Tag Archives: reconstructing women’s narratives

The Peaceful Gardener: Rose Standish Nichols & The Peace Movement (Part III)

By Corinne Zaczek Bermon
(Last of three-part series. Access Part I and Part II)

The family home in Beacon Hill and their summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire served as training grounds for Nichols as she came into her own as a peace activist. When Europe began to become embroiled in war, Rose Nichols banded together with other peace-minded women to form the Woman’s Peace Party in Boston in 1915.  She organized lectures and fundraisers to broaden awareness of the anti-war movement.  It was through this local organizational work that Nichols learned the skills she needed to enter the peace movement on a global stage. The focus of women’s activities turned toward political concerns with the establishment of current affairs discussion groups that Nichols and other women attended.

Along with the discussion groups, Rose and Margaret Nichols established the Cornish Equal Suffrage League on 1 December 1911, and it soon became the “second largest in the state, having at present sixty-eight members…[with] annual dues of fifty cents.”1) Letter, Rose Nichols to Elizabeth Homer Nichols, 1911. The Schlesinger Library. The women mainly met in the gardens designed by Nichols for her neighbors. Cornish suffrage leaders Lydia Parrish, Annie Lazarus and Rose Nichols used these gatherings to foster their personal causes, such as advancing the suffrage and peace movements.2)Judith Tankard, A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2000), 16. 

Before the US entered the war, the women of the Cornish Colony began to explore how they could influence policymakers to avoid US intervention.  In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, First Lady Ellen Wilson, made Cornish the nation’s “summer capitol.”3)Ibid, 34.   Ellen Wilson spent time in Cornish without the President and wrote many letters to Wilson during that first summer in 1913 that described her busy social schedule with the women in the colony, including Nichols and Mabel Churchill, wife of American writer Winston Churchill.  

In 1915, after Nichols established experience in organizing discussion groups in Cornish, New Hampshire, she began to work with the Woman’s Peace Party (WPP) in Boston as a nascent member. Nichols became the Chairmen of Meetings by 11 November 1915 and sent out letters to the membership regarding the organization of anti-war conferences around the state of Massachusetts.  Nichols wrote that the aim of the conferences were to inform participants about international problems that are “pressing the civilized world” for a solution.4)Letter, Nichols to Elizabeth Glendower Evans, 1915, SCPC. Nichols believed in the three tenets set forth by her fellow founding women: that women best understood the value of preserving human life; women were committed to providing individuals the best quality of life; and that women were able to resolve conflicts without ostracizing individuals or nations.5)Linda Schott, “The Woman’s Peace Party and The Moral Basis for Women’s Pacifism” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol 8, no 2, (Women and Peace 1985), 19. JSTOR. (3346048).

The WPP and Nichols flexed their influential muscles again in March 1916 when several hundred Mexican guerrillas under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa crossed the US-Mexican border and attacked the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico. It was unclear whether Villa personally participated in the attack, but President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Army into Mexico to capture the rebel leader dead or alive.  The WPP responded by

Copy of "What the Woman's Peace Party Thinks About the Mexican Crisis"
“What the Woman’s Peace Party Thinks About the Mexican Crisis” Image courtesy of Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

writing to President Wilson an address entitled “What the Woman’s Peace Party Thinks about the Mexican Crisis” that reprimanded Wilson for sending US troops 200 miles past the US-Mexico border after Pancho Villa disappeared. The WPP demanded President Wilson consent to mediation, withdraw the troops, and ask that Congress endorse President Wilson’s Mobile address that the US would never again take any land by conquest.6)Memo to WPP members, WPP Massachusetts Collection, SCPC.

Not long after the Mexican crisis, Nichols began shifting her efforts away from the local WPP and more on the international anti-war efforts after the United States entered the war in December 1917. Nichols began traveling more to Philadelphia and Washington, DC to meet with women who had been present at the first International Congress of Women that met in The Hague in 1915. In early November 1918, Lucia Ames Mead, chairman of the Massachusetts WPP, sent a letter to Jane Addams recommending

Excerpts from Mead to Addams recommending Nichols to WILPF.
Excerpts from Mead to Addams recommending Nichols to WILPF. Images courtesy of Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

Nichols to the Zurich Congress: “As there is a vacancy, I want to propose Miss Rose Nichols of 55 Mt. Vernon St who is a very able woman whom Mrs. Andres and I think would be an acquisition. She is well-posted and is one of only a few with which [Wilson] is associated.”7)Letter, Lucia Ames Mead to Jane Addams, November 1918, WILPF Collection, SCPC. Nichols, a longtime acquaintance of Addams,  was accepted in 1918 as a delegate for the International Congress held in Zurich in 1919.

