Document 18: Mary Heaton Vorse, "Women's Peace Conference: The Suffragettes -- Grief -- Prayer for the Dead -- Futility -- Neutral Landscape," Chapter 5 in A Footnote to Folly: Reminiscences of Mary Heaton Vorse (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), pp. 79-89.
Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) was a journalist, novelist, suffragist, and labor activist who wrote sixteen books, two plays, and hundreds of newspaper, magazine and journal articles between 1910 and her death. This document is a chapter from Vorse's autobiography, A Footnote To Folly, in which she describes her experiences while reporting on the International Congress of Women held in Amsterdam in February, 1915. As an American delegate representing the Suffrage Organization of New York, Vorse learned of the pain women from around the world were experiencing as a result of the war in Europe: "What I saw was Grief and Fear." Another chapter from this book can be viewed in the project Women and the Lawrence Textile Strike, 1912, also on this website.
WOMEN’S PEACE CONFERENCE
THE SUFFRAGETTES--GRIEF--PRAYER FOR THE
The one small green leaf left on the withered tree of internationalism by the spring of 1915 was the women's movement. The women of the world did not stop communicating with each other. The women of England had sent greetings at Christmastime to the women of Germany, and the women of Germany had replied. Letters of protest and of sympathy for women of other nations appeared in the international women’s magazine, Jus Suffragii. Letters came from Frenchwomen and from Russians. Fraulein von Heymann’s open letter, "Women of Europe, when will your cry ring out," found women in every country ready to receive it.
In part she said:
Millions of men have been left on the battlefield. They will never
see home again. Others have returned broken and sick in body and
soul. Europe’s soil reeks in blood.
Shall this war of extermination go on?
Women of Europe, where is your voice?
Are you great only in patience and suffering? Come together in the North and South of Europe and protest with all your might against this war, which is murdering the nations, and perform your duty as wives and mothers, as protectors of true civilization and humanity.
The women’s rising tide of protest against the war came to a point on February 12, 1915. On that date a great peace meeting was held in Washington by the women of America. On the same date, in Holland, an International Congress of Women, to be held in Amsterdam, was called by Dr. Aletta Jacobs, a famous Dutch suffragist.
Joe O’Brien felt that I should report this conference. I never had a decision so hard to make. I had never been away from the children for a longer time than a few days. Joe pointed out that he could take care of them as well as I and that his health seemed re-established. With frightful reluctance and an indescribable feeling of homesickness, I made preparations to go.
I was made delegate for the Suffrage Organization of New York State, representing 150,000 women. I got assignments from McClure’s, then edited by Charles Hanson Towne, to cover the conference, and assignments from Century and other magazines to do articles on the civil population in wartime.
I finally sailed, very heavyhearted. Nor was I to forget my homesickness for one moment, for it was only intensified by the crushing experience of seeing war face to face.
The American delegation, the largest which attended the Congress, was headed by Jane Addams. It included such people as Grace Abbott, Julia Lathrop, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Dr. Alice Grace Hamilton, Miss Kittredge, Mrs. W. I. Thomas, who, with her husband, was so bitterly persecuted during the war for her pacifism, Fannie Fern Andrews, Mary Chamberlain, from the Survey, and Marian Cothren. At my table were Mary Chamberlain and the Pethwick Lawrences.
Besides many of the most forward-looking women of America, the group also included cranks, women with nostrums for ending war, and women who had come for the ride. New Thought cranks with Christian Science smiles and blue ribbons in their hair, hard-working Hull House women, little half-baked enthusiasts, elderly war horses of peace, riding furious hobbies.
As a background was Jane Addams, unassertive, contemplative and sensitive. All the way over we discussed our program. All the way over, that great woman, Miss Addams, listened with as much patience to the suggestions of the worst crank among us as she did to such trained minds as Miss Breckinridge. I have never known anyone who had a greater intellectual hospitality or courtesy. When I spoke of this to her one day, she said quietly, “I have never met anyone from whom I could not learn.” We were held up for four days in the English Channel, off Dover, and arrived late, just in time for the opening meeting on the 27th of April.
The women who attended this Congress were for the most part well-to-do women of the middle class. It was an everyday audience, plain people, just folks, the kind you see walking out to church any Sunday morning. Labor was unrepresented except for Leonora O’Reilly, of the Woman’s Trade Union League, and Annie Molloy, the president of the Telephone Operators Union. It was an audience composed of women full of inhibitions, not of a radical habit of thought, unaccustomed for the most part to self-expression, women who had walked decorously all their days, hedged in by the “thou shalt nots” of middle-class life. This meeting of these women seemed all the more remarkable on that account, much more significant than the famous Ford Peace Ship.
