Learn about the lives and work of women who are or were dedicated to peace. Whether in their communities, their nations, or through international agencies, these women's stories may reflect or inspire our own. Check back regularly to learn about more women. Also, share your story with us by clicking here!
The menu of the biographies is located to the right.
Peace Women From Our Past now includes of oral histories of our peace sisters, excerpted from Judith Porter Adams, Peacework: Oral Histories of Women Peace Activists (Twayne Publishers, Boston: 1990). The page numbers are included in each entry. Currently, we are displaying oral histories of Elise Hansen Boulding, Enola Maxwell, Margaret Dawson Stein, and Madeline Taylor Duckles. Check back regularly for new oral histories.
ADELAIDE NEWCOMER NOYES was born in 1902, the daughter of a prominent banker and philanthropist of Baltimore, Maryland, Waldo Newcomer.
“I first became interested in the peace movement about 1923 or 24. Actually
I was an Episcopalian, but a few years after First World War, I changed to [The Society of] Friends who were really coming out for peace from the very beginning and long before the War. I was not working for peace during the First World War…. Through the Friends Meeting I inquired and found out about the American Friends Service Committee. However, they recommended the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and later on during World War II, I did more work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.”
“I was not in any Suffrage organization. I knew that a good many W.I.L. women
were in the Suffrage movement but that was before I got into WILPF. I joined WILPF about three years before Women had the vote… Of course, women could vote in town and county elections before that.”
“[WILPF] was one of the [organizations] whose principles I believed in. Tthere was a real necessity for the Women's League at that time. ... because women having the vote - there was a good deal of opposition to that. I like one thing particularly about the W.I.L. We have always welcomed male members. I thought it very important at the time to have an all-women organization; it was badly needed. However, I did not join an organization [just] because it was all male or female.”
“I ended my [formal] schooling in 1921. The first year I was out of school, I was reading the Bible a lot in the New Testament, and I thought war was so bad…. I felt that Germans were much worse than any anyone else. But I read a book by Phillip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told (1920). My conversion point was when I read this book. This book really woke me up to the fact that the Germans were people too and that we were very much alike, and that in our own country there were a lot of wrong things. That just brought the picture into focus then. And I went on from there.”
“A lot of my friends were C.O.s during W.W.II. I entertained Conscientious
Objectors in my home….This work was done through the F.O.R. chapter in Baltimore.”
Asked about her reaction to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she said,
“I was very disappointed that our own President had ordered the bombings.
I was against nuclear bombs being dropped elsewhere in the world war.”
“My work 1946-65 in WILPF involved the Rosenberg case, and [work against] A-bomb testing. I opposed the Cold War with USSR. McCarthyism was just plain crazy". [It created an] hysteria similar to 1920's Red Scare. When the Germans were our enemy, during World War II Russia was on our side. When the McCarthy-ites did not have the Germans as their enemy, they had to have somebody. My interest in the ACLU was very strong.”
“During those twenty years, I wrote many letters to the editor of the Sun papers
in Baltimore. There were vigils at Fort Detrick against bacteriological weapons - experiments at the plant there. I participated in these. There were a number
of vigils for this and other causes.”
When asked about what WILPF should focus on in the next ten years, Adelaide said, “I think I'd put disarmament very high up on list …and the work that is continually needed for civil rights.”
[Adelaide was interviewed in 1988. These excerpts of the interview are used with permission of the Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources. Womens' International League for Peace and Freedom Collection, Archive of Recorded Sound (ARS-0056)]
Note: We sadly moved our biography of Wangari Maathai from "Current Peace Women" to "Peace Women from Our Past." You may also wish to read Robin Lloyd's memorial here. This biography is borrowed from a fantastic web site, the Nobel Women's Initiative. See the original biography by clicking here.
“Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her actions to promote sustainable development, democracy and peace. She is the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Prof. Maathai was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1976 to 1987 and served as its chairman from 1981 to 1987. In 1976 she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organization whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. The organization eventually became known as the Green Belt Movement (GBM), and to-date has assisted women in planting more than 40 million trees on community lands including farms, schools and church compounds.
In December 2002, Prof. Maathai was elected to Kenya's parliament with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote. Until 2007, she represented the Tetu constituency, Nyeri district in central Kenya (her home region). From 2003 to 2007 Prof. Maathai served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya's ninth parliament.
