Women peace activists

3/25/2016, 1:01 a.m.
Some words seem rarely mentioned in this highly toxic political season. We’ve heard about bombs and walls, but very little ...
Julianne Malveaux

Some words seem rarely mentioned in this highly toxic political season. We’ve heard about bombs and walls, but very little about peace. One is almost tempted, when some of the candidates are speaking, to burst into “Give peace a chance.”

In this Women’s History Month, it makes sense to reflect on women and the peace movement and especially on the African-American women who have played a significant role in this movement.

The Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) was founded in 1915 in the midst of World War I. Its first chair, Hull House’s Jane Addams, cared deeply about world disarmament. Early on, though, there were criticisms of the WILPF because African-Americans were too often invisible.

In “A Band of Noble Women: Racial Politics in the Women’s Peace Movement,” Melinda Plastas writes that African-American women combined the effects of race, gender and war and “demanded a place.”

Mary Church Terrell was involved in the WILPF almost from its outset, serving on its board for a time. The Washington doyenne, who was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, was involved in the civil rights and social justice movements. A teacher by profession, she also was one of the first women to serve on the D.C. Board of Education. She played founding roles in the NAACP, the International College of Women, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Some of her dealings with WILPF were not smooth. She was not re-elected to a second term on the organization’s board to the chagrin of many of the white women who felt that African-American women’s voices needed to be heard.

Ms. Terrell was not the only woman who worked with WILPF during its early days.

Addie Hunton came to activism as an organizer for the NACW in the early 20th century. She worked with servicemen in France during the war. Those war experiences led her to work as a peace activist during the 1920s. In 1926, she wrote a report condemning the U.S. occupation of Haiti.

Bertha McNeill was another of the African-American women in the WILPF. She led the Washington chapter and also served as a vice president of the organization for two terms.

These women — as well as non-African-American sisters like Medea Benjamin and Arundhati Roy — come to mind in the middle of this raucous political season. Sane, calm voices are missing in these presidential debates along with a focus off the futility of militarism.

Wouldn’t it be appropriate for us to hear about alternatives to war.

That brings me to California Congresswomen Barbara Lee, the only person who opposed President George W. Bush’s push for military action after September 11, 2001. She appropriately asked whether our country was rushing into war. Many of us are familiar with Rep. Lee’s peace activism, but far fewer of us know much about Mary Church Terrell and Addie Hunton.

This history of peace activism should be lifted up this month.

The writer is an economist and author based in Washington.