The Congress was held in a great hall, called the “Dierentuin,” in the Zoological Gardens. In front of the gardens on a wide field, soldiers were perpetually drilling. One saw them move off more like automata than men. One saw them go through various maneuvers. They were perpetually there, a living example of the awful madness of war. A Dutchwoman said to me, as we walked past them:
“It is only since the war that I have realized that they do this to learn how to kill other men and to offer themselves to be killed. My head has always known this, but my heart only since the war!”
Counting visitors, there were between 1,200 and 1,500 in the audience. There were delegates from twelve countries. But no delegates from France, Serbia or Russia. Not even the Socialist women would send a delegate while the enemy was on French soil.
On the proscenium sat some of the most famous women in Europe, almost all internationally known; Miss Jane Addams and Miss Fannie Fern Andrews, from America; Dr. Aletta Jacobs and Dr. Boissevain, from Holland; Miss MacMillan and Miss Courtenay, form Great Britain. One wonders where those old feminists are now, Dr. Augsburg and Fraulein von Heymann of Germany, Frau Kruthgar or Frau Hofrath von Lecher of Austria. What has become of those able fighters of twenty years ago from Central Europe?
Of the two hundred English who had planned to come, only two had been allowed visas. And only one Italian delegate had got through, but there were delegates from Poland, from South Africa and from Canada.
For the first time in all the history of the world, women of warring nations and women of neutral nations had come together to lift up their voices in protest against war, through which the women and the workers gain nothing and lose all.
Usually when many people gather together there is soon developed some dominant rhythm to which the feet of the audience keep time. But here the emotion was smothered, it found no easy outlet. There was something more powerful here than the will to protest. At last I understood what the inner meaning of this assembly was and what was the preoccupation of these women.
What I saw was Grief and Fear.
I had, I suppose, expected a noisier protest and a more revolutionary spirit in a group of women whose very presence there was a revolutionary act and who were enacting one resolution after another of a revolutionary nature-resolutions, which, if they could have been carried out, would have reorganized the planet. Instead of that spirit, there was a spirit of terrible endurance such as is bred by grief and fear and suspense. A spirit with which I was familiar, for I had lived in a fishing village and I knew the granite calm of women during a storm when their men were at sea. As they grow old, the faces of such women take on a sort of iron repose, terrible to look at when you know its reason. It was this resisting quiet that held the women at The Hague.
There was not one woman from the belligerent nations near whom death had not walked. There was no man left at home in all Hungary. The Boy Scouts who had so joyfully posted our letters two years before at the suffrage convention in Budapest were all in the trenches. Two years ago they had been long-legged little boys.
All the women of Germany and Austria and Hungary had seen men, who had gone out singing, return wounded and wrecked. The women of Belgium had seen worse. Four of them had seen Antwerp fall and its miserable, hopeless and homeless population stream forth. They had seen little girls, too young to know their own names, wandering around strayed from their families. They had found old women who had dropped from exhaustion. The wide and fertile plains of Belgium had been trampled into a bloody battlefield.
A new set of war statistics, concerning the mortality of noncombatants, especially of children and women, had trickled in from the women who had not stopped writing to each other.
From Serbia and Montenegro, Miss Durham wrote: “Bad as the lot of sick and wounded may be, I consider it child’s play, to the sufferings of the wholly innocent victims of the war, the burnt-out women and children who wander miserably and starve slowly; mothers trying to feed their children on boiled grass and crouching in the rain against the blackened walls of their ruined homes.”
News had come from Poland of a suffering so vast that we could not measure it. All America had helped feed famished Belgium.
From Bulgaria came the word:
“One of the cruelest results of war that men wage upon each other is the sufferings of women and children. In despatches no mention is made of the heroism shown and the tortures endured by women, by mothers for their starving children. Wars will never cease until women at whatever cost to themselves are admitted behind the curtains.”
“In the Boer War I was behind the curtains.” Miss Emily Hobhouse wrote in reply: “It seems futile to turn to statesmen, governments or prelates for aid. They are tied and bound by position, custom and mutual fear. They await propitious moments. Famine, disease, and death do not wait. The women have this advantage: they are still unfettered by custom and expediency; they need consult only the dictates of humanity.”
