The Nobel Peace Prize: How Have Women Fared?

Ingunn Nordeval. Scandinavian Review. Volume 93, Issue 2. Autumn 2005.

The Nobel peace prize was established by the Swedish engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel. In his will he stipulated that the Peace Prize be awarded by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Storting, to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

Altogether, 114 prizes have been awarded since 1901, including this year’s award to Mohamed ElBaradei and the IAEA. Very few prizes, 12 in all, have gone to women. During the first 75 years only three women were honored by the Nobel Committee, namely, Bertha von Suttner in 1905, the American social worker and peace activist Jane Addams in 1931 and the economics professor, feminist and peace worker Emily Greene Balch, also American, in 1946.

The low representation of women among the world’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates is curious, considering women’s very active role in the international peace movement over the last 100 years. In this paper, I shall first look at the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s record in regard to female candidacies during the first half of the 20th century, the period for which archive materials are now available at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. Next, I’ll discuss the changes of the last 30 years, the causes behind them and their implications for female candidacies.

It is pertinent to ask whether there was outright discrimination of female candidates for the Peace Prize during the first decades of the 20th century. Statistically, the answer appears negative. During the period 1901-1950, the committee received 1,348 nominations, but only 29 of them were women. Thirty-nine men and three women were honored with the prize from 1901 through 1950. Clearly, once nominated, women therefore stood a better chance than men to become laureates. Also, a higher proportion of the nominated women than of the men were placed on the committee’s so-called short list, the list of nominees that were given serious scrutiny before the decision was made. Over one third of the women nominees, 12 of the 29 nominated during the first 50 years, were shortlisted-a far higher proportion than the men could boast.

The main problem, of course, was that few women were proposed by those having the right to nominate candidates. The nominators constituted a rather august group drawn from distinctly male bastions: members of parliaments and cabinet ministers of the various countries, members of the International Court of Justice, social science and law professors, present and earlier members of the Nobel Committee, and those who themselves had received the Nobel Prize. As women were virtually absent in all of these forums, it is not surprising that female candidates were few and far between. But it is also interesting to note that the first woman to receive the prize, Bertha von Suttner, did not include a single woman among the eight candidates she herself proposed.

Nonetheless, the Nobel Committee cannot be entirely absolved of discrimination against women. First, one may note that two of the three women who received the prize during the period 1901-1975 had to wait much too long for the honor. The Austrian author and peace activist Bertha von Suttner was nominated every year from 1901 to 1905. A long-time friend of Nobel, she had massive support as the person who had inspired him to institute the Prize, and it was widely agreed that he had wanted her to be the first person to receive it. However, the Nobel Committee dragged its feet, and had it not been for popular outrage and the strong pressure exercised by Norway’s popular author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, she might not even have received the prize in 1905.

The second female recipient, Jane Addams, had to wait even longer. By the time the Committee finally decided to honor her in 1931, she had been nominated eight times. Several years the Nobel Committee refused to name a winner, even though Addams was a candidate and commanded huge support. When she finally received the prize in 1931, she had to share it with another person, a man of course, (as did the next woman laureate, Emily Greene Balch, 15 years later).

Second, the attitudes reflected in the comments of the advisors preparing reports on the candidates for the committee members are often very condescending. Halvdan Koht, who later became Norway’s foreign minister, was as a young man advisor to the Nobel Committee, and wrote a rather unenthusiastic comment on the merit of Bertha von Suttner as a candidate: “The Nobel Committee knows what a fuss there was in various places last year, when Mrs. Suttner didn’t get the prize, and I feel it is correct to mention here that there is quite clearly one single man who through his work has arranged a whole lot of the proposals this year”.

Lady Aberdeen, wife of Lord Aberdeen who for several years served as Governor General of Canada, was also snubbed by the the Nobel Committee. She was nominated six times during the 1930s, and as president of The International Women’s Council for a long period, her candidacy was supported by many women’s organizations. The advisor’s report to the Committee insinuated that her aristocratic background and her husband’s status rather than her own personal qualities had prompted her nomination, and brutally dismissed her with the following words: “I have met Lady Aberdeen….She appears kind and well-meaning, but insignificant.”

Not unexpectedly, the civilian status and looks of the women are frequently the subject of comment. The beauty of the Soviet Union’s Alexandra Kollontai, her “flaming dark eyes” and her bodyhugging outfits are noted, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s many children. Men’s looks, marriages and offspring are, needless to say, never mentioned.

The Nobel Committee’s presumption in favor of men is perhaps most clearly reflected in the 1913 report on the candicacy of the U.S.’s Lucia Ames Mead and her husband Edwin Mead. According to the advisor, Mrs. Mead “…contributed valuable help to Mead in his peace-work”. But Lucia Ames Mead was not a secondary helpmate in this partnership. On the contrary, she was a prominent public speaker and essayist, and a central force in the American and international peace movement during the first decades of the 20th century.

