new Mennonite Life logo    September 2002     vol. 57 no. 3     Back to Table of Contents

Women and Peace: 1937 Essay by Elva Krehbiel Leisy

Introduction by Mary H. Schertz

Elva Krehbiel Leisy was born in 1891 in Halstead, Kansas, daughter of H. P. Krehbiel, a prominent General Conference Mennonite leader and publisher. She attended Bethel College and graduated from Oberlin College. In 1917 she married E. E. Leisy. They had 3 children. For many years the family lived in Dallas, where E. E. Leisy taught English at Southern Methodist University. Elva Krehbiel Leisy died in Dallas in 1982.

I found Elva Krehbiel Leisy's chapter in her father's War, Peace, Amity when I was looking for materials on peace written by Mennonite women for a course I co-teach at the seminary called "Biblical Foundations for Peace and Justice." I still remember my surprise--no, more nearly shock--upon my first reading. It was published in 1937 and written by a woman in a small town in Kansas. But Leisy's words and wisdom transcend her time and place. In fact, to find the breadth of concern she expresses here is rare, even today, in our own age of global awareness and instant messaging.

It is a fascinating and remarkable piece of writing in many ways. Her biblical beginning point and her concern for mothering, children, and their education are important, albeit typical, interests of Mennonite women of peace through the years. But she also exhibits a lively interest in ecumenism and world affairs. What other Christian women are doing for peace, how women can speak powerfully to governments, and make substantial contributions to the social conditions of their communities are all topics that Leisy addresses forthrightly and energetically. In her use of language and in some of the assumptions that she makes about the role of women, she reflects her historical context. Heris is a voice of emerging, rather than mature, feminism. But her clarity about women's call to peace ministry is a courageous voice that I am proud and delighted to present to my students. She is truly a hero of our work of making peace and justice.


* The conscience of Christian womanhood must justly become articulate in behalf of Christian peace. H. P. K.

In the centuries before the birth of Christ, as well as in the benighted regions during modern times, the status of woman has been little above that of the slave. But Jesus brought into the world a new regard for woman, which gradually through the centuries has given her equal opportunity with man. The women, it was, who were among Jesus’ most devoted followers. They remained with him to the bitter end and were the first to see him after his triumphant victory over death. In this renaissance of Christ’s cry for “Peace on Earth,” may the women again follow whither He leads them.

The active participation of woman in a movement for peace is of surprisingly recent origin, and yet not altogether surprising, for in the nineteen centuries that have elapsed since the angels brought the message “Peace on Earth, Good will toward men”, how little has man, the active participant in all affairs of state, thought of fulfilling these words. (Not until 1815 was the first Peace Society organized, and then by an American, David Lowe Dodge.) Woman, therefore, handicapped by the traditions that until the twentieth century have limited the sphere of her activities, has not dared raise her voice against the great god, War.

But fifty years ago a dozen groups of women in war-ridden Europe were organized into so-called Olive-Leaf-Circles, auxiliaries to Peace Societies promoted by men. In America Julia Ward Howe was the first to give practical expression to women’s will to peace. So bound by mid-Victorian theories were the men of her time that when in 1878 she wished to speak at the national convention of the English Peace Society she was not granted permission on the score that women had never spoken at those meetings. When, later in the same year, she wished to speak at an international peace conference in Paris, she was told she might talk with the group of officers after the meeting.

In 1888 at the meeting of the International Council of Women, Mrs. May Wright Sewall included world peace among its objectives and called an International Conference of Women which met in this country at the time of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. At the same time the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union under Frances E. Willard created special committees to work for peace. With the World War, however, the will to peace blazed high in the hearts of a few thoughtful women. Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt issued a call for a convention of women, out of which grew the Women’s Peace Party. Responding to a call issued by a Dutch woman, 47 delegates from this party were sent in 1915 to an international meeting at the Hague. Here 1500 “Peacettes”, as the press derisively named them, representing all belligerent nations, as well as neutral countries, organized the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with headquarters in Amsterdam. Unable to attend, Carrie Chapman Catt wrote the convention a letter in which she said, “I predict that your gathering will pass into history as the beginning of a great International woman’s movement which will extend its influence into every quarter of the globe and which shall make its demand for abolition of war so insistent, so impelling, that nations will be forced to heed its call.”1