All this was known through interchange of letters. Now, on this platform the women of the warring countries and the neutral countries told their stories. The stories of the women followed each other relentlessly, until it seemed as if all the grief of Europe were concentrated here in this hall.
The Polish delegate told how her country was the battlefield of the eastern armies. Thousands of villagers had been laid waste and the dwellers of these villages were starving in the forests.
There was one woman whose family owned estates in the Masurian Lakes, into whose swamps the Germans drove the Russians and the Russians then drove the Germans and the Germans and Russians drowned slowly together. The horror of it could not leave this woman, her mind constantly came back to it. She could talk only of that.
From Italy came the story of a state not yet at war but living in nameless suspense. “Our people are starving,” the Italian delegate said, “and some say: 'Let us make a revolution’ and others, 'Let us go to war, then at least our women and children will be given something to eat.’ "
The women of Bavaria repeated over and over again, “There will be no Bavarians left if this war continues," for at that time it was the Bavarian troops who had suffered most.
The woman who, even after all these years, stands out most completely in my mind is Frau Hofrath von Lecher, delegate from Austria. Simple, an aristocrat, so naïve that her original speech, which was shown beforehand to the press committee, had to be deleted, for in it she told too much. Already in April, 1915, food was lacking in Austria, dressings were lacking, anesthetics and supplies of all kinds were lacking. It was not possible to let her make public the things she told so innocently. Until the war she had lived a quiet private life. Now she had an important position in an Austrian hospital which cared for five hundred wounded.
She made the most moving speech of all the Congress. It was so simple that it was as though through her all the women of Europe were speaking. She said:
“I am not a strong and militant woman accustomed to speaking as most of these who have spoken before me. I have never before stood on a platform. All my life, like most of the women whom I know, I have been dependent on my men. But I have seen our men dependent on us weak ones. I have seen their strength wrecked. What are we women of Europe to do? We cannot live without our men, so we dependent women for whom I speak must join ourselves to you strong women and protest against a civilization that under pretension of protecting us, takes our men from us, and so I have come here to cry out: ‘Give us back our men!’ ”
I talked with her afterward and she told me: “I ask as they lie there wounded, ‘What are you fighting for?’ and they all answer, ‘We do not know--we were told to fight.’ When I told them of this Congress, they begged me to come and, in the name of their wives and children, implore the nations of the earth to make peace.”
Everyone there knew that peace is a militant thing, that any peace movement must have behind it a higher passion than the desire for war. No one can be a pacifist without being ready to fight for peace and die for peace. Perhaps some day a fanatic will arrive and put into action some of the talk of the more militant groups, for there was a glimpse of this militancy. The league for anti-war action, for instance, which appealed in a circular printed in four languages to the women of the Congress, urging them to join this militant group. The circular read:
TO WOMEN! KNOW YOUR POWER! You who abhor war, and want Peace, what have you done? You work for the Red-Cross and Committees for War-relief, you work to soften war and you ought to work for Peace. Where are your multitudes, who will kneel before the Powers for hours, days, weeks! not giving way, before the swords are put back in the sheaths and the guns are at rest? Where are you--innumerable--who will lie down on the roads so that men, horses and cannon must pass over you to reach the battlefields? Where are you, who refuse to give up husband and sons for war?
Up, you Women, who know the price of Peace;
To princes and people
To battle-field and fortresses
To prisons and executions
Through mockery and scorn
Up to Peace!
The arms SHALL be put down, it is the WILL OF WOMEN.
This spirit found its expression in the wife of a Dutch officer who from the platform urged the Dutchwomen to throw themselves before the horses of the regiment, should Holland be called to war. It found its expression in a resolution which was not voted on, but which came from a group of Austrians:
“This International Congress of Women, believing that a future war becomes almost impossible if the women of all countries refuse their help, urges the necessity of uniting the women in a Band, every member of which promises to refuse any personal or financial help in case of war.
“That means: that we openly declare that women refuse to do the work men cannot do because they are busy murdering other men--that women refuse to repair the damages brought about by men when they wantonly burn and destroy houses and property,-- that we refuse our help to mitigate poverty and misery caused by the war.”
The Congress found its most open expression of this militant feeling through Rosika Schwimmer. In the midst of her speech, she paused and requested the audience to rise to its feet, and standing, spend a minute of silent thought on the dead of all Europe and on Europe’s stricken women. So this great audience of women rose to its feet and with bowed heads thought of their dead.
