Shortly after the Second World War began in 1939, women in Ontario organized their local sewing circles into the Nonresistant Relief Sewing Organization. In describing the humanitarian assistance and moral support given to conscientious objectors in camps and war sufferers overseas, secretary Clara Snider said: “We are representing a common cause and stand for the same principles. . . . United we stand, divided we fall.”
American Edna Ramseyer, writing in 1943, reflected a similar desire that women be included in the discourse on nonresistance and conscientious objection. She asked: “Have you ever wished that you could prove your convictions on peace and war as your boyfriend, husband, brother, or son has? . . . Girls and women of the Mennonite church groups! Our Christian responsibility, to our God, the world, the church, our boys . . . is tremendous. The challenge is before us; the projects await us; the question is, do we as girls and women want to serve?”
These Mennonite women were not called up to serve their country militarily, but they nevertheless chose to identify as conscientious objectors and to provide an ‘alternate service’ to their country and to humanity. Indeed, they served voluntarily while Mennonite men were required to provide service to the state in eras when military conscription was enacted. And while men were confronted with the question of what they ‘would not do’ during war, women considered what they ‘would do’ in the midst of conflict. What they did was offer a ‘positive peace’ in the form of material and moral relief and service to those who suffered from the violence of war.
Mennonite women, and others from historic peace churches, expressed their conscientious objection in both world wars of the twentieth century by providing material relief and voluntary labour, both to their own men in work camps for conscientious objectors (COs) at home and to war sufferers overseas. During the Second World War, a church-administered work program for COs in the United States called Civilian Public Service (CPS) drew women into labour as nutritionists, nurses, cooks and other roles within the 151 CPS camps established across the country.
In Canada, the Alternative Service (AS) work program for COs was government-run, and so women were not as involved in the camps. Yet Canadian women declared a pacifist stance by sending care packages and letters to their own sons and husbands in AS camps and by entering paid employment in order to support their families in the absence of male wages.
Mennonite women’s organizations across Canada and the United States prepared clothing, bandages, food and other relief goods to be sent directly overseas and held sales and other events to raise money to support organizations engaged in wartime relief. Relief workers in England suggested that women in Canada and the United States adopt the slogan “Non-Resistant Needles Knitting for the Needy” to underscore the “magnificent opportunity” that their work represented. A 1940 report on Mennonite Central Committee’s relief clothing program for war sufferers in Europe described the relationship between relief and peace thus: “In the face of war’s havoc there is need for a positive testimony of peace, love, and compassion toward the suffering.”
The voluntary ‘positive peacemaking’ of women was literally embodied as numerous young women went overseas themselves, during and after the war, to work in orphanages and refugee centres and to distribute food and clothing. Arlene Sitler of Ontario was one woman who took up this opportunity: she affirmed the material relief provided by Mennonite women, suggesting that through their giving “the bonds of peace and Christian fellowship may become stronger throughout the world.”
Women continued to demonstrate a ‘positive peace’ in the decades after the Second World War, volunteering for overseas relief work or domestic voluntary service in high numbers. Between 1940 and 1970, for example, nearly twice as many Canadian women did service with MCC as Canadian men (Epp-Tiessen, 63). Moreover, during the Vietnam War draft in the U.S., when most of the 89 men in MCC service in Vietnam were there to perform the required alternative service duty, 39 women were there completely voluntarily. Women have also demonstrated a keen commitment to active nonviolence through their participation in Christian Peacemaker Teams.
If notions of Mennonite nonresistance, as expressed by male church leaders, shifted from a passive to an active pacifism in the latter part of the twentieth century, it could be argued that such a shift had already been anticipated in the words and actions of Mennonite women.
Marlene Epp is professor of History and Peace & Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.
Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.