Schwimmer, Rosika (1877–1948)

views updated

Schwimmer, Rosika (1877–1948)

Hungarian peace activist, feminist, writer, first woman diplomat and advocate of world government, who came to prominence through her successful organization of suffrage and feminist groups and her influential opposition to the First World War. Born in Budapest, Hungary, on September 11, 1877; died of bronchial pneumonia in New York on August 3, 1948; daughter of Max B. Schwimmer (an experimental farmer and agricultural produce dealer) and Bertha (Katscher) Schwimmer; received eight years of formal schooling and a six-month commercial course; married (husband's name unknown), on January 16, 1911 (divorced January 4, 1913); no children.

Worked as a bookkeeper and office worker (from 1891); began organizing women in the struggle for improved working conditions as well as their political, educational and social rights (1892); founded the Hungarian Feminist Association (1904) which would be instrumental in winning the vote for Hungarian women (1920); devoted herself to the cause of international peace (1914–20), traveled throughout Europe and North America to promote the cause of neutral mediation and organize women in an attempt to stop the hostilities; appointed Hungary's ambassador to Switzerland, the first woman in history to be given a diplomatic post (1918); forced to flee to Vienna because of revolution and counter-revolution in Hungary (1920) and seek refuge in U.S. (1921); unpopular with many because of her uncompromising pacifism, was denied American citizenship and spent the rest of her life in U.S. as a stateless person, working for the cause of world government; was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (1948) but died before the recipient was selected.

Selected writings:

Tisza Tales (1928); (with Lola Maverick Lloyd) Chaos, War or a New World Order? (1937); Union Now for Peace or War? The Danger in the Plan of Clarence Streit (1939).

Between May and August 1915, following The Hague Congress where women of all nations gathered to stop the worst war the world had ever endured, Rosika Schwimmer and Chrystal Macmillan took the message of peace to all of the neutral countries. Traveling near the western front, Schwimmer wrote to a friend that it was "heartrending" to see hundreds of soldiers with "empty resigned faces go towards an unwanted death." Unable to persuade the neutrals to agree to a peace conference, Schwimmer was unusually pessimistic in a letter to another friend: "National ambitions and selfishness hold back these people…. Each one wants some thing…. [O]f the belligerents not one would oppose a neutral conference. But on the part of the neutrals there are conflicting interests which stand in the way of the first step…. In the meantime, the world perishes."

Rosika Schwimmer was born into a middle-class Jewish household in Budapest, Hungary, in 1877, the oldest of three children of Bertha Katscher Schwimmer and Max B. Schwimmer. Max was an experimental farmer who grew seed corn and dealt in agricultural produce and horses. Rosika grew up in the provincial cities of Temesvár (now Timisoara, Rumania) and Szabadka (now Subotica, Yugoslavia). Prone to illness as a child, she had only eight years of formal schooling, supplemented by private tutoring in foreign languages and music and a six-month commercial course. At age 18, because of her father's business losses, she had to find employment as an office worker.

The first of the three well-defined periods of Schwimmer's life started in 1897 when her family returned to Budapest. She immediately began to write, to lecture, and to organize. It might be said that reform was in her blood: her uncle Leopold Katscher founded the Hungarian Peace Society. Another uncle, Major Edler Lederer, held a high rank in the Austro-Hungarian army but was an outspoken opponent of warlike militarism. For the next 17 years, Schwimmer's efforts were concentrated on mobilizing all classes of Hungarian women in the struggle for their political, economic, educational, and social rights.

In 1897, at age 20, she joined the National Association of Women Office Workers and soon became its president, holding that office until 1912. In 1903, Schwimmer founded the first Hungarian Association of Working Women, and the following year she helped set up the Hungarian Council of Women, organizations which appealed, respectively, to socialist and conservative memberships. Also in 1904, she established the Hungarian Feminist Association. Unique among such societies for its inclusion of men as well as women, this group promoted feminism and supported trade unionism, land reform, suffrage and pacifism. Schwimmer's frequent European lecture tours and outstanding organizational ability ensured that the vote for Hungarian women was won in 1920, only 16 years after she founded the association.

