Public horror at the first successful use of poison gas at Ypres, Belgium in 1915 spurred an international campaign to ban chemical weapons. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) worked to mobilize opinion against the war preparations of the 1920s and 1930s by emphasizing the extensive civilian casualties that would result from the new “scientific weapons.” Countering both sexism and red-baiting, the U.S. Section of WILPF enlisted scientists, testified to Congress, and distributed leaflets to make its case against war.
To explore women’s participation in the campaign against chemical weapons in the interwar years; to understand how women’s groups from different nations were able to cooperate on a peace agenda; to understand how the U.S. Section of WILPF found allies and framed its efforts to influence military policy.
⬥ Teaching Strategies
1. Start by reading the WILFP (U.S. Section) leaflet “Tell the Child the Truth about These Things.” What kind of appeal does the leaflet make? Working from the content and tone of the leaflet, describe the intended audience. Keeping in mind that this leaflet was distributed in the early 1920s, why might some people have responded favorably? Unfavorably?
2. Continue exploring WILPF’s tactics by reading Statement of Mrs. Harriet Connor Brown, Statements by Members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and Letter from Dorothy Detzer to Charles Parsons. What additional arguments did they make? What new audiences did WlLPF address? What were the race, class, and gender characteristics of these audiences? What audiences were implicitly excluded from these appeals?
3. Consider the work of the U.S. Section in international context. Describe WILPF’s political objectives based on “Newsletter from Geneva,” “Minutes of the Meeting of the Committee Against Scientific Warfare,” and “Report on the Work of the Committee Against Scientific Warfare.” Given those objectives, how would you evaluate the U.S. Section’s work which you read about in Lesson Idea 1 and Lesson Idea 2 above? What kinds of advantages and disadvantages do you see in an international effort?
4. Think about how social movements find allies. Read “Declaration: for Signature by Scientific Men and Women,” “Letter from Naima Sahlbom,” and “Modern Methods of Warfare.” Which individuals and groups worked with WILPF? Why did they ally themselves with WILPF? Which of WILPF’s objectives did various allies support? What are the strengths and weaknesses of working with allies who support only some of a social movement’s objectives?
5. Exercise on the role of the individual in social movements. Read three documents by Dorothy Detzer and write a persuasive two-page proposal to the U.S. Postal Service for creating a Dorothy Detzer stamp. (See Document 19 in this document project; Document 12 in “How did the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Respond to Right-Wing Attacks, 1923-1931” and Document 9 in “Pacifism vs. Patriotism in Women’s Organizations in the 1920s.”)
6. Short Paper Assignment. Study each of the graphics: Dutch and German editorial cartoons, U.S. newspaper cartoons, Käthe Kollwitz’s “The Survivors” and “Never Again War,” WILPF’s “Do You Mean to Say?” and “Wanted.” Write a short essay, 2-3 pages, analyzing how each of them represents gender and the role of women in wartime.
7. Class Discussion on social movements and democratic values.
a. Ask students to bring in a collegiate dictionary definition of “propaganda.” Discuss the word’s formal meaning and the way it was used by WILPF members in the 1924 “Newsletter from Geneva,” 1925 “Minutes of the Meeting of the Committee Against Scientific Warfare” and “Report on the Work of the Committee Against Scientific Warfare.”
b. How was WILPF’s usage of the word different from the common meaning of “propaganda” in the U.S. today?
c. Considering the newspaper and magazine accounts of chemical warfare, the scientific reports, and the WILPF statements, how accurate and fair was WILPF in its characterization of chemical warfare? There is information about chemical warfare throughout this document project, but see especially “Personal Glimpses,” “The Future of Chemical Warfare,” and “The Next War, A War of Poison Gas.”
d. Why did WILPF consider truth an important weapon in their campaign? Why did they consider it wrong and disadvantageous to exaggerate the harm of chemical warfare? Is it ever appropriate for democratic social movements to exaggerate or lie to advance their causes? Why or why not?
⬥ For Further Exploration
Eleanor Roosevelt was the best known WILPF activist in the interwar years. To learn more about her WILPF work, see the fascinating multi-volume biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook and visit the “Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt” website.
Compare the contemporary WILPF disarmament campaign with their work in the interwar years. Consider such points as audience, appeal, and allies. For information about the contemporary campaign, visit http://wilpfus.org/our-work/disarmend-wars.
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