Without a woman there would be no Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel was a 19th C. industrialist and self-made millionaire. He did not believe in inherited wealth. He wanted his heirs to make their own way in the world. He did believe in giving back to society, especially through the advance of the sciences and the arts. So, he when he was drafting his will (without lawyers, whom he distrusted, a fact that later caused problems for the executors of his estate), he decided to leave the bulk of his wealth to various institutions that would award prizes to individuals who made lasting contributions in physics, chemistry, medicine (or physiology), and literature. Originally, Nobel had not intended to include a prize for advancing the cause for peace, even though he was worried that wars were growing more destructive and had begun to admire some elements of the 19th C. peace movement. (The Nobel Prize in Economics was not part of Nobel’s original will. It was added in 1968 by the Swedish Central Bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, and is funded by the Riksbank, not by investments from Nobel’s estate. What we call the” Nobel Prize in Economics” is actually The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Honor of Alfred Nobel.) It was Nobel’s friend and former secretary, Bertha von Suttner, who persuaded Nobel to revise his will to include an annual prize for peace–but until his will was read after his death, even she didn’t know he had heeded her advice.
Nobel’s distrust of lawyers made it difficult to follow his dying wishes. First, his relatives contested the will because they wanted the money. Second, Nobel had lived in several countries and it was not clear which country’s courts should get to decide the case. Third, Nobel had not constructed the will in a way that recognized legal parameters. So, it took several years to sort out. He died in 1895. The first Nobel Prizes were not awarded until 1901.
Even after sorting out the legalities and contested claims, the work wasn’t done. Nobel was very clear about which institutions, he wanted to award his prizes, but he was less than clear on the criteria for deciding the winners. Nobel was a Swedish citizen and so most of the awarding institutions are Swedish. The Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and MedicinePhysiology, are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy of the Arts. All 5 of these prizes are presented to the winners (laureates) by the Swedish Royal Family at a ceremony in Stockholm. So is the “Nobel” Prize in Economics awarded by the Swedish National Bank in the name of Alfred Nobel. The case with the Peace Prize is different. During Nobel’s lifetime, Norway had been annexed by Sweden, but there was a move for Norwegian independence. Nobel supported Norwegian independence, but didn’t want a war. He designed his peace prize to support the peaceful separation of Norway and Sweden, but also to support their continued friendship (He believed Scandinavian unity was a good model for an oft-warring Europe) and to support democracy. (Nobel had no problem with constitutional monarchy as long as royal families were strictly ceremonial and did not impede parliamentary democracy.) So, alone among the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize is not awarded by any Swedish institution, but by a 5-member Norwegian Nobel Committee that is created by the Storting (the Norwegian parliament), but is to include no sitting members of the Storting (past members are eligible). It is awarded not in Stockholm, but in the Norwegian capital of Oslø and it is not awarded by the royal family, but by a representative of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of the Norwegian Royal Family.
Most of the leaders of the global peace movement thought that Bertha von Suttner would be the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, not just because of her role in getting Nobel to create the prize, but for other reasons that will be clear below. But the Norwegian Nobel Committee has proven over the years to be more sexist than anyone expected. Of the 101 individuals awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (it has also been awarded to 20 different organizations and no prize was awarded in 19 separate years, most of them during world wars), only 15 have been women–even though far more than 15 women have been major leaders for peace–as belatedly the Nobel Committee itself has acknowledged. (A few of the organizational winners have been represented by women, but not enough to balance out the incredible inadequacy of only 15 female Nobel Peace Laureates.) Further, some of the men who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize have later done things that have brought the Nobel Committee and the Prize into disrespect (e.g., Henry Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, who was the only laureate to decline the prize, Yitzak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and, to a lesser extent, perhaps, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama). By contrast, all of the 15 women listed below have been major peacemakers. They may have some controversial biographical details (in a subject as contested as “peace,” it is not surprising that all of the Nobel Peace Prize winners have been controversial in some respect to someone or some group), but no one supporting nonviolent movements for justice and/or actions for world peace have ever looked at one of the women laureates and said, “What was the Committee thinking?” They have often said that about many of the men.