In 1919, Nichols went to the Paris Peace Conference before the Zurich Congress and sat in on all the public meetings after President Wilson refused to appoint a woman to the Peace Delegation. Wilson had written her to on 1 May that it would be impossible for him to secure her a spot in the plenary session as she

requested.8)Letter, President Wilson to Rose Nichols. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.  Nichols wanted to use the connection she made in the Cornish Colony with the President to attempt to exert political influence as the terms of peace were being negotiated.  

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) officially declared itself an international women’s peace organization at the Zurich congress in opposition to the Treaty of Versailles set forth by Great Britain and the United States.  The women argued the treaty would only lead to more war and they became disillusioned with world leaders statements about their ability to keep the peace. But in the hopes of preventing another conflict, the women of WILPF remained determined to raise their collective voices as women for international peace.

US Delegation to the Zurich Congress in 1919, featuring Rose Nichols in back row.
The US delegation to the Zurich Congress. Rose Nichols is standing in the back row, first person on the left side. Image courtesy of Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

In WILPF Nichols continued organizing women as she did for the WPP.  By 1920, Nichols was the chairman of both the Oriental Relations Committee and the Pan-American Relations Committee.9)WILPF Meeting Minutes, 1920. SCPC.  In 1921, the women of WILPF gathered together in Vienna, Austria for the bi-annual international congress and Nichols was in attendance as the head of the Pan American Committee.  WILPF’s membership was growing in great strides in the lead-up to the Vienna Congress, due in part to Nichols’ recruitment efforts.  Emily Green Balch noted that Nichols was “doing pretty well in Japan and Mexico” and was particularly pleased that Nichols had secured at least three Japanese students and two Chinese women to attend. 10)Letter, Balch to Addams, Jane Addams Collection, SCPC.

By 1926, Nichols active involvement in WILPF had begun to taper off.  Although she was still a member until her death, her days of organizing had ended. Rose had turned fifty-four and wrote to her sister Margaret that she no longer had the vigor to continue.120 She remained a voting member until her death in 1960.

To learn more about the extraordinary life of Rose Standish Nichols, visit the Nichols House Museum.

Corinne Zaczek Bermon is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Archives. She earned a B.A. in American Studies in 2009 and a M.A. in American Studies in 2015 from University of Massachusetts Boston. This series of articles on Rose Standish Nichols represents her award winning research in American Studies. Currently, her work explores the social history of the Otis Everett family living in the South End of Boston in the 1850s. She is designing a digital exhibit that explores Victorian life for the merchant class conducting business in Boston and abroad through the Everett letters.

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References   [ + ]

1. Letter, Rose Nichols to Elizabeth Homer Nichols, 1911. The Schlesinger Library.
2. Judith Tankard, A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2000), 16.
3. Ibid, 34.
4. Letter, Nichols to Elizabeth Glendower Evans, 1915, SCPC.
5. Linda Schott, “The Woman’s Peace Party and The Moral Basis for Women’s Pacifism” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol 8, no 2, (Women and Peace 1985), 19. JSTOR. (3346048).
6. Memo to WPP members, WPP Massachusetts Collection, SCPC.
7. Letter, Lucia Ames Mead to Jane Addams, November 1918, WILPF Collection, SCPC.
8. Letter, President Wilson to Rose Nichols. The Nichols House Museum and Archive.
9. WILPF Meeting Minutes, 1920. SCPC.
10. Letter, Balch to Addams, Jane Addams Collection, SCPC.

Hidden in Plain Sight: African Women’s History Beyond the Archive (part 1)

By Heidi Gengenbach            (First of two parts. Here’s Part II)
Avavumbeli mbita eku cukumeta.
(Potters don’t fashion clay into a pot just to throw it away.) 
[1]

How do historians study people who left no written traces of their life, no paper trail hinting at who they were or what they accomplished? Questions of “truth” and “fact” suddenly dominate American politics and news media. But debates about how we know what we know, about the reliability of the evidence behind claims we make about the world, are as old as history-telling itself, and they haunt historians every day. It is difficult enough to reconstruct someone’s past from the documentary fragments we unearth in public and private archives. When no such records exist, when people leave no evidence behind, can—or should—historians pay attention to their lives at all?

Map of Africa, 2011.
Political map of Africa, 2011.