The year after Lucia Mead’s nomination another formidable American woman, Belva Lockwood, was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first woman permitted to plead a case before the Supreme Court, after she had successfully influenced Congress to adopt an act to relieve the legal disabilities of women in 1879. Lockwood later became the leading lobbyist, lecturer and writer for The Universal Peace Union, and represented this organization at the World Peace Conference in Paris in 1899. But the Nobel Committee’s advisor does not mention Belva Lockwood’s stature and achievements. He dismisses her in rather condescending tones: “Regarding her numerous brochures, I find no reason to give any further account of them.”

Probably the clearest case of discrimination is found in the treatment of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize both in 1947 and 1949. The failure to honor her must be characterized as one of the Nobel Committee’s great sins of omission. During her 12 years as First Lady of the United States Mrs. Roosevelt was active in countless humanitarian enterprises, and seemingly present wherever injustice existed. She vigorously supported the cause of black equality, and demonstrated incessantly in speech and writing against segregation and discrimination. She worked actively, although in vain, to get the United States to join the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and at the end of World War II she became Ambassador to the United Nations, where she chaired the Human Rights Commission. Under her leadership the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.

Two other women must be mentioned in this context, namely Mary Shapard and Rosika Schwimmer. As everyone knows, president Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his work in launching the League of Nations. Very few know anything about the two women who for years worked separately for the establishment of such a forum of nations, and who submitted their ideas to the American president. One was an American from Texas, the other a Hungarian Jewish woman. Both were nominated for the Nobel Prize, but did not even attain the honor of making the short list, so there are no records of the evaluations of them.

Mary Shapard, nominated for the Peace Prize in 1919, was the leader of the Peace Committee of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, and had already in 1913 produced a plan for a league of nations which was forwarded to president Wilson with a request that he invite government leaders to a conference to consider the matter. Teacher organizations and women’s groups supported Shapard, the University of Texas instituted peace studies as part of its curriculum, and the State Legislature declared the 18th of May as Texas Peace Day. But Mary Shapard was never invited to the White House to discuss her visions.

Rosika Schwimmer, however, did get a chance to talk to the American president about her thoughts regarding a world organization for peace. She was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1917 and then again in 1948. Like Mary Shapard, she did not get on the committee’s short list. However, others appreciated her efforts on behalf of peace, and in 1937 they launched a drive to collect enough money to give her the equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize. Among her sponsors were Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlôf, herself a Nobel laureate in literature.

Rosika Schwimmer had early established an impressive international network, which on the eve of World War I she made use of in an attempt to get the feuding parties to the conference table. In the summer of 1914 she visited the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and warned him about the dangerous situation. In his autobiography Lloyd George mentions her visit and his feeling at the time that Schwimmer was an “alarmist,” who exaggerated the threat to peace in Europe.

After the outbreak of war, Schwimmer left for the United States and launched a veritable crusade to involve Americans in the peace movement. Through secretary of State William Jennings Bryan she was invited to meet President Wilson and present her plans for cooperation among nations in an international forum. In the course of her seven months’ stay in the US, she gave over 400 lectures to women’s groups, university audiences, political parties and legislative assemblies. Together with Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt she planned the great women’s conference in the Hague in April 1915, where thousands of women from both neutral and warring nations met and laid the groundwork for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Jane Addams became president and Rosika Schwimmer vice-president of the new organization.

After World War I, Scwhimmer ended up as a stateless refugee in the United States, where her earlier popularity had evaporated with her opposition to US entry into the war in 1917. As a pacifist, declared socialist and “peacenik”, she was now perceived to be part of the dangerous “red threat”. When she applied for citizenship, it was denied on the ground that she refused to bear arms for the United States. Schwimmer pursued the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost. However, the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote one of his glittering dissenting opinions, where he mocked the Court’s majority: The lady was over 50, in poor health, and would not have been permitted to serve had she wanted to! He also reminded the Court that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

After Emily Greene Balch (also one of the top leaders of the WILPF) received the Peace Prize in 1946, four decades were to pass before the Nobel Committee again chose to name women laureates. But by the late 1970s, a significant change appeared to be under way. Between 1977, when the “Irish Peace Women”, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the Prize for 1976, and 2005, the 100th anniversary of Bertha von Suttner’s Nobel Prize, altogether nine women were honored. In 2004 Wangari Maathai from Kenya became the last woman so far to receive the prize, which was awarded to her for her environmental efforts and launching of the “Green Belt Movement” to fight deforestation and the deprivation caused by it.

