Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Women, Publicness and the Versailles Treaty by Molly Cochran

Few people today realize that a women’s peace organization was the first public body to offer commentary on the Treaty of Versailles.[1] The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom [WILPF] convened as an international congress in Zurich just five days after Germany was presented with the draft treaty on 7 May 1919. Jane Addams, WILPF’s International President, obtained a copy of the draft treaty en route to Zurich from Paris and its terms were at the center of WILPF’s congress agenda. The women of WILPF contributed to the international politics of the Versailles Treaty, engaging in public criticism of both the treaty and draft Covenant of the League of Nations and they participated in critique that flowed from many quarters ranging from those who thought the treaty too harsh to those who believed it was not harsh enough. Among the former, WILPF’s liberal internationalism was unique for its feminism and radical social ethics.  

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The organization that became WILPF was convened in April 1915 by internationally-networked suffrage campaigners, whose work had been hampered by the formidable impasse of world war.[2] WILPF formed the first international women’s peace organization. The resolutions of its 1915 Hague Congress protested not only against the madness of war generally, but also the “odious wrongs of which women are the victims in times of war”.[3] The Congress concluded that women “have a special point of view”[4] on the subject of war and can contribute to “the work and ideals of constructive peace”. Thus, the Hague report asserted that it was “essential, both nationally and internationally to put into practice the principle that women should share in all civil and political rights and responsibilities on the same terms as men”. [5] In calling for the establishment of a “Society of Nations” in one of its Hague resolutions, the Congress demanded that women take part.

WILPF also acted on the basis of a humanist belief system[6]. Their own struggles for equality and protection against violence generated a sense of responsibility to the what they called the “human claim”. The touchstone for their activism was a commitment to the equal respect for persons - irrespective of race, religion, gender or class – and the belief that this principle was crucial to foster international peace. WILPF’s concept of peace was linked to an expansive idea of justice. Peace for WILPF was grounded in cosmopolitan claims of justice for individuals, not only in relation to civil and political democratic entitlements, but with respect to economic, social, and cultural requirements too. Their peace politics was a politics of recognition in relation to both the equality of persons and the economic redistribution necessary to meet basic human needs globally. WILPF reconfigured 20th century liberal internationalism as a transnationalism that understood individuals, and not only states, to be subjects of global justice. WILPF’s international advocacy over the inter-war years would go on to challenge the hegemony of sovereign state discourse, and its privileging of the principle of national self-determination over the democratic autonomy of individuals. The substance of WILPF’s critique of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations was democratically exacting, and at more than one level.
Along with liberal internationalists, WILPF voiced the need for a new diplomacy, one committed to international law and institutions and to democratically controlled international policy-making. However, WILPF’s idea of post-war international diplomacy was distinctive for its unstinting commitment to transnational relations inclusive of individuals. WILPF’s advocacy promoted “publicness” – a generalized and equal concern for persons – as an alternative inter-societal value to that of state sovereignty and the dominance of a state-based normative order.
WILPF’s agenda was not without political foundation. The practice of sovereignty was undergoing a process of re-invention during the Paris peace conference.[7] The principle of ethnic national self-determination did important work in the peace settlement, but so did a second principle articulated in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of January 1918: “justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak”.[8] Publicness was invoked in the establishment of both an internationally governed Mandates system with responsibility for the “well-being and development” of the peoples living in mandated territories, and in an internationally governed Minorities system that guaranteed the civil and political rights of minorities living in the new and expanded states of Central and Eastern Europe created by the Versailles Treaty. The invocation of ideas of self-determination, popular sovereignty and the equality of persons are all expressions of a moral concern for the democratic autonomy of individuals. However, the relationship between the three was under-specified in the Treaty and further undermined by their application in a normative order of states whose leaders continued to hold racist beliefs and economic, strategic and imperial designs. The counter-posing of publicness as a basis of international peace and order gave WILPF’s critique of the Versailles Treaty the quality of an emancipatory politics, setting their post-war international activism apart from like-minded, voluntary international organizations.
A delegation of Addams and five other WILPF members made direct representations to the Paris Conference, reporting their Zurich Congress Resolutions to Colonel House (among others). The Congress Resolutions focussed in the main on the draft Covenant of the League of Nations, understanding peace to be best secured when “the common interests of humanity” were held uppermost and believing a League of Nations to be the most likely forum for generating this potential. However, the proposed Covenant of the League of Nations was disappointing, in their view, for omitting elements critical to publicness as an inter-societal value, and WILPF urged far-reaching democratic amendments.
The Congress resolutions pressed for radical forms of political and economic inclusion at the international level to be realized through the League of Nations. Like many liberal internationalists, they advocated adherence to the principles of self-determination unfettered by secret treaties and the strategic interests of Allied and Associated Powers, as well as protection of the civil and political rights of minorities and the promotion of the development of “all backward races”. However, WILPF went a step further in demanding a “right of direct presentation to the League of Nationalities and Dependencies within any government of their desires as to self-government”.[9] They also argued that democratic inclusion should be extended to women too, with the establishment of full equal suffrage and the adoption of a Women’s Charter acknowledging the ways in which the status of women “is of supreme international importance”[10]. More generally, conditions for transnational democratic inclusion facilitated through the League of Nations required that the executive power of the League be democratically elected and that the national ratification of treaties be performed by an elected legislative body. Economic inclusion required that the League should promote universal free trade as well as free access to raw materials for all nations on equal terms. WILPF also wanted to see a plan for the production and distribution of the necessities of life at the smallest cost, and for the League to seek the abolition of the protection of investments of one country’s capitalists in the resources of another state. Finally, WILPF appealed for amendment of the Covenant to be made easier. 

