Emily Greene Balch, Pioneering Peacemaker

Emily Greene Balch, along with her friend and inspiration, Jane Addams, was one of two women with Quaker connections to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Both were part of the large group of women advocates for peace during the first half of the 20th century who formed Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), one of the most enduring peace organizations of our time. Balch’s life is an inspiring expression of the interconnections between economic justice and peace. She also offers us a glimpse of her struggle with her pacifist position in light of the Second World War.

Balch is not widely known in Quaker circles, as she joined London Yearly Meeting in midlife while she was living in Geneva. Raised in a well-off Boston family with Unitarian leanings, she had been introduced to Friends at Bryn Mawr College, where she was a member of its first graduating class. Much later, she realized her match with Quakerism during a period when she was working for WILPF and lobbying the newly formed League of Nations.

Balch was deeply inspired by the settlement house work of Jane Addams. Her resolve to base academic theory on first-hand knowledge led to her work with poor Italian children in Boston as she prepared a handbook on laws and institutions related to juvenile delinquency. She helped start Denison House in Boston in 1892 and became the first head worker at this early settlement house. In 1894 she joined the American Federation of Labor as she became involved in the plight of women working in the tobacco industry and as telephone operators.

Throughout her life she saw and emphasized the interconnections between peace, the way people treat one another, and the conditions in which people live. Even after she decided that she could have the greatest possible effect by teaching others, she maintained her involvement in social work, occasionally missing classes at Wellesley because she was organizing women, serving on the Massachusetts Factory Inspection Committee, or chairing the Minimum Wage Committee, which successfully advocated the first minimum-wage law in the U.S.

By the opening of the First World War, Balch must have been a distinctive figure whose dress reflected her beliefs, but with a sense of humor. One observer states that in her late 40s, in 1915, Emily Greene Balch "was tall and thin, reserved but not conservative, someone who deliberately dressed plainly in order to be classless and who had been known occasionally to wear her hat back to front."

In the complex interconnections of her life, Balch saw no conflict between her teaching, working for peace, and working for social justice at home and abroad. When the United States entered the First World War Balch was not willing to compromise her pacifism in the face of a threat to her beloved teaching position at Wellesley. In fact, in 1917 and 1918, she took a leave of absence from teaching, aware that her pacifist position was an embarrassment to the college. When the Wellesley trustees became upset at her vocal pacifist position in 1918, she wrote to them: "I believe so deeply that the way of war is not the way of Christianity. I find it so impossible to reconcile war with the truths of Jesus’ teaching, that even now I am obliged to give up the happiness of a full and unquestioned cooperation where the responsibility of choice is mine."

The consequence of this stance in the midst of the fervor generated by U.S. entry into the war was that her contract as chair of the Department of Economics and Sociology was not renewed by the Wellesley trustees.

During the course of the First World War, Balch joined Fellowship of Reconciliation as well as becoming one of the central figures in the international women’s peace movement. She was a delegate to the 1915 women’s international peace conference at The Hague, which proposed recommendations advocating the forerunners of the League of Nations, the World Court, and international peacekeeping forces. Following the conference she participated in the delegations visiting numerous heads of state in Europe, advocating and seeking the practical commitments leading to a mediated end to the war. On her return home, Balch, along with Jane Addams and others, met with President Wilson in the same cause. Many of the points the women stressed later became incorporated in Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points.

Her leave of absence from teaching during these years, followed by the loss of her teaching position, freed her for full-time dedication to peace work and allowed her to take the position of the first secretary/treasurer of the newly created WILPF in 1919. (Jane Addams was the first international president).

Through all her activities, Balch retained time for a rich inner life, family, and deep friendships. She filled portfolios with sketches and pastels and in 1941 published a book of her poems. Balch became a Friend within London Yearly Meeting in 1921 while she was working for WILPF in Geneva. Because of the divisions among U.S. Friends, she could never bring herself to transfer her membership to the United States. She spoke of her decision to join Friends in this way:

A drawing toward the Society of Friends which I had felt for some years grew into a definite desire to become one of them. It was not alone their testimony against war, their creedless faith, nor their openness to suggestions for far-reaching social reform that attracted me, but the dynamic force of the active love through which their religion was expressing itself in multifarious ways, both during and after the war.

Her duties as secretary/treasurer for WILPF included setting the new organization on its feet and lobbying on its behalf before the newly created League of Nations. She also led important studies such as one in 1926, at the request of the women of Haiti, that resulted in the book Occupied Haiti, which documented conditions and contributed to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country.

WILPF was largely Quaker-inspired and throughout its history has been led almost entirely by Quakers or women with strong Quaker connections such as Jane Addams. Among the procedures it established was the use of consensus, a method that allowed all voices to be heard and allowed them to hold together even under considerable differences of opinion.

Hitler brought Balch to the point of reconsidering the nature of her pacifism, something the personal threat posed by the Wellesley trustees could not do 20 years earlier. She, like many other Friends, wrestled with her response to what she called "the religion of violence" posed by Nazi Germany. She regarded the initial U.S. policy of neutrality as a failure to take an economic and moral stance against violence.

In a private letter to a friend before Pearl Harbor, she stated that:

[There are] 100 percent absolutist religious pacifists of whom I have never been one. I stop being nonresistant when it is a question of offering my neighbor’s cheek for the blow. . . . At the same time I thank God for the conscientious objectors . . . . They fulfill a function which [Elton] Trueblood in his excellent article in the December Atlantic accepts as the sole justification of pacifism—that of "bearing witness." . . . The question is how is peace, or any chance of peace, to be secured. The answer that I could make before Hitler is not the same. . . .

Balch thus sided with the European WILPF leaders rather than her fellow Americans who preferred an absolutist position on the issue of nonresistance and neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

Two years later, she described her anguish in another letter:

When the war broke out in its full fury in 1939, and especially when, after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the USA became a belligerent, I went through a long and painful mental struggle, and never felt that I had reached a clear and consistent conclusion. "How can you reach inner unity," I said, "when in your own mind an irresistible force has collided with an immovable obstacle?"

Despite her differences at times with WILPF’s public stance, and newspaper columns indicating her resignation, Balch and other dissenters remained active in the organization, a fact she attributed to the similarity of its business method to that of Friends and the place it left for individual conscience and respect for differing convictions within the organization. WILPF, with its strong Quaker leadership, was one of the very few peace organizations to survive the Second World War intact.

At the start of the Cold War in 1946, at the age of 79, Emily Balch addressed the first postwar conference of WILPF as the women sought to rebuild their work following the end of the armed conflict. The fresh memory of Hitler was all around them as they met in Luxembourg, and Balch offered this vision of hope:

Human nature seems to me like the Alps. The depths are profound, black as night and terrifying, but the heights are equally real, uplifted in the sunshine. It is not realistic to concentrate our attention on the recent revelations of the depths of evil to which human beings can descend. To do so leads to stumbling feet, weakness and discouragement. . . .

We must draw a deep breath and fill ourselves with the fresh air of courage and confidence, of a sober goodness, a love which is universal and all-embracing without losing its vivid personal quality.

Margery Post Abbott

Margery Post Abbott is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of A Certain Kind of Perfection and various articles and pamphlets. © 2000 Margery Post Abbott