Rosika Schwimmer

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Rosika Schwimmer

Rosika Schwimmer (1877-1948) was a Hungarian feminist and international peace activist during the First World War.

Aspirited speechmaker and polemicist, Rosika Schwimmer was one of the first international feminists. First in her native Hungary, then throughout Europe, Britain, and the United States, she argued for women's rights and the dignity of working women. The outbreak of World War I diverted her energy into the cause of peace, but two years of intense work yielded few results. The war dragged on, her health and her spirit broke, and she lived a long, disappointing later life as an exile in America.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, Schwimmer was the daughter of an agricultural scientist. But when her father's efforts to develop grain hybrids were unsuccessful, the family fell on hard times. To help support them she went to work as a bookkeeper at the age of 18, and after two years, in 1897, volunteered to work with a trade union, the National Association of Women Office Workers. Before long she was its crusading president. In 1903, she founded the Hungarian Association of Working Women, then traveled to Germany as its delegate in the following year to attend the first meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). Forming yet another association for Hungarian feminists on her return, this time helped by Budapest friend and teacher, Vilma Glucklich, Schwimmer inaugurated a campaign for women's votes which ultimately gained its objective in 1920 at the end of the First World War.

These early experiences led her to favor expanded job opportunities for women, dress reform, and improved legal rights. She shared with her American contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilman the conviction that housework should be done by efficient women's collectives rather than separately in every household, freeing women for more interesting and rewarding pursuits. She translated into Hungarian Gilman's book Women and Economics in which these ideas were advanced and justified. In 1908 and then again in 1912 and 1913, she toured Eastern Europe with the American women's rights champion Carrie Chapman Catt, the two of them making brilliant speeches in support of women's suffrage and law reform. All who met Schwimmer were impressed by her dynamism and energy. Historian Caroline Moorehead writes:

She was eloquent, tough, and indefatigable, producing opinions and pamphlets on everything from state child care to home economics and marriage in both Hungarian and German, writing short stories and a novel and delivering innumerable lectures. She wore brightly colored, loose fitting dresses and no corset, as was only proper for a follower of the dress-reform movement, and a pince nez…. [S]he referred to herself as a "very, very radical feminist."

The climax of Schwimmer's early work for women's rights came in 1913 when she hosted the IWSA annual conference in Budapest, with its record number of 3,000 participants. At the end of the conference, Catt, who was then president of IWSA, wrote her a warm letter of thanks, adding a memento of their first meeting:

When I remember the young girl who could understand no English and who knew so little about the movement for the enfranchisement of women only nine years ago, and then see the wonders of your own development and growth, and the great work you have accomplished in Hungary, I am filled with amazement, gratitude, and pride.

In 1914, the year the First World War began, Schwimmer was at work in London as the press secretary to the IWSA and as a well-paid journalist for several European newspapers. This was a crucial moment in the history of the British women's suffrage campaign. Many prominent suffragists, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, had undertaken the tactic of direct action in the last few years, smashing windows, sabotaging the mail, and defacing public monuments to publicize their cause. One feminist, Emily Davison, had dramatically rushed onto the Derby race course, snatched the bridle of the King's horse, and been trampled to death, becoming a martyr to the cause of suffrage. But as soon as the war began, many British feminists put the issue to one side and became fervent supporters of war against Germany and Austria. Others, with Schwimmer's support, believed that rights for women and world peace were inseparable issues and pledged themselves to advance their work despite the war.

By this time, Schwimmer had mastered nine languages, which was the ideal preparation for her international peace work in the following years. She was well-informed about Eastern European affairs from her extensive travels and had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances from her work in the IWSA. In 1909, she had been the first foreign woman to address the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and was by now a familiar figure in Parliament. (She even had breakfast with Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George and pointed out that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke augured a world war. He admitted after the fighting began that she alone among his friends and advisors had had the prescience to grasp the consequences of the killing.)

Pacifism ran deep in Schwimmer's family. One of her uncles, Leopold Katscher, had founded the Hungarian Peace Society, while another uncle, Edler von Lederer, even though an army officer, also spoke out against militarism. When a family friend, Baroness Bertha von Suttner, had tried to organize a pan-European peace movement, Schwimmer appealed to the U.S. government to use its influence to prevent bloodshed. Just after the war began, she sailed for America to promote this scheme, believing that President Woodrow Wilson could convene a conference of neutral powers to preside over negotiations. Her repute was sufficient to win her an audience with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, himself very eager to keep out of the war, then with the President, who at this stage was also ardently opposed to intervention but made no promises. But when she spoke to the press afterwards, she angered Wilson by misrepresenting his remarks, and he refused to see any peace workers for several months. Undeterred, Schwimmer toured the country, making speeches against war to women's groups, again being helped by her friend from the IWSA, Carrie Catt. The two women were slightly at odds. With her country already at war, peace had become the overriding issue to Schwimmer, whereas women's suffrage remained uppermost in Catt's mind and she wanted to direct Schwimmer's marvelous oratory in support of it. During the tour, Schwimmer met Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House social settlement, in Chicago. A British feminist and peace worker, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, was also touring America on behalf of a negotiated peace, and the two women joined forces.

