Open Christmas Letter

The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed "To the Women of Germany and Austria", signed by a group of 101 British women suffragists at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached. The Open Christmas Letter was written in acknowledgment of the mounting horror of modern war and as a direct response to letters written to American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), by a small group of German women's rights activists. Published in January 1915 in Jus Suffragii, the journal of the IWSA, the Open Christmas Letter was answered two months later by a group of 155 prominent German and Austrian women who were pacifists. The exchange of letters between women of nations at war helped promote the aims of peace, and helped prevent the fracturing of the unity which lay in the common goal they shared: suffrage for women.

The decision by some suffragists to speak out against the war split the women's suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. Most British women were in favour of a quick solution to the conflict and were inclined to work toward that end in any way such as by helping fill positions abandoned by men off at war. Others were nationalistic and sought to make certain that British women were seen as patriotic, as doing their part, so that the men in power would think more highly of them and subsequently pass woman suffrage legislation. A minority of women advocated peace vociferously and worked with international peace organisations or with refugee aid societies. All suffragists from the most strikingly militant to the most actively pacifist agreed not to disrupt the nation at war in their promotion of women's suffrage. Toward the end of the war, British politicians rewarded them with a partial victory: suffrage for property-holding women aged 30 and older.

From 1906 until mid-1914, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom was the party seen as most supportive of women's suffrage—the right of women to vote. Suffragettes and other women's rights activists organised to elect Labour candidates and to push for legislation that expanded the rights of women. In August 1914 when the world became embroiled in war, the British women activists were sharply divided into two camps: the majority who wished to work with their country's war effort, and a minority who opposed the conflict. Millicent Garrett Fawcett of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) wished to have the NUWSS members work for the war so that the men in politics would view the women with greater respect and would thus be more amenable to granting them the right to vote. However, the NUWSS membership included those who were against war. When Fawcett turned the NUWSS to war work, eleven pacifist members resigned, later to join the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

Like the NUWSS, the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst chose to cease their obstructive activism for women's votes and instead advocated the alignment of British women to the cause of war. However, in October 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst travelled to Glasgow and spoke out against the war, becoming one of the first suffragettes to do so. She said that "peace must be made by the people and not by the diplomats." Though pacifist, Pankhurst held with her mother and sister to the general agreement that suffragettes would abstain from militant activism for the duration—she arranged for activist women to join with the War Emergency Worker’s Committee and fill some of the positions that had been abandoned by men leaving for war.

In Jus Suffragii in December 1914, Carrie Chapman Catt published a letter that she had received earlier from Anita Augspurg, Lida Gustava Heymann, and several other German women activists including presidents of woman suffrage societies in Germany. The letter was entitled "To the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, through its president, Mrs. Chapman Catt." It began, "To the women of all nations warm and hearty greetings in these wretched and bloody times." The German women expressed that the "criminally rekindled war" should not separate women from all countries who had previously been united "by the common striving for the highest object—personal and political freedom." They stated that "True humanity knows no national hatred, no national contempt. Women are nearer to true humanity than men."

Catt published another letter from German women's rights activist Clara Zetkin, one that expressed the desire for all women not to let "the thunder of guns and the shouts of the jingoes" make them forget that the rise of civilisation amongst the European countries held much in common. Zetkin wrote that the women of the world should guard their children against the "hollow din" of "cheap racial pride" which filled the streets, and that "the blood of dead and wounded must not become a stream to divide what present need and future hope unite."

This page was last edited on 5 August 2017, at 02:54.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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