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Keeping women’s contributions alive: reflections from the Newcastle Peace Conference

By Helen Kay, Scotland branch

Two Centuries of Peacemaking: From the Peace Society to Martin Luther King: Report from Conference in Newcastle 7-8 June 2016

Women might have disappeared from the debates and discussions completely at this conference, if women had not been there to present papers on different aspects of WILPF history.

“Were British and German peacewomen able to continue their relationship during World War One” was the subject discussed by Helen Kay of WILPF UK and Laurie Cohen of WILPF Austria. Using material published from 1915-1918 in the WILPF journal Internationaal and from the suffrage journal Jus Suffragii, Helen and Laurie showed that communication was not possible, not because the women were not interested but because of the repressive legislation in Germany, in Britain and throughout Europe. The women could not meet because passports were refused both in belligerent and neutral countries. Initially mail was delayed and delivered late but later printed material could not be sent overseas.

Ingrid Sharp of Leeds University gave a good paper showing how WILPF women restored their international community post WWI. Equally impressive was a paper by Laura Beers. She presented an analysis of WILPF UK between the wars and explored the difference of opinions about how WILPF should react to communism and fascism.

Of note is that there were fewer people at the session when the women spoke – typically the women attend men’s sessions about WWI but the same men do not want to know about the women’s history during the same period. Moreover, when talking about male peace organisations, the male historians linked the individual male activists to parliamentarians and how the individual peace activists influenced the parliamentarians. Women tended to explore the organisational activities rather than focus on individual personalitles!

The final plenary was most interesting. American professor David Cortright, who started up the anti-war organisation ‘Serving soldiers against the Vietnam war’ has written a book called ‘Peace’.   He reckoned that there were so many US soldiers and sailors likely to mutiny over Vietnam, the Generals could not depend on them – and that is why latterly the main US offensive in Vietnam was bombing by the airforce.

He talked a lot about the need for peace activists to be more aware and strategic in their campaigning. He said that he thinks that the higher level officers in the military are well-educated and are questioning the role of the military; thus he sees openings for peace activists to be involved in offering them mid-career courses for military involvement in promoting peace-building. ‘We need to start the conversation about what else we can do together, as bombing is obviously not working’.

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