9. Short Debate: The importance of Wales's voice in the campaign for peace — Celebrating the hundredth anniversary of presenting the peace petition by the Women of Wales to President Coolidge and Wales's role in speaking up for peace today

– in the Senedd at 6:01 pm on 21 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:01, 21 February 2024


But it doesn't bring our business for the day to an end. We will now move to the short debate, to be introduced by Sioned Williams. For those of you leaving the Chamber—

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:02, 21 February 2024

—if those of you leaving could leave quietly now. Sioned Williams to introduce her debate.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru


So, Sioned Williams to introduce the debate.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru


Thank you very much, Llywydd. Exactly a century ago this month, in February 1924, four Welsh women landed in New York, holding a bouquet of daffodils, a bound memorial containing an appeal for peace, and a petition signed by 390,296 Welsh women. Their goal was to present them to the women of the United States of America, asking them to use their influence to encourage the United States Government to join the League of Nations as a means of avoiding future conflicts, and the horrors of the world war that they had just experienced.

The aim of my debate today is to mark the centenary of this extraordinary campaign and ask what its significance is for Wales today. A century later, the Hawlio Heddwch project explores this question, as well as ensuring that this remarkable story is remembered for generations to come. I would like to thank Ffion Fielding, the Hawlio Heddwch project manager, for her support in preparing this debate, and I will give some time to Carolyn Thomas, Jane Dodds, Mabon ap Gwynfor and Heledd Fychan to contribute as well.

Exactly a century ago to the day, on 21 February 1924, Annie Hughes Griffiths, Mary Ellis, Gladys Thomas and Elined Pryce had a very special appointment with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in Washington DC. They showed him the appeal, the magnificent, beautifully written document bound in Moroccan leather. I would like to quote the last paragraph, which is so powerful, in the original Welsh translation of it, which was made at the time of the appeal, so that it could be read in the language of every household in Wales.

'The future is big with hope if we, as the women of this generation, do our part. To us has come an opportunity as real as the responsibility is grave. We would, therefore, appeal to you, Women of the United States of America, "with malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right" to aid in the effort to hand down to the generations which come after us the proud heritage of a warless world.'

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 6:05, 21 February 2024


The petition, in its oak chest, had already been presented to the women of America at a grand reception at the Biltmore Hotel, in New York, a few days before. However, during their meeting with President Coolidge, the four Welsh women managed to secure a pledge from him that the signatures would be kept in the Smithsonian museum forever, and he was given a copy of the appeal.

The aim of the campaign was to inspire and influence the US Government to play its part in the Permanent Court of International Justice so that international conflicts could be resolved through law rather than through war. The appeal was not one to governments, but to ordinary American women to use their influence, to persuade their Government to join this early attempt to make international law a means of securing peace. And although the campaign attracted a great deal of attention in the press at the time, this campaign was more or less forgotten. And at the Smithsonian, the petition remained in its chest, until 2023.

What, therefore, is the story of the Hawlio Heddwch partnership and campaign that brought the petition and the appeal back to our attention? The work that led to this project began several years ago with the discovery of the beautiful monument in the Temple of Peace, the headquarters of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs charity. But it wasn't until a previous peace heritage project, Wales for Peace, received funding to start exploring these stories, with the help of volunteers, that we started to understand the full impact of the petition. The Welsh women's peace petition was one of several campaigns launched by the Welsh League of Nations Union, which was a sort of a fan club for the principles of the League of Nations. By the end of the 1920s, the Welsh League of Nations Union would become one of the largest membership organisations in Wales, with over 1,000 local community branches and 61,000 members campaigning enthusiastically on international issues of the day. And at a time when the majority of women in Wales did not have the right to vote, the peace petition was one of the very few opportunities that ordinary women had to voice their opinion. Between May 1923 and January 1924, there were 400 petition organisers throughout Wales, coming from all backgrounds, Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike, of all denominations and of every political stripe. There are stories of organisers walking miles just to reach one farmhouse. In total, 390,296 signatures were collected, which is around 30 per cent or one in six of the female population of Wales at the time.

In the years after the memorial was rediscovered, interest in this history grew. A group of women, called Heddwch Nain-Mamgu, started a campaign to remember the history, to find the petition, with the aim of using the petition as a means of engaging people today with issues related to peace and conflict. It was this group that contacted our national institutions—the national library, Amgueddfa Cymru—and thanks to the momentum that they generated, and their complete determination, the project started. Over the next few years, under the co-ordination of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs and the Welsh peace academy, through contacts in Washington, through the research undertaken by members of the Women's Archive Wales, and the determination of individuals, the story was put together. It was quite an achievement.