Although equality is still a good way off, the changes of the last generation are nonetheless remarkable. What are the factors behind this development? First, one must note the importance of structural social change. The failure to nominate women was clearly related to traditional sex role patterns and women’s limited opportunities to exert their influence during the first part of the 20th century. At the outbreak of World War I only three countries had extended full voting rights to women, and even after the second World War, women’s civil and political rights were not recognized in all western countries. Women’s educational and occupational backgrounds were generally not of a kind that would enable them to play an important role in society. Female representation in political and decisionmaking fora was, for the most part, totally absent, as was women’s participation in leadership positions in the world of business and academia.

So, while the Nobel Committee generally received between 20 and 30 proposals every year for male candidates in the period from 1905 till the outbreak of World War I, there were never more than three women proposed, if any. This pattern repeated itself during the interwar period, the only improvement being that it became more rare not to have any female nominees.

But one is also left with the impression that the women whose names were submitted to the Committee were not evaluated on the basis of their own achievements, but on the contrary were measured and weighed in terms of criteria from the male world. Given the dissimilar backgrounds and experiences of the two sexes, it seems a foregone conclusion that only recently could women attain the stature that would make them real, if not yet quite equal, competitors in the contest for the Nobel Peace Prize.

What are the general features characterizing male and female candidates for the prize during the first 50 years of the 20th century? Regarding the men, one may say that they generally held prominent positions either in organizational life, in private or public bureaucracy, or in politics. These positions were their springboard to work for peace. Their prominence ensured that their words carried extra impact when they commented on world conflicts, international affairs, war and peace. As Irwin Abrams points out: “Statesmen are able to make a contribution to peace because of their office, not necessarily because of personal qualities or any long-term commitment to the cause.”

The profiles of the women vary considerably from those of the men. Among the female candidates during the first half of the 20th century only Alexandra Kollontai held prominent political positions. Eleanor Roosevelt had political influence, but never served in elective or paid political positions. For most of the women, peace-work was their all-consuming main interest, and many of them used their personal economic resources in order to finance their work, which in some cases also carried burdens besides economic ones, as illustrated, for instance, by the case of Rosika Schwimmer. For many of the women, their organized work for peace had grown out of their engagement for women’s rights, a cause that did not carry particular prestige in the eyes of most men, nor, apparently, in the eyes of the Nobel Committee.

As social structures alter, and women increasingly fill positions of importance in society, there will also be more female candidates for and winners of the Nobel Prize. The trend since 1975 has already been noted. However, parallell with this trend one must also take into account the changes that have occurred within the Nobel Committee regarding criteria for awarding the prize, changes that may redound to the benefit of women candidates. For the most part, only “direct” peace work either by individuals or organizations was rewarded during the first decades of the 20th century. With the exception of the 1935 award to the German journalist and dissident Carl von Ossietzky in 1936, the Committee shied away from considering “controversial” candidates. The failure to give Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Prize was most likely due to his controversial political activism.

A few years later, the Nobel Committee broke this tradition. With its award in 1961 to the leader of the African National Congress, Albert Lutuli, the Nobel Committee recognized political activism as a legitimate way to address injustice. Later awards, such as those to Martin Luther King, Andrei Sakharov, Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama have continued the pattern of honoring dissidents. Many of the female laureates over the past generation also belong to this category. Rigoberta Menchu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai have all been in opposition to the policies of their own governments.

Changing attitudes with regard to what constitutes “work for peace” are also reflected in the willingness to reward efforts to remove environmental hazards to peace. The most recent prize to a woman, which went to Wangari Maathai in 2004 for her efforts to stem deforestation through the Green Belt Movement’s organized tree-planting, is an example of this. The Nobel Committee’s leader, Professor Ole Danbolt Mj0s, emphasized that the Committee wanted to “add a new, ecological dimension to the awarding of the Peace Prize”, recognizing that “the protection of the living environment is crucial to peace.”

Last, but not least, one must note the impact of the feminist movement. During the 1970s and 1980s, Norwegian women made significant progress socially and politically, and quota rules secured their increased representation in decision-making forums. To be “woman-friendly” was the politically correct attitude, and “feminine values” received more than lip-service. The Prizes to Mairead Corrigan, Betty Williams and to Alva Myrdal, a long-time Swedish feminist, may be interpreted in this light. It is also worth noting that these awards were made after disappointment in Norway over the Nobel Committee’s failure to honor these women, resulted in popular drives which raised money for an alternative “people’s peace prize.”

The makeup of the Nobel Committee also reflects the impact of the feminist movement. No woman served on the Committee until 1948. Today, three of the five Nobel Committee members are women, two of them declared feminists who are likely to favor a more active search for female candidates than one has seen earlier.

Most of the women candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize during its first fifty years are now forgotten. Undoubtedly, some of them deserved the Prize more than some of the male laureates. Hopefully, the altered status of women in society, changes in the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s makeup and its evolving interpretations regarding the criteria for awarding the Prize will combine to ensure that female candidates in the future receive due recognition. The record of the last generation gives reason for hope.