THE BLOG

Talking With Our Grandmothers: Lessons of WWI for an Age of Endless Wars

04/09/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Who would have guessed that talking with our grandmothers would yield unexpected insights into World War I and the women's peace movement, both observing their 100 year anniversaries.
But that's what happened when my friend Robin Lloyd and I began to develop a play around the two centennials. We wanted to commemorate the founding of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) at its 100th celebration at the Hague later this month. A recent discovery showed us the way: Both of our grandmothers, peace activist Lola Maverick Lloyd and missionary/educator Elisabeth Redfern Dennett, graduated from Smith College, Class of 1897, and both were deeply affected by World War I.

Intrigued by the coincidence, we looked deeper. Their 1897 yearbook reveals that Smith was a religious institution, headed by Rev. L. Clark Seelye. Lola, a true Texan, wary of the eastern elite, apparently "came to scoff" according to her yearbook entry. Like her independent-minded Texas Mavericks (who refused to brand their cattle) she left Smith equally undaunted: "Would that she remained to pray!" Elisabeth, on the other hand, embraced Rev. Seelye's sermons about how only educated women could help "women of the heathen world" -- women whose minds, he said, had been starved so long their brains "resembled crippled feet." By graduation, she was destined for missionary work, but with a certain ambivalence. "Elisabeth is in a constant struggle," her yearbook entry noted, "between a Puritan conscience and the desire to be wicked."

The two women parted after graduation. But, as suffragists, they shared the need to break away from stifling Victorian norms and overcome their own sense of powerlessness. Women could not even vote. What drew them out of their patriarchal straightjackets were very distinct phenomena: For Lola, the unspeakable horrors of World War I and her growing friendship with a famous Hungarian suffragist-turned-anti-war activist named Rosika Schwimmer; for Elisabeth, the lure of adventure in the exotic East, teaching biology to future nurses in Constantinople (now Istanbul), heralded as Turkey's "City of World's Desires," the land of the Sultans and famed for its harems.

In April, 1915 Lola and 46 other American women sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic in order to join over a thousand European feminists at the Hague to seek a way out of World War I. Appalled by the suffering and millions of deaths, the women passed resolutions that would later be incorporated into President Wilson's 14 Points [for Peace]. They also called for an international court of justice to resolve disputes, insisted on women's equal participation in peace negotiations, and sent envoys to meet with leaders of neutral nations, pleading for a mediated settlement. They failed, but out of this historic meeting at the Hague was borne the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which now has thousands of members in 36 countries.

In Turkey, Elisabeth cared for girls orphaned by the Armenian genocide. She witnessed the beginnings of German influence in Turkey's Ottoman Empire -- something that would lead to World War I -- when Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm (much to the consternation of imperial England) struck a deal with Sultan Hamid to build a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad in exchange for oil rights on either side of the tracks. She also witnessed Christian intolerance, as when her parents called her home after her friendship with a fellow British teacher at the American College for Girls (ACG) in Turkey turned to scandal: Her friend eloped with an Arab prince, converted to Islam, took on the name of the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, Fatma, and became part of the Sultan's harem.

Back home, Elisabeth remained loyal to Fatma, but also to the ACG, helping it raise large sums of money from oil and railroad barons. By 1915, the woman's college had become so useful in winning over hearts and minds that it became a beachhead for American penetration of the oil-rich Ottoman Empire. The U.S. never declared war on Turkey (unlike America's European allies), further cementing good will among Muslims and helping the U.S. become a major oil power.

In our play, our grandmothers' stories come full circle as we face the fact that World War I was fought largely for oil to fuel the world's militaries. The Great War was not the war to end all wars, but the war that launched a century of wars, many of them in the brutalized Middle East.

When Lola died in 1944, she died partly of depression over the start of World War II. Three years later, Elisabeth would lose her only biological son (my father) in a mysterious plane crash following an intelligence mission to Saudi Arabia. She had previously lost her step son, an officer in gas warfare, in France at the close of World War I.

Their lives were not all that tragic, however. And both left something of historical significance for anyone trying to chart a new course. Lola, with her friend Rosika Schwimmer, set up an extensive archival collection of the women's peace movement at the New York Public Library. Elisabeth preserved her diplomat son's letters from the Middle East (1933-47) -- including his new-found friendship with "Princess Fatma" --which today provide insights (for a book I'm writing) into how the United States, once admired in that war-torn region, could go so wrong.

On April 22, women from all over the world will converge on the Hague, knowing that we alone cannot stop war, but mindful that we have attained more power through our votes, and as leaders. We are better-educated, globally-connected and insistent that we be seated at peace tables. We come, as WILPF's new, 16 page manifesto declares, "to liberate the strength of women and, in partnership with likeminded men, to bring to birth a truly just and harmonious world." We are determined to have our voices heard, and we owe that conviction to the courage, grit and perseverance of our foremothers.