The big development was when they secured an agreement from the Smithsonian museum not only to support the digitisation of the names, but to offer to give the entire petition back to Wales for further study under the supervision of the national library. And the oak chest and its special contents were welcomed back to Wales in April last year.

At the moment, staff at the national library are working their way through the 33 boxes of petition text, to protect them, to scan them, to catalogue them, tag their locations, and generally tackle a document that would, it was said at the time, reach 7 miles in length from one end to the other.

Hundreds of volunteers have been recruited to help transcribe all the names into a searchable database, which will provide a valuable and unique resource for future researchers, and for us as the citizens of Wales today. Among them there is one very special signature. I didn't expect to find the name of any one related to me on the petition.

My four great-grandmothers were the wives of miners in Rhymney and Fochriw, unable to get an education beyond their primary school, struggling every day to keep the wolf from the door. How would these women have time to consider the big issues of the day, like the importance of international peace? But I was wrong. There was the name of my great-grandmother, Bessie Evans, of Price Street in Rhymney, the grandmother of my father, Philip, the mother of my grandmother, Nansi—the only grandmother I had the privilege of knowing, and who was a huge influence on me in terms of the essence of my politics. She died in 1944, aged 69, and I know quite a bit about her. She took in people's washing to earn a little more money for the family of five. She was a strong woman, big like me, and firm in her beliefs, a faithful member of Ebenezer Twyn-Carno Methodist chapel in Rhymney. Seeing her name together with the names of her two eldest daughters, bopa Miriam and bopa Elizabeth, my grandmother's sisters, was a thrill and, obviously, very emotional.

It was also an important and clear message from the past: the voice of my foremothers calling me through the decades and answering my question. They had signed this petition because they understood entirely that it was ordinary, poor people like them who paid the high price of war, because they understood entirely the importance of society and co-operation, and, through their non-conformist Christian faith, that they had to act, that Wales needed to raise its voice as a nation on the world stage.

The wonderful and proud history of the petition sends a message to us all in Wales today about the importance of action, about the importance of taking a stand, and about the long and proud tradition of Wales, and Welsh women in particular, of speaking out on international issues. We can think of Wales's role in campaigning for the abolition of slavery, and women like Jessie Donaldson from Swansea, who travelled to Cincinnati to set up a safe house for runaway slaves, and the sisters Sarah and Blanche Hilditch who welcomed Frederick Douglass to Wrexham.

I was at a peace march in Swansea recently calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. I marched with women from Swansea who had been at Greenham Common, and co-members of CND. As chair of the cross-party group on violence against women and children, I have written to both our Governments to emphasise the fact that it is women and children who have suffered most as a result of the attacks by Israel on Gaza, and encouraging them to call clearly and publicly for a permanent ceasefire. So, in bearing in mind the history of this petition, why does the Welsh Government not feel that it could do that? It spoke very fluently about the situation in Ukraine yesterday, and I heard two Members state their opinions clearly, so why the silence about the war in Gaza? We shouldn't treat this petition as just a piece of history, without exploring its significance and inspiration today. The reason that the words of the appeal resonate so much is that they are just as important today as they were a century ago. If we do call ourselves a nation of sanctuary, why not a nation of peace?

It's possible to see the petition, of course, as a failure. America did not join the League of Nations, and there was another world war, and wars continue to this day, but the fact is that the desire of so many of our foremothers to seek peace and demand action in the name of peace, is exceptionally powerful in itself and is a clear message to the Welsh Government today.

So, how does the Government intend to ensure that the petition will never be forgotten again, and, beyond the wonderful events and projects that will be held this year to mark the centenary, how will the Government ensure that the impact and message continues to be an influence on us and future generations after the celebrations end in October?

Wales should be proud of its heritage and the role that it has played in leading the work of seeking international peace, and supporting the structures to try and ensure that. How do we ensure that this proud and important tradition continues today?

In an article in The Guardian, Dr Rowan Williams draws a comparison between what the petition says about how the people of Wales were willing to take responsibility and have confidence in their ability to change things, and the work of the commission on the constitutional future of Wales. He says:

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 6:14, 21 February 2024

'It is high time to invest more imaginatively in local deliberative networks and in ongoing civic education—in the hope of nourishing the confidence that inspired Annie and her colleagues, the confidence that what they said and did was capable of changing things, and that those who hold the levers of power can be held accountable by an informed, critical, hopeful public.'

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 6:15, 21 February 2024


Is the Government willing to accept his recommendation, and if so, how can that be realised? What will success look like?