Although they were technically enemies with their countries at war, Schwimmer and Pethick-Lawrence, speaking dramatically side by side, were the first to suggest a specifically women's peace movement. But given their situation they needed the help of renowned indigenous American women, such as Addams, who had already written Newer Ideals of Peace (1907) and who had a national reputation. The stirring lectures given by the two Europeans led to the creation of emergency peace committees in several cities, including Boston, Nashville, St. Paul, and Chicago. Addams agreed to call a peace meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 1915, with a view to forming a Women's Peace Party (WPP), but Schwimmer, afraid that the meeting had been hijacked by divisively militant suffragists, at first declined to take part except as a journalist. Reassured by the irenic ("conciliatory") tone of the meeting, Schwimmer changed her mind and spoke in praise of the American women's action. She added that peacemaking and women's votes went hand in hand because at present the women in her audience were "voiceless to prevent some incident" that might "bring for your children what has happened to our children."

Three months later, Schwimmer sailed back to Europe and spoke at the International Congress of Women, convened by the talented Dutch feminist Dr. Aletta Jacobs. Although the Congress was to have met in Berlin, the German faction—realizing that women from enemy nations would be excluded—settled for The Hague instead. As it was, most of the British women who had hoped to attend were denied passports by the British government, which also declared Schwimmer an enemy alien, so that she could not return. The conference participants passed resolutions urging an end to the fighting, immediate peace talks, the right of all peoples to self-government, and equal rights for women—some of which would show up again in 1918 among Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points." Schwimmer wanted members of the conference to take the resolution personally to heads of government in the belligerent and neutral nations, and made a passionate floor speech to promote the idea of personal missions: "When our sons are killed by millions, let us, mothers, only try to do good by going to the kings and emperors, without any other danger than a refusal!" Though many had misgivings about the value of these excursions, the delegates voted in favor, and Schwimmer was asked to lead a group of representatives to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the Netherlands. The government officials they met were polite but noncommittal, and the women's actions generated a disappointingly small amount of discussion and publicity.

Back in America in mid-1915, Schwimmer, always eager for prompt and dramatic action, learned that the automobile magnate, Henry Ford, was devoting himself to peacemaking. An American woman named Rebecca Shelly, who was convinced that God was directing her to make peace, arranged a massive antiwar demonstration in Detroit to draw Ford's attention when he refused to meet her in person. Schwimmer spoke to the meeting and won an audience with Ford on November 18, explaining to him her plan for a mediated peace. Louis Lochner, head of the National Peace Federation, joined them the next day, and together they persuaded Ford of the plan's viability. Ford in turn approached President Wilson and asked him to establish an official neutral commission which he, Ford, would finance. Wilson politely declined.

The Women's Peace Party tried to increase the pressure on Wilson by holding a large demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 26 with Schwimmer as keynote speaker. Unfortunately, when Henry Ford followed her to the podium after another of her rousing speeches, he claimed that he would find a way to "get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas," then only a month away. This assertion was bound to be refuted by the facts and helped undermine rather than strengthen the movement. Ford also financed a ship, the Oscar II, to take peace delegates to a second European conference the following week. Schwimmer, now marked by the press as Ford's "expert assistant," was making a poor impression on many of the leading American pacifists, who considered her hotheaded and thoughtless. Her calls for immediate peace negotiations seemed not to be backed by consideration of the political complexities of the issue, and some WPP women, concluding that she was hurting rather than helping their cause, declined to join the peace ship.

The voyage of the Oscar II received much adverse publicity, and many of the journalists traveling on it (there were almost as many newspapermen as delegates) treated the whole venture as a joke. Fear of being torpedoed by a German submarine, overcrowding, and a rough winter sea led to constant animosities among the passengers. Schwimmer, whose behavior historian Barbara Steinson describes as "secretive and authoritarian," asserted that she had a bagful of documents proving that the warring powers were ready to negotiate, but when she showed them to eager passengers they turned out to be no more than the vague promises her earlier mission had elicited. She declared that Ford had promised the International Committee $200,000, but no money was forthcoming.

Tiring of the venture in Christiana, Sweden, when it yielded no quick results, Ford soon slipped away, while Schwimmer and Lochner carried on with the project, setting up a Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation in Stockholm. Finally the two of them fell out and Schwimmer resigned in protest from the Conference, pursued by malicious rumors that she was actually an agent being paid by the Central Powers (for which Hungary was fighting) to bring the peace process into disrepute. Almost at once she collapsed with a serious heart condition and had to take an unaccustomed three-month break from work. She spent the rest of the war in Stockholm, depressed at the mounting casualties and the seeming futility of all the peace efforts to date, but returned to Hungary in November 1918.