By 1913, Schwimmer was a well-known figure in the international suffrage movement. During that year, she organized the seventh and largest congress of the International Women's Suffrage Association (IWSA) in Budapest. The congress attracted 3,000 participants from all over the world.

The period of the First World War and its immediate aftermath, 1914–20, marks the second phase in Schwimmer's life. When the war began in 1914, Rosika was 36 years old. A respected editor, writer, lecturer, and organizer who knew nine languages, she had just been asked to take up the job of International Press Secretary at the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Headquarters in London. She was hired by the American leader of the organization, Carrie Chapman Catt , to help win favorable publicity for the issues of women's suffrage and equal rights. The English press had, thus far, been considerably more interested in the broken windows and civil disobedience practiced by the more extreme suffragists.

As Anne Wiltsher , in her study of the feminist peace campaigners of the First World War,

has observed, Schwimmer "had the kind of wit, eloquence and extrovert personality needed to make an effective publicist." In great demand as a speaker, she could win men over to the cause with her sly humor. "No one was neutral about Rosika Schwimmer," writes Wiltsher. "A human dynamo with a forceful personality and tireless energy, she was somebody you either loved or hated—frequently people did both at different times." Among the middle class and respectable members of the British branch of the IWSA, Rosika must certainly have seemed exotic. She smoked, enjoyed a glass of wine, and wore vividly colored, loose-fitting dresses, without either corset or brassiere. Wisely, given the social conventions of the day, she kept secret the fact that she was also a divorcee—married in 1911, she had divorced two years later and never made reference to it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissenting opinion in Schwimmer's citizenship case, 1929">

The applicant seems to be a woman of superior character and intelligence, obviously more than ordinarily desirable as a citizen of the United States. Surely it cannot show lack of attachment to the principles of the Constitution that she thinks it can be improved.

—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissenting opinion in Schwimmer's citizenship case, 1929

From the moment she received news of the assassination of Austria's Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek in June 1914, Schwimmer sensed that the outcome would be war with Serbia and total European involvement. On July 9, she met with British prime minister David Lloyd George at 11 Downing Street and warned him of what she foresaw, but he dismissed her fears as alarmist.

On August 4, a great women's peace rally was held at the Kingsway Hall in London. It attracted 2,000 women, with hundreds turned away. At 11 o'clock that night, war was declared. After witnessing the "war fever" celebrations in the streets, desolate and unable to sleep, Schwimmer composed an "Open Letter" addressed to "All Men, Women and Organizations who want to stop the international massacre at the earliest possible moment." She urged U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to intervene and mediate without delay: "As all the combating nations are resolved 'to conquer or be killed to the last man' waiting for the call to mediation is equal to waiting until the absolute destruction of one or other of the belligerent nations is accomplished." She refuted the arguments of those who said intervention must only be made at the right moment, arguing that such delay was appropriate only in the case of ordinary wars: "But what is going on today is not merely a war, but the breakdown of a world—the earthquake of civilization."

Finding her home country on the "wrong" side of the war, Schwimmer resigned from her paid position at the IWSA and decided to focus her efforts on securing mediation by neutral nations. As an "enemy alien," she was now under official surveillance and had her movements restricted. Without paid employment and having widely circulated the Open Letter at her own expense, Schwimmer was forced to sell her jewelry and even her typewriter to support herself. Convinced that President Wilson could be "a great force for peace," she made the first of several wartime journeys to America on August 25, 1914. This visit was to establish the pattern of Schwimmer's life for the rest of the war: using the vast network of suffrage organizations throughout Europe as a base, she traveled tirelessly, promoting the establishment of a neutral body that would mediate between the belligerents. She met with Wilson shortly after her arrival but was unable to convince him of the wisdom of immediate intervention.