With Jane Addams as president, the League continued to meet yearly here and abroad, and has spread its activities far and wide. Jane Addams made a world tour, in which she particularly influenced the Oriental races. This, the only woman’s organization working exclusively for peace, now has branches in 24 countries and connections in 12 others. Other great women’s organizations have adopted peace programs, and eleven of them, including the American Association of University Women, the Council of Women for Home Missions, and the Young Woman’s Christian Association, have formed the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War which now has branch groups in nearly every state of the Union.

Two other national women’s organizations of the United States are devoted solely to the work for peace, opposing all participation in war, on the ground that human life should be held sacred and inviolable,–namely the Women’s Peace Union and the Women’s Peace Society. Their membership pledges read “never to aid in or sanction war, offensive or defensive, international or civil, in any way.”2 The Women’s Peace Union has proposed the following amendment to the Constitution:

“War for any purpose shall be illegal, and neither the United States nor any State, Territory, association, or person subject to its jurisdiction shall prepare for, declare, engage in, or carry on war or other armed conflict, expedition, invasion or undertaking within or without the United Sates, nor shall any funds be raised, appropriated, or expended for such propose.”3

So outstanding has been the work of certain individuals in the “fight for peace” that their names should be mentioned. It was a Swedish woman, Frederika Bremer, who after a visit to this country in 1854, urged the establishment of women’s peace societies, to create “an era of peace, prosperity and felicity, that would spread itself over the earth when the flames of war were quenched and the time of devastation was over.”4 Had her suggestion taken root how different might have been the history of 1914-1918! Julia Ward Howe, Clara Barton and Frances E. Willard early struck the keynote of peace in this country, but it has remained for the 20th century woman, freed from the shackles of bondage, to strike an incessant chord which the world must hear.

Astonishingly large is the number of those women who have expressed their sentiments in writing. Lucia Ames Mead in Law or War, Jane Addams in Peace and Bread, Ellen Key in War, Peace and the Future have touched some of the many ramifications of the subject. Dozens of women, both here and abroad, have written novels, plays, poems, and essays dealing with peace, while many more have written on allied topics, such as the phases of the World War dealing with the World Court and with Arbitration. Prominent among peace writers today is Florence Brewer Boeckel, Education Director of the National Council for the Prevention of War. In her Between War and Peace and The Turn toward Peace5 she has summed up effectively, succinctly and impartially, and stated clearly and logically the world conditions and the reasons for peace work for those Americans who are out of touch with national peace movements. Did space permit I would mention other writers as well–Ida Frankel, a German, Kathleen Norris, Inez Irwin, Ruth Boyle, Maude Royden, Olive Schreiner, Mildred Scott Olmstead, Rachel Davis-Dubois who are avowedly out to promote peace.

Nor are our sisters of the colored race behind us in the movement. The National Association of Colored Women has a peace plank in its program and some years ago sent representatives with three white women to Haiti to discuss the problems there involved.

Among the peace lecturers from foreign shores who came to us early in the war was Madame Rosika Schwimmer, Budapest. Some years later she was denied citizenship in the United States because of her unwillingness to bear arms. On the same day the same court granted citizenship to Zangara, whose willingness to bear arms was shown when he shot down Mayor Cermak.

Outstanding among peace workers of other countries has been Baroness Bertha von Suttner of Austria, who, being childless, adopted with her husband a peace program for Europe, and traveled up and down Europe and America lecturing, visiting peace conferences, and in every way possible stimulating an active interest in the outlawry of war. It was she who after untiring correspondence persuaded Alfred Nobel, the great dynamite manufacturer, to include a peace prize among his awards and in 1905 was herself the winner of it–the only woman to have won a Nobel peace prize–with her novel Lay Down Your Arms. This book has been translated into many languages and has given a tremendous impetus to the work for peace. It was Baroness von Suttner who said to the teachers of the United States:

“To conquer this foe ‘war’ with the weapons of reason, of morals, of logic, inspired by a passionate love of humanity–this will be the most glorious battle record which the twentieth century has in store for your youth of America.”

