In February 1915 fifteen hundred women delegates representing Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Britain, Hungary, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the United States met in Amsterdam to discuss the First World War.
At the meeting the women discussed ways of ending the war . Delegates also spoke about the need to introduce measures that would prevent wars in the future such as international arbitration and the state nationalization of munitions.
Mary Sheepshanks was the leading anti-war figure in Britain. On 14th October, 1914, she wrote: "Each nation is convinced that it is fighting in self-defence, and each in self-defence hastens to self-destruction. The military authorities declare that the defender must be the aggressor, so armies rush to invade neighbouring countries in pure defence of their own hearth and home, and, as each Government assures the world, with no ambition to aggrandise itself. Thousands of men are slaughtered or crippled... art, industry, social reform, are thrown back and destroyed; and what gain will anyone have in the end? In all this orgy of blood, what is left of the internationalism which met in congresses, socialist, feminist, pacifist, and boasted of the coming era of peace and amity. The men are fighting; what are the women doing? They are, as is the lot of women, binding up the wounds that men have made."
At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Millicent Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: "I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace." After a stormy executive meeting in Buxton all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Kathleen Courtney, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden, the editor of the The Common Cause.
In the autumn of 1915 women in Britain who attended the meeting in Amsterdam, including Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Chrystal Macmillan, formed the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom of Great Britain. Other women who joined this group included Sylvia Pankhurst, Mary Sheepshanks, Charlotte Despard, Helen Crawfurd, Ethel Snowden, Henry Harben, Ellen Wilkinson, Margery Corbett-Ashby, Selina Cooper, Helena Swanwick and Olive Schreiner.
In 1919, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom held a second congress in Zurich. It was the first time members from opposing sides of the war had been able to meet since the 1915 congress. The number of countries represented rose by four to sixteen in 1919.
The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was critical of some aspects of the Treaty of Versailles. They gave the following statement at the 1919 Zurich congress: "This International Congress of Women expresses its deep regret that the terms of peace proposed at Versailles should so seriously violate the principles upon which alone a just and lasting peace can be secured…The terms of peace…create all over Europe discords and animosities which can only lead to future wars."
At another meeting in 1926 Women's International League for Peace and Freedom issued another manifesto. It included the following: "The League aims at uniting women in all countries who are opposed to every kind of war, exploitation and oppression, and who work for the solution of conflicts not by force of domination but by the recognition of human solidarity, by world co-operation, and by the establishment of social, political and economic justice for all, without distinction of sex, race, class or creed."
We, the women of the world, view with apprehension and dismay the present situation in Europe, which threatens to involve one continent, if not the whole world, in the disasters and horrors of war ... Powerless though we are politically, we call upon the governments and powers of our several countries to avert the threatened unparalleled disaster ... Whatever its result the conflict will leave mankind the poorer, will set back civilization, and will be a powerful check to the gradual amelioration in the condition of the masses of the people, on which so much of the real welfare of nations depends. We women of twenty-six countries ... appeal to you to leave untried no method of conciliation or arbitration for arranging international differences which may help to avert deluging half the civilized world in blood.
I am strongly opposed to the above proposal, mainly for the reason that women are as subject as men are to national prepossessions and susceptibilities and it would hardly be possible to bring together the women of the belligerent countries without violent outbursts of anger and mutual recriminations. We should then run the risk of the scandal of a Peace Congress disturbed and perhaps broken up by violent quarrels and fierce denunciations. It is true this often takes place at Socialist and other international meetings: but it is of less importance there: no one expects the general run of men to be anything but fighters. But a Peace Congress of Women dissolved by violent quarrels would be the laughing stock of the world...
When Miss Sheepshanks was in Holland Aletta Jacobs told her she had heard recently from Elsa Luders who had complacently remarked how much for the welfare of the world the victory of Germany would prove because it would enable Germany to impose her culture upon all the other nations of the world, Aletta Jacobs was furious: here you have an example of the sort of thing that might happen during every day and hour of the proposed international congress...
feel so strongly against the proposed convention that I would decline to attend it, and if necessary would resign my office in the Women's International League if it were judged incumbent on me in that capacity to take part in the convention.
The League aims at uniting women in all countries who are opposed to every kind of war, exploitation and oppression, and who work for the solution of conflicts not by force of domination but by the recognition of human solidarity, by world co-operation, and by the establishment of social, political and economic justice for all, without distinction of sex, race, class or creed.