In September 1998, Prof. Maathai launched and become co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, which advocates for canceling the debts of poor African countries. Her recent campaign against land grabbing (illegal appropriation of public lands by developers) and the rapacious re-allocation of forest land has received much attention in Kenya and the region.
In June of 2008 the Congo Basin Forest Fund was launched. The fund protects the forests of the Congo Basin by supporting projects that make the forest worth more as a living resource, than it would be cut down. Prof. Maathai acts as co-chair and goodwill ambassador for the initiative.
Prof. Maathai has addressed the United Nations on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the 1992 Earth Summit. In March 2005, she was elected as the first president of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council.
She is the author of three books; an autobiography, Unbowed, and an explanation of her organizational method, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. Her newest book, The Challenge for Africa was released in April 2009.”
I had a very strong feeling, from the earliest I can remember, that if there should ever be a war, I knew a way to be secure and safe, and that was to go and hide in the mountains of Norway…. [When] Norway was invaded…my dream of the safe, secure place…was shattered…. I came to realize that only way to have safety and security was to have it for the whole world and that led me to the peace movement.
We were in no way an activist-oriented household, so I didn't have sense of appropriate action….
The end of my first year out of college I joined the Friends Meeting and that gave me all kinds of avenues into peace action….
After Pearl Harbor my husband and I drew up a letter to our friends asking them not to support the war, that war was not going to solve the problems of the world. He had to resign from his position at the League of Nations because he had made a statement on a political matter, which officials were not allowed to do. We were practically thrown out of our Friends Meeting because they were not prepared to support our action….
I had joined WILPF during my homemaking period in the late fifties or early sixties. I became involved with a group of mothers who wanted their children to be pacifists. I had been involved in the YWCA and the League of Women Voters; neither of those organizations dealt with how you raised pacifists and WILPF did….
…I took very seriously the basic notion, which now looks like a very traditional notion, that women had something special to offer. I felt that women had a special responsibility for peace….
I began to appreciate WILPF members in a way that I hadn't before because WILPF members had been there all along and they never got carried away by … narrow concerns.They were always looking at a broader picture of economic and social structures and opportunities for everyone. I felt there was an enormous difference in the human style of WILPF that seemed so much better than much of the women's movement. I would hope that when the history of the women's movement is written that what WILPF stood for comes out quite clearly. I think it's very important the way WILPF has found a balance….
But Vietnam is what really pushed me into direct political activism, to get the United States to withdraw from Vietnam….
After the Vietnam War… something became clear to me that had not been clear to me before: most of the young people who came to the Vietnam movement were not pacifists…. I learned something from their view about oppression and victimization and the evils of the state that had not been part of my earlier view. But what saddened me was that many of them did not have a strong commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence…. I was beginning to teach peace studies here on campus and developed a program in answer to these concerns.
The word empowerment wasn't a word we used then, but I was trying to empower women by showing them that what they understood and the skills they built in the community and family work they did were relevant to making peace in the community at large and dealing with social problems. They knew more than they thought they knew, and they had skills in mediation and conflict resolution
which men often didn't have…. I always used WILPF as an example of how women worked for peace in the family, school, community, nation, and the international scene. WILPF was a model that I carried with me wherever I was….
My major mediation role has been between peace researchers and peace activists, each of whom think the other is failing to address the real needs of our time. Activists are impatient with looking at the long haul and evaluating
implications of their actions…. Peace researchers have too little respect for the understanding of humans in action, which activists have; they underestimate the value of their intuitions and the significance of emotional focusing they provide. They are not interested in providing the nitty-gritty kinds of information activists need. My goal has been to initiate a dialogue between the action and research perspectives, allowing each to be teacher-learner in relation to the other.
[excerpts from pp. 186-191]
I grew up in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where black people were constantly out there fighting for their rights through the NAACP and the Baptist church…. My family was involved in these things. My grandmother was really liberated woman. I was never so proud of anybody in my whole life this woman….she had dignity and pride.…
When I came to San Francisco I found that black people were looking for dignity and pride, but you know I had dignity and pride all my life…I grew up with it…. My grandmother, this woman couldn’t read and write her own name, but the pride and dignity she had! I didn’t understand all this at the time, but later I did….