In the United States, many women were already more liberated than their European sisters; their skirts were shorter, they had abandoned cumbersome hats and corsets, and some could already vote in state elections. Promoting both peace and suffrage, Schwimmer set out on the first of many speaking tours to rally American support, traveling to 60 cities and speaking to as many as six different audiences a day in a fifteen-month crusade. Unlike in Britain and the other belligerent nations, where women were being forced to choose between patriotism and their work for peace, women in America were able to unite against the war.

Continuing grim news from the front during Schwimmer's American peace campaign seems to have changed her personality; it was especially evident in her speaking style. Previously known for her engaging wit and humor, she now spoke "as if the pain that millions … now endure had suddenly acquired a voice that through her spoke its own desperate language." An observer of a speech she gave in Stockholm just before The Hague Congress recorded that Schwimmer was "greatly changed" from the woman who had spoken so confidently about suffrage in the same hall four years earlier: "She gave the impression of one who has suffered, who has lived in the very center of recent events, who has seen ideals topple…. [I]t was not merely her wonderful eloquence that held us all; it was the consciousness that her intense feeling of indignation … was … out of her innermost soul."

One of Schwimmer's most remarkable wartime achievements occurred at the meeting of the Women's International Congress in The Hague in April 1915. That the meeting took place at all, she said, was "one of the greatest things that women ever achieved." Although the British government withdrew the passports of its nationals, 1,136 delegates from 12 nations attended, those at war as well as the neutrals. Schwimmer was determined that the meeting produce practical results, and, largely because of her efforts, it became the first international meeting to attempt to draw up the principles of a peace settlement. Among many far-sighted recommendations, it called for the establishment of a permanent international body, with women included in its membership, that would settle international disputes, a body which Schwimmer called "a continuous conference of neutrals." Her passionate oratory, as well as bringing the conference to its feet several times, convinced the women present to support her proposal to send envoys to the leaders of both the neutral and belligerent countries and to report back to a women's international peace party.

Schwimmer and 11 other delegates spent the summer lobbying the leaders of 14 nations and although success often seemed close at hand, first in Sweden and then in the United States, they did not obtain the international intervention they were seeking. In the autumn of 1915, Schwimmer, one of the few women who still believed that the plan could and must be made to work, persuaded the automobile magnate Henry Ford to support an unofficial neutral conference in Sweden, sending delegates from America in a "peace ship."

Like all of the pacifist initiatives of the time, especially those organized by women, the peace crusade, funded by Ford but organized and led by Schwimmer, was subject to intense criticism and ridicule in the press. Deterred by this vehement opposition, many well-known feminist pacifists refused to participate and there were almost as

many journalists as delegates among the 168 Americans who set sail on December 4, 1915.

The dramatic winter voyage almost overshadowed the peace conference which took place in Stockholm in February 1916. There the Americans were joined by unofficial delegations of women and men from five neutral European countries—Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. However, Ford's fame and financial support proved a mixed blessing; his business associates were hostile, and attacks on Schwimmer's role and reputation intensified. Exhausted and discouraged, she resigned as Ford's organizer in March 1916. Schwimmer then collapsed with heart trouble and was unable to work for three months. Although Ford continued to provide some support until the United States entered the war in February 1917, the initiative achieved no more successes. In June 1916, Schwimmer and some other former members of the Ford group organized the International Committee for Immediate Mediation which sent private missions to Russia, Germany, and England.

Although Schwimmer's intensive efforts for peace through neutral mediation did not have the direct result of ending the war, she achieved remarkable success in publicizing and winning support for the cause, and her work at winning over public opinion in the neutral countries may well have contributed to keeping those nations from joining the hostilities.

With the end of the war in November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Hungary became a democratic republic. The new prime minister, Michael Károlyi, appointed Schwimmer as Hungary's ambassador to Switzerland, the first time in history that a woman had been named to a diplomatic post. The appointment lasted only four months; political turmoil at home forced Schwimmer to return to Hungary where she soon found herself forbidden to leave the country by the new Communist regime which she refused to serve.