Today, in the 48 nations of sub-Saharan Africa, over 50% of adult women ages 15 and up—nearly 250 million women—lack basic literacy skills.[2]

During the millenia of human history before 1900, when most African cultures relied on sophisticated oral rather than written forms of communication, the number of writing women was truly minute. As happened during the peaceful spread of Islam into Africa from the 7th century on, European missionaries and colonizers brought writing skills to the parts of the continent they occupied or conquered between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some liberated African slaves who had converted to Christianity in the Americas similarly introduced literacy when they returned to Africa, sometimes as missionaries themselves. But African girls had limited access to the Quranic and Western-style Christian schools these men established. And because the colonial state ignored “native” women unless they broke the law, appeared in court, or engaged in political protest, neither European officials nor the male African clerks who did much of their record-keeping documented women’s ordinary activities or opinions.

Rosalina Malungana and her great-granddaughter Nestacia, weeding Rosalina's field, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1996.
Rosalina Malungana and her great-granddaughter Nestacia, weeding Rosalina’s field, Facazisse (Magude district), March 1996. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1996. Courtesy of author.

The lives of rural women, especially, escaped the notice of Europeans, who lumped them together derisively as “peasants” or “beasts of burden.” In colonial eyes, rural African women were less troublesome than their sisters in the urban “educated elite,” but less deserving of attention too.

In other words, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African women in the past possessed neither the means to write about their experiences, nor the power to be represented fairly in the written archives of their place and time. And while the continent’s wealth of oral traditions—performed narratives that recount past events and are transmitted across generations—offer another body of evidence, women seldom appear as speakers or subjects in these histories either.

There are some exceptions, but in most African oral chronicles women’s voices and deeds are sidelined by patriarchal cultural norms and a gender division of labor that assigns women the arduous work of subsistence, leaving them too socially marginal (and too busy) to challenge the public histories their menfolk tell.

Map of Mozambique
Map of Mozambique.

Given women’s absence from traditional written and oral accounts of Africa’s past, it might seem that their lives—and African women’s history as a whole—must be hopelessly beyond our reach.

In the rural communities of Mozambique where I have been working since the 1990s, the devastation wrought by Portuguese colonial rule (1895-1975) and protracted independence and civil wars (1965-75, 1976-92) further complicates research on women’s history.

In addition to the spottiness, racism, and sexism of colonial archives, and the androcentrism of oral traditions, the scars from nearly 30 years of violent displacement and traumatic loss—of family, belongings, homes—can make it exceptionally difficult to interview women about their experiences.

Battle-scarred shell of a commercial building outside Mapulanguene (Magude district), September 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.
Battle-scarred shell of a commercial building outside Mapulanguene (Magude district), September 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author. Returning refugees blamed the absence of roofs, doors, and windowpanes from most abandoned structures in Magude on Renamo soldiers, who were said to have stripped buildings for useful materials when they occupied Mapulanguene during the war.

Too many elders did not survive the civil war, leaving a generation of youth bereft of the knowledge their grandparents would have taught them.

Memories of brutal conflict, particularly the atrocities committed against civilians by Renamo rebels, can be too painful to speak aloud.

Magude residents accompanying author to Renamo base camp at Ngungwe (Magude district) to visit displaced relatives, November 1995. Author photo.
Magude residents accompanying author to Renamo base camp at Ngungwe (Magude district) to visit displaced relatives, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

Girls and women suffered both wars in distinctly gendered ways, including rape and sexual enslavement but more commonly by shouldering the burdens of food provisioning, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and ritual mourning of the dead—often while on the run as “internally displaced persons” or refugees in neighboring countries.

Government tank burned by Renamo forces in a 1987 battle near their Ngungwe base camp, on the South African border, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.
Government tank burned by Renamo forces in a 1987 battle near their Ngungwe base camp, on the South African border, November 1995. © Heidi Gengenbach, 1995. Courtesy of author.

A person’s understanding of the past can’t help but change in such harrowing times. Post-war grief and nostalgia, and the urgent need to rebuild shattered communities, also raise the stakes of remembering “correctly,” while discouraging memories—of injustice, victimization, betrayal—that distract from the business of moving on. How does one analyze women’s testimony in these circumstances, let alone separate “truth” from nightmare?

Part II explores these questions next week.

Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History.
Heidi Gengenbach (right), Assistant Professor of History at Umass Boston, teach in the field, 2008. Courtesy of author.

Heidi Gengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.

References

[1] Henri P. Junod, The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People (3d ed. Braamfontein: Sasavona Books, 1990), 162-3.

[2] Literacy data from the World Bank which currently estimates the population of Sub-Saharan Africa as 974.2 million, with women comprising 50% of the total. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Reports/2016/economic-growth-equity-ishrat.aspx

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