Live Well, Do Good

Women’s Social Action 100 Years Ago Foreshadowed Today

Brandon Sun, March 12, 2018 – David McConkey

History is not just a series of events that happen to people. History is also a flow: its course changed by people who ask questions and take action. Progress will be uneven. But progress happened a century ago; think of women winning the right to vote. And progress happens today; think of women changing society with #MeToo.

Let’s contemplate this dynamic as we mark 100 years since the First World War. And celebrate this dynamic as we mark International Women’s Day every March 8.

Wonderful descriptions of social activists 100 years ago are in Adam Hochschild’s book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. An American writer, Hochschild brings to life a cast of fascinating characters in the United Kingdom during the Great War. A few are famous; most are not well known.

Hochschild begins his account with the 1899-1902 Boer War. That war in South Africa prefigured many future conflicts.

In South Africa, the British military confronted a Boer guerrilla insurgency. To crush the guerrillas, British troops cut off sources of food: setting thousands of farms on fire, poisoning wells, killing millions of farm animals. The British also rounded up tens of thousands of Boer women and children, imprisoning them in camps – the world’s first concentration camps. 

Conditions in the camps were brutal: 28,000 Boer civilians died there of hunger and disease. This was more than twice the number of Boer soldiers killed in combat.

Because there was criticism of the war – in the U.K. and elsewhere – the British military tried to keep the existence of the concentration camps a secret. But then Emily Hobhouse entered the picture.

Hobhouse was born in southwest England in 1860. Although not wealthy, she was well-connected. Until her late 30s, she was occupied with caring for her widowed and sick father, a retired Anglican priest. After he died, Hobhouse dedicated herself to social welfare reform.

In 1901, Hobhouse travelled to South Africa on behalf of an organization, the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund. Hobhouse brought clothes and food to distribute to victims of the war. But she was shocked when she discovered the suffering in the concentration camps.

“My heart wept within me when I saw the misery.”
When she arrived back home in the U.K., Hobhouse publicized the reality of the camps. She wrote to newspapers and to all members of parliament. She went on a lecture tour, moving audiences to tears.

But many disapproved of any questioning of their government’s actions during wartime. Hobhouse was called a traitor. At public talks, she was pelted by vegetables, sticks and stones, even chairs. But she soldiered on, saving some projectiles as souvenirs.

Hobhouse’s campaign, Hochschild writes, succeeded in raising global awareness of the concentration camps. 

“Seldom had a single person done so much to put an issue on the international agenda.”

A decade later, in 1914, the U.K. and Germany went to war. Men on both sides rushed to enlist. Their big fear: the war would be over so quickly they would miss the action.

Hobhouse tried to warn her fellow citizens. She had witnessed in South Africa the devastation wrought by modern warfare.

“Few English people have seen war in its nakedness,” Hobhouse wrote to a newspaper. “They know nothing of the poverty, destruction, disease, pain, misery, and mortality. I have seen all this and more.” 

Hobhouse joined 100 British women in composing an open letter to the women of Germany.

“We must all urge that peace be made,” their letter implored. “We are yours in this sisterhood of sorrow.”

In 1916, Hobhouse tapped contacts from her international relief work to arrange a trip to Germany. While there, she managed to meet some government officials. She was even able to get a supervised tour behind the lines of the Western Front, in German-occupied Belgium.

Returning to the U.K. with messages from Germany, Hobhouse started a one-woman effort to end the war.

Author Hochschild points out that Hobhouse’s 1916 peace effort was significant. Although it failed, it should not be forgotten.

“However hopeless her lone-wolf diplomacy,” Hochschild writes, “in the entire course of the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, she was the sole person from any of the warring countries who actually journeyed to the other side in search of peace.”

* * * 

See also:

To End All Wars . . . on 

Reflections on the Great War

Early Feminists Dreamed of a World Free of Alcohol, Drugs and War

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Remember Lesson of History on International Women's Day

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