“The Subject of America”

“I wish to dwell for a moment on the subject of America,” said Bertha von Suttner in her acceptance speech for the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize. “This land of limitless opportunities is marked by its ability to carry out new and daring plans of enormous imagination and scope, while often using the simplest methods. In other words, it is a nation idealistic in its concepts and practical in its execution of them. We feel that the modern peace movement has every chance in America of attracting strong support and of finding a clear formula for the implementation of its aims.”

Bertha in New York City

Bertha had every reason to be optimistic about both the United States and its role in the global peace movement. During a three-week trip to America in 1904, she met with various leaders of the pacifist movement and came away especially impressed by the forward progress of women on such issues as suffrage and the abolition of slavery. On a subsequent visit in 1912, she told a large audience in San Francisco, “When people speak to me of the future, I tell them, ‘Go to America and look at the future, for there it has already arrived. They are fifty years ahead of us ethically.’” 

Bertha compared the United States of the early 1900s to Europe and saw stark contrasts. “Alarm is general everywhere,” she said of her home continent, “and no one can give a rational cause. In America, the reverse is true.” She noted achievements in welfare and civil rights before observing that “in my city (Vienna), they are putting guns into the public schools and making the curriculum less and less liberal, more and more militant.”

Sadly, the United States today more closely resembles Europe in those anxious years prior to the start of World War I. Patriotism and militarism go hand in hand, and every national holiday now seems like an excuse to exalt the armed forces and celebrate physical strength over moral and ethical spirit. The lust for vengeance supersedes rational justice; guns are a fetish. Political parties work toward their own preservation, often at the expense of the people’s will. 

Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States, a commemoration of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. In essence, it signaled the birth of a new nation and a radically different form of government. “If the United States has a mission,” Bertha observed in 1912, “it is to develop the principle of the Brotherhood of Man into a living, palpable force.” True to her lifelong calls for disarmament, she ventured a step farther. “The one half of humanity that has never borne arms is today ready to blaze into this living, palpable force. Perhaps the Universal Sisterhood is necessary before the Universal Brotherhood is possible.”

Bertha was an honored guest at San Francisco’s Century Club during her 1912 visit.

On this Independence Day, I find myself, like Bertha as she approached her 70th birthday, still clinging to the promise of a better world. The greatness that she once saw in America seems, sadly, almost unrecognizable now, especially in light of recent events that threaten to reverse the country’s progress on human rights. The struggle for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” continues to be just that—a struggle. Even so, I find strength in her enduring spirit and in her faith in the American dream. Our work toward its realization continues.

A Place at the Table

As friends and families around the United States gather together for their Thanksgiving dinners today, many (according to a plethora of trendy newspaper stories) dread the sort of political discussion that raises the risk of appetite loss and/or indigestion. I recall holidays at home with my own family and my mother’s requests that I refrain from bringing up subjects such as nuclear disarmament or gay rights at the table. She, too, would remain politely silent despite the antagonistic comments of others. One in particular, an offhand remark that doctors shouldn’t treat people with HIV/AIDS because they deserve to die, still burns in my heart.

“The Dinner Table” by Judy Chicago, 1979

With that in mind, my Thanksgiving morning this year was spent reading about Judy Chicago and the various women commemorated in her installation, “The Dinner Table.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the masterpiece, widely regarded as a cornerstone of feminist art. When asked about what had inspired her, Chicago recalled an actual dinner party she had attended in 1974: “The men at the table were all professors,” she said, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.” 

The artist Judy Chicago

For centuries, women had no “place at the table” when it came to political discourse. Chicago’s imaginary banquet hall features a triangular table with 39 place settings for influential female figures. The contributions from an additional 999 women are honored with names inscribed on “The Heritage Floor.” These women, Bertha von Suttner among them, represent the foundations upon which feminist progress was built.

Though Bertha was invited to numerous international parliamentary conferences during her lifetime, she attended only as a guest, since governmental business was the nearly exclusive province of men. (Royalty allowed for some rare exceptions.) Likewise, in political discussions of the day, her viewpoints and ideas were often summarily dismissed solely because she was a woman. This explains why she, along with many other female writers of her time, used a gender-neutral pseudonym, “B. Oulotte,” when publishing her early political and philosophical essays. (Bertha’s nickname in the Suttner household was “Boulotte,” which roughly translates to “Fatty.”) For her landmark book The Machine Age, Bertha went by the name “Jemand,” the German word for “someone” or “anyone.” As she explained in her Memoirs: “I was afraid that if the book were signed with a woman’s name, it would not reach the readers for whom it was expressly designed, for in scientific circles there remains so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers.” 

The International Congress of Women held in Den Haag, the Netherlands, in April of 1915

This Thanksgiving, we should feel grateful for the progress made over the past century, not only in women’s rights but in the rights of other previously silenced and marginalized peoples. Much hard work remains. Even so, our holiday dinner-table conversations can build upon that progress and inspire us to learn how the voices of yesterday helped to lift up our voices today.