Before we left Baton Rouge it was really a struggle keeping the freedom and keeping from this hate business.…But it wasn't easy. We had not ridden public transportation much because my son, when he was about four years old, couldn't sit where he wanted--you know, the back of the bus business. If Dr. King had done no more than bring us from the back of the bus, the man would have achieved true greatness….
I was not going to live in poverty. I told the Lord that something else had to be done because I refused to say Jesus Christ and God is my father and He is rich in powers and in land and I'm living in poverty. So I decided not to be poor, not to have the poverty mentality….
In 1967 I became a lay preacher and elder at the Olivette Presbyterian Church. I was the second black woman elder, and our church was the only church that had women elders, period…. By that time the Presbyterians were quite involved in the civil rights movement…. I was living in a Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco where a lot of the peace people were. We went on the march in Washington in 1963 with Dr. King. Then Dr. King made his anti-Vietnam speech. Our church considered Dr. King to be a moral leader of the church. The seminaries supported him and went to Montgomery and built the tents for the march. My church sponsored me to Montgomery.
Peace and civil rights were not always connected for me; most blacks got involved in civil rights way before peace work…. At that time
I joined Women [Strike] for Peace and WILPF. We were doing the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and marches and leafletting. In my capacity as lay preacher I was doing draft counseling and counseling for conscientious objectors….
I've always been in groups that stood for nonviolence. I got elected as a spiritual advisor for the Black Panthers, and I thought that was really something. I was so proud of that that I didn't know what to do. I got up and announced it right in the church…. Everybody, of course, was scared of the Panthers. I was going to their meetings, and I was encouraging them not to use violence. You can't win with guns. I was a Martin Luther King person.
…Let me say some things about women in peace groups… I like the sisterhood. …. So many times I see some young person trying to start some coalition or something, and they swear their ideas are new and have never been tried before. These women will just sit there and listen. I've learned a lot from them. They knew we tried that idea ten or fifteen years ago and it didn't work, but it may work this time. They patiently teach that you need coalitions and need to work on more than one issue….
…I value freedom and I value freedom more than anything else in the world. If the day comes when I can't speak for freedom and justice, I've lived long enough. That's all there is to it…. I'll tell you what is so dear to me about all these good women who work for peace: it is that they have been there all of these years. They're going to be there until they die. They never gave up. They never stopped. We lost a lot of women; they died and the peace movement didn't. The peace movement goes on and on. Nobody can say anything that has not been said by these women.
[excerpts from pp. 108-114]
[Note: this essay is adapted from a course paper for a Wellesley College Peace & Justice Studies course.]
Käthe Kollwitz’s artwork is subtle, but it is never simple. Upon close inspection, the viewer finds deep and chilling statements about the inhumanity of war and poverty. A progressive peacemaker, Kollwitz promoted nonviolence by weaving her political ideals and maternal experiences directly into her artwork.
Käthe Kollwitz (née Schmidt) was born on July 8th, 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia. In a society where girls were not encouraged to pursue any interests beyond being mothers and wives, Kollwitz had a rare upbringing. She started taking art lessons when she was 14 years old, finding that she was especially talented in etching, sculpture, and printmaking. Though it was unusual for a woman who did not have connections with the art world to pursue art as a career, her father saw her artistic talents and eagerly helped her develop her abilities.
Kollwitz was particularly passionate about the idea of “woman as revolutionary” (Kearns 83). She was able to see the potential in women, just as her father was able to see the potential in her. Through her artistic depictions of women, she challenged the common notions of feminine beauty; her female subjects have strong bodies that are capable of endurance and physical labor. She emphasized their physical qualities while deemphasizing their sexuality, rejecting the ideals of women as sexual objects (Kearns 105).