Photo of Carolyn Thomas Carolyn Thomas Labour

Thank you to Sioned Williams for bringing this important short debate to the Senedd, at a time when voices for peace in our communities and political institutions are more important than ever. Wales has a proud history as a nation of peace. We are a nation of sanctuary. The peace petition by the women of Wales is a shining example of that remarkable, enduring Welsh tradition, and I enjoyed reading the display at the Eisteddfod about it last year, celebrating 100 years.

Today we live in a more volatile world than ever before, with technological advances allowing many acts of warfare to be carried out like little more than simulation, but with consequences that are just as deadly as traditional armed conflict. That volatile world necessitates a global chorus for peace, inclusive of this Senedd, which is why our recent vote for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza was so important and, moving forward, it's why we must continue to evoke the spirit of women in Wales and speaking up for peace today and peaceful resolutions.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 6:16, 21 February 2024


Thank you very much, and thank you to Sioned too.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat

Greenham Common, the grandmothers in Argentina, the women in Iran—these are all places and times where women have played a significant role in bringing peace, long-lasting peace. And if we look at research, it shows that women can change the picture of war all over the world. A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the last three decades showed that when women's groups were able to effectively influence the peace process, an agreement was almost always reached. When women didn't participate, the rate of reaching an agreement was much, much lower. I don't need to say that, really, women play such an important role in bringing around peace, and that's what we must celebrate as well as these wonderful women who left Wales.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 6:17, 21 February 2024


Thank you very much to you all.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru


Thank you for this debate, because I remember back in 2007, I gave a lecture in Caernarfon on peace and the history of peace, and Wales has a very proud tradition of peace. And in doing the research, I read about Evan Rees, the first secretary of the Peace Society, back in 1816; the apostle of peace from Tregaron, Henry Richard—a great man of the time; and George M.Ll. Davies, another big character. But quite characteristic of all our history, they were all men, and the women were missing from our history, until, of course, one thought about the sisters of Greenham Common, my mother was one of them, who stood up for global peace, and now this, which has emerged, what you, Sioned, were talking about, namely the sisters who had ensured that this petition was so successful, and had taken it to America to put the case for peace.

So, we have a proud tradition of campaigning for peace here in Wales, and here we see people like Awel Irene, Mererid Hopwood, Jill Evans, Bethan Siân Jones, and so on, pushing that agenda forward, and the peace academy created because of the work undertaken by those sisters. So, that tradition is continuing. I'm so proud of it, and that's why we here in the national Parliament of Wales must continue to stand up for global peace, and to ensure that our Government does likewise and ensures that Wales does stand up for Gaza and Ukraine, as the Government has done today. Thank you, Sioned.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 6:19, 21 February 2024


Thank you, Sioned, for bringing this forward. It is so very important that we do thank everyone who's been involved with this project. But also it reminds us how important our national collections are, and the skills that we have within the national library and so on that allow this project to move forward. We've heard of the threats because of cuts in the national library. We must safeguard our heritage, because there's a powerful link between you personally and that petition —just imagine that every young woman and girl in Wales who has a relative in that petition could discover that, and what that would mean for democracy and this feeling that everyone has power and a voice, whatever their role. It's a powerful message. We must safeguard our heritage because of what it means today, and in the international context, it's crucial that we do understand that we're not just little old Wales—we're a great nation where everyone's voice counts, and that's the power of this petition to encourage us that we must raise our voice now too.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour


Llywydd, thank you very much, and thank you to Sioned Williams and everyone else who has contributed to an important and inspiring debate today. 

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour

Llywydd, I'm looking at a photograph of those four women who took the peace petition across to America. It's at the top of the article that Sioned Williams referred to by Dr Rowan Williams. There they are, the four of them. They are formidable. They are determined looking. And when I first saw the photograph, I knew it reminded me of something, and then I realised it was because I look at them every week across the table at the Cabinet in the Welsh Government. And maybe that is partly because there are direct descendants of those people who were involved. Eluned Morgan's great-aunty Dil was the organiser of the petition in Pembrokeshire, and in the way that Sioned Williams said too, many, many families still today, with this new great resource, will find themselves connected to the actions of that incredible band of women 100 years now ago.

As you've heard, the peace petition was presented to President Calvin Coolidge, 'silent Cal', as he was known as a man of very few words, one of the 16 American Presidents to have Welsh origins. And one of the most moving documents that I've seen in the archive now in Aberystwyth is the women's account of that meeting in the Oval Office in the White House, where President Coolidge reminds them of his own Welsh history and his own Welsh origins. 

