Textiles and Politics

On the recent acquisition by the TRC of a very special blouse, TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson writes: “Textiles tell stories, and some textiles tell stories more clearly than others. I saw an example of this recently at a women’s peace conference, held in April 2015, the Hague (the Netherlands). There was a market place at the conference, where women’s groups could sell things (candy bars, posters, publications, etc.) in order to raise money for their work. A group of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had commissioned a printed fabric with the conference’s logo and title on it. They had made blouses and bags from the factory woven cotton fabric. This reflects a long tradition throughout Africa of marking political, social and sometimes personal events through textiles. It is one of these blouses that is now on display at the TRC.

These objects were commissioned by the Congolese section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The roller printed motifs on the fabric included a blue circle with a dove, the logo of the WILPF, which had organized the conference to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The conference’s title “Women’s Power to Stop War: Uniting a Global Movement” is also portrayed on the fabric along with the names of countries around the world.

The crinkled look of the fabric imitates batik. In the 19th century, wax resist dyed fabrics (batik) from Indonesia became popular along Africa’s Gold Coast (modern Ghana). The wax print spread throughout West Africa and into Central Africa and remains popular today.

But there’s even more to the story. The 2015 WILPF conference celebrated the organisation’s founding at an International Congress of Women also held in the Hague in April 1915. There, some 1,130 women suffrage activists, from twelve different countries (many of the countries then at war with one another), met to try to stop World War 1. Their governments denied them passports, threatened to jail them—the British government suspended ferry service in the North Sea to prevent these “blundering Englishwomen”, these “Pro-Hun Peacettes”, as they were labelled in the media, from attending.

One month before World War 1 began, delegates from the International Women Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) delivered a Manifesto to all European embassies, and the British Foreign Office, in London. This Manifesto called on governments “to leave untried no method of conciliation or arbitration for arranging international differences which may help to avert deluging half the civilized world in blood.” The delegates came up with a 20 point peace plan. It was printed in English, French and German and addressed to European government leaders and to the US Congress. Copies were sent to prime ministers throughout Europe; in Germany alone, hundreds of copies were sent to politicians, prominent citizens, and civic organizations. The plan demanded a permanent international court of justice; “democratic control of foreign policy”; a delinking of business interests with political institutions; a Society of Nations where member states could settle disputes nonviolently; general disarmament; and the political enfranchisement of women.

Five women, including the influential Dutch activist Dr. Aletta Jacobs, were elected to spend the next few months lobbying foreign ministers and the heads of state of nearly every country in Europe. They had a private audience with the Pope and spoke with US President Woodrow Wilson, who incorporated some of the Women's Congress’s demands in his famous Fourteen Points policy.

The history of one simple blouse can tell a story that spans centuries!

For more on the history of the 1915 Congress, see A. Wiltshire’s Most Dangerous Women: Feminist Peace Campaigners of the Great War (Pandora Press, London, 1985). The Congress’s papers can be seen on-line at www.peacepalacelibrary.nl. For more information about the 2015 conference see www.womenstopwar.org.

24 May 2015

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Hogewoerd 164, 2311 HW Leiden. Tel. +31 (0)71 5134144 / +31 (0)6 28830428   info@trc-leiden.nl

Opening times: Monday to Thursday: 10.00-16.00 hrs, other days by appointment. Holidays: until 11 August

Bank account number: NL39 INGB 0002 9823 59, Stichting Textile Research Centre

Entrance is free, but donations are always welcome !

TRC Gallery exhibition: 12 - 15 August 2019: Out of Asia: 2000 years of textiles

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