Just six-days after the second battle of Ypres had begun, 1200 women gathered at The Hague to discuss the issues of war and peace.
Most of the suffrage movement had suspended its activity due to the war: the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) cancelled its Congress due to be held in Berlin. Similarly, the Pankhursts supported the national war effort and suspended their militant suffrage campaign. Although only a small group of women actively opposed the war, their efforts demonstrate the possibility of international solidarity for peace during wartime. A group of Dutch suffragists led by Aletta Jacobs – the first female doctor in the Netherlands – invited women to The Hague in February 1915 to discuss the issues of women’s rights and peace, and it was decided to organise an International Congress of Women from 28 April to 1 May 1915.
Members of the British women’s movement formed a British Committee of the International Women’s Congress to organise their attempts to attend the formative Congress at The Hague. Over 180 British women applied for passports to travel to The Hague, including Dr Ethel Williams. However, the British Foreign Office did not consider it desirable for a large group of British women to travel so close to the front line of war. They granted only 24 women permits to travel. Williams was not granted a permit. Nevertheless, restrictions on shipping routes across the North Sea prevented the British delegation from attending the Congress. Only three British women managed to get to The Hague in time. Kathleen Courtney and Chrystal Macmillan were already involved in relief work in Europe, and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, who had been speaking in the USA, travelled with the American delegation to the Congress.
The British Women’s International League (WIL) was founded in October 1915 and by January 1916, the League had set up 18 local sections in locations across the country, including here in Newcastle.
Like the Hague Congress, the British WIL articulated their main aims in relation to peace and the enfranchisement of women, linking peace, progress, democracy, internationalism and women’s rights in their unique feminist-pacifist interpretation of war and peace. In 1916, following the introduction of the Military Service Act, WIL campaigned against conscription and supported the rights of Conscientious Objectors. The Women’s Peace Crusade, which managed to mobilise large numbers of working women for the goals of peace, spread throughout the country during the summer of 1917. 123 branches were formed in co-operation with the labour movement and the WIL, including branches in Darlington and Newcastle.
Williams was the Secretary of the Newcastle branch of the Women’s International League. She also attended the WILPF’s second international congress held in Zurich at the same time as the Paris peace talks at the end of the war. In addition, Williams was involved with a radical anti-war event in Newcastle, July 1917. As secretary of the Newcastle Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, which declared solidarity with the Revolution in Russia, Williams hired the Newcastle Town Hall for a meeting of the Council. However, the council was often blocked by the Special Branch and this booking was withdrawn at short notice. The meeting was hastily rearranged at the Central Hall Temperance Institute, supported by Trade Unions and the ILP. The meeting collapsed into chaos: soldiers in civilian clothing hurled abuse at the stage and competing groups raucously sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and the ‘Red Flag’.