the men who said no


IHelena Swanwick

Helena Swanwick was an active suffragist and peace campaigner during WW1, working through the Union of Democratic Control, and the Women’s International League.

Born Helena Maria Lucy Sickert in 1864 in Germany, she was the daughter of the artist Osbert Sickert and her English mother Eleanor Louise Henry; one of her brothers was the painter Walter Sickert. Her family moved to England in 1968 and settled in Notting Hill, London. Influenced at school by reading John Stuart Mill’s ‘The Subjugation of Women’ she resisted her parents’ refusal to treat her as an equal: ‘A boy might be a person but not a girl.’ Her father wouldn’t pay for her to go to Girton College but her godmother would. After graduating she became a lecturer in psychology at Westfield College. At university she met Frederick Tertius Swanwick, a lecturer in mathematics, and they married in 1888 and settled in Manchester. She worked as a journalist, writing for the Manchester Guardian.

In 1905 she joined the North of England Suffrage Society, affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and by 1908 was touring England and Scotland speaking at 150 meetings. In 1909 she became the editor of the NUWSS’ journal, The Common Cause, from which she resigned in 1912 for criticising the increasingly violent tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She wrote a book, The Future of the Women’s Movement, published in 1913.

After the war broke out in 1914 she was one of 100 women who signed the Open Christmas letter to German and Austrian pacifists. In February 1915 after being strongly criticised by the leader of the NUWSS, Millicent Fawcett, for peace work, she and half the Executive resigned. She joined the newly formed Women’s International League, set up after the international Women’s Congress for peace in the Hague in 1915. She became Chairman of WIL (now the UK section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) from 1915 - 1922.

Shortly after the war broke out in August 1914, the Union of Democratic Control was set up by Charles Trevelyan and friends. E. D. Morel became the Secretary and leading light. After a well-attended meeting, a manifesto was created and membership invited. Helena Swanwick was one of the first women to join, and to serve on its Executive. The UDC made a point of including women as equals in the organisation. The organisation aimed not to campaign against the war as such, but to look at proposals to prevent such a war occurring again. Their manifesto particularly emphasised the ending of secret treaties, and proposed ‘real parliamentary control over foreign policy’. They opposed alliances and wanted an International Council ‘whose deliberations and decisions shall be public, with such machinery for securing international agreement as shall be the guarantee of an abiding peace.’ They proposed that ‘Great Britain shall propose as part of the Peace Settlement a plan for the drastic reduction by consent of the armaments of the belligerent Powers’ and suggested nationalising the manufacture of armaments and controlling arms exports. A further point was later added about free commercial trade, as they feared an economic war after the war finished. The UDC included many politicians such as Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Arthur Henderson who later served in the Labour government in the 1920s. In 1925 Helena became editor of its journal, Foreign Affairs, aiming to make it more popular and widely read. In its columns she attacked the unfairness of the Versailles treaty, and campaigned against aerial bombardment.

In ‘Women and War’, published during the war by the UDC, she wrote:
“We sometimes talk as if Germany were the only militarist State. But all the great nations are organised on a militarist basis. All the great nations have striven to increase their preparations so as to be stronger than the others, and nations which felt themselves weaker made alliances so as to be able to crush others. Peace has been a condition of unstable equilibrium, in which there was no security even for the strongest. It is arguable that security is a base ambition, and that perpetual danger from fellow humans is the only condition of health for human beings, but it is puerile to ask us to believe that the organisation of States on a militarist basis makes for the greatest degree of security possible. Security as a result of militarism is an illusion.”

In 1915 an independent ‘Peace Negotiations Committee’ was formed, to which sympathetic organisations were invited to affiliate, which the UDC did. Helena became Chairman of this committee. It urged the government ‘to seek the earliest opportunity of promoting negotiations with the object of securing a just and lasting peace.’ Their petition had 221,000 signatures by August 1917.

By the autumn 1916 she is reported as addressing large crowds of up to 2000 in Cardiff; sometimes peace meetings were violently broken up by opponents called ‘Patriots’. WIL were holding a lot of indoor and outdoor public meetings, which didn’t get reported. In November 1915 a UDC meeting in London was broken up by Australian and Canadian soldiers, after a campaign against it in the Daily Express. She described how they set off stink bombs, stormed the platform and roughed up the audience. She remembered that “they pulled one lad backwards over the top of a bench. Being afraid they would break his spine I laid my hand on the arm of one of the soldiers. He turned on me a face convulsed with fury and, with tears running down his cheeks fairly sobbed out, ‘If that - woman - in a - green hat - doesn’t - let - me - go - there’ll be murder done!’ One gathered that they had been so filled up with lies that they really believed the German Emperor had ‘ordered’ this meeting to be held.” In another meeting in a church in London several WIL women including Helena were attacked by a drunken mob - the men tried to goad women to attack them while the WIL women kept calm and talked to them.

Unlike many in the peace movement who welcomed the Russian revolution in 1917, she foresaw problems, and anticipated that Russia would make a separate peace. “I think no real building can come out of revolutions which make a dust and a mess and bitterness and reaction. They put a premium on violence and spoil thinking…”

In Helena’s book on the history of the UDC published in 1924, E. D. Morel pays tribute to her: ‘Mrs Swanwick has brought to our Councils that penetrating clarity of vision, that instinctive rightness of judgment and that sureness of touch…which only a highly gifted and internationally minded woman could contribute…. Not that she has been the only woman who has shared the labours of the Union’s Executive. But she was the first woman to join us, and she has stuck to the Union continually from the beginning until now: always ready with voice and pen, always calmly philosophical, always seeing to the heart of the question we were discussing. Her services to the movement as a public speaker cannot be exaggerated. To my mind Mrs. Swanwick at her best is incomparable on the public platform. It would not be easy to overestimate the extent to which the Union is indebted to her or what her comradeship has meant to those who have been privileged to enjoy it, during these long and somewhat troubled years.’

On November 11, 1918 she was on a speaking tour in Scotland, and continued with it as she found many were still abusing the Germans. She was too tired to be happy about the end of the war, saying “I seemed still to be crying all the time inside….”

After the war, as Chair of WIL she helped for example to organise rubber teats for starving German mothers who could no longer breastfeed their babies because of the Allied blockade. In 1919 she attended the WILPF Congress in Zurich at which WILPF was formally created, and she was elected Vice-President. She went on to campaign about the situation in Ireland and the behaviour of the Black and Tans, travelling to Ireland to take photos of devastated areas and give illustrated talks afterwards. She was active in the League of Nations Union and a British Empire representative to the League in 1924 and later in 1928-32.

In 1930 she was made a Companion of Honour for ‘services to peace and the enfranchisement of women’.

She wrote several publications including ‘I have been young’. In 1938 she published a book called Roots of Peace, writing: “in a Times leader of January 12, 1938, it is blandly explained that ‘the object of the bomber is not to defeat the rival air force, but to terrify into submission populations whose women, children and homes are attacked and destroyed by fire, explosives and gas.’

“To this pass have we been brought by men’s double infatuation with machines and domination…. Blind men of science provide the engines wherewith gallant youths, equally blind, will at the command of helpless politicians, blindest of all, destroy alike men, women and children.”

By the time of the outbreak of WW2, she was in poor health, depressed at the growth of fascism in Germany and feeling isolated, her husband having died, and her friends been estranged because of her views - she promoted non-intervention and isolationism, but advocated a Federal Europe and the ‘cultivation of an international mind’ among European citizens. She apparently committed suicide on 16 November 1939.




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