Helena Maria Lucy Swanwick (1864–1939)

Helena Swanwick, suffragist, pacifist, author, and delegate to the League of Nations Assembly from 1924, is an example of a woman operating confidently on the international stage and enjoying significant political influence at a time when women in many nations did not have the right to vote or stand for elections.  Her writings show a grasp of the issues that anticipate many of the later concerns of peace studies and international relations, and her woman-centric perspective anticipated much later developments in in feminist scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s.  As Chair of the Women’s International League from 1915, she was a founder member of WILPF, standing firmly against the use of violence for any cause, even for the revolutionary overthrow of unjust systems.

Early Life

Helena Swanwick (née Sickert) was international in her outlook and in her origins: born in Munich, Bavaria, in 1864, to a German-Danish painter Oswald Adalbert Sickert (1828–1885) and a British mother, Eleanor Louisa Moravia Henry (1830–1922), Swanwick was the only girl among three brothers, including the artist Walter Sickert. The family moved to London, England in 1868, living in Notting Hill, where they had friends in artistic and literary circles. Helena was educated in France and London and, much against the will of her father, studied Classics at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in 1885 and securing a lectureship in Psychology at Westfield College, London. In 1888 she married the mathematician Frederick Tertius Swanwick (1851–1931). The couple lived in Manchester, where Swanwick regularly wrote and reviewed for the Manchester Guardian. A feminist since girlhood, Swanwick was active in feminist circles in the North, campaigning for female suffrage as a member of the North of England Suffrage Society, affiliated to the suffragist NUWSS led by Millicent Fawcett and out of sympathy with the militant tactics of the suffragettes (WSPU).

First World War

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Swanwick channeled her efforts into opposing militarism in all ways possible, joining the executive committee of the Union of Democratic Control, an organisation campaigning for greater transparency and democracy in foreign policy.  Along with prominent pacifists such as Catherine Marshall, Kathleen Courtney, Crystal Macmillan and Maude Royden, she resigned from her leadership position in the NUWSS in protest against the organisation’s support for the national war effort.

It is no surprise that Swanwick’s name was on the list of 180 women who applied for travel permits to attend the International Women’s Congress at The Hague in 1915. Writing in her memoirs I have been Young, published in 1935, she reflected:

“If I had felt myself driven to fling myself into the movement for the vote, I was even more ruthlessly compelled to discover the truth, as I saw it, about war in general and this war in particular.”

Unable to attend The Hague in person because of the travel restrictions, Swanwick became the Chair of the Women’s International League for Peace and developed her ideas about feminist pacifism in speeches and publications, including Women and War, published in 1915. In this publication, she sets out her perspective on war from a women-centred point of view.  Far from being protected from the effects of war by men, she argued, women suffered equally if not more, and did not have the compensating elements of comradeship and adventure. As well as losing sons, brothers and husbands, women suffered directly during invasion by enemy armies that left women exposed to sexual violence, displacement and the destruction of their homes and communities.  She also argued that war bred militarism, which had the effect of reinforcing gender inequality, degrading women ‘to the position of breeders and slaves’ (3). These wartime mentalities continued after hostilities had ended and acted as a brake on progress towards social and gender equality.  For these reasons, she saw women as especially disadvantaged by war and with an urgent interest in understanding how it arose and how it could be prevented.

Zurich 1919 and the Inter-war years

Swanwick was part of the British delegation to the Zurich Conference in 1919. In her speech on Friday, May 6th, Swanwick made clear that peace, freedom and social and gender justice were interlinked and that campaigning for peace without considering social reform and female enfranchisement was ineffective:

“The movement for peace cannot afford to do without the women, and it is not enough for the women to cry sentimentally that they desire peace.  When you desire a thing with all your heart, you must think for it and you must work for it. A mere desire of the lips is nothing”

For her and for many of the women at the Congress, peace was far more than simply an absence of war but was a matter of creating a fair and democratic society and finding ways to prevent conflict between nations escalating to war. Although she strongly supported the idea of a League of Nations and indeed served as a UK delegate between in 1924 and in 1928–31, she was highly critical of some of the structures and regulations. In particular, she felt that excluding defeated nations was wrong, and she could never accept that the League had the right to use war as a means of regulating international conflict under any circumstances. She also opposed the use of sanctions such as blockades as a weapon of war, noting the impossibility of distinguishing between civilians and combatants in future, technologically advanced wars that would use aerial bombardment and gas.

Swanwick published a history of the Union of Democratic Control, Builders of Peace (1924), and between 1925 to 1928 edited the organization’s journal, Foreign Affairs. At a 1928 debate hosted by the National Peace Council in London, she regretted that women still had so little influence on matters of war and peace and resented women being used as an excuse for war when men could not in fact protect women and children, concluding: “I have often reflected how much safer women would be if men left off protecting them.”

Faced with the growing threat from Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, she continued to write about peace and security, publishing pamphlets in 1937 and 1938. She died in November 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War. Some claim that she took her own life, but the evidence for this is not conclusive.

Key publications by Helena Swanwick:

1913: The future of the women’s movement

1915: Women and War

1924: Builders of peace: being ten years’ history of the Union of Democratic Control

1928: with W. Arnold-Forster, Sanctions of the League of Nations Covenant

1935: I have been young (memoirs)

1937: Collective Insecurity

1938: The Roots of Peace