Further she adds, “as long as every man can be compelled to kill his fellowmen we are–all of us–in slavery.” She then ends with this prophecy,

“I appeal to the future. The twentieth century will not end without having seen human society shake off as a legal institution the greatest of all scourges–war.”

Why should women be thinking in terms of peace? Perhaps because the suffrage has loosed our tongues, perhaps because education in economics and sociology has set our brains to thinking above pots and pans, perhaps because the modern inventions have made it possible to show us most clearly the horrors contingent upon the World War.

It is true that at the time of the World War women’s emotions were aroused by the glamour and trappings of WAR, the neat uniforms, the tramp of feet, the blare of drums. The stories of the time resound with the beautiful sacrificial spirit of the mother who cheerfully smiling, her hand at salute, proudly watches her son march down the street–just as today mothers smile fondly at their handsome sons in R. O. T. C. uniforms. Let us give the obverse of the picture. The returned soldier in Andres Latzko’s “Men In War” says:

“You want to know what was the most awful thing?” he groaned, turning to the Philosopher abruptly. “The disillusionment was the most awful thing–the going off. The war wasn’t. The war is what it has to be. Did it surprise you to find out that war is horrible? The only surprising thing was the going off. To find out that the women are horrible-that was the surprising thing. That they can smile and throw roses, that they can give up their men, their children, the boys they have put to bed a thousand times, and petted and brought up to be men. That was the surprise! That they gave us up–that they sent us–sent us; Because every one of them would have been ashamed to stand there without a hero. That was the great disillusionment. Do you think we should have gone if they had not sent us ? Do you think so? Just ask the stupidest peasant out there why he’d like to have a medal before going back on furlough. Because if he has a medal his girl will like him better, and the other girls will run after him and he can use his medal to hook other men’s women away from under their noses. That’s the reason, the only reason. The women sent us. No general could have made us go if the women hadn’t allowed us to be stacked on the trains, if they had screamed out that they would never look at us again if we turned into murderers. Not a single man would have gone off if they had sworn never to give themselves to a man who has split open other men’s skulls and shot and bayoneted human beings. Not one man, I tell you, would have gone. I didn’t want to believe that they would stand it like that. ‘They’re only pretending,’ I thought. ‘They’re just restraining themselves. But when the first whistle blows, they’ll begin to scream and tear us out of the train, and rescue us.’ Once they had the chance to protect us, but all they cared about was being in style–nothing else in the world but just being in style.”6

This utterance is more than the figment of a romantic novelist; it occurs again and again in letters by real soldiers.

Yet despite the sentiment of those women who glory in war, who heroize the men who have killed others, to whom Amelia Earhart Putnam daringly remarked, that only women willing to bear arms should advocate armament, woman is inherently opposed to war. It was not that the son of her body might lie under a blistering sun, gaping with wounds, dying in anguish alone and uncared-for, or that the daughter of her heart might become the plaything of demoralized soldiery that woman has again and again gone down into the valley of the shadow of death. Through all the centuries the conflict has lain between the creative impulses of woman and the destructive nature of war.

When man in his ennui, in his desire for adventure, his greed for money, or his lust for power willingly and eagerly sacrifices upon the altar of Moloch the finest brains of our age, the richest morals that have been developed, the most perfect bodies we can mould, why should not woman as creator rise in her sorrow and demand that wanton selfishness cease? How long will it be until the women of the world will say with Selma Lagerloef:

‘As long as my tongue can utter a word,
As long as blood flows in my veins,
] I shall work for the sake of peace,
Though it cost me my life and happiness.’

How can woman, at once the housekeeper, mother, socialite, and companion of her husband, find time to “abolish war by fighting for peace”? The time to wage that battle is now, in time of peace.

