It Began in Boston: Remarks by Laura Roskos

Speech delivered on January 13, 2014 at “It Began in Boston: Celebrating a Century of Peace Work in Massachusetts,the Annual World Peace Foundation toast to peace, held in the Edwin Ginn Library at Tufts University’s The Fletcher School.

It is truly a pleasure to join all of you for the World Peace Foundation’s annual “toast”. I want to thank Bridget and Alex for reaching out to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and introducing us to the regenerative work they’ve been doing to mark the centennial of the foundation. Your Reinventing Peace blog is exemplary of how a historically venerable institution can retool itself to remain relevant in its second hundred years. I’m inspired by the work you are taking on under the chairmanship of Phillip Khoury. And, I am studying your renewal closely as the Women’s International League hones in on its own centennial, which we are dating as April 28, 2015—just over a year from now.

WILPF celebrates its birthday as April 28 because that was the opening date of the 1915 International Congress of Women at the Hague. And, our anniversary celebration next year will culminate in an International Women’s Peace Conference that will take place at The Hague as well. Our history can be our strength as we enter WILPF’s second century, but only if we use it as a touchstone while we simultaneously make those changes in structure and approach that will keep us relevant on the international stage.

In 1915, women from a dozen belligerent and neutral countries crossed borders, oceans and battle zones to meet together in the Netherlands to strategize about how to end the armed conflict they knew as the Great War.  In doing so, they were seeking to interrupt the cultural trope of patriotic motherhood and advance women’s claims to suffrage, but they were also determined to make a pragmatic intervention. Following the conference, teams of women set off across the continent to meet with national leaders. They visited Berlin, Bern, Budapest, Christiana, Copenhagen, Havre, London, Paris, Petrograd, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna and Washington.

The generative heart of the scheme these women were advancing through their visits and manifesto was “continuous mediation without armistice,” a proposal drafted by Julia Grace Wales, an English teacher at the University of Wisconsin, who put it into the hands of Jane Addams, who became WILPF’s first International President. Wales wasn’t the only progressive era intellectual who shared a vision of such a process, but she was tenacious and very smart to seek the support of Addams, a woman of broad political experience with a track record of successful organizing. For it was through the prism of the International Congress of Women at the Hague that Wales’ words were transmuted into an action plan—an action plan that continues to mobilize women and that has over the decades utterly transformed the context of international relations.

Because of the truly extraordinary character of the Hague congress, WILPF has an inspiring and easy to convey origin story. WILPF is lucky as well to have in Jane Addams a founding mother who is both heroic and generally well loved. Indeed, Addams, best known for founding Chicago’s Hull House was once called the most dangerous woman in America, but was also the first U.S. woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, when I went looking for resources to teach a seminar on Women and the Peace Movement in 1991, it wasn’t easy to find historical accounts of WILPF let alone of other women’s initiatives and campaigns not associated with such high profile leadership. But now it is.

Today if I want to know about WILPF’s history, it isn’t necessary to travel to the archives at University of Colorado Boulder or Swarthmore College. Multiple tomes are readily available, including biographies of prominent WILPF leaders, histories either mainstream or focusing on a specific cohort or identity group of WILPF members, analyses of the organization’s political philosophy or analyses of WILPF’s political actions, empirical data on the impact of women’s peace networks and books by WILPF members laying out the techniques for establishing the sorts of dialogue that can bring about durable peace. Thanks to the University of Illinois Press, Addams’ own oeuvre is back in print and readily available as well. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Jane Addams’ birth and the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, WILPF created a web resource intended to capture the depth and breadth of our organization’s work in this area, an undertaking that soon grew so unwieldy that we couldn’t afford to adequately maintain it.

Rather than being elusive—allowing space for one’s imagination to fill in the details—WILPF’s legacy today is all too well documented and all too concrete. It can be a heavy burden, if not worn smartly, used wisely, adapted adroitly.

Just how does a 100 year old institution distill from its rich, overabundant history a usable past?

For me, it requires a fresh look at the intersection of education and peace, the very intersection at which Edwin Ginn, this foundation’s benefactor, lived the later part of his life.

When I started teaching peace studies and then later political science, I felt it necessary to explain to my students the traditions of the idealists and the realists in foreign policy debates. In this dichotomy, the idealists are the social constructivists and the realists are the cold warriors; the realists believe that might can indeed make right but the idealists believe that might can only succeed in suppressing or muting conflict. But these labels are no longer accurate, if they ever were. As Dyan Mazurana and Keith Procter note in their recent occasional paper published by the World Peace Foundation, “Contrary to popular belief, the academic literature increasingly argues that a strategy of non-violence is more effective than violence in achieving policy goals.”