WILPF’s Zurich Congress could not agree to endorse the League of Nations as provided for the Versailles Treaty, but the women found understanding on one other point: WILPF would continue in the programmatic activity it had begun from its Geneva headquarters, operating on the shared belief that the League was “in process”, and could potentially be open to the influence of international public opinion and pressure from WILPF to influence a critical counter-politics for the transnational management of international problems. WILPF shaped publicness into a radical form of democratic intent, which during the inter-war period challenged the League of Nations to make matters of vital international concern into ones of equal human concern.

This piece first appeared in IHAP newsletter of the American Political Science Association, which also contains other contributions about the Versailles Treaty and is available here 

[1] Emily Balch, A Venture in Internationalism (Geneva: WILPF Maison Internationale, 1938), p. 9-10.

[2] The International Committee of Women for a Permanent Peace was the international organization created from the 1915 International Congress of Women at The Hague, which became WILPF in 1919.

[3] International Congress of Women at the Hague -  April 28 -May , 1915: President’s Address, Resolutions Adopted, and Report of Committees Visiting European Capitals, (Amsterdam: N.V. Concordia, 1915).

[4] The 1915 Congress Report says it has no “original theory” to offer as to why women are hit “with particular emphasis” by the waste of human life in war, yet the will summoned by over 1000 women to meet as they did in wartime is noteworthy.

[5] International Congress of Women at the Hague, 20.

[6] Helena Swanwick, British Section President writes in the The Future of the Women’s Movement (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1913), p. xii that it is a shame that “humanism” had already been appropriated for general purposes since it would “far more properly connote the women’s movement than the word feminist”.

[7] Leonard Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[8] Nearly three years earlier at the Hague Congress, WILPF called for the institutionalization of “principles of justice, equity and good will” in a Society of Nations such that “the struggles of subject communities could be more fully realized and the interests and rights not only of the great Powers and small nations but also those of weaker countries and primitive peoples” could be met.

[9] This anticipates criticisms that will disturb the veil of legitimacy the League Secretariat and Council wished to lend the Minorities and Mandates systems in creating a petitioning mechanism to air individual grievances with the League’s oversight. Grounds for self-governance were not petitionable.

[10] International problems requiring the attention of the League according to the Women’s Charter include: protections within international law against slavery and traffic in women; access to education and professional training; rights of women to earnings, property, guardianship of children, and to retain and change nationality; adequate economic provision for the service of motherhood and recognition of responsibility for children born out of wedlock on fathers as well as mothers.

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