International Women’s Day: Emily Greene Balch

The New York Times today has run a series called “Overlooked”—15 women who deserve but never received obituaries in the New York Times. Although Emily Greene Balch was one American woman who did receive recognition in the Times when she died in 1961, she remains a remarkably overlooked figure in U.S. and international history. Below I have appended my own entry in a new collection, Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of United States Peace and Antiwar Movements (2018).


Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961) was the second American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Less known than fellow laureate Jane Addams—who described Balch as the “goodest person” she ever knew—she worked tirelessly as a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world.” She was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), serving as its first secretary-treasurer from 1919 and 1922. Thereafter, in numerous capacities, Balch devoted her life, primarily within women’s organizations, to the development of what she called a “planetary civilization.”

Balch, born outside Boston to an upper middle class family, graduated from Bryan Mawr College in 1889. After a year studying in Paris, she met Addams in 1892, and helped found Denison House, Boston’s settlement house. She studied at Radcliffe, the University of Chicago and, in 1895-96, the University of Berlin. When she returned, she was hired by Wellesley College to teach economics. In 1906, Balch declared herself a socialist, a label she qualified only after the Russian Revolution. Following two years of research, she produced the first significant study on immigration to the United States, Our Slavic fellow citizens(1910), a sociological contribution to the debates on assimilation then preoccupying the nation. Balch believed that immigration had made the U.S. a plural nation in ways that served as a model for the amelioration of nationalist animosities around the world.

The Great War underlined the painful interruption of human solidarity that nationalism induced. In March 1915, because of Balch’s expertise in the Balkans, Addams invited her to attend a Congress of pacifist women in The Hague that April. The meeting created the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace, which sent envoys across Europe to encourage neutral mediation of the war. Balch toured Scandinavia and Russia, before returning to U.S. with Addams to convince president Wilson there was widespread receptivity to American mediation. They were unsuccessful, although Wilson admitted their resolutions on a new, democratic, diplomacy were the best thing he had seen on the subject.

Balch then served as the U.S. delegate to the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation in Stockholm in 1916. She drafted, among other things, a critique of imperialism that argued not only that it was one of the great causes of international conflict, but that Europe’s occupation of “native populations”, despite efforts to idealize it, was exploitive and hindered development when seen from the interests of the “society of nations”, or “put less rhetorically, men and women in general.” In 1917, the Stockholm conference closed and Balch returned home as the U.S. entered the war.

In 1918, Wellesley informed her that its Trustees were debating whether to renew her contract. Awaiting their decision, she continued the activism that was precisely the focus of Wellesley’s concerns, and in May 1919, while she was at the Zurich Congress of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), she had word that Wellesley had effectively fired her. So, from 1919-1922 Balch served as WILPF’s secretary in Geneva, where she organized its congresses and summer schools, and coordinated efforts to lobby the League of Nations, promote postwar reconciliation, and advance the principles of a new diplomacy.

WILPF argued that peace was inseparable from liberty: women’s rights, the protection of labor, children, and minorities, were, along with disarmament and arbitration, the heart of global comity. For Balch, feminism illuminated how hierarchy depended on latent force that denied the fundamental humanity of some people. Male dominance trained a culture of aggression and violence in men that normalized war. Her research on immigration also made her appreciate the importance of cultural diversity as a creative force for humanity; but she criticized, likewise, hyper-nationalism when it silenced that diversity and encouraged racial animosity.

Balch stepped down from the Geneva office in 1922 suffering from exhaustion. In 1926, prodded by Haitian members of the WILPF, she joined an inter-racial committee to examine the U.S. occupation there, which reported that it was an unmitigated disaster for the Haitian people. In the early 1930s, Balch represented WILPF on a League of Nations Commission sent to resolve a dispute between Liberia and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. The experience exposed the tension in her commitment to social justice and anti-racism. Balch believed that she had to criticize Liberian elites for their corruption, yet one colleague, Anna Melissa Graves, believed that anti-colonialism required Pan-African solidarity, and WILPF’s attacks on Liberia’s governance could be used as a pretext for foreign intervention. If Balch wanted to build an “international community based on a common humanity”, she failed to reconcile this with the psychological need for a liberation politics based on race. She was aware of the paradox: white, anti-imperial feminists could not destroy the legacy of the “White Man’s Burden” by intervening on behalf of their own conception of humanity. She rejected racial science but found her position as a white reformer come up against what Frantz Fanon would later identify as the subjective necessity of asserting a substantive black identity in a racialized world.

The 1930s posed other dilemmas. Balch lobbied for the Kellogg-Briand Pact, to press the League into action against Japan in Manchuria, and to support disarmament talks. Yet she was in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany, which forced her to affirm that anti-fascism had to take precedence over pacifism. She supported U.S. intervention in 1941, a position that made her a more attractive candidate for the Nobel Prize after the war.

In 1945, a WILPF committee, backed by John Dewey and Norman Angell, nominated Balch for the Nobel Peace prize. In 1946, at age 79, she shared the prize with John R. Mott of the YMCA. She was too ill to travel to Oslo, but made the trip in 1948, delivering her Nobel Laureate Lecture entitled, “Toward human unity, or beyond nationalism.” In her 80s, Balch still found energy to criticize McCarthy’s “cult of fear and suspicion,” to recommend rapprochement with communist China, and to insist that “peaceful coexistence” fell short of the ideals of an international community. She died in 1961, a day after her 94th birthday.

Balch’s conception of world peace was initially based on Christian fraternity and, after 1921 when she became a Quaker, a commitment to non-violence. Intellectually, she was also steeped in a Pragmatist anti-essentialism that understood identities not as fixed biological realities, but as functions of human interaction. This led to a feminism in which it was less the “motherhood” of women that made them receptive to peace than their subservience to a gendered order that diminished their full humanity. Her critique of racism was equally emancipatory: the world had to chose between ethno-racist imperialism and democracy; it could not have both. For her, the key to a planetary civilization was a radical commitment to cultural pluralism and egalitarian communication.

Suggested Readings

Addams, Jane, Emily G. Balch, and Alice Hamilton. Women at The Hague: the International Congress of Women and its results. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003 [1915].

Gwinn, Kristen E. Emily Greene Balch: the long road to internationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Johnston, Andrew M. “The disappearance of Emily G. Balch, social scientist,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 13, 2 (April 2014): 166-199.

Plastas, Melinda. A band of noble women: racial politics in the women’s peace movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Source: Andrew M. Johnston, “Emily Greene Balch,” in Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of United States Peace and Antiwar Movements, Mitchell K. Hall, editor (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2018): 57-60. (