This in itself marks a major shift in our collective ability to imagine and create sustainable peace. How do we, as peace activists and educators, adapt to this new terrain? How do we respond when young people reading Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy see it as a compendium of common sense rather than as something radical or subversive? How do we adapt to being mainstream after years of protesting from the margins?

My suggestion is that we fearlessly lay claim to the platform that history has given us and orient ourselves to the present possibilities. If nonviolence is in the ascendency as the preferred means of resolving conflict then we have the know-how needed to further and consolidate that ascent. The tagline for WILPF’s centennial is Women’s Power to Stop War. It’s a proclamation. Not a question. Women have the Power to Stop War; not just the war on women but stop war on all human beings, who wish to live a life of peace and freedom. Women are the majority of the world’s population. Women could end war if we and our allies owned our power as thought leaders, educators, workers, owners, parents, voters. Our centennial campaign aims to suggest how that might happen; indeed, it aspires to galvanize the political will to do just that.

Today, under the visionary leadership of Madeleine Rees, our Secretary General, WILPF’s women, peace and security agenda is vital in the Middle East and North African Regions as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Rim and Latin America. In addition to international work on the women, peace and security agenda, disarmament and human rights, WILPF in the struggling with the problem of regulating weaponized drones and with the implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. These are urgent issues, but even beyond these imperatives, there are priorities that shouldn’t be ignored because they may be critical to consolidating the gains of the peace movement and to ensuring it is accessible and welcoming to new generations of peace advocates.

The Center for Disease Control believes that as many as one out of four girls in the United States is sexually abused by the time she reaches the age of 18, and one out of six boys. To me this suggests that the majority of any group of students I encounter will not necessarily identify with a “realist” ethos of “might makes right” but rather will be either victims of or witnesses to the damage perpetrated by those exploiting their access to “power over.” This also means that within any group of young people –and maybe any group of not so young people–a significant number will have built up defenses to enable limited social engagement while simultaneously curtailing true empathy and intimacy. We need to create entry points that connect to this life experience and that teach, as an organization called Generation Five does in its very popular somatics workshops and as Facing History does in its bystander training, how to recognize pain in ourselves and in others. We cannot teach about non-violence if we are unable to recognize and honor pain. This, I think, is a challenge for many of us who have spent years fine-tuning strategies of denial.

The time is ripe for engaging our communities in rethinking the military presence in our schools. WILPF began documenting the extent of U.S. military recruitment expenditures directed at youth under 18 in 2006, as one dimension of a “shadow” report on U.S. compliance with the Optional Protocol on the Use of Children in Armed Conflict. Our report exposed the appalling practices of recruiters given unfettered access to children in public schools and shopping malls, of recruiters using IPods, movie tickets, and more to establish relationships with minors. But what we discovered also led us to question the efficacy of Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps as a civic engagement curriculum and of the Junior Cadets as a drug-diversion program. The big money that comes with these programs incentivizes their adoption by cash strapped communities, but there isn’t any data to support their educational value. On the other hand, there is a growing body of data demonstrating a wide range of positive outcomes from the use peace education curricula.

Furthermore, when WILPF presented its shadow report the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, we learned just how out-of-sync with international norms those practices that have been widely accepted in the  U.S. actually were. Maintaining the civilian orientation of schools is key–many in the international community believe–to preserving civilian control of the military. Redirecting the approximately $1 billion spent annually on JROTC and juvenile recruitment efforts toward peace education could change the political climate of the U.S. within just a few years.

If the political climate of the U.S. shifted, we’d see pressure for a curtailment of U.S. arms exports and greater sympathy for the nuclear abolition treaty. As the political climate of the U.S. shifts, those of us whose personal identities rest on an image of ourselves as outsiders or rebels will need to shift the narrative of our life stories in order to fully and responsibly exercise our power and the authority of our ideas in this new landscape.

As institutions reach their centennials, it is cause for re-evaluating and re-positioning. Institutions can look forward to a second hundred years, something individual human beings can’t. When we say that WILPF is the oldest continually active women’s peace organization in the world, we are not saying that our leaders live forever. Although we stand on their shoulders, we cannot stand in their place. Instead we stand in our unique places in an unfolding history we cannot control but perhaps can influence. And this is how we will continue to create generations of courage, in the cause of peace.

One thought on “It Began in Boston: Remarks by Laura Roskos

  • May 15, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Thank you for the above article. I was a member of the Madison, WI chapter of WILPF and the members were most helpful in educating me on the issues of world/domestic peace. I have authored a young reader’s book, “A Wild Flight of Imagination”, the story of Jane Addams and Julia Grace Wales and Wales’ “Continuous Mediation Without Armistice” Plan which was adopted by the first Women’s Peace Congress in the Hague in 1915 shortly before the U.S. entered the war. It is a story that has not been told and was a joy to research in our University Archives, which is considerable and well managed. It is on Kindle. I am researching a sequel. Donna Fortin

Leave a Reply