I recently received an email from Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo (Ont.) inviting me to attend an exhibit and concert commemorating the life and work of Bertha Von Suttner, the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
I have to admit that I’d never heard of her before, and after doing a little research, I learned that 14 other women have received the prize since its inception. But other than Mother Teresa, I didn’t recognize any of their names either. I know I should be more knowledgeable about international affairs, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in not having a clue about who some of these amazing women are, or the remarkable things they’ve accomplished. In an effort to make amends for my ignorance I’ve compiled a list of the 15 female peace-prize winners, along with some of the history of the prizes themselves.
Nobel prizes have been awarded since 1901 to acknowledge great achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Six years earlier the foundation had been laid for the awards program in the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, engineer, entrepreneur, author, pacifist and inventor who somewhat ironically invented dynamite. A total of 126 peace prizes have been awarded so far, and decisions about who qualifies for a prize are now made by the five-member Nobel Committee which is appointed by the Norwegian Parliament.
The women awarded peace prizes were from many different countries and had different approaches to working for peace. But what they had in common was a deep desire to make the world a better place and a willingness to sacrifice their personal safety and comfort to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, what they also had in common was being derided and marginalized by people in positions of power — sometimes facing imprisonment and often labeled as unpatriotic radicals.
Here’s the list of the 15 female recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize along with a brief description of why they received the award.
Baroness Bertha Von Suttner – 1905 – Czech Republic / Austria
Von Suttner relentlessly fought nationalist fanaticism, aggressive militarism and anti-Semitism. As a writer and lecturer, she inspired her friend and benefactor Alfred Nobel to create a peace prize, and became a recipient of that prize in 1905 for her most famous novel Lay Down Your Arms. She was a passionate pacifist who was quoted as saying the prophetic words: “The next war will be more horrible than any of its predecessors.” World War One began less than two months after her death.
Jane Addams – 1931 – USA
Addams was recognized as a founder of the social work profession. She spoke to diplomats and civic leaders advocating women’s special mission to preserve peace.
Emily Greene Balch – 1946 – USA
Balch was a leader of the Women’s International League For Peace and Freedom. She was recognized for her life’s work for disarmament and peace.
Betty Williams – 1976 – Ireland / United Kingdom
The co-founder of the Community of Peace People, Williams worked for peace in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Mairead Corrigan – 1976 – Ireland / United Kingdom
Co-founder of the Community of Peace People with Williams, Corrigan also worked for peace in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Mother Teresa – 1979 – Albania / India
The founder of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa cared for orphans, lepers and the terminally ill in the slums of Calcutta, India.
Alva Myrdal – 1982 – Sweden
The chairperson of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, Myrdal was recognized as a vocal supporter of nuclear disarmament.
Aung San Suu Kyi – 1991 – Burma
The chairperson of the National League For Democracy, she launched a nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum – 1992 – Guatemala
Tum was recognized for her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous people.
Jody Williams – 1997 – USA
As the driving force in the launch of International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Williams was recognized for her work for the banning and clearing of landmines.
Shirin Ebadi – 2003 – Iran
Ebadi defended people persecuted by the authorities, resulting in her own imprisonment for criticizing her country’s hierocracy. Her focus is on the rights of women and children.
Wangari Muta Maathai – 2004 – Kenya
The first female professor in Kenya and founder of The Green Belt Movement, Maathai encouraged women to plant trees to counter deforestation. She was recognized for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – 2011 – Liberia
Recognized for opposing the Samuel Doe military dictatorship, Sirleaf had her life threatened by former President Charles Taylor. Currently the president of Liberia, she is internationally known as Africa’s Iron Lady.
Leymah Gbowee – 2011 – Liberia
Gbowee (a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.) is known for her role bringing Christian and Muslim women together during Liberia’s civil war.
Tawakkol Karman – 2011 – Yemen
Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains. She is the first Arab woman, and the youngest person, to win a peace prize. She’s been imprisoned numerous times for her pro-democracy, pro-human rights protests and is known as “Mother of the Revolution” and “The Iron Woman.”
These women are heroes and incredible role models in a male dominated world where peace is all too often treated like an inconvenience that gets in the way of political and economic ambitions. Hopefully getting to know something about them will provide a catalyst for changing the way we think about women and peace.
Stephen Jarnick was born in England and grew up in Toronto, Ont. He is the founder of the Peaceworks youth movement, and the producer of the Peaceworks online video series about “Peace & Jesus.” Stephen works for Mennonite Central Committee, Ontario. Follow on Twitter @peaceworkstv, on Facebook, or visit the website. This post provided thanks to our partnership with Red Letter Christians.