- A Band of Noble Women: Racial Politics in the Women’s Peace Movement by Melinda Plastas
World War I marked the birth of the “modern” American Peace Movement. The movement represented a marked departure from the conservative, elite-minded approach to world peace espoused by internationalists and arbitrationists, who filled the ranks of organizations such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Edwin Ginn’s World Peace Foundation. The “modern” movement insisted that peace was more than the absence of war and that social, economic, and racial justice at home was an extension of that struggle for global harmony. Leading the way in this endeavor was the birth of a separate women’s peace movement, a movement that began during the war.
Eschewing the prewar male-dominated peace organizations in the United States, women such as Jane Addams, Julia Grace Wales, Alice Hamilton, and Emily Green Balch, among others, injected a dose of political feminism in the postwar peace crusade by establishing their own organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The basis for creating this organization rested on four principles: (1) that peace efforts must be directly linked to institutional violence against women; (2) that condemning militarism and governmental oppression is an extension of the social and economic exploitation of women; (3) that a women’s peace movement was necessary for seeking the causes of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of women; and (4) that recalling historical connections between white women’s work in the abolitionist crusade and the sexual degradation of female slaves increased people’s awareness of female independence and racial justice through the mechanism of peace work. This last aspect is what Melinda Plastas, who teaches in the Women and Gender Studies Program at Bates College, compellingly and elegantly brings to life.
Plastas seeks to examine the political dynamics of race and peace through the thoughts and actions of notable white and African American female members of the WILPF. Relying on feminist peace history scholarship such as Joyce Blackwell’s No Peace without Freedom: Race and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1975 and Harriet Hyman Alonso’s path-breaking survey, Peace as a Women’s Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women’s Rights, Plastas’s [End Page 224] carefully constructed analysis approaches the matter from three angles: (1) how WILPF attempted to address the matter of peace and freedom; (2) how WILPF challenged U.S. foreign policy in Haiti and Liberia as well as domestic policy concerning anti-lynching legislation; and (3) the uneven attempts to tackle racial harmony within WILPF’s membership and leadership. Relying on WILPF as her case study, Plastas offers readers a chance to probe one organization’s attempt to address how “early twentieth-century racism was both practiced and contested” and how World War I shaped “the political consciousness and activities of African American and white women interested in contesting war and justice” and how these foreign and domestic issues “changed and sometimes merged” (p. 3).
The book is divided into two parts. After a lengthy introduction outlining the historical background for the book’s themes—a section that is at times belabored and distracts readers from the major focus—Plastas devotes two chapters to the intellectual frameworks and political strategies of three black women—Addie Hunton, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Jessie Fauset—and three white women—Rachael Davis Dubois, Emily Greene Balch, and Anna Melissa Graves, followed by two chapters on WILPF’s interracial peace committees in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The book is devoted primarily to the 1920s and early 1930s, with a slight connection to the early Cold War years.
Using WILPF as the lens for examining early twentieth-century race consciousness, Plastas explores Hunton’s fight for leadership in mixed-gender race associations, Dunbar-Nelson’s transformation from World War I patriot to peace and justice racial activist, Fauset’s unrelenting desire to link peace and pan...