At the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. Count Michael Károlyi, one of Schwimmer's friends, overthrew Emperor Charles I in a bloodless coup and invited Schwimmer to become a member of his National Council of Fifteen. The liberal-minded Károlyi then invited Schwimmer to become ambassador to Switzerland, making her the first woman ambassador in Hungarian history. While there, she worked on another women's peace conference but had hardly started her official duties when she was recalled to Budapest, partly because she had equipped herself as ambassador by using state funds for a fur coat, an expensive apartment in Berne, and a chauffeured limousine. At a time when people all over Europe, including Hungary, were starving to death, these seemed like outrageously provocative purchases, even if they were designed to bolster her dignity as ambassador. The next month, Károlyi was overthrown by the Communist coup d'état of Béla Kun. Denied a passport, Schwimmer was unable to attend the fourth Women's International Congress at Zurich. Delegates sent her letters of encouragement (though some were secretly relieved by her absence), and then constituted themselves as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

The Communists treated Schwimmer as a bourgeois ("middle class") enemy for her work in the Károly regime and denied her the right to work, but worse was to follow. The fascist regime of Admiral Nicolas Horthy, which soon overthrew the Hungarian Communists, began to purge the Jews and singled out Schwimmer for extermination. Loyal friends, Quakers, and American peace workers managed to smuggle her out of Hungary on a Danube steamer and into Vienna in 1920, and from there she was able to make her way to the United States. But America was then undergoing a "Red scare" of its own, a panicky reaction to the Russian Revolution abroad and labor militancy at home. In the worst violation of civil rights since slavery, the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, was summarily deporting, without trial, hundreds of foreign-born citizens suspected of radical sympathies. Not surprisingly in this atmosphere, the old accusation that Schwimmer was a spy came up again, along with the allegation that her peace work between 1914 and 1917 had been aimed at neutralizing America for the benefit of the Central Powers. Other critics suggested, ludicrously enough, that she might be the source of Henry Ford's growing anti-Semitism.

Her sister Franciska, a New York pianist, and her friend Lola Maverick Lloyd, a wealthy woman whom she had first met in 1914, supported Schwimmer when she was at first denied the right to work. By now she was suffering from a severe case of diabetes and found it more difficult than previously to lead an active life. Hoping nevertheless to resume her work as a journalist and lecturer, Schwimmer applied for citizenship, but the oath taken by new citizens required candidates to swear that they would bear arms in defense of America if necessary. As a pacifist she refused to take the oath, but sued for citizenship nevertheless, declaring that as a point of conscience she would be unable to take up arms for any country or any cause. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled, in 1929, that she should not be granted citizenship. Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis dissented from the majority opinion, claiming that her case should be considered as a First Amendment freedom of thought issue. Holmes wrote: "The applicant seems to be a woman of superior character and intelligence, obviously more than ordinarily desirable as a citizen of the United States." Superior character and intelligence did not make her likable, however, and even her supporters were finding her dogmatic and high-handed ways hard to endure.

Permitted to stay in America as a stateless person, she remained intensely devoted to the peace cause. In 1925, she attended the first Conference on the Cause and Cure of War, in Washington, D.C., but found it too halfhearted in its approach. The second conference, the following year, seemed even worse to her, especially as all 30 of the lecturers were men, and Schwimmer rebuked the organizer—her old friend Carrie Catt—for this gender imbalance. Catt was not the only one she annoyed. Gradually, as she aged, she became increasingly abrasive, launching a succession of libel suits against journalists who had handled the peace ship scheme roughly; she also began a prolonged correspondence with Henry Ford and his associates, who she believed had wronged her and damaged her reputation.

Despite her deteriorating health, Schwimmer kept busy in America. She and Lola Maverick Lloyd founded the Campaign for World Government in 1937, in the years when another world war seemed imminent and the hopeless failure of the League of Nations was apparent to all. At first the organization was a small antiwar group dedicated to world government, but its ranks swelled during the Second World War, especially after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings of 1945. She started, but never finished, an autobiography and began to work at creating a world center for women's archives, but once again her personal tactlessness alienated many of the people whose help and cooperation she needed. Schwimmer died in 1948 of bronchial pneumonia after living largely on her sister's and Lloyd's charity for 27 years. It was a disappointing end for the woman who had seemed incandescent to her associates before, and in the early days of, the First World War.

Further Reading

Hershey, Burnet. The Odyssey of Henry Ford and the Great Peace Ship. Taplinger. 1967.

Kraft, Barbara S. The Peace Ship: Henry Ford's Pacifist Adventure in the First World War. Macmillan, 1978.

Moorehead, Caroline. Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-1986. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Steinson, Barbara J. American Women's Activism in World War I. Garland, 1982.

Wiltsher, Anne. Most Dangerous Women: Feminist Peace Campaigners of the Great War. London: Pandora, 1985. □