if” message.

However Rosika Schwinner, either believing that Wilson was really will to act, or overstating Wilson’s position, announced to the press Wilson’s intentions to act as mediator. Wilson had no such intentions and was already preparing to take the US into the war. Wilson became angry with the press reports and cut off all contact with Ford and WILPF. However, for Schwinner, if Wilson would not act, then a “Track II” approach might work. She convinced Henry Ford to finance a “Peace Ship” that would sail to Europe to promote a “Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation” hoping that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would play the lead role.

There were many journalists on the Peace Ship who did not take the effort seriously, started calling the boat “The Ship of Fools” and created such a negative image that Henry Ford, fearing for the reputation of his cars, left the ship at its first port in Norway and returned to the US. Schwinner continued alone with a small band of women, but the Nordic countries were more interested in just staying out of the war rather than ending it, and probably saw that mediation was impossible.

Learning from the Ford Peace Ship effort, today Track II efforts tend to be off the record, and if there are press releases, they are carefully written. There will always be media people to make fun or distort peace efforts; thus one has to be careful with statements to the public.

Track II efforts toward government leaders has remained a key approach of WILPF. As an organization with a small membership and very limited financial resources, it is difficult to organize mass mobilization campaigns. The strength of the organization is that since its 1915 founding, there has been a sharp rise in the number of women in leadership positions in universities and government service. WILPF can call upon a network of dedicated women professors in the social sciences, peace research, law and human rights, so that its statements to the UN and individual governments are of high quality. Today, women can vote nearly everywhere, and thus what was suffragist energy can be redirected to the issue of violence against women or, more positively, to full equality between women and men. Many gender issues have become “mainstream”, and the concept of “women at the peace table” has grown in acceptance even if not much in practice.

Given the many forms that violence takes as well as the many different cultures in which armed violence is now ongoing, we can learn from the experience of each peace activity. In particular, we can be encouraged by the past 100 years of peace and conflict resolution efforts. There is still much to be done; cooperation and best use of strengths and talents is necessary. The examples of those who have led the way in earlier times can serve as our guides.


  • For good historical overviews of the organizations see: Catherine Foster. Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989, 230pp.)

Paul R. Dekar. Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005, 326pp.)

Devi Prasad. War is a crime against humanity: The Story of War Resisters’           International (London: War Reisters’ International, 2005, 557pp.)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 May 2015.

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