In this three part series, Amy Todd will explore the lives and work of key figures within peace activist networks in the UK. Each blog will tell the story of an activist contextualised within a key time for the women’s peace movement. The series will explore the relationship between feminist, pacifist and anti-military ideologies to give a brief timeline of the history of female peace activism. 

Helen Crawfurd was a Scottish working-class feminist and socialist from Glasgow (1877 – 1954). She is best known for her part in the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915, in which she campaigned as part of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, organising over 20,000 tenants to refuse to pay their rent in response to rent increases.

Even though she was a Christian pacifist, Helen often used violent tactics to support causes she believed to be important. As Dr. Lesley Orr explains in Shall we not speak for ourselves? Helen Crawfurd, War Resistance and the Women’s Peace Crusade 1916-1918, Helen reconciled herself with this seemingly contradictory stance on her ‘peace-work’ by explaining that because Christ himself was militant when he ‘cleansed the temple’ of money-changers (John 2:14), ‘so I can be militant too’. In 1913, Helen was a committed member of the WSPU and was imprisoned for attacking police officers in an attempt to protect Emmeline Pankhurst during a Glasgow speech. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU stopped campaigning in order to support the national war effort. Women like Helen who were involved in both the suffrage movement and peace activism faced a difficult choice. By stepping away from their suffrage activism, they would be tacitly supporting the war effort. Helen decided her efforts were best placed in the peace movement, and moved away from the WSPU. According to Katie Reid, this culminated in a dramatic incident at a meeting in Glasgow where she mounted the stage to shout ‘Shame on you Christabel Pankhust!’ 

In 1915, Helen became a founding member of the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). That same year, Helen and other British delegates attended a peace conference in The Hague to meet with other European activists, demonstrating WILPF’s commitment to peace as an internationalist movement. Many women there believed that they could work across international borders effectively as mothers, united in the interest of keeping their children safe. At the conference, Helen also learned of acts of sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers, and believed the wartime experience left women in a powerless position. Millions of women lost family members, and they could not fight in the war or take part in democratic decision making about the conflict. She believed the right to vote was essential in order to establish a more peaceful world. If women could more actively involve themselves in politics, as ‘natural peacemakers’, they could help bring about an end to the conflict. As Helena Swanwick, a fellow WILPF member said; ‘pacifists would only be successful when they recognise a woman’s claim to freedom’.

Helen found her time in WILPF challenging, according to Frank Jackson and Pauline Donald, because of what she saw as their ‘bourgeois liberalism and genteel lobbying strategies’. Helen was committed to raising the profile of working-class women within the peace movement, and was encouraged by the favourable response she received from working-class women. She believed, ‘The encouragement we got from the poor and the inarticulate was best of all. Said one, ‘What you bin saying, Ah bin thinkin long enough, but Ah niver getten t words reet’. 

In an effort to expand the number of working-class women in the movement, Helen gathered with 200 activists in June 1916, at the first meeting of what would become the Glasgow Women’s Peace Crusades. The Women’s Peace Crusades of 1916-18 started in Glasgow and then spread across the UK, campaigning for a ‘People’s Peace’ and commitment to disarmament.  

Helen served as Honorary Secretary for the Women’s Peace Crusades. Her position as leader of the movement was cemented after authoring an influential letter to the Labour Leader which criticised women who did not actively protest the war, stating that the conflict could be resolved if women convinced their husbands and sons not to serve. The Women’s Peace Crusades grew into a substantial grass-roots socialist movement, with over 5,000 people in attendance at regular meetings. Helen wrote this song for the cause:

Song of the Women
Through our land the women gather,
Overcoming trial and stress,
Great the task we gladly further,
On to peace we proudly press.
Courage springs from facing danger,
Strong in ‘love of life’s’ delight:
In our midst no-one’s a stranger,
In our hands the future’s bright.

Every street shall hear our message,
Every child deserve our care,
Guild and union, town and village
Ring with songs of hope we bear.
Time to come together spilling
Talent far too often hid,
Time to act, our life fulfilling, 
Peace on earth our glorious bid.

Women of the world; we greet you,
Sisters all in heartfelt aim.
Speed the hour when we shall meet you,
Heroines of peace acclaim.
Visions of the life we long for –
Full of joy as children’s play –
Urge us on and make us strong for –
Our invincible fight to-day.

Helen’s activism was informed by her feminism, socialism, communism, and internationalism. She embraced a gendered approach to peace-making, marrying her commitment to female suffrage and pacifism. Her use of militant techniques in her attempts at peace-making complicates our understanding of ‘pacifism’, and speaks to the broad spectrum actions deployed across the peace movement.

Amy Todd is the Public Engagement Officer for the Layers of London project at the Institute of Historical Research, and a student on the Public History MA programme at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Listen to a podcast that accompanies this series. Amy interviews Pat Gaffney (Pax Christi) and Liz Khan (Women in Black) to discuss their personal experiences in peace activism, and contemporary issues in gendered peace work.

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