International Congress of Women

The Hague, Netherlands April 28th - May 1st, 1915
When the First World War broke out in 1914, the suffragette groups were very powerful both in the United States and United Kingdom and in many other countries of Europe. Women were aware of the deep injustice related to unequal distribution of rights and underrepresentation in political life. As the terrible consequences of the war became more and more obvious, the got ready to take radical actions.

The suffragettes who fought for peace in Europe believed in the solidarity of women above national divisions and in the possibility of working out a constructive solution for peace in the stormy times. Placing hopes on solidarity despite strong nationalisms during WW1 might have seemed a very naive an utopian strategy. Ellen Key, a Swedish activist and pacifist, once said that the suffragettes who joined the army had mistaken nationalism with a battle for equal rights and wanted to contribute to victory in order to be awarded with voting rights in exchange: ”patriotism at the time was as strong as religiousness once used to be” 1 L.B. Costin, Feminism, pacifism, internationalism and the 1915th Congress of Women w Women’s Studies International Forum, nr 5 (3-4), 1982, p. 304.↩︎.

But in fact, the very same combination of feminism and pacifism was the driving force behind the organization of the International Congress of Women. In February 1914, a committee composed of Dutch women chaired by Dr Aletta Jacobs met in Amsterdam with the delegations of women from Germany and Belgium in order to discuss the idea of convening an International Congress of Women. It was to be held in Netherlands as the country remained neutral during World War I.  Invitations to attend the Congress were sent to organizations and activists in Europe and America – each organization was obliged to send two representatives. The persons who agreed to be members of the Congress had to approve the preliminary agenda of the meeting which was predominated by the subject of international actions for peace and awarding voting rights to women. One-third of the costs of organizing the Congress was covered with the funds raised by the female activists from the United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark and the remaining money was donated by women engaged in pro-peace activities in several other countries. As we can read in the conference brochure: ”The response to the Call of the Congress was very remarkable. In Norway and Denmark, as well as America, women had already issued manifestos  on the terms of permanent peace, but women’s organisations in other neutral countries and also in the belligerent nations appointed delegates” Report of the International Congress of Women, The Hague – The Netherlands, April 28 to May 1st, 1915, Printed by the Woman’s Peace Party, p. 4.↩︎. The Congress was attended by 1,000 representatives from Netherlands, 47 from the United States, 28 from Germany, 12 from Sweden, 12 from Norway, 9 from Hungary, 6 from Denmark, 6 from Austria, 5 from Belgium, 3 from the UK, 2 from Canada and 1 from Italy. 180 delegates heading for the Congress were stopped on the way due to military restrictions. Some of them were refused passports and were not allowed by the officials to travel outside of their countries. The courageous Belgian delegates had to walk  a dozen or so kilometres to cross the Belgian-Dutch border.

The Congress was formally opened on 28 April, 1915 at the Great Hall of the Dierentiun in the Hague in the presence of 1,500 people. The official languages of the event were English, German and French. Doctor Jacobs inaugurated the Congress with the following words:

”With mourning hearts we stand united here. We grieve for many brave young men who have lost their lives on the battlefield before attaining their full manhood; we mourn with the poor mothers bereft of their sons; with the thousands of young widows and fatherless sons, and we feel that we can no longer endure in this twentieth century of civilisation, that governments should tolerate brute force as the only solution of international disputes.” Ibidem, p. 5.↩︎

Each of the speakers had 5 minutes to present their postulates and opinions. Discussions which continued at evening meetings in smaller groups and in a less official atmosphere turned out to be very inspiring and productive. Most of them were chaired by Dr Aletta Jacobs from Netherlands, Dr Anita Augspurg from Germany and Ms. Chrystal Macmillian from the UK.  During the meetings letters were read out from persons and organizations unable to attend the Congress, including greetings from such countries as Bulgaria, Iceland, Poland, Portugal and Turkey. Additionally, the participants worked on agreeing the wording of the Congress resolutions regarding peace activities and improvement of women’s situation during the war.

”We women, in International Congress assembled, protest against the madness and the horror of war, involving as it does a reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has laboured through centuries to build up…


This International Congress opposes the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare. It protests vehemently against the odious wrong of which women are the victims in time of war and especially against the horrible variation of women which attends all war.


This International Congress of different nations, classes, creeds and parties is united in expressing sympathy with the suffering of all, whatever their nationality, who are fighting for their country or labouring under the burden of war. Since the mass of the people in each of the countries now at war  believe themselves to be fighting, not as aggressors but in self-defence and for their national existence […] a magnanimous and honourable peace might be established. The Congress therefore urges the Governments of the world to put an end to this bloodshed and to begin peace negotiations. It demands that the peace which follows shall be permanent  and therefore based on principles of justice.” Ibidem, p. 11-12.↩︎

The peace resolutions were to be founded on respect for other nations, reconciliation, democratic control over government actions and economic, social and moral pressure on countries which want to engage in the war. According to the Congress postulates, countries from all the world should sign peace treaties on free trade and demilitarization. Another important postulate was to give women voting rights and educate children about the importance of peace.

As Dr Aletta Jacobs pointed out during the Congress:

”Although our efforts  may not shorten the present war, there is no doubt that this  pacific assemble of so many nations will have its moral effect upon the belligerent countries. […] Those of us who have convened this Congress, however,  have never called it  PEACE CONGRESS, but an International Congress of Women  assembled to protest against war and to suggest steps which may lead to warfare becoming an impossibility.” Ibidem, p. 6.↩︎

The Congress manifesto Mediation without Armistice was translated into several different languages and circulated in 8,000 copies all over Europe. The delegates were obliged to deliver the resolutions of the International Women’s Congress to the governments of all countries participating in the first world war and in the first place to foreign affairs ministers and prime ministers. The postulates were intended to reach the Hague, London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Brno, Rome, Paris, Havre,  Copenhagen, Christiana, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. In many countries which the delegates’ committees visited, they were invited to public meetings (the biggest ones were held in London, Budapest, Stockholm and Brno) and in others received at private audiences. The delegates also met with the Pope who expressed his deep regret about the decreasing role of religion in preventing the war and declared his support to the women’s actions. But in general, the public opinion of many countries disapproved of the Congress in 1915 and the delegates were not treated seriously by the ministers and in some cases were not only criticised but ridiculed in press, for instances, by referring to them as peacettes instead of suffragettes L.B. Costin, Feminism, pacifism, internationalism and the 1915th Congress of Women, [in:] “Women’s Studies International Forum”, no. 5 (3-4), 1982, p. 310.↩︎. Jane Addams, a suffragette from the United States responded to the criticism:

”We do not think we can settle the war. We do not think that by raising our hands we can make the armies cease slaughter. We do think it is valuable to state  anew point of view. We do think it is fitting that women should meet  and take counsel to see what may be done.” Chicago Record-Herald, 13 April 1915, [after:] L.B. Costin, op. cit., p. 309.↩︎

The Congress was a truly exceptional event. At the time, conferences were almost always organized by men and in most cases for other men, while women were not given an opportunity to actively participated in public life. Bearing in mind the war going on and the women’s situation at the time, the Congress participants showed great courage taking political affairs in their hands and initiating actions aimed at restoring peace in the world which were mostly unwelcome by the governments of the countries which they represented. In those years women did not even travel alone, particularly during the time of war. Heading for the Congress in the Hague, the delegates exposed themselves not only to social ostracism, but also to physical danger. The International Congress of Women was an important step in the battle for redefining women’s position at times of military conflicts. It was a strong voice demanding the right to decide about war and peace for women who experienced the tragic consequences of war atrocities most severely.