With the coming of suffrage came the thought that through political power woman might more quickly secure an outlawry of war. The aim of the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom has been largely political. Their representatives have been at all peace and arbitration conferences, have interviewed members of Congress, have constantly studied the barometer of congressional reactions. They urge us as individuals to remind those who keep the political pot a-boiling that our vote shall be cast only for those who stand on a peace-without-reservation program.

But to vote correctly we must be educated, in times of peace. If we think in terms of peace, war cannot develop. How then shall we go about this program of education? Through libraries, through press propaganda, through peace programs in clubs, through celebration of days particularly devoted to peace, through organizations particularly devoted to peace, through organizations among our young people, such as the Junior International Federation which the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom is organizing. These and many other ways are suggested by Florence Brewer Boeckel in nearly 100 pages of constructive material.7

The teaching group recognizing the educational solidarity of the human race, in 1923 organized a World Federation of Educational Associations to cultivate international good will and to promote the interests of world-wide peace. A joint committee with the American Association of University Women studied the history text-books and found that newer books, as Muzzey, and others which have been condemned as unpatriotic, really substitute economic and social history for war glorification and that geographies do not stress racial differences any more. Do we need this type of emphasis when out of 400 children between 10 and 15 years of age, 46% thought all boys should be trained so that they could be soldiers in time of war?8 In Czecho-Slovakia a beginning has been made. School children are taught, “Do not call anyone patriot who hates other nations or despises them and desires war -war is a relic of barbarism.”9 In Great Britain and Ireland the School Peace League has been organized to promote peace through the schools and to teach history pacifically.

As the children are taught, so the nations will become. The slogan of the Committee of World Friendship cries out “We who desire peace must write it in the hearts of children.” A definite program of establishing a friendly relation between the children of the world includes correspondence between them, and programs that advance their knowledge of other nations. The publishing of books that deal with the children of other countries has been stimulated. The Ideals of World Friendships held up for boys and girls read as follows:

1. We believe that the nations should obey God’s laws of right.

2. We believe that nations become truly great and honorable only by being just and unselfish.

3. We believe that Christian nations have special duties to other nations.

4. We believe that Christian friendship can overcome bad feeling between peoples of different colors and religions.

5. We believe that Christians who love their own country will work for goodwill between nations.

6. We believe that men and women, boys and girls of all races and colors should be fair and just to one another.

7. We believe that all nations should work together for world peace.

8. We believe that all nations should settle their disputes and quarrels in a World Court of Justice or in other peaceful ways.

9. We believe that all nations should cut down their armies and navies and should stop making war.

10. We believe every one should work to stop war and we promise to do our part.

If our histories are not to glorify war maneuvers but to present the economic problems which are the provocation and the aftermath of every war, why then should we permit our War Department to educate our youth in the R. O. T. C.? Here lies a medium through which can be instilled into our young men of adventurous age a desire to kill. One young Freshman at the University of Minnesota when finally exempted from military drill said, “I can now go on with my education. I want some day to teach men how to live–not how to kill.”

Youth does not want to kill–or to die. The most stirring address at the World Disarmament Conference, Geneva, was made by a Yale student, who thus forcefully emphasized youth’s attitude toward war . . . .

“The other speakers have much at stake; we have even more, for we are literally fighting for our lives. I stand before you as an attorney for the defense, pleading for a reprieve. It is my generation which will be called upon to surrender all we consider worthwhile in life in order to become targets for machine-gun bullets and victims for the latest poisonous gas. It is the young men and women of my age who will be commanded to commit suicide. It is my generation which will be requested to destroy the best of human culture, perhaps civilization itself, for causes which future historians will discover to be erroneous, if not utterly stupid or actually vicious. We have thus lost interest in being prepared for cannon fodder.

“In a sense, I am presenting an ultimatum, rather than a petition. For behind your deliberations stands staring down at us the specter of Death. We desire to live and to live at peace. We desire to construct a world society providing freedom, equal opportunity, and a sense of security. We desire to make possible for every human being full development of personality in terms of the highest human and spiritual values we know.”