War was a prominent presence in Kollwitz’s life, as she lived during both World War I and World War II. In confronting these issues, her peacemaking efforts varied. During wartime, she remained more focused on addressing the immediate effects of violence. She promoted negative peace by putting her art aside in order to work as a cook and server for destitute women and children. Kollwitz felt that her art was secondary to the children’s urgent needs (Kearns 133). During periods of “peace,” in which no wars were occurring, citizens were still suffering from the aftereffects of war; Kollwitz promoted positive peace during these periods by creating posters and leaflets. The works, enhanced by her emotional depictions of the proletariat, protested against those who were profiting from postwar inflation (Lippard, x). Ultimately, Kollwitz wanted to see the end of war; without war, the proletariat, who were most affected by war, would suffer less. As a pacifist, she believed that a strict adherence to nonviolence was the only way to prevent war; she sought to transform the conflicts that surrounded her by promoting Pacifism through her artwork.
Though she was always passionate about voicing her views through her artwork, she did not find her work’s true purpose until her son Peter died in combat during World War I. She saw no justification for Peter’s or any soldier’s death. Peter became her strongest inspiration; she became even more determined to use her artwork to promote peace.
Kollwitz’s work unapologetically grabs the viewer’s attention with its dark and mesmerizing imagery, depicting the devastating realities of war and poverty. For example, one woodcut from her War series, The Parents, portraying a man and a woman grieving over the death of their child, is reflective of her own grief over Peter’s death (Kollwitz). Their faces are hidden from the viewer; the man covers his face with his hand as the woman collapses against him in despair. The obstruction of their faces suggests that they have lost their identities in succumbing to grief. Their black figures look darker against the lighter background, emphasizing that they are in a deep despair that isolates them from the world. Kollwitz’s messages were more accessible and ultimately more memorable for the viewers because they were enhanced by her haunting artwork. On the subject of her work, she once wrote, “I am content that my art should have purposes outside itself. I would like to exert influence in these times when human beings are so perplexed and in need of help” (Kearns 173).
Käthe Kollwitz died on April 22, 1945. She displayed resilience in her final years, refusing to leave the country even when her home in Berlin was bombed (Kearns 223). In spite of the conflicts that surrounded her, Kollwitz remained hopeful about the future. Shortly before her death, she told her granddaughter, “One day, a new idea will arise and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much work, but it will be achieved” (Lippard, ix). Käthe Kollwitz’s artwork will surely continue to inspire those on the path to peace.
- Carter Rice, Wellesley College
Crystal Eastman was a central actor in some of the most epochal social movements of the twentieth century – labor, feminism, civil rights, free speech, peace. By the time she co-founded the Woman’s Peace Party, helping to recruit Jane Addams to head the national organization while she remained Executive Director of the New York branch, she had already written the nation’s first serious workers’ compensation law and helped to co-found the National Woman’s Party. After it, she joined with Lillian Wald and others to co-found the internationalist American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) and co-published the Liberator magazine. And in the interim, she coordinated the founding of the ACLU.
Eastman was a policy innovator, an early media activist, an organizer, operative, executive and exceptional voice in the debates, both public and private, that shaped her world—and ours. Her work on industrial accidents in 1910 shifted the legal logic from liability only in cases of employer negligence toward a more collective, no-fault distribution of risk and loss shared by workers, businesses and consumers. It eventually became a model around the country. She was the first person to join with Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to launch what would become the National Woman’s Party; in December, 1912, it was Eastman and Burns, friends since Vassar, who approached the National American Woman Suffrage Association to propose a Congressional Committee to pursue a federal amendment. As the U.S. marched toward the Great War, the AUAM and WPPNY rallied gender, class and race arguments against the military build-up and innovated new strategies for shaping public opinion and government policy toward international cooperation beginning with a negotiated peace. After the Espionage Act effectively silenced The Masses magazine, edited by her brother Max Eastman, she joined with him in 1918 to co-publish its successor, the Liberator, whose reach would exceed its better-known predecessor; the magazine achieved 60,000 in circulation within its first year and brought out work by Sherwood Anderson, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Djuana Barnes, Jean Toomer, e.e. cummings, Claude McKay, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Carl Sandburg – voices that came to define the post-war literature of the American left.
Eastman was also a vanguard voice in the politics of private life. Divorced in 1916, she refused alimony, living her belief in absolute equality between the sexes. As a speaker for the National Birth Control League, she added an unorthodox argument to the prevailing mix by advocates – women’s desire. “Feminists are not nuns,” she declared in 1918. “And we want our love to be joyous and free – not clouded with ignorance and fear.” Later, she proposed a “National Motherhood Endowment,” a federal fund to remunerate women for their maternal service to the nation.