I would certainly argue that more women deserved this Prize than ever received it. Off the top of my head, I list in no particular order, Dorothy Day, Muriel Lester, Dolores Huerta, Mother Jones, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Noor (Lisa Najeeb Halaby) of Jordan, Anna Howard Shaw, Dr. Aletta Jacobs, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Maria Montessori, Jeanette Rankin, Vera Brittain, Gladdys Muir, Astrid Lungren, Irena Sendler, Dorothy Height, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Deming, Elise Boulding, Sophie Scholl, Simone Weil, Joan B. Kroc, Coretta Scott King, Betty A. Reardon, Ela Ramesh Bhatt, Gro Brundtland, Cora Weiss, Marilyn Clement, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Marian Wright Edelman, Sister Helen Prejean, Elizabeth McAlister, Mary Robinson, Petra Kelly, Kathy Kelly, Betty Bigombe, Amy Goodman, Graca Machel, & Medea Benjamin. That’s not including women who lived before Nobel’s prize was insituted in 1901, nor those who died before they could be honored–although Sophie Scholl and Simone Weil might violate that last (since Nobel’s prize cannot be awarded posthumously). And because my knowledge of global affairs, while arguably better than most Americans’, is nevertheless limited, it leaves out many around the globe. As I said, these just came to me, quickly.
But, despite those caveats, the 15 women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize have been amazing and worthy recipients. Sadly, 3 of the 15 female Nobel Peace Prize Laureates won the same year, sharing the 2011 Prize. The female Laureates are, in chronological order, as follows:
- Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), 1905. Born: Prague, then a part of the Austrian empire, now capital of the Czech Republic. Living at time awarded the Prize: Vienna, Austria. Died: Vienna, Austria. Sole awardee. Motivation of Nobel Committee: “For her long leadership in the movement for peace and global disarmament.” The Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner, née Countess Kinsky Chinic and Tettau was born to the Austrian nobility, but rebelled against her privileged life. Though having been born to the military-nobility caste of Austria, von Suttner joined the 19th C. peace movement and became one of it’s leading voices. She wrote a novel, Die Waffen nieder [i. e., Lay Down Your Arms ], which galvanized the public for demilitarization. She edited a peace journal by the same name and was responsible for organizing for peace throughout Europe. She created and led the Austrian Peace Society and used funds from the sale of her novels (including Lay Down Your Arms) to launch the International Peace Bureau in Berne, Switzerland (which won the Nobel Prize itself in 1910 and whose leadership has produced no less than 14 Nobel Peace Laureates). She had been previously a secretary to the industrialist Alfred Nobel and when he wrote her concerning his plans to draw up his will to use his wealth to fund a series of scientific and literary prizes, Bertha von Suttner persuaded him to create a prize for peacemakers, too. Almost everyone expected her to be the first Nobel Peace laureate in 1901 and by the time she was awarded the prize in 1905, her neglect by the Nobel Committee was so embarrassing that it was hurting the reputation of the still-new Nobel prizes. von Suttner did not rest on her laurels after receiving the Nobel, although she was aging and ill health, she still worked for peace and disarmament and spent the last 2 years of her life (1913-14) trying to prevent World War I–which began 2 months after her death and about whose dangers she had warned for years.
- Jane Addams (1860-1935), 1931. Born: Cedarville, IL, USA. Died: Chicago, IL, USA. Residence at time of award: USA. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her leadership role in the Women’s Peace Conference of the Hague in 1914 and in helping to form the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).” Born to a wealthy Quaker (Friends) family, Jane Addams launched the “settlement house” movement in the USA by forming Hull House in Chicago and virtually creating the field of social work in the USA. A leader in the cause of women’s suffrage and in other progressive causes, Addams was, until 1914, one of the the most famous and admired women in the USA. After the U.S. entered into World War I (1917), Addams’ role in trying to stop it became very controversial and she lost her influence nearly overnight. WILPF was derided during the wave of super-patriotism that swept America during WWI and Addams treated as a traitor (even though Pres. Woodrow Wilson drew most of his 14 Point Peace Plan from the WILPF peace platform!). By 1931, the Nobel Committee wanted to rehabilitate Addams’ image and to draw the U.S. into entering the League of Nations. Addams was already too ill in her last years to go to Oslo, Norway to receive the award. She shared the award that year with another American, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947), President of Columbia University, advocate of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, international arbitration, and leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party–ironically, since Butler was one of those who denounced WILPF and groups like it during WWI.