But it is beyond the physical ability of most women to join all these organizations, or to devote themselves to political schemes, or to aid and abet the teachers in their efforts for world friendship, or even to develop peace organizations throughout the community.

Upon the heart of the mother is laid a great responsibility. It is she who in her daily contacts with her children formulates their character, their attitudes toward others. Through the centuries human nature has slowly been sloughing off the viler traits permitting the fundamental good to assert itself. But the process is slow, depending largely on the character building of the mother in the home. A Christian mother, imbued with the doctrines of love which Christ brought into the world, will strive earnestly so to rear her children that they will live in peace and harmony with those about them.

But how shall she go about this teaching? In the first place through toys. The counters today are filled with toy weapons of destruction. Avoid them and choose rather constructive toys, such as tools, blocks, chemical and mechanical sets, which will give training for occupation of adult leisure time. Supervise the reading of the children. Hundreds of books, charmingly written, fascinatingly true to life, and delightfully illustrated, depict the life of children in other countries. Through them the child’s interest in peoples of other countries is stimulated and his love awakened for those who though they may dress and live differently after all have the same emotional reactions which he has. Through this reading he will gain a sense of the unity of mankind and against that background it is natural for him to think of mankind as a united group.

But the child will have to live with those about him. If the mother is envious of her neighbors’ good fortune, critical of their shortcomings, and constantly involved in petty quarrels, the child will grow up thinking that a natural state of affairs. It therefore behooves a Christian mother to fill her children with the desire to obey Christ’s commandments, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Do good unto them that hate thee.” They will then be open-minded in their dealings with others, considerate of their failings, granting them rights and privileges as individuals, and censuring them not for difference in creed, color, or race, but only for moral turpitude. Moreover she will teach them that right is the foundation of might, that authority can lie exercised without the help of fists. They live surrounded by human beings; can they not live with them in Christian peace and good-will? The nation is no better than its humblest citizen. Bring these citizens up in the love and harmony of Jesus Christ, and the nations will eventually become peace-loving and harmonious also. May the mothers of these future citizens so dedicate themselves with love and devotion to Christian principles of amity that the world at large may live in Christian peace and harmony.

And so if war is to be abolished it is, in the last analysis, she, who bears the chief munition of war, that must instil in those tender hearts the love for peace, the belief that a divine law greater than any national law, controls the world. Across the vale of Bethlehem 2000 years ago the angelic choir bore in silver strains that divine message of “Peace on Earth” which today echoes in the hearts of millions of anguished women the world over. Shall that message be dragged through the mire and filth of another world catastrophe? Erasmus said, “Where God is not, Peace cannot come; where Peace is not, God cannot come.” Only where nations as well as individuals are filled with the love which God manifested toward a World of Fear and Hate by sending Jesus as the personification of Divine Love can we hope to rid ourselves of the demon, War.

As Joseph Fort Newton has so forcefully said:

“What we need is more light, more love, more understanding; and here lies the divine opportunity of women. Indeed, a great thinker, now recently dead, held that the women of the world, in one generation can so alter the spirit of the race as to make war undreamed of. Let me make appeal to the flower of American womanhood, with all the passion of my heart, to their organized power, to their forward-looking intelligence, to their spiritual insight and practical sagacity, to help the world disarm its mind and purify its heart that war may be abolished from the earth. It can be done; it must be done; it is written in the book of the will of God that it shall be done. (Christian Advocate, Nov. 10, 1933, p. 1414.)”


1. International Congress of Women.

2. Boeckel, Between War and Peace. p. 302.

3. Ibid. p. 302.

4. Key, Ellen, War, Peace and the Future p. 237.

5. Two very useful books for the study of Peace are: The Turn toward Peace, (Macmillen) and Between War and Peace. (Friendship Press) by Florence Brewer Boeckel.

6. Taken from the fascinating story "MEN IN WAR" by Andreas Latzko. p. 40. Boni and Liveright, N. Y.

7. Boeckel. Between War and Peace. pp. 415-508.

8. Church School Magazine, Dec. 1933, p. 704.

9. Van Kirk. Highways to International Goodwill.