Eastman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
- Dr. Amy Aronson, Fordham University, New York, NY
In her almost century-long life, Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) participated in a spectrum of social reform activities and authored a long list of publications. She attained notoriety during her lifetime as a social reformer, professor, and international peace leader. She helped to found one of Boston’s first settlement houses (Denison House). She became a professor and later dean at Wellesley College, and was widely recognized as a published scholar on American immigration. In her middle age, she emerged as an international peace leader. A cofounder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Balch served in many roles for the organization. Perhaps most notably, she set up and organized the WILPF’s international office in Geneva. Her dedication to internationalism culminated with her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.
In 1922, Balch issued a call to women of all countries to reach beyond national allegiances and develop a new human identity. She declared the emergence of a new generation of women, writing: “Lovers of our own lands, we are citizens of the world, conscious partakers in the sacrament of all human life” (“Our Call,” Bulletin of WILPF, February 1922). On a personal level, she embraced a global identity, recording, “Deeply and happily I feel myself a citizen of the world. I am at home wherever there are people” (“The Earth is My Home”). Balch’s personal and public declarations of global citizenship were the product of a lifetime of learning the necessity of cooperation across borders and nationalistic loyalties. As a social reformer on local, national and international levels, Balch came to understand the need to stress human similarities over national differences. Over the course of Balch’s life, through her professional work and scholarly writings, she continually advanced the concept of global citizenship as the path to peace. This idea remained a constant driving force in her life and is a central element of her legacy.
Kristen E. Gwinn, Emily Greene Balch: The Long Road to Internationalism (University of Illinois Press, December 2010).
Mercedes Randall, Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch, Nobel Peace Laureate, 1946 (Twayne Publishers, 1964).
Sameena Nazir, executive director of Podohar Organization for Development Advocacy, and the president of WILPF’s Pakistan section shared her perspective of working in Pakistan on February 21 at the home of Joan Ecklein. While in Pakistan, Sameena’s priority was organizing women in the changing landscape, which was determined by the war waged by the U.S. in bordering Afghanistan. She explained the history of Pakistan as one of two countries created purely as religious countries and living under the continuous uncertainties of military regimes. She also shared the present atmosphere in Pakistan where daily life involves drone attacks and targeted killings of Pakistani soldiers by Afghan forces.
We’ve made progress in civil rights, environmental issues; we've progressed on every level except for peace….WILPF was working hard right after women's suffrage trying to get women more involved in the political process, trying to stop war toys and get the U.S. out of Central America in 1917 and we're still there now. The problems persist.
Women bring to the peace movement the best feminist qualities, which are patience, tolerance, compassion, and a hell of a lot of intelligence. We're much more loath to make judgments. We have the courage to change our minds. We're not nearly so reticent about admitting mistakes and changing course when we do wrong. Of course, there are aggressive women, but they are not the "norm" for women.
In the course of antiwar work, I was involved in the Committee of Responsibility, which brought war-injured Vietnamese children into the United States for medical treatment they couldn't get in Vietnam. After treatment, they would return to Vietnam…. altogether we got eighty five children out of Vietnam, usually pretty severe cases requiring plastic surgery
I think there can be a nonviolent revolution, and I'm committed to nonviolent social change. I think that's the only way it can come about. Now I'm involved in a project--what is a day without a project?--to try to reach … the people who don't vote. We had several community groups around here that had the same idea almost the same time: wouldn't it be great if we had a mobile peace resource unit…. It's known as the Martin Luther King Peace Mobile because he was the first one to articulate the concept that peace and social justice are the same struggle. It has a public address system. Upstairs we have … a playroom with beautiful multi-ethnic toys… a computer with global resources software, with nonviolent computer games to teach cooperation…. It has a typewriter. It has a copying machine. Downstairs is a place for people to have meetings…. It also has a solar panel to demonstrate alternative sources of energy.
It's a double-decker London bus. We raised money the hard way. I think I don't have any friends left--I asked them all to contribute…. We applied for grants in all directions. The peace mobile is available to the community…. It has a driver, a wonderful young woman who helps with the programs we do on the bus.
