Jane Addams

Presidential Address to the International Congress of Women – May 1, 1915

Jane Addams
May 01, 1915— The Hague, The Netherlands
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At this last evening of the International Congress of Women now drawing to its successful conclusion, its President wishes first to express her sincere admiration for the women who have come here from the belligerent nations. They have come from home at a moment when the national consciousness is so welling up from each hearth and overflowing into the consciousness of others that the individual loses not only all concern for his personal welfare but for his convictions as well, and gladly merges all he has into his country's existence.

It is a high and precious moment in human experience; war is too great a price to pay for it, but it is worth almost anything else. I therefore venture to call the journey of these women, many of them heartsick and sorrowful, to this Congress, little short of an act of heroism. Even to appear to differ from those she loves in the hour of their affliction or exaltation has ever been the supreme test of woman's conscience.

For the women coming from neutral nations there have also been supreme difficulties. In some of these countries woman has a large measure of political responsibility, and in all of them women for long months have been sensitive to the complicated political conditions which may so easily compromise a neutral nation and jeopardize the peace and safety of its people. At a Congress such as this an exaggerated word may easily be spoken, or reported as spoken, which would make a difficult situation still more difficult; but these women have bravely taken that risk and made the moral venture. We from the United States who have made the longest journey and are therefore freest from these entanglements — although no nation in the civilized world is free — can speak out our admiration for these fine women from the neutral as well as from the fighting nations.

Why then were women from both the warring and the neutral nations ready to come to this Congress to the number of 1500? By what profound and spiritual forces were they impelled at this moment when the spirit of Internationalism is apparently broken down, to believe that the solidarity of women would hold fast and that through its as through a precious instrument they would be able to declare the reality of those basic human experiences ever perpetuating and cherishing the race, and courageously to set them over against the superficial and hot impulses which have so often led to warfare.

Those great underlying forces in response to which so many women have come here, belong to the human race as a whole and constitute a spiritual internationalism which surrounds and completes our national life even as our national life itself surrounds and completes our family life; they do not conflict with patriotism on one side any more than family devotion conflicts with it upon the other.

We have come to this International Congress of Women not only to protest from our hearts, and with the utmost patience we can command, unaffrighted even by the difficult and technical, to study this complicated modern world of ours now so sadly at war with itself, but furthermore we would fain suggest ways by which this large internationalism may find itself and dig new channels through which it may flow.

At moments it appears as if the excessive nationalistic feeling expressing itself during these last fateful months through the exaltation of warfare in so many of the great nations is due to the accumulation within their own borders of those higher human affections, which should have had an outlet into the larger life of the world but could not, because no international devices had been provided for such expression. No great central authority could deal with this sum of human good-will as a scientist deals with the body of knowledge in his subject irrespective of its national origins, and the nations themselves became congested, as it were, and inevitably grew confused between what was legitimate patriotism and those universal emotions which have nothing to do with national frontiers.

We are happy that the Congress has met at the Hague. Thirty years ago I came to this beautiful city, full fifteen years before the plans for international organization had found expression here. If I can look back to such wonderful beginnings in my own lifetime who shall say that the younger women on this platform may not see the completion of an international organization which shall make war impossible because good-will and just dealing between nations shall have found an ordered method of expression.

We have many evidences at the present moment that inchoate and unorganized as it is, it may be found even in the midst of this war constantly breaking through its national bounds. The very soldiers in the opposing trenches have to be moved about from time to time, lest they come to know each other, not as the enemy but as individuals, and a sense of comradeship overwhelm their power to fight.

This totally unnecessary conflict between the great issues of internationalism and of patriotism rages all about us even in our own minds so that we wage a veritable civil war within ourselves. These two great affections should never have been set one against the other; it is too late in the day for war. For decades the lives of all the peoples of the world have been revealed to us through the products of commerce, through photographs and cinematographs, and last of all through the interpretations of the poets and artists.

Suddenly all of these wonderful agencies are applied to the hideous business of uncovering the details of warfare.

Never before has the world known so fearfully and so minutely what war means to the soldier himself, to women and children, to that civilization which is the common heritage of all mankind.

All this intimate and realistic knowledge of war is recorded upon human hearts more highly sensitized than ever before in the history of man and filled with a new and avid hunger for brotherhood.

In the shadow of this intolerable knowledge, we the women of this International Congress have come together to make our solemn protest against that of which we know.

Our protest may be feeble but the world progresses, in the slow and halting manner in which it does progress, only in proportion to the moral energy exerted by the men and women living in it; social advance must be pushed forward by the human will and understanding united for conscious ends. The slow progress towards juster international relations may be traced to the distinguished jurist of the Netherlands, Grotius, whose honored grave is but a few miles from here; to the great German Immanuel Kant, who lifted the subject of „Eternal Peace" high above even philosophical controversary; to Count Tolstoy of Russia who so trenchantly set it forth in our own day, and so on from one country to another.

Each in his own time, because he placed law about force, was called a dreamer and a coward, but each did his utmost to express clearly the truth that was in him and beyond that human effort cannot go.

These mighty names are but the outstanding witnesses among the host of men and women who have made their obscure contributions to the same great end.

Conscious of our own shortcomings and not without a sense of complicity in the present war, we women have met in earnestness and in sorrow to add what we may, to this swelling tide of purpose.

It is possible that the appeals for the organization of the world upon peaceful lines have been made too exclusively to man's reason and sense of justice quite as the eighteenth century enthusiasm for humanity was prematurely founded on intellectual sentiment. Reason is only a part of the human endowment, emotion and deep-set radical impulses must be utilized as well, those primitive human urgings to foster life and to protect the helpless of which women were the earliest custodians, and even the social and gregarious instincts that we share with the animals themselves. These universal desires must be given opportunities to expand and the most highly trained intellects must serve them rather than the technique of war and diplomacy.

They tell us that wounded lads lying in helpless pain and waiting too long for the field ambulance, call out constantly for their mothers, impotently beseeching them for help; during this Congress we have been told of soldiers who say to their hospital nurses "We can do nothing for ourselves, but go back to the trenches again and again so long as we are able. Cannot the women do something about this war? Are you kind to us only when we are wounded?"

There is no one else to whom they dare so speak, revealing the heart of the little child which each man carries within his own even when it beats under a braided uniform.

The time may come when the exhausted survivors of the war may well reproach women for their inaction during this terrible time. It is possible they will then say that when devotion to the ideals of patriotism drove thousands of men into international warfare, that the women refused to accept the challenge and in that moment of terror failed to assert clearly and courageously the sanctity of human life, the reality of thing things of the spirit.

For three days we have met together, so conscious of the bloodshed and desolation surrounding us, that all irrevelant and temporary matters fell away and we spoke solemnly to each other of the great and eternal issues as do those who meet around the bed side of the dying.

We have formulated our message and given it to the world to heed when it will, confident that at last the great Court of International Opinion will pass righteous judgment upon all human affairs.

Jane Addams, "Presidential Address at the International Congress of Women," Congress Report (1915), pp. 18-22.

Speech from Addams, Jane, “Presidential Address, International Congress of Women at The Hague, May 1, 1915,” Jane Addams Digital Edition, accessed October 31, 2018, https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/items/show/9907.