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An interview with Women's International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF)

In the thick of the action for almost 90 years, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is the oldest women's peace organization in the world. When war broke out between France and Germany in 1914, Jane Addams, social activist and founder of Hull House in Chicago, called women in peace committees from across the United States to a meeting in New York in January 1915; over 1,000 came.

In February 1915 suffragists in neutral Holland called the U.S. group and others from both warring and neutral countries to a meeting in The Hague, to try to intervene for peace. Over 3,000 women from 13 countries managed to get to this meeting. Great Britain refused to allow English women to attend, and tried to hold the American women's ship in the channel. Women at that meeting proposed a permanent arbitration institution and delivered their proposal to 35 heads of state. Although no action was taken at that time, Woodrow Wilson later incorporated a part of their work into his Fourteen Points for Peace.

In 1919, after the war, the women met again in Zurich, renaming themselves the WILPF. The same week the Allies made public the Treaty of Versailles, and WILPF was the first to publicly decry a peace built on oppression and force.

Two of WILPF's founders, Jane Addams and Emily Balch (first secretary-general) received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931 (Addams) and 1942 (Balch).

WILPF has an international office in Geneva and sections in 37 countries. It has consultative status at the United Nations. The U.S. section of WILPF, headquartered in Philadelphia, has branches in 110 cities. Minnesota WILPF (now called the Minnesota Metro branch) began in 1922, and was investigated by the FBI in 1942 for its vigorous antiwar activities. WILPF brings together women from different political and philosophical backgrounds in a common effort to help abolish the political, social, and economic causes of war and to work for a constructive peace.

Minnesota women in Beijing

In recent years Minnesota Metro's most intensive activity was preparing women to attend the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing. For two years it held study sessions and helped women create Action Platforms to be presented at the large concurrent NGO conference (for officially recognized Non-Governmental Organizations). Minnesota had the largest state delegation: 200 to the NGO and 20 to the official conference. Many of them traveled on the WILPF "peace train" from Helsinki through Eastern Europe and Asia to Beijing, meeting and forming bonds with women's groups in the cities they stopped in along the way.

At the conference itself, Mary Sue Lobenstein, a Minnesota participant, reports, "There were huge numbers of women, from all over the world—10,000 at the official conference and about 30,000 at the NGO forum—the largest U.N. women's conference yet. The official group worked to hammer out platform planks concerning women in relation to poverty, education and training, health, violence, armed conflict, economy, decision making, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, human rights, media, environment, 'the girl child,' and institutional/financial arrangements.

"It was such a revelation to me to visit the booths, attend the workshops, and see the craft displays at the NGO conference, and realize how much we have in common with Arab women, with Chinese women, with Nigerian women… It's a matter of degrees, but the basic issues are the same everywhere—finding the financial means to live, dealing with everyday life, facing oppression, doing your work, caring for children. Through talking personally with these women, I got much clearer on how globalization is wrecking women's lives, and how much U.S. policy affects the world. It was a very powerful experience for all of us; you're forced to recognize your significance, your place in the world, and what you can really do. We came to understand what a powerful force women are; we can make a difference!"

Current activities

Leslie Reindl, member of the steering committee and volunteer administrator, said, "Since 2000 the Minnesota Metro branch has concentrated on the U.S. section's three chosen program areas—challenging corporate power, racial reconciliation, and as always, disarmament. It holds corporate power study groups, works with other groups on a corporate 'personhood' campaign (to deny corporations the rights that people have under the Bill of Rights), is resurrecting its Young Leaders Caucus to help young women become activists, has an Arts Committee that creates drama and art around social issues, has a Women in Black drama and vigiling group, and presents monthly 'coffee withs'—Saturday meetings to hear and discuss political and social issues and determine action."

Reindl continues, "From its courageous beginning during wartime WILPF has fought, against tremendous odds, for the rights of people to live at peace. These odds seem now to be increasing, as the United States declares a state of perpetual war, possibly including use of nuclear weapons. WILPF is working and joining with other peace groups to show that another world is possible. Creating the conditions that allow peaceful living can and must be done before we destroy the entire world and its ecosystem. I encourage everyone to get involved in this struggle to change the way we think and live. We believe it can be done!"

Minnesota Metro WILPF Aug. 11 meeting: Report on the 2001 South Africa Conference Against Racism. Sept. 14: Discussion of events since 9/11 and the status of civil liberties. These free meetings will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Van Cleve Community Center on Como Avenue in Southeast Minneapolis. All WILPF events are open to the public. Contacts: Leslie Reindl, 651-633-4410; Marilyn Cuneo, 612-825-9419; Lisa Boyd, 612-379-1227.

Judy Steele is a living-skills and personal effectiveness teacher, counselor, coach, healer and writer with over 30 years of experience in working with the mental, emotional and spiritual roots of effective living and working. Contact: jwspr@earthlink.net 612-929-0489 (Minneapolis MN). Web site: www.schoolforliving.org.



PEACEMAKING IN 2002

WILPF—oldest women's peace organization in the world

by Judy Steele