The delegates to the Women's International Congress, held in Zurich in May 1919, sent a telegram to their absent colleague which read: "We recognize in you one of the most passionate champions of the cause of peace and join you in wishes for the better time we are all working for." The fall of Béla Kun's dictatorship in August 1919 brought physical danger for Schwimmer, as a "white terror" swept the country, and its supporters sought to punish all who had cooperated with either Károlyi or Kun. Aware that her pacifist and feminist activities would do nothing to endear her to the new conservative Hungarian government under Miklós Horthy, Schwimmer escaped to Vienna in 1920 and sought refuge in the United States in 1921.

The third stage of Schwimmer's life began with her arrival in America. Schwimmer once again immediately encountered the personal animosity which had dogged her Peace Ship initiative. One ultra-nationalist publication called her a German spy who had impeded American military preparedness and had kept the United States out of the conflict for two years. Other equally ill-informed sources called her a Bolshevik and a Jewish agent. Jewish groups attacked her as the cause of Henry Ford's anti-Semitism, and pacifist and feminist groups, fearing that their causes would suffer by association, abandoned her. Effectively blacklisted, she was unable to find work to support herself and had to depend on the support of her sister Franciska and her closest friend in America, Lola Maverick Lloyd .

The vicious public attacks upon Schwimmer's character and motives certainly contributed to her failure to obtain American citizenship. In 1924, groups such as the American Legion urged the government to reject her application because of her "un-American utterances and unpatriotic character." She appealed a District Court rejection to the Supreme Court but was rejected there also in a six-to-three decision in May 1929. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his dissenting opinion, eloquently supported the woman who had refused to promise to bear arms in defense of the Constitution of the United States. Referring to Schwimmer's sincere belief that war would disappear and that the world would unite in peaceful leagues, he argued that the "notion that the applicant's optimistic anticipations would make her a worse citizen is sufficiently answered by her examination which seems to me a better argument for her admission than any that I can offer. Some of her answers may excite popular prejudice, but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought." Although Schwimmer won a libel suit against one of her leading detractors in 1929 and the Supreme Court ruling was later reversed, she never again sought citizenship and remained a stateless person until she died.

Rather than adhering to any single state, Schwimmer devoted the last two decades of her life to the cause of world government. She was convinced that the League of Nations, and the United Nations which succeeded it, lacked sufficient authority to ensure continuing world peace. During the Second World War, she supported the establishment of an unofficial provisional world government, similar in structure to the neutral conferences she had organized during the First World War. The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 lent added momentum to her campaign for world government.

In 1948, Schwimmer, now 71, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by 33 members of Parliament from Britain, Sweden, France, Italy, and Hungary, but she died before the recipient was selected. Only weeks before her death from bronchial pneumonia she sent a message to the Seneca Falls Centennial Celebration of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention which she was too ill to attend. Her statement conveyed the creed by which she lived and from which she had never wavered, despite unremitting attacks from her enemies and desertion by many of her friends. She wrote that she wanted to remember the radical suffragists' pledge to abolish war if they were granted political power:

I really believed in this pledge of ours, not because I thought that women were superior to men but because, having been isolated from public affairs, I believed we were less conditioned to corruption, less perverted by narrow nationalism and protected from the militarization to which men were subjected.

Claiming that women had "descended" to aiding the First and Second World Wars, Schwimmer concluded with the hope that:

women will retrace their steps from the many paths and blind alleys to which they have strayed in imitation of the social, political and economic morass of what we once called the "man made world," and that they will remember that we sought equality for our half of the human race, not at the lowest, but at the highest level of human aspirations.

sources and suggested reading:

Bussey, Gertrude, and Margaret Tims. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1965: A Record of Fifty Years' Work. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1965.

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

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

Wynner, Edith. "Rosika Schwimmer," in Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders. Edited by Harold Josephson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 862–865.

——. "Rosika Schwimmer," in Dictionary of American Biography. NY: Scribner, 1964, pp. 724–728.

——. Rosika Schwimmer, World Patriot. London: Odhams, 1947.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Acting Director of Women's Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada