Strong in her belief that women needed to speak out boldly against subordination and silencing, her feminism was sharpened by profound respect for working women struggling against the odds of poverty and patriarchy, and it was the suffrage movement which drew Helen into active political engagement. She joined the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) in 1910, becoming a regular speaker for the Cause and a leader on the frontline of the militant struggle. She was imprisoned and went on hunger strike on several occasions.
When war was declared in August 1914, Helen was filled with horror at what she considered to be cynical capitalist belligerence between imperialist powers, and felt deeply betrayed by the Pankhursts’ decision to suspend WSPU activities in favour of pro-war patriotic fervour. She joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), carrying her militancy and campaigning experience into anti-war and socialist activism on many fronts. Indeed, she should be recognised as one of the ‘Red Clydeside’ leaders of those turbulent years.
Helen was no stranger to public platforms across Scotland and beyond, and developed a well-earned reputation for the power and passion of her oratory. ‘‘I travelled throughout the country exposing the Armament rings, war makers and urging women to revolt against the sacrifice of their sons and the powerful few who despised them”. Her speeches were sometimes reported in local papers and the socialist press, but also recorded for police surveillance under DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act). So we know that she railed against the waste, violence and slaughter of war. She spoke out against the exploitation, hardship and sacrifice of the common working people, whether in Britain or Germany, and the need for a transformed economic and political order to bring lasting peace with justice. Her critique extended to the militarisation of industry and the impacts of total war on the well-being, rights and liberties of working people at home in Britain, especially women.
It is no surprise, then, that Helen was one of the main instigators of the 1915 Rent Strike –a successful mass movement of tenants’ non-payment and direct action organised by the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association against wartime profiteering of landlords. Led by housewives, the Strike forced court and Government capitulation, and the resulting Rent Restriction Act froze working class rents across Britain for the duration of the war. The GWHA personnel and methods were a crucial bridge between working class women and peace activism. Helen delivered powerful anti-war and socialist speeches at packed tenants meetings. Late in 1915, along with her younger ILP friend Agnes Dollan, she joined Quaker women in setting up a Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League. Helen respected her more constitutionally minded colleagues in the League, but wanted to mobilise anti-war agitation and to build a mass movement which was dramatic, direct, rooted in the realities of local working class women’s lives.
A UK-wide alliance of pacifist, religious, labour and women’s organisations set up a Peace Negotiations Committee in the spring of 1916, denouncing the moral iniquity and cruelty of the war, and seeking early negotiations for a just and lasting peace settlement. That summer, Helen organised a public meeting with feminist speakers from across Britain to launch a Women’s Peace Crusade: an intensive campaign in Glasgow neighbourhoods, using the methods of the rent strike to inform, rouse and rally women in support of an immediate negotiated peace. Twenty open air meetings were held across the city, and thousands of signatures collected for a national Peace Petition. The 1916 Crusade culminated on Sunday 23 July in a 5000 strong demonstration on Glasgow Green. It was reported that the rally ‘was arranged entirely by women, who have been well led by the able and enthusiastic Mrs Helen Crawfurd, who has no leisure hours that are not devoted to furthering the cause of Peace’.
In the summer of 1917, the Women’s Peace Crusade was re-launched and spread like wildfire, becoming a national mass movement with meetings, marches and demonstrations in cities and industrial centres, acting in the face of surveillance, hostility and often violent attacks. Galvanised by Helen Crawfurd and her sisters across Britain, women rose up, occupied public space, and spoke out with courage against the horror and injustice of war.
So it was entirely fitting that Helen herself spoke on behalf of the British WIL at the Zurich Congress. This was due recognition of her immense contribution to war resistance and the campaign for a lasting people’s peace. In Zurich, she shared a room with the young firebrand Ellen Wilkinson, and befriended the American delegate Crystal Eastman (Mrs Fuller). In her report, she declared that the real work of WIL was just beginning, emphasising the importance of tackling the economic causes of war, and of alliances with industrial and socialist organisations. Her own commitment to that work was lifelong, and although, as a Communist, her lifelong political activism was largely outwith the mainstream of British democratic institutions, she did stand as a CPGB candidate in the 1923 General Election, and was elected as an Independent, at the age of 68, to Dunoon Town Council. Until her death, she regularly wrote to the press on local and international affairs, and continued to speak on platforms. A comrade recalled “Her natural eloquence, native humour, real love of people and burning hatred of all forms of oppression combined to make her one of the finest orators in Britain.”
(Much of this article is drawn from a more substantial essay: ‘“Shall We Not Speak for Ourselves?” Helen Crawfurd, War Resistance and the Women’s Peace Crusade, 1916 – 1918, Scottish Labour History Vol 50, 2015.)