When we first got the bus, we thought we would use it to attract attention to
an event we were having. But that's not the best use of it. The local communities
get involved in planning programs using the bus. Every group that takes the bus…has to have a course …in how to use the equipment in the bus. Their written materials have to be in at least two languages. …They… have to make the connection between their project and the militarism of this country.
Kids have done public service announcements on commercial television around
election time. They …asked people to vote their conscience. "Vote for peace when you vote."
We had the most marvelous group … a lot of them from the Rainbow Coalition, and the Freedom Singers, with a swinging gospel rhythm. They started out with "We're going to change this world" in these wonderful rich voices. "Peace, jobs and justice, we're going to change this world." Then somebody would get on the speaker system and say, "You have two more days to register to vote…."
One of the things that I have thought for a long time was that we should have
a national women's conference and we should do what England does. The party
out of power has a "shadow government" of whomever they would put in power if
they were elected…. We would write a foreign policy. We would have a budget. We would have a medical plan and educational plan…. We would create…a picture of what society could be….
Women are audacious, not afraid to go out on a limb, and they are not afraid to dream. I think one of the things that sustains me is the wonderful women… the wonderful people in the peace movement.
In our family, the peace movement was very much a part of all our lives. The children were affected by what we were doing, and were affected by their interest. When the oldest child was about three, she started looking at this copy of a book by Felix Greene called Let There Be a World. It had these awful pictures of victims of Hiroshima. She found it and said, “Momma, what is this?" So I explained about the bomb, that we must be sure this never happened again. She said, "Well Momma, what are you about it?" That can really spur you on to do more.
During one of the first marches against the Vietnam War, this same child wanted to go, and we were very nervous. It was the first big march and we didn't know what might happen. So my husband said she couldn't go. She made herself a little picket sign and went marching around the house picketing and chanting, "Take me to the march. Take me to the march." She eventually got to a march, but not that one.
Another daughter made a marvelous comment when my husband was arrested outside of the Oakland Induction Center in about 1967. He went to jail, and she said, "Momma, why did they put Daddy in jail?" I said, "Oh, well, they said he was disturbing the peace." She said, "But he wasn't, he was disturbing the war." I thought that was a marvelous comment because it certainly was what he was trying to do.
She was in the fourth grade when we bombed North Vietnam. We were phoning everybody to call the president to protest. She heard all this. She was a rather shy child at that time, but the next day she came home and at supper she said, "I got up in my class today and asked all the students to have their parents phone the president to protest the bombing. That's what I shared today."
I was president of the WILPF branch during the Vietnam War. Almost our entire activity was centered around the war and the draft…. We felt that high school students ought to know about changes in the draft law. So we made a big effort to get the school districts to give the students information on they could get draft counseling. Some schools wouldn't agree to do anything, so we picketed them and leafletted the students. At one the principal was so opposed to our action that he went on the speaker system to all the classrooms and warned the students against our group across the street. Well, during lunch the students all flocked over to see what we were doing!...
Very few of the things that we've worked for for many years have actually happened.… But in the process of working on local issues, we have developed a very good working relationship with many groups….. We were once at a social action committee at a local Unitarian church and a black man who was active in his community came over to one of us older women. She was very nicely made up with a very fluffy, nice hairdo. He said, "Where have you fluffy-headed white people been all this time?" The more we got involved, the more we learned about our community and got more diverse groups of people working together….
We need more younger members, but if there's a working woman with a family, there's just not much left, no matter how dedicated they are.
I work with a marvelous group of people…. Occasionally individuals will get very discouraged and drop out. But you come back.…you just expect to go on and you just keep going…. Probably it's the warmth of relationships that helps; it helps you keep going in the face of defeat. The people help sustain you; the sisterhood of it.
Work in the peace movement is very long term. It takes a long time before you see much effect from what you've done in many cases.… I don't think we should be discouraged that we're in it for a long time; most things worth doing take a long time.
[Note: this essay is adapted from a course paper for a Wellesley College Peace & Justice Studies course.]
