These Dangerous Women
Charlotte Bill, Clapham Film Unit
“My sister needs a film”, my contact said to me in a Community Resource basement on Brixton Hill.
“What’s the story?”
“These women in 1915 got together to try to stop World War 1.”
“They travelled right across war torn Europe. They even had to travel by fishing boat at one point – the ferries weren’t running. They were from warring and neutral nations. The organisation they set up is still running today and my sister is part of it. “
I knew at once it was a great story that had to be told on its centenary. I went to Petts Wood Quaker Meeting House to meet my contact’s sister, Sheila Triggs. She was at a meeting of the Orpington branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the organisation set up in 1915 and still going today. I showed the group my previous work and offered to help raise the funding to engage members of the organisation and outside volunteers to make a documentary, touring exhibition, booklet and set of oral history recordings.
The Heritage Lottery Fund was immediately interested in the project and I got together with the WILPF History Group to write a successful bid. Helen Kay and Katrina Gass from WILPF History Group had already spent years researching the early members of their organisation and they put together a list of women who had been granted passports to attend the International Women’s Congress at the Hague in 1915.
The 1915 Women’s Peace Congress and the Origins of the WILPF
In 1915 women all over Europe were trying to get the vote. They had formed an international women’s suffrage alliance (IWSA) and felt they had a lot in common with other women regardless of national boundaries. When the war broke out, the international meeting planned for 1915 in Berlin couldn’t take place.
Aletta Jacobs, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the Netherlands, invited individual women to come to a Women’s Congress in the Hague on April 28th 1915. Individuals were invited because Aletta Jacobs realised some organisations might not take part.
Chrystal Macmillan and Kathleen Courtney went to the Netherlands in February to help Aletta organise the Congress and send the invitations out.
180 women from the British suffrage movement wanted to go to the Congress but only 24 were granted passports by the Home Office.
Winston Churchill called them “These Dangerous Women”, and they were vilified in the press. The shipping lanes were closed for the entire time of the Congress and the 24 women were prevented from going. Unable to travel to the conference, these same women went on to form branches of the WILPF in Britain, which are still going today.
Chrystal Macmillan and Kathleen Courtney, however, were already in the Hague and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence had been lecturing in America and came over with Jane Addams and the American delegates, so three British women did make it to the Hague Congress.
A total of 1300 women gathered from warring and neutral nations. They held talks in English, German and French. They formulated 20 resolutions proposing continuous mediation as an alternative to armed conflict. They proposed that women should be a part of all international discussions and that post war settlements should be fair.
At the end of the congress, Rosikka Schwimmer from Hungary stood up and said “These words are fine but what are we going to do?” She proposed taking the resolutions to all the heads of state in Europe and the US president. The Congress voted in favour of this suggestion and 5 envoys were elected to make the perilous journey.
The envoys were from opposing and neutral sides in the war but travelled together carrying their 20 resolutions. Chrystal Macmillan was one of these envoys and went all around the Northern European countries and as far as St Petersburg. Jane Addams went with the other envoys around the Southern countries and then back to America to meet the president, Woodrow Wilson, who used some of the resolutions in forming the League of Nations.
The organisation created by these women in 1915 – the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – is still going today and has spread to 42 countries. They celebrate their centenary on 28th April 2015.
We asked each of the volunteers to research one of the women from this list starting with the ones little was known about. Volunteers were recruited from the WILPF, from Clapham Film Unit, and via Twitter and leaflets. The London School of Economics ran some archival training sessions for the volunteers to enable them to look in to the WILPF archives held there.
People threw themselves into the research and soon they were phoning me up telling me things they had discovered about their 1915 woman. I wanted to capture their excitement and sense of discovery in the documentary, so I decided to re enact the journey to Tilbury which brought all these women together, and to interview them in costume about their character on the train.
Lindsey Holmes supervised the costumes which people researched and found themselves then we hired some hats and and coats from the National Theatre to give it an authentic period feel. Nick Gordon-Smith came onboard as director of photography bringing his cinematic eye to the film.
Alison Ronan’s book A small vital flame: anti war women in NW England, 1914 -1918 was published just as we shot the first scenes and Alison came to visit the WILPF office. Her book describes the friendships which grew up between suffragists, activists, trade unionists and co operative workers in the North West. These friendships cut across class boundaries as women worked together for the vote and against the war. I felt this was very important to include in the film so Alison contacted her friends about re enacting a meeting that took place in Manchester’s Milton Hall, where delegates were selected to go to the Hague. We were very lucky to be able to film in the original building.
Helen Kay took on the role of narrator and we filmed her telling the story in the Women’s University Club which has been running for over 100 years. I stitched the film together with all the journeys these women were making. I became obsessed with the envoy’s visits as they criss-crossed Europe, speaking to 21 Heads of State the Pope and the King of Norway. I ended up travelling by boat and train from London to Copenhagen via the Hague, Amsterdam and Hamburg to try to convey the scale of their attempts. This part of the project was self funded. I had become obsessed, and I felt it was important to get Europe into the film. We had a lot of help from the Nene Valley Railway, The Touring Railway Company, C2C trains, Port of Tilbury, and the Port of London.
Meanwhile the volunteers wrote up their research, made a booklet, and created some wonderful exhibition banners. They began to record the oral histories of current members of the WILPF, which will go into the LSE archive.
The film and banners have been shown in Manchester, Sheffield, London, and will be shown in Newcastle, Orpington, Penzance and the Hague as part of the WILPF’s Centenary celebrations. The Community Channel will broadcast the documentary on the 28th April at 8.30pm the centenary of the Women’s Congress at the Hague.
Making the film has been an extraordinary journey. Studying those women from 1915 who risked so much and had so much determination has been truly inspirational.
First published 2015 on: Imperial & Global Forum; the blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the History Department, University of Exeter.