Women are 50% of the population, but they only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history, a pattern that began over 3000 years ago. That’s slowly changing thanks to those who are putting women’s influential stories back into the historical narrative.
One woman who has made an impact in this world and whose story needs to be told is that of Bertha von Suttner. Born Countess Kinsky in Prague, she was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and she’s also widely credited for influencing Alfred Nobel to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. I learned about Suttner from Randall Olson, a board member at the Theosophical Society and currently in graduate school at Central Michigan University. Seeing my fascination with Suttner’s story, Randall introduced me to Professor Hope Elizabeth May of Central Michigan University. She is the director and founder of the Bertha von Suttner Project.
“Stories about the contribution of women, especially in international law have been shrouded in darkness and we have begun the process of bringing that to our consciousness,” said Professor May in an interview published by JusticeHub.org.
Suttner’s contributions to society began a decade before the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899. In 1889, she published her second book called Lay Down Your Arms, an anti-war novel. She said she was not an activist when she wrote the book but rather wrote it and then became an activist. The book put a human face on war. Leo Tolstoy called it the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the peace movement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a similar book, humanized the evils of slavery. I recently started reading Lay Down Your Arms and was captivated by Suttner’s literary voice. Chapter 1 begins:
At seventeen I was a thoroughly overwrought creature. This perhaps I should no longer be aware of today, if it were not that my diaries have been preserved. But in them the enthusiasms long since fled, the thoughts which have never been thought again, the feelings never again felt have immortalized themselves, and thus I can judge at this present time what exalted notions had stuck in my silly, pretty head. Even this prettiness, of which my glass has now little left to say, is revealed to me by the portraits of long ago.
Like Suttner, the noble protagonist of this novel, Martha, came from a family with a military background. Martha’s life is shaped by war. Her first husband dies on the battlefields of Solferino in 1859 (Henri Dunant started the Red Cross after he witnessed the horrors of Solferino). Her second husband survives the wars of 1864 and 1866 but then is mistakenly killed in Paris years later. The book criticizes the hypocrisy of society regarding the glorifying and heroism of war. Lay Down Your Arms was so successful that by 1917 it had been reprinted 40 times in German and translated into 16 languages.
Suttner first came into contact with militarism, war and peace with her husband Arthur van Suttner in Paris in the winter of 1886/87, when she met Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel, known as the inventor of dynamite and other powerful explosives, was looking at the question of war and of ways of preventing it. He was confident that lasting peace could be achieved only through the development of a weapon of mass destruction that would be so shattering that humanity would be detered forever from waging war.
When Suttner learned that there was going to be a Peace Conference in 1899 in the Hague, she made sure to be there. She and her husband worked hard to gain support for the Czar’s Manifesto and the Hague Peace Conference by arranging public meetings, forming committees, and lecturing. She was the only woman allowed in the opening ceremony and then she also opened up her hotel room as a salon for diplomats and journalists. She returned in 1907 when they had another peace conference and in 1913 when the Peace Palace opened (founded by Andrew Carnegie).
Suttner was a respected journalist, with one historian describing her as “a most perceptive and adept political commentator.” She is often considered a leader in the women’s liberation movement. Although grief-stricken after her husband’s death in 1902, she was determined to carry on the work which they had often done together and which he had asked her to continue. She left her quiet retirement in Vienna only on peace missions, which often included exhausting speaking tours. She continued to write, but only for the cause of peace. She received the Nobel Prize in 1905. Her last major effort, made in 1912 when she was almost 70, was a second lecture tour in the United States. Suttner died at the age of 71.
In 2013 when the Peace Palace turned 100, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned two busts of Bertha von Suttner. But Prof. Hope says that’s not enough. Many of Bertha’s works are still in the German language, and so in the “vein of bringing the unconscious to consciousness,” she is translating those works and publishing them in English.