Monica McWilliams has been a driving force in the approaches to peace in Northern Ireland. She is most widely known for co-founding the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in 1998, and spending her life fighting for women’s inclusion in peacemaking processes. McWilliams was born on April 28, 1954 to a Catholic family in Kilrea, County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Growing up during “the Troubles,” she was subjected to violence and oppression by nationalist paramilitary forces. McWilliams also witnessed firsthand the poor treatment of women in Northern Ireland, and this had a particularly strong impact on her. It is likely that her dedication to ending domestic violence and helping female victims was spawned by what she saw as a child.
Monica McWilliams’s had previously worked foremost as a politician. After the publication of the Framework Document by the British and Irish governments in 1995, she organized a conference designed to pull together women’s reactions to the plan laid out in that work. The attendees all agreed that women must be included in the peace and policy-making process. McWilliams brought the idea of a women’s coalition to the British government, simply to see if they would accept the group as a political party. They obliged her proposal, and McWilliams registered the women under the name “Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition,” or NIWC. The women were able to gain enough support to win two seats in ensuing Peace Talks, held by the British and Irish governments.
McWilliams identified sectarian views as the systemic force driving the conflict in Northern Ireland, so the NIWC refused to take a unionist or nationalist opinion. Rather, they chose to remain nonpartisan and made a commitment only to the restoration of peace, equality, human rights, and the inclusion of women in the process. The party included members who identified with both groups and used this to their advantage in human rights campaigns, showing that an independent approach was possible. McWilliams emphasized dialogue within her party and at the negotiating table. Her philosophy was that communication between opposing sides must occur in order to better understand the conflict. She also pushed the continuation of dialogue between opposing actors even after agreements had been reached.
Because of her willingness to abandon unionist and nationalist labels, she recognized the importance of integrating communities and schools. She stressed integration as a means of promoting positive peace at the community level. Educating Catholic and Protestant children together would promote religious tolerance and understanding, which was, in her view, at the heart of Northern Ireland’s conflict.
McWilliams is committed to nonviolence, and therefore stresses the decommissioning of weapons. She poses a unique argument for this: women are living in an armed patriarchy, and weapons could be used for domestic violence, not just combat. She sees violence in the household as one of the underlying causes of the disempowerment of women; their voices were suppressed in a more systemic way due to the cultural acceptance of domestic violence.
Though Monica McWilliams and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition met with success in the end, they went through quite a struggle to earn respect from other parties. McWilliams herself is a respected woman with a trustworthy, nonpartisan reputation, but when she came to the table with a feminist platform, she was not well received by the male-dominated group. She endured sexual harassment on a regular basis; the men would boo as she spoke, insulting her and other party members, and refer to her as a dog and a cow. The women of the NIWC quickly learned that they needed to work much harder than any other party in order to prove themselves and gain respect. McWilliams and the others rose to the occasion, working efficiently and always arriving to meetings prepared. They were soon recognized as the only party to consistently do its assignments, and the men began to see merit in their negotiating skills. NIWC’s success at the peace table showed the British and Irish governments that women must not be overlooked in the peace process, for their input is vital to the complete transformation of conflict.
- Emily L. Gell, Wellesley College.
Note: this biography is borrowed from the Peacewomen web site. See the original biography by clicking here.
Madeleine qualified as a lawyer in 1990 and became a partner in a large law firm in the UK in 1994 specializing in discrimination law, particularly in the area of employment, and public and administrative law and she did work on behalf of both the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission mainly on developing strategies to establish rights under domestic law through the identification of test cases to be brought before the courts. Madeleine brought cases both to the European Court of Human Rights and The European Court in Luxembourg. She was cited as one of the leading lawyers in the field of discrimination in the Chambers directory of British lawyers. In 1998 she began working for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as the gender expert and Head of Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that capacity she worked extensively on the rule of law, gender and post conflict, transitional justice and the protection of social and economic rights. The Office in Bosnia was the first to take a case of rendition to Guantanamo before a court. The OHCHR office dealt extensively with the issue of trafficking and Madeleine was a member of the expert coordination group of the trafficking task force of the Stability Pact, thence the Alliance against Trafficking. From September 2006 to April 2010 she was the head of the Women`s rights and gender unit. For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, focusing on using law to describe the different experiences of men and women, particularly post conflict. The aim was to better understand and interpret the concept of Security using human rights law as complementary to humanitarian law and how to make the human rights machinery more responsive and therefore more effective from a gender perspective.