Contents: March/April 2002
The intellectual leader of the women's peace movement
When Emily Greene Balch received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 at the age of 79 only the third woman to receive the award many of her once-radical proposals for international conflict resolution had been adopted, but her legacy remains largely overlooked today.
Emily Greene Balch was born to a prosperous Unitarian family in 1867. She grew up in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where her Unitarian minister, the Rev. Charles Fletcher Dole, profoundly influenced her. "His warm faith in the force that makes for righteousness became the chief of all the influences that played upon my life," she wrote. "He asked us to enlist in the service of goodness whatever its cost. In accepting this pledge, I never abandoned in any degree my desire to live up to it."
She was a member of Bryn Mawr's first graduating class in 1889, and joined the emerging female social reform movement in Boston. She helped found a settlement house for immigrants in 1892 and began a lifelong friendship and working relationship with Jane Addams, who had founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889.
After graduate studies, Balch began teaching economics at Wellesley College in 1900. Her research into the conditions of Slavs in Austria-Hungary and in U.S. immigrant neighborhoods resulted in her major work, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (1910), which countered widespread anti-immigrant views in the U.S. She was chair of Wellesley's Department of Economics and Sociology when college trustees voted not to renew her contract in 1918 due to her peace work during World War I.
Balch joined the U.S. delegation to the International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915, which developed a peace proposal to present to heads of state in Europe and America. She met with the leaders of neutral nations, including President Woodrow Wilson, to promote the ICW's plan for continuous mediation as an alternative to battle. Although this concept was later adopted by the League of Nations and the United Nations, no international organization then existed to sponsor such a plan.
As war fever spread in America, pacifists found fewer supporters. Reflecting the national mood, the American Unitarian Association censured pacifist clergy in 1917. The next year, Balch lost her position at Wellesley. In 1920, she formally became a Quaker. For the next 20 years, Balch devoted her energy to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Balch advocated breaking international conflicts down into smaller negotiable disputes, encouraging "a functional internationalism in which technicians would work on specifically defined problems of common interest, like world health," writes Sam Bass Warner Jr. She helped secure the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in 1926 and advocated the internationalization of Antarctica, implemented in 1959.
Balch spoke out against growing isolationism in U.S. politics in the 1930s. Deeply disturbed by Hitler's Germany, she made an exception in her pacifism and supported U.S. involvement in World War II. She explained, "A small barking dog cannot stop a dashing train . . . Fascism and national socialism today can be destroyed only through means which are capable of impressing the brutal men of fascism and national socialism." During the war, when she was in her mid-70s, she helped relocate Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly interned in concentration camps.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, she said, "We are not asked to subscribe to any utopia or to believe in a perfect world. We are asked to equip ourselves with courage, hope, readiness for hard work and to cherish large and generous ideals." Her knowledge, pragmatism, and commitment made her the "acknowledged intellectual leader of the American peace movement," according to Nobel historian Irwin Abrams.
Although she had many friends, Balch one of America's first career women insisted on living alone and never married. In her old age, lack of money forced her to live in a nursing home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she died in 1961 at the age of 94.
Adapted from a biography by Heather Miller for Notable American Unitarians, 1936–1961, an on-line project of the First Parish in Cambridge, edited by the Rev. Dr. Herbert Vetter.
UU World XVI:2 (March/April 2002): 64.
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