- Emily Greene Balch (1867-1961), 1946. Born: Jamaica Plain, MA, USA. Died: Cambridge, MA, USA. Residence at time of award: USA. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her long leadership in promoting international peace and human rights, especially as International President of the Women’s International League for Peace with Freedom (WILPF).” Educated as a sociologist (B.A., Bryn Mawr, 1889;M.A., University of Paris, 1891; additional advanced work at Harvard and U. of Chicago; Ph.D., University of Berlin, 1896.), she taught at Wellesley College, rising to the rank of Professor of Economics and Sociology, until her leadership in the peace movement during WWI led to her dismissal from Wellesley in 1917. (Today, Wellesley College has the Emily Balch Peace Institute, which runs Wellesley’s program in peace studies.) Balch’s work with Jane Addams to get neutral countries to intervene to stop WWI made the US government consider her a dangerous radical even before entering WWI. She promoted the League of Nations and disarmament and warned the world of the dangers of fascism and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini before WWII. She became a Quaker although Nazism led her to modify her lifelong pacifism and urge “defense of universal human rights, sword in hand,” but she continued to work toward a postwar peace that would learn from the mistakes of the vengeful “peace” after WWI. She earned a living after her dismissal from Wellesley as a journalist with The Nation magazine. Balch was still considered so radical at the time of she was awarded the Nobel Prize that she received no congratulations from the U.S. government. Like her older friend, Jane Addams, Balch had to share her Nobel with another American: John R. Mott (1865-1955), President of the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs, back when the Y was an evangelical Christian organization), and Chairman of the International Missionary Council, who was awarded the Nobel for his role in promoting peace through Ecumenical Movement of Christianity–who DID receive a congratulatory phone call from the White House!
- Betty Williams(1946- ), 1976. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. Current residence: Florida, USA. Residence at time of Prize: Belfast, Northern Ireland. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her role as Protestant co-founder of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement,” (now called the Peace People Community, the first Protestant-Catholic nonviolent movement in Ireland). Although she left Ireland, Betty Williams continues to work for peace and human rights globally with the bulk of her work aimed at defending the rights of children. She is the founder and head of the Global Children’s Foundation. She shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize with her friend, Mairead Corrigan.
- Mairead Corrigan Maguire (1944- ), 1976. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom where she continues to reside. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her role as the Catholic co-founder of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement.” Later renamed “The Community of Peace People,” this was the first Catholic-Protestant grassroots movement for peace in Northern Ireland. Mairead dedicated her life to nonviolence, has pursued her education further since the Nobel, and has become a global champion of peace and nonviolent activism, travelling to more than 25 countries. She has been a fierce critic of all violence: whether of terrorism, of government war policies (in both the UK and USA), of religions, of men against women, etc. She promotes the “seamless garment” ethic of nonviolence which opposes abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and war, and which works through active nonviolence to promote peace with justice and human rights. She shared the 1976 Nobel Prize with her Protestant friend and co-founder of Peace People, Betty Williams.
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), 1979. Born in Uskup (now called Skopje), Ottoman Empire (now, Republic of Macedonia). Died: Calcutta, India. Residence at time of award: Calcutta, India. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her work in bringing dignity to the world’s poor, especially as founder of the Sisters of Charity.” An ethnic Albanian whose birth name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, this lifelong Catholic woman heard a call to become a nun at age 12. Sent to India in a teaching order with her new name of “Teresa” as a “woman religious,” she eventually founded her own order to work directly with the poorest of the poor, especially those dying of hunger and illness. Her order has built homes and hospices for lepers, orphanages, and nursing homes, not only in India but throughout the world. She used her fame from the Nobel Prize to promote peace, nonviolence, disarmament and redirection of world resources to ending poverty and hunger–but also as a vocal opponent of all abortions. (She infamously lectured then-President Bill Clinton on abortion as guest speaker at a White House prayer breakfast!) She was also a conservative opponent of the ordination of women in Catholicism. In 2003, the Vatican took the first steps toward her canonization as a Catholic saint.