Of course, Llywydd, when men and women from Wales went to America in the nineteenth century, they were republicans. They were republicans because they belonged to the great reforming party of Lincoln, who abolished slavery. By the time you get to 1923, Calvin Coolidge himself is a more traditional republican in economic terms, but still a strong supporter of women's suffrage and very stalwart in his support for racial equality. It was his Government that placed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 on the statute book in America, the first Act that guaranteed US citizenship to Native Americans.

He was a man of few words, as I said. He called a press conference to announce that he would not stand again for election as President. When all the press were assembled, the door was locked, and he handed out to each one of them a slip of paper that he then invited them to open. They turned it over and it said on it, 'I do not choose to run for President.' When he was asked if he had anything further that he wanted to add, he simply said 'No', and that was the end of the press conference. So, there are some good lessons to learn, I think, even after all those years.

Now, the peace petition was, of course, a reaction to the slaughter of the first world war, a reaction that was profound all over Europe. The Urdd, which we've heard about already this evening—and I'll say a bit more later on—was itself one of a whole swathe of youth movements founded in the shadow of the slaughter. And here in Wales, of course, it was a non-uniform movement—remember the great youth movements of before the war, the Scouts, the Boys' Brigade, the Guides; they were all uniformed movements—and it was a movement open to young men and to young women. It was part of that great world peace movement.

The peace petition has the same genesis, but the peace movement in Wales, as we have heard, has far deeper roots. In that article by Rowan Williams, he reminds us that Annie Hughes Griffiths's first husband was Tom Ellis, the Liberal MP whose statue is to be found still in Bala, that great lost hope of the Cymru Fydd movement, the direct descendent of devolution and the Senedd today. Before Tom Ellis, and overlapping with him, was indeed that great son of Tregaron, Henry Richard, the apostol heddwch, a man who was the secretary to the Peace Society in the great year of European revolutions in 1848, and became the Member of Parliament for Merthyr.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 6:25, 21 February 2024

The early 1920s were a time of enormous flux. Here in Wales, in 1921 you have the election at the Caerphilly by-election of the first MP who had been a conscientious objector during the first world war. Extraordinary, isn’t it, to think of Morgan Jones, who had spent the first world war imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs, and only three years later was elected as the Labour MP for Caerphilly, and on that peace prospect. There’s a great biography of him by his successor, Wayne David, if colleagues haven’t had a chance to see that. That’s 1921. In 1922 the foundation of Urdd Gobaith Cymru. In 1923 the peace petition, and in 1924 the publication of it at the White House, and publication of one of the first pamphlets produced by the Welsh national council of the League of Nations. That pamphlet is a tribute to and a life of Henry Richard, and is produced by that council, chaired by David Davies Llandinam, Lord Davies, who funded the temple of peace, which we’ve heard about this evening as well. The petitioners and the petition draw on that very rich heritage of Welsh engagement in movements for peace.

But I do think that we ought to pause for a moment, because there is more than one strand in Welsh history too. Just as women from Swansea went to Cincinnati to be part of the freedom trail of slaves in America, so the end of the first world war in Wales was marked by race riots in both Newport and in Cardiff. A war that began, as Aled Eirug says in his book, The Opposition to the Great War in Wales 1914-1918, by showing just how quickly the pacifist tradition of nineteenth-century Welsh nonconformity was overturned in that initial enthusiasm for the great war. There in 1914 the National Eisteddfod was given over to celebrating the entry of the United Kingdom into the great war. St David’s Day that year was given over to fundraising for the war effort. In 1916 the only Welsh person ever to become Prime Minister was David Lloyd George, and he was appointed in order to lead Wales and the United Kingdom through the war. As I say, the war ended as it had begun—it began with Ivor Novello, a native of Cowbridge Road in my own constituency, whose lyrics and song, ‘Keep the Home-Fires Burning’, dominated popular culture in the opening of the war.

‘They were summoned from the hillside, / They were called in from the glen, / And the country found them ready / At the stirring call for men’.

Yes, Wales has a proud history of our investment in movements for peace, but there’s more than one strand in Welsh history, and we don’t do it justice if we simply look away from the fact that, in many places and in many times, the enthusiasm for warfare has also been part of our history.

Llywydd, to return to the main story, as Mabon ap Gwynfor said, if you’re not careful, when you start  talking about this period in our history, you end up talking, as I have done so far, all about men. And yet this was a history of women, out there collecting for that peace petition. So, I want to mention just three women out of many others who could have been mentioned, to mark that wider contribution.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 6:30, 21 February 2024

The Temple of Peace was opened in 1938, so it's less than two years before the outbreak of the second world war. It was opened by Mrs Minnie James of Dowlais, a woman who had lost all three of her sons in the conflict between 1914 and 1918. She said this on the steps of the Temple of Peace:

'In the name of the women of Wales it is my privilege to open the building. I dedicate it to the memorial to those gallant men of all nations who gave their lives in the war that was to end war.'