I do not know how long we stood there in that terrible quiet. I stood looking into their stricken faces. Tears streamed down the faces of the women. An iron-faced old man opposite me held his head up, while tears slid unchecked down his face. Behind me I could hear the stifled sobs of Wilma Glucklich, for whose family in Hungary I had not dared to ask. An awful, silent, hopeless, frozen grief swept over this audience which, throughout the Congress, had been so contained.
Grief was in the air, one stifled in it. The dumb sorrow of that audience crushed one; and when, after what seemed a long time, we sat down at last, it rushed over me: these stricken women were not the women who had suffered most. They were neutral, for the most part: and those who had come from the warring countries were not, and could never be, the most deeply affected. The women in this meeting would never lose everything as could the stricken women of the people. Hunger and want and slow starvation would not follow in the wake of irreparable loss. In that hall there was only a faint shadow of the grief and despair of the women of Europe.
These women could only suffer. They hated war, but could not make a significant, arresting protest against it. The meeting was only a gesture. It could be no more than that.
They made a final protest, as brave as it was futile. A resolution brought in by Rosika Schwimmer had been passed providing for committees of women to see the heads of the governments of the warring nations requesting them to stop the war. Miss Jane Addams headed the American delegation which plodded on its useless errand from one chancellor of Europe to another.
I had hoped to get into Belgium from Holland through England. It was possible; permits were later given to one or two of Miss Addams’ party. But it was also difficult. Belgium was cut off from the world, except that a few went in and a few came out. Down near the terrible Yser district a thin trickle of German deserters came over the border. Four Belgian women had been allowed to come from Antwerp. They had come by automobile, by trolley, on foot, finally by train. At the border, in spite of military passports and papers of all kinds, they had been searched to the skin. These women had seen the fall of Antwerp and had nursed the wounded ever since the beginning of the war.
One day the kind Dutchwoman, by way of distraction and diversion, took us through the tulip and hyacinth beds of Haarlem. I am sure no such strange, harassed band of women ever walked through these peaceful ways before. That day I talked a great deal with Belgian women. I noticed that they never smiled.
Through Juliette Rublee I met the wife of the mayor of Aerschot. She had managed somehow to escape across the border. She had been made to stand by while her sons and her husband and the other men of her village were shot before her eyes.
Paxton Hibben, whom I met then for the first time and whom I saw a great deal, advised me not to try to get into Belgium. Like most of the other correspondents, he had no patience with the Peace Conference. He felt that the reason the German, Austrian and Hungarian women had been allowed to come was because it was a peace movement by the Central Powers to undermine the morale of the Allies. At this time he hated Germany with a terrible bitterness and blamed Germany for the war. Later he came to hate war itself as he hated Germany and to place the blame for war on the underlying social system.
He was interested in my assignment to write articles on the civil population, and gave me letters to Ponsot, head of the French government’s Publicity Bureau. Together we did some strange sightseeing. We went to a place near the Zuyder Zee to a concentration camp where the German soldiers who had been forced over the Dutch border were interned. In the barracks the bored soldiers were living that peculiar, limbo-like existence of the interned: bored, useless, impatient, but after all safe.
The chauffeur who drove us from the concentration camp to the refugees’ camp still limped from a wound in his leg. His mother, father and sisters had been killed before his eyes as they hid together during the bombardment of Antwerp.
We came to a town of neat wooden sheds on an implacable sandy plain on the edge of the Zuyder Zee. There was a church, a school, a hospital, a theater and an assembly hall. The wide spaces between buildings had been planted with formal garderns and ornate designs of white stone and ground pine. It had everything but life. Over the place hung the air of a perpetual Sunday. There were twelve hundred children, but they were not playing in the broad streets. Everyone seemed eternally waiting.
The refugees divided off little spaces for privacy with blankets or cloth given to them by the kind women of Holland. There they were, old people and young, men, women and children, in small calico cubicles, small storekeepers, working people, peasants, all leading this strange, limbo-like existence. There were woods near-by. The refugees were starting to plant small gardens.
One of the women with me was an American who had been living in a little Dutch town. She had been helping care for the flood of miserable refugees who came over the border from Belgium. And there was no end to her stories of disaster. One landscape remains with me as though I had seen it yesterday. Near the refugees’ camp was a cemetery. There were hundreds and hundreds of tiny white crosses. Smallpox had broken out, and the children had died.
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