- Alva Myrdal (1902-1986), 1982. Born in Uppsala, Sweden. Died in Stockholm, Sweden. Residence at time of award: Stockholm, Sweden. Motivation of Nobel Committee; “For her dedication and leadership in the work of global nuclear disarmament and global reduction of conventional arms.” Educated as an economist and sociologist, she became one of the founders of the Social Democrat Party of Sweden and became a Cabinet Minister in the Swedish Parliament. Worked in many roles in the United Nations, served as Swedish Ambassador to India, but spent most of her career trying to get nuclear disarmament. Frustrated with both the USSR and the USA, she quit the United Nations over the “game of disarmament.” Founded the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), now a global leader in peace education and research into “what works” to bring peace. During the Cold War, Myrdal sought to spread “Nuclear Free Zones,” by getting non-aligned nations, especially in Europe, to ban nuclear weapons from their soil, thereby putting pressure on the US and USSR to signing and implementing nuclear arms reduction/elimination treaties–NOT just “arms control” treaties that limited the growth of nuclear weapons. Myrdal shared her Nobel Prize with Alfonso Garcia Robles (1911-1991), then Mexico’s Foreign Minister (equivalent to U.S. Secretary of State) who was also a major leader in global nuclear disarmament. Robles had led Mexico to ban nuclear weapons and was working to make all of Latin America a “nuclear free zone.” At the time of the Nobel Prize, he was known as “Mr. Disarmament.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-), 1991. Born in Rangoon, Burma (now called Yangon, Myanmar). Residence at time of award and currently: Burma/Myanmar. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Daughter of Aung San (Burma’s “George Washington,” general who led Burma to freedom from the Japanese), Suu Kyi’s (pronounced “Sue Chee”) mother (Daw Khin Kyi) was Burma’s Ambassador to India after WWII. Her father had been assassinated in 1947, when Suu Kyi was only 2 years old. There Suu Kyi became a follower of Gandhi. Educated at Oxford (B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967) Columbia University, Kyoto University, and the London School of Oriental and African Studies, she dedicated her life to nonviolence, democracy, and human rights. She married Michael Aris, British student of Tibetan civilization, with whom she had 3 sons. 1969-1971, works at the United Nations on the staff of UN Secretary General U Thant. Returning to Burma in 1988, she became a vocal critic of the military regime that ruled Burma since 1962 and founded the National League for Democracy. Her NLD won the elections of 1990, but the generals refused to honor the results and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest (repeatedly, for years at a time). The military regime would have killed anyone else, but one can’t just execute the daughter of country’s national hero! The Nobel Prize gathered world attention and support to Suu Kyi and the cause of Burmese democracy, but only in the 2000s was she released from house arrest. The military government is trying to transition t”for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines”o democracy because of global boycotts and sanctions, but it remains suspicious of too much change too fast. Nevertheless, Suu Kyi is now a member of the Myanmar Parliament as an NLD member. The military government continues to wage war on ethnic and religious minorities (Christian and Muslim) and some have been critical of Suu Kyi’s decision to work within the (not-yet-democratic) system since 2009.
- Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1959-), 1992 Born in Aldea Chimel, Guatemala. Residence at time of award and currently: Guatemala. Motivation of Nobel Committe: “In recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” A Mayan and leader of a women’s group working to end Guatemala’s civil war and for native rights, Rigoberta Menchu was given the Nobel Prize in 1992–the year when much of the world celebrated the 500 years since Columbus “discovered” the Americas, but which indigenous people mourned as “500 years of slavery, racism, genocide, and stolen land.”
- Jody Williams (1950-), 1997. Born in Putney, VT, USA and still lives in Vermont. Jody Williams is founder of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, with which she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Motivation of the Nobel Committee:”For their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines.” The campaign, with the support of many high ranking military leaders, has succeeded in getting a global treaty to ban land mines, but the U.S. has failed to sign it because it would mean removing the landmines in the DMZ between North and South Korea.
- Shirin Ebadi (1947-), 2003. Born in Hamadan, Iran. At the time of the award and currently, she still lives in Iran. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children.” One of the first female lawyers in Iran, Ebadi was the first female judge, but lost her judgeship when the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. She is a champion of the rights of women and children in Iran. The Nobel Committee wanted to champion her work and promote progressive change in Iran, but also wanted to highlight the first female Muslim Nobel Peace Prize Laureate at a time when U.S. President George W. Bush was calling Iran, Iraq, and North Korea “an axis of evil,” and had invaded Iraq earlier that year. Many who would have otherwise celebrated her award, such as Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa, were upset because they believed the Nobel should have gone to Pope John Paul II. Since the pope was dying, this was his last year of eligibility–Nobel’s will forbids posthumous nominations and the only Nobel Peace Prize awarded posthumously went to UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold in 1961, who died in a mysterious plane crash after his winning had already been announced. The Bush administration, of course, objected that even an Iranian dissident should get the award. Ebadi has continued her work for women’s and children’s rights in Iran.
- Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), 2004. Born in Nyeri, Kenya. Died in Nairobi, Kenya–her residence at time of award. Maathai was a grassroots organizer who combined environmental work with work for women’s and children’s rights. Motivation of the Nobel Committiee: “For her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.’ Not only was Maathai the first sub-Saharan African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Nobel Committee also wanted to stress that work for peace, development, and human rights could not succeed without equal commitment to grassroots work to save/preserve the environment.
- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-), 2011. Born in Monrovia, Liberia which is also her current residence and residence at time of award. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Having previously spent a year in prison at the hands of Liberian strong man, General Samuel Doe, and having had her life threatened by former Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, Sirleaf has long been a campaigner for an end to Liberia’s Civil War(1989-2003, with only brief interruptions) and for full democracy and human rights. In 2005, she became the first female president of Liberia and the first president since democracy was restored at the end of Liberia’s terrible civil war. She won reelection to 2nd term in 2012. As president, she has disarmed the rebels, ended the blood diamond trade, worked to heal the child soldiers, and sought to bring back a developing economy to the once-prosperous, country which was impoverished by the long and bloody civil war. Originally an accountant and the mother of 4 sons, she earned an Masters of Public Administration degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In 1997, she ran for President of Liberia and finished 2nd in a field of 13. Sirleaf had worked in several roles in the United Nations. She shared her Nobel Peace Prize with 2 other women: fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, and Yemenese journalist, Tawakkol Karman (see below).
- Leymah Gbowee (1972-), 2011. A Lutheran and mother of 4 who worked in the healing of child soldiers, Leymah Gbowee became co-founder of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in West Africa. By the summer of 2002, she was the leader of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which united Christian and Muslim women in nonviolent direct action (including sex strikes, occupation of soccer fields,prayers and public exorcisms, threats of mass disrobings–shaming the men in this culture, etc.) which pressured both Charles Taylor and the rebels to attend the peace negotiations in Ghana–and to not leave the conference until a peace agreement was signed in 2003. The documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008), tells the story of Leymah Gbowee and the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement. With the end of the Liberian Civil War, Leymah Gbowee earned an M.A. in Peacebuilding and Conflict Studies from Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, VA) in 2007 and learned to work strategically in ways she had previously worked “hit and miss” on instinct. She continues to build grassroots peacebuilding by West African women on an interfaith basis. She also continues her trauma and reconciliation work with child soldiers. In 2012 she used her Nobel Prize money to found the Gbowee Peace Foundation of Africa. She continues to work with the Women Peace and Security Network Africa and the Women in Peacebuilding Network. She worked hard on the reelection campaign of President Sirleaf. She is the author of Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (Beast Books, 2011). She has also served on the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- Tawakkol Karman (1979-), 2011 . Born in Taiz, Yemen. Currently and at time of award resides in Sana’a, Yemen. Motivation of the Nobel Committee: “For their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Karman, a journalist with an undergraduate degree in commerce from the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a and a graduate degree in political science from the University of Sana’a, became the public face of the “Jasmine Revolution” nonviolent revolution in Yemen and part of the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. She is the 2nd female Muslim recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. A Sunni Muslim, she is married to Mohammed el-Nahmi and a mother of 3. She co-founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005. She is also a member of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. She led nonviolent mass protests throughout the Jasmine revolution. She was the first Arab woman and the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her heroes in nonviolence and peacebuilding are Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela (for his work in post-apartheid nationbuilding). Receiving the Nobel Prize helped muster more pressure for the ousting of Saleh and the transition to Yemeni elections. Tawakkol has also continued to be a critic of U.S. foreign policy which values stability over democracy and human rights.
I hope that many more women will be added to these ranks and that the Norwegian Nobel Committee focus on nonviolent peace and justice advocates (female and male) from around the world rather than imperial politicians it wants to influence and/or organizations practicing austerity measures in a time of global recession!
The Norwegian Nobel Committee (appointed, as mandated by Alfred Nobel’s will, by the Storting, or Norwegian Parliament) has announced that for 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize will be shared equally by three (3) women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The Nobel Peace Prize has often been shared by two individuals (or an individual and an organization), rarely by three individuals, and never by more than three individuals.
Each of these women has long been involved in nonviolent human rights struggle, especially for the rights, safety, and well-being of women and children. They have also pushed for women to be treated by nations and international organizations as equal participants in peacebuilding efforts, especially post-conflict peacebuilding. This goes against the long history of women and their concerns being ignored in the normal negotiating process that leads to peace treaties.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-) is the current President of Liberia, the first woman to be democratically elected head of state of any African nation. A Harvard-educated economist, Sirleaf had served as Assistant Finance Minister in the administration of William Tolbert from 1972-1973. Later she was Finance Minister from 1979 to 1980, when the democratic government was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the dictator Samuel Doe. Sirleaf fled the country, one of only 4 members of Tolbert’s cabinet to escape execution, and took jobs with international agencies. She returned to Liberia and was placed under house arrest and had to flee again. At the outbreak of the first Liberian civil war in 1997, she initially supported insurgent leader Charles Taylor’s fight against the dictator Samuel Doe, but later repudiated and denounced him as his war crimes became public knowledge. A second Liberian war raged from 1999-2003. At the end of this, Sirleaf returned to Liberia, supported the transitional government’s de-armament process, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee and efforts to heal returned child soldiers (who had been