Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom


Photograph of Naomi Marcus
Naomi Marcus served as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom for a two-year term beginning in 1975, when this photograph was taken. Marcus, a writer, served on several League boards and worked with the Philadelphia branch. (Swarthmore College Peace Collection)

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an international anti-war group organized in the aftermath of World War I, had a strong presence in the Philadelphia region due to the area’s Quaker and pacifist heritage. The Pennsylvania state branch of the league formed in January 1920 with 250 members. Throughout the 1920s, the branch grew to about five thousand members—nearly half the total number of league members in the United States. New Jersey women also organized a state branch in the 1920s. While membership peaked in 1938 with 14,084 members nationally, the organization continued to be an advocate for peace issues into the twenty-first century.

WILPF formed at the 1919 International Congress of Women held in Zurich, Switzerland. Women organized the congress so that women from both Allied and Central Power nations could call for diplomacy based on interdependence rather than global competition. After the women were barred from formal peace negotiations, they voted to transform the congress into a permanent organization dedicated to expanding the role of women in the peace movement.

State branches, made up of representatives from local branches, operated autonomously from the national WILPF. As long as their actions aligned with the organization’s object to promote international peace through cooperation, as well as interracial and interclass peace, branches could plan activities independently. In the early years the Pennsylvania branch saw itself as an important influence on the national organization. This influence was reflected in the decision to move the national headquarters to Philadelphia in 1946 when Mildred Scott Olmsted (1890-1990), former executive secretary of the Pennsylvania branch, became national administrative secretary. The national headquarters remained in Philadelphia until 2008. Several Greater Philadelphia area women also served as national president, including Lucy Biddle Lewis (1861-1941), Naomi Marcus (1927-2012), and Marii Hasegawa (1918-2012).

Disarmament and Civil Rights

Photograph of Mildred Scott Olmsted
Mildred Scott Olmsted, shown in an undated photograph, held multiple leadership roles in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and received two honorary doctorates from Smith College and Swarthmore College. (Swarthmore College Peace Collection)

Two important parts of the WILPF’s national platform, which both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey branches worked on, involved disarmament and civil rights. The league advocated for disarmament from its inception through its support for measures calling for significant cuts in naval warship construction at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference. After World War II, the league’s disarmament work focused on nuclear arms. The New Jersey branch sponsored conferences about nuclear disarmament and petitioned against nuclear tests throughout the 1950s. Both branches collaboratively distributed 15,000 anti-nuclear leaflets in 1959 and 1960. Nuclear disarmament remained a priority in both states through the 1980s.

While much of WILPF’s work was internationally focused, the organization also paid attention to issues of domestic civil rights. Throughout the twentieth century, the organization struggled to attract Black women members. However, WILPF organized around issues affecting Black Americans and attempted to attract more Black women into the league in the 1920s. In 1928, the Pennsylvania branch reported sharing its peace program with Black churches and newspapers. Around this time, WILPF campaigned for Congress to pass an anti-lynching bill. During World War II, WILPF continued to organize around anti-Black racism. When Philadelphia Transit Company workers went on strike to protest the promotion of eight Black workers, the Pennsylvania WILPF called on the White House to end the strike. The branch also protested against the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during the war and cosponsored the Friendship House, a hostel in Philadelphia that housed Japanese Americans released from internment camps.

As the civil rights movement grew in the post-war era, WILPF branches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania organized actions in solidarity with civil rights workers in the South. Both branches held demonstrations for slain organizers, hosted speakers from the South, and distributed books on Black history.

Membership Declines

Photograph of demonstrators.
On October 28, 1961, local branches of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom sponsored a march for a “sane nuclear policy.” The people shown in this photograph joined the demonstration on the east side of Philadelphia City Hall. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Pro-war sentiment during World War II and the anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War contributed to WILPF’s decline in membership in the second half of the twentieth century. By 1947, the U.S. WILPF had only five thousand members and was suffering financially. Similar issues plagued the state branches. The Pennsylvania state branch disbanded in 1966. In 1973, the New Jersey state branch disbanded, citing increasing expenses. Local branches continued to operate in both states into the twenty-first century and organized around events like the Iraq War and the 2009 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Despite its diminished size in the second half of the twentieth century, WILPF was one of the largest and most influential women’s peace groups. The large number of members in the Greater Philadelphia region made the area important to the direction of the national WILPF and the women’s peace movement generally.

Olivia Errico received her M.A. in Public History from Rutgers University-Camden, where she researched left-liberation coalitions in the Pennsylvania branch of WILPF. (Information current at date of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Mildred Scott Olmsted

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Mildred Scott Olmsted, an activist and high-ranking member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, rose to a leadership role in 1922 in the Pennsylvania chapter of the League. Born in Glenolden, Pennsylvania, in 1890 and shown here in an undated photograph, Olmsted became the national organization secretary of the WILPF in 1934, then national administrative secretary in 1946 and executive director before retiring in 1966. She organized conferences in 1928 and again in 1961. Her accomplishments included honorary degrees from Swarthmore and Smith Colleges.

Naomi Marcus

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Naomi Marcus was a longtime member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, serving on several boards and chairing committees, leading to a term as president of the League from 1975 to 1977. This photograph was taken at the beginning of her presidency. Marcus, who was recruited to the League by executive director Mildred Scott Olmsted and worked with the Philadelphia branch, authored two WILPF statements regarding racism and participated in a committee to stop nuclear testing.

Lucy Biddle Lewis

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Lucy Biddle Lewis was a peace activist and a delegate to the International Congress of Women, which convened in The Hague in 1915 and in Zürich in 1919. A resident of Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, Lewis also served as American National Chair of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She helped to create the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, which holds this undated photograph among other papers and letters of members of the League, including founder Jane Addams.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Edith Ballantyne, photographed speaking in Philadelphia in 1978 (at the head of the table), became a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1969. A Czech-born Canadian citizen, she served for twenty-three years as the executive secretary of the WILPF, based in Geneva, Switzerland. She was also the president of the league between 1992 and 1998. In 1995, she received of the Gandhi Peace Award from the organization Promoting Enduring Peace.

Peace Marchers Picket at City Hall

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The picketers shown in this 1961 photograph demonstrated on the sidewalk on the east side of Philadelphia City Hall during United Nations Week. Local branches of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom sponsored the demonstration to protest nuclear policy.

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Related Reading

Camp, Katherine. “Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.” In Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1995.

Foster, Carrie. The Women and the Warriors: The U.S. Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915-1946. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Generations of Courage: The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from the 20th Century into a New Millennium. Philadelphia: WILPF U.S. Section, 2004.

Siegel, Mona. Peace on our Terms: The Global Battle for Women’s Rights after the First World War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

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