This week in history: Nobelist Emily Greene Balch, founder of WILPF
Emily Greene Balch, U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Emily Greene Balch was born 150 years ago on January 8, 1867, in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. She was an academic, writer and pacifist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. That year the prize was shared with another American, John Raleigh Mott, long-serving leader of the YMCA and the World Student Christian Federation.

Balch won her prize notably for her work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which contributed significantly to the work of the League of Nations after World War I. During World War II, she modified her pacifism because she believed that military opposition to Nazi Germany was a necessary evil. Her ceaseless efforts for peace and a global moral consensus occupied all her energy and gifts. She never married. She enjoyed painting, and also wrote a book of poetry, The Miracle of Living.

By 1946, her name had become less widely known, but the Nobel recognition honored her as a champion of internationalism. She believed that freer movement around the world and institutions that cross national boundaries, such as WILPF, would help to unify the human race into a single moral consciousness, preventing the type of nationalism that fueled racial hatred in Hitler’s Germany.

Balch was among the first graduates of Bryn Mawr College in 1889. She continued to study sociology and economics in Europe, spending 1889-90 in Berlin and later attending Harvard and the University of Chicago. After graduate work in Paris she published her research as Public Assistance of the Poor in France (1893). In 1896, she joined the Wellesley College faculty, becoming a full professor of economics and sociology in 1913. Raised a Unitarian, Balch became a Quaker in 1921.

As an academic, she focused on immigration, consumption, and the economic roles of women. She served on numerous state commissions, such as the first commission on minimum wages for women. She was a leader of the Women’s Trade Union League, which supported women in labor unions. She published a major sociological study of Our Slavic Fellow Citizens in 1910. She believed that the American economy was “far from being in harmony with the principles of Jesus which we profess.”

During the Hague peace conferences of 1889 and 1907, Balch took a keen interest in the proceedings. The gatherings aimed to seek “the most effective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and, above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments.” After World War I broke out, Balch took part in the 1915 International Congress of Women at The Hague, where she played a major role in forming the Women’s International Committee for Permanent Peace, which later became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

On her return to the U.S. she started to campaign against America’s entry into the conflict, urging for the use of mediation instead of force. In 1915, she also attended the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation at Stockholm, writing International Colonial Administration, in which she set out a scheme for administrating colonies similar to what was later adopted by the League of Nations.

Her peace activism had so far been facilitated by a leave of absence from Wellesley, but when she asked for an extension of the leave her contract was terminated. Subsequently, Balch joined the editorial staff of The Nation. In 1919 she went to Zürich for the Second International Congress of Women, where she was invited to serve as secretary of its organizing body, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She occupied this position until 1922.

Between the World Wars, Balch offered her services to governments around the world, and worked in collaboration with the League of Nations, which she tried to persuade the U.S. to join. In 1926, she took part in a mission to Haiti, and was the main author of a report, Occupied Haiti. She concerned herself with such issues as disarmament, the internationalization of aviation, drug control, refugees, and aid to victims of Nazi oppression.

She angered American Cold Warriors by saying such things as, “Men who are scandalized at the lack of freedom in Russia do not ask themselves how real is liberty among the poor, the weak, and the ignorant in capitalist society.”

In presenting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee commented that “The name of Emily Balch may not be familiar to many of us here, and there are probably few people in Europe who still remember her now…. The war has erased so many names” and “being a modest person,” Balch “was never one to seek the limelight even at the height of her activity.”

In her Nobel lecture, Balch warned of the dangers of nationalism, which too easily elevates “us” over “others” and which had divided the world into “a considerable number of states, each claiming complete and unlimited sovereignty, living side by side without being integrated in any way or under any curb, governed by an uneasy balance of power manipulated by diplomatic maneuvering, based not on principles accepted by all but on reasons of state, recognizing no common religious or ethical control nor any accepted rules of conduct and united by no common purpose.” She went on to stress factors that unify humanity, including “growing humaneness, a revolt against all avoidable suffering, a new concern for social welfare in all its aspects.”

After receiving this prestigious honor, no one in the U.S. government congratulated her. Officially her nation had long regarded her as a dangerous radical. Her co-winner John Raleigh Mott was invited to Harry S Truman’s White House, and she was not. Balch donated her share of the Nobel Peace Prize money to WILPF, which continues its activities in 37 countries.

The name of Emily Greene Balch may not now be among the most widely known recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Desmond Tutu, or Barack Obama. She never held high political office, and was, in fact, a private citizen all her life. Yet she made a difference to the world, helping to promote and defend universal ideals of morality, human rights and peace. She is credited as the author of the expression, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

Balch died on January 9, 1961, a day after her 94th birthday.

Sources: New World Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.



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Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.