Well, I think, as Mabon said, it didn't at all, and it didn't within very short order, but that didn't mean that the efforts of the petitioners and the efforts of Minnie James and those who stood alongside her on the steps that day were not serious and significant.

The first woman MP with Welsh connections is often overlooked in our own history. We forget that Edith Picton-Turbervill, who was a Member of Parliament for the Wrekin just across the border in that short Labour Government of 1929 to 1931, came originally from Ewenny Priory in the Vale of Glamorgan. She was from an aristocratic family, but she was a socialist and she was a suffragette and her brief period in the House of Commons was largely dedicated to the pursuit of women's issues. She is probably the first woman from Wales ever to get a piece of legislation onto the statute book, when she promoted and persuaded the House of Commons to pass the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Bill, which successfully abolished the death penalty for expectant women in the United Kingdom.

And, just for a moment—because, as Sioned said, this can be an emotional journey when we think of these lives and what they did and what they meant—I'm going to, just for moment, say something about Mrs Morgan. So, I came to Cardiff in 1979, and, very early in the 1990s, a benign group of magistrates decided that a 12-year-old child called John Morgan needed help, and the help that he got came in the unlikely appearance of me, in my early 20s. I would go, every week, up the many flights of the block of flats on the Hollybush estate in Whitchurch, because John lived with his grandmother, Mrs Morgan, who was as old as the century, and, in her early 80s, she had taken on the care of her grandson. And I wasn't much use to John, I don't think, but I hope I was at least a bit of help to Mrs Morgan, if only because I was an audience for the stories that she was always keen to tell. And when I sat in her front room, there were always two things that she needed to tell me. The first was of her deep and abiding dislike of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I thought I disliked Mrs Thatcher, but Mrs Morgan could outdo me on any week. And the second story that she wanted to tell me was always of how, as a 16-year old, in 1916, she would get on a tram in Cardiff and travel down to the bay to work in a munitions factory as part of the war effort. Mrs Morgan was a suffragette who'd gone on marches in Cardiff, and she was a socialist too. She was absolutely one of those people who you imagine signing that peace petition, and, well into our own lifetimes, those people were still fighting the good fight for the progressive causes that the petitioners themselves had assembled to promote back in the 1920s.

Where does all that lead us to today, Llywydd? Well, it leads us to a Wales that I think does still remain dedicated to the cause of peace, a nation of sanctuary, our future generations legislation, our investment in the Academi Heddwch, with its annual peace lecture, the investment we make in the Taith programme to allow young people from Wales to meet young people from other parts of the world, and to welcome young people from other parts of the world here to Wales. And, of course, the ongoing work of the Urdd. Now, I was lucky enough to go with the Urdd to the Nobel Peace Center in 2022 to celebrate the one hundredth peace message, the message of peace and goodwill from the young people of Wales to the young people of the world. That message reached an astonishing 10 million other people around the world. This year, of course, the Urdd intend the peace petition to be the subject of that annual message in 2024.

Llywydd, I wanted to end with two contrasting stories, both from just the last couple of months. In the autumn of last year, I went to Glynneath. I went to a service, a service that, as the order of service said, was a service to remember and acknowledge the shame and the injustice meted out to Private William Jones during that first world war. One of Kitchener's recruits to the army, a member of the ninth battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, he arrived back at Neath on a journey that nobody could understand and he couldn't account for. He had run away from the war. He was arrested by Welsh people. He was handed over to the authorities. He was—I must think of the right word—he was executed as a deserter in the first world war. He was 17 years old, and, more than 100 years later, and thanks to the fantastic work of that local historian and campaigner Robert King, his name was put on to the memorial there in Glynneath with all those others from that village who had lost their lives in the first world war. There is his commemoration.

Only a couple of months later, a blue plaque was placed in Aberystwyth, a blue plaque to commemorate the work of the petitioners and all those people who they enthused across Wales to put their names to that petition, another side of Welsh history, another side of our relationship with warfare and with peace. There, in a couple of months, the worst and the best of our history. I'm sure that it is the ambition of most Senedd Members that, in our time, and when we have that opportunity, we would like to be on the best side of our history. That's why this short debate has been so worthwhile this afternoon. Llywydd, diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:39, 21 February 2024


Thank you to the First Minister, and to everyone who contributed to that very special debate. Good night.


The meeting ended at 18:39.