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  • Women's Ways in War:The Poetry and Politics of the Woman's Peace Party, 1915-1917
  • Mark Van Wienen (bio)

In the swarthmore college peace collection, there are two and a half file boxes of miscellaneous "peace poetry" sorted alphabetically by author—the productions of hundreds of obscure and forgotten poets. Most of these poems survive in one-of-a-kind pamphlets, newspaper clippings, and rare journals. Judging from the items identified by date of publication and from historical references scattered through the poems, virtually all were written in this century, and most date from before 1940.1 More than the introduction of individual writers into the canon, this mass of poems, all in some way entering into dialogue with pacifist politics, undermines our confidence that the literary history of modernism is something we already know. Furthermore, much of the poetry in the Swarthmore Collection challenges our usual literary critical methodologies, which even when they concern themselves with questions of politics and history often conceive of individual authors or literary coteries as in relief against a historical-political backdrop, less participants than critics of society. The poems in the Swarthmore collection particularly work against this view because so many of them have transparent ties to a specific political organization, the Woman's Peace Party (WPP), which was one of the groups most active in opposing American intervention in World War I. [End Page 687] In addition to poems in the miscellaneous files published for WPP use, several party members represented separately in the Swarthmore holdings were poets who used their work to advance party aims. The official WPP archives, located at Swarthmore, contain numerous party programs and mailings which feature poetry, and the archives include a periodical, Four Lights, which was published in 1917 by the WPP New York branch and used poetry to protest US war intervention. Whether or not we appreciate the aesthetics of these poems written in traditional forms or in prosy free-verse lines, we need to credit the contribution they made to modern American culture. In fact, the poets affiliated with the Woman's Peace Party confront the cataclysm of modern war more directly, with a more self-consciously formulated politics, than most better known writing of the 1910s and 1920s.

From the war's outbreak, American debate about the Great War foregrounded questions of gender. Held on 19 August 1914, the first American demonstration against war was organized by women, fifteen hundred of whom donned black and marched to the beat of muffled drums down New York's Fifth Avenue ("Protesting Women"). Following the march, discussions among women active in the suffrage movement, in social work, in pre-war peace societies, and even in genteel social clubs led to the formation during January 1915 of the Woman's Peace Party. Having drafted the widely known and admired Jane Addams as national chair, the party soon established itself as one of the leading pacifist voices in America.2 From the time of the inaugural convention, however, the women's peace movement generally and the WPP particularly were fractured by differences in ideology and political tactics. Some women were strongly disinclined toward any peace activity save perhaps education, trusting in the good grace of progressive government under Woodrow Wilson, and believing that women's "natural" pacifism could insure peace by holding sway over public opinion. At the other extreme, radical feminists argued that women could never effectively control public opinion until they held the right to vote; they lobbied for women's suffrage and US sponsorship of peace negotiations, while criticizing Wilson's reluctance to offer such sponsorship.

In poetry, the conflicting impulses of American women pacifists appear not only in the contrast between poems by different writers, but [End Page 688] also within individual poems.3 Among the poems distributed by the WPP to foster pacifist ideals was Olive Tilford Dargan's "Beyond War," reprinted in 1915 from its appearance in Scribner's.4 This relatively long poem, consisting of twenty-two stanzas grouped in three sections, describes women's wartime tribulations early on, in the second and third stanzas of the first section. However, it adopts a stoic attitude toward that suffering, as...


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