by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Known originally as Armistice Day to commemorate the cessation of hostilities ending what was first known as “The Great War,” and, subsequently, World War One, Veterans Day is a way for Americans to remember all of our service personnel who have served the country over its history.
This year and next, as the Homestead mounts exhibits and holds programming about the conflict, we’ll continue to highlight issues and people related to what President Woodrow Wilson believed was “the war to end all wars.” Last Sunday, as noted in a post here, Dr. Jennifer Keene of Chapman University gave a fine presentation on the effects of the war on America.
One of the areas she discussed was the women’s suffage movement and the boost to the substantial momentum that was underway and led to the amending of the Constitution giving women the right to vote in federal elections, beginning in 1920. There was another area where some American women were substantially invested and that was a drive for peace and the cessation of wars like the world war.
In fact, President Woodrow Wilson set a highly idealistic goal of ensuring that the conflict was the “war to end all wars” and went into the conference at Versailles, France championing a League of Nations that would forestall such wars. While there was much support for the concept, Congress decided to forego membership in the international body. Still, efforts to secure a lasting peace were ongoing.
One such local event was a women’s world peace meeting held on this day in 1921 at the Hollywood Bowl. The museum’s collection includes four photographs taken at the event and two of those are highlighted in this post. The meeting, one of many Armistice Day activities in the region, was covered in a Los Angeles Times article from the following day and the piece began by observing:
The hills witnessed a significant action yesterday when 5000 women of the Southland with representatives from twenty-one nations mobilized into a mightly army of peace at the Hollywood Bowl. The reverberations of the message of peace in prayer and song circled the earth by the telegraphic wire of invention and the telepathic thought of motherhood.
Notably, the assemblage formed into a massive cross, including “seats of honor 400 gold star mothers whose sons had died on foreign fields in the World War.” This mention is interesting, given that most of us now probably had not been aware of the “gold star mothers” concept until the recent controversy involving the president and one of these mothers after her son was killed in an operation in the African nation of Niger.
Not only was there the symbolic cross, but on the hillside to the north of the bowl “was etched in the chaparral, as though glowing in purity, the word ‘Peace’ in white roses” with the American flag, “the flag of peace”, above.
A bugle call was sounded and Rita Kelsin, the chairperson of the committee that organized the event made a motion “that this great army of women should mobilize and organize. The day’s chairperson, Mrs. John C. Urquhart, then delivered a speech including a message for President Warren Harding that ending war meant “the establishment of international understanding and co-operation as a substitute” for armed conflict.
Moreover, she continued,
Mothers of the world believe it is of far greater importance to feed the millions of starving children of the earth and rehabilitate the world than to build battleships. We call on you, President of these United States, to show to mankind that America is brave enough to trust its neighbors and wise enough to plan for peace . . . as mothers’ bodies cradle the life of the world, as mother nurture the life when it comes, then are women the natural guardians of life.
Ernestine Schumann-Heink, one of the world’s foremost opera singers, sung the national anthem and, upon arrival, one hundred girls “threw roses in her path as she came.” This was not done, the paper reported, because of her fame or gender, but because she was “a representative of motherhood which sent its sons to war.”
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the program, given America’s increasing racial conservatism during the decade, “were the messages that came in response to the roll call of nations.” Miss Katherine Chan, who was studying at the University of California, told the throng “we women of China have not bared our hearts in public, but in secret we have wept over the horrors of war. Today American women are teaching us through you a precious lesson.”
She was followed by Mrs. S. K. Inui (Inouye?), a young Japanese woman, who stated,
Today there arrives in Washington a Japanese woman 90 years of age and she is sent by the whole womanhood of Japan to see that hatred and greed and avarice shall no longer stalk our land in the guise of patriotism . . . Oh America! That we may be cleansed from hot anger and superstition which are the forerunners of war. We women will with you think peace, act peace.
It was reported that an Italian woman, Madame Vignolo “could not speak because of her great grief that war has caused her and down the faces of the multitude streamed the tears of sorrow in sympathy.”
A musical section in the program included community singing “of the fine old hymns of inspiration for peace and good will to men,” while an invocation was preceded by “the singing of ‘negro spirituals’ by 100 colored [sic] women, jubilee singers led by Mrs. Anna M. Freye.”
Mrs. J.B. Stearns, who was credited with her superior organization of the activities of the meeting, told the assembly that
The great need of mankind today is the relief from war, that staggering burden of woe. Every gold star mother, every maimed victim of war within the sound of my voice agrees that from now on we should train our youth in the paths of peace and not on the way of war.
Finally, as the daylight descended to dusk and the thousands of attendees left, the Times observed that, “sponsored by no one organization, but by all women, the great thing came into being and no more beautiful place of nativity could have been given it.”
I’ve been reading in the last couple of weeks a book called The War Within on the movement against the Vietnam War. One of the points made by author Tom Wells is that, whatever efforts were made by left-leaning groups, students and others, it was the growing resistance to the conflict by women, including mothers, that was as key as any constituency to the effect the movement had on the broader populace during the war. The meeting at the Hollywood Bowl some forty-five years earlier may be viewed as something of a precursor and the perspective women bring to the notion of armed conflict is an important one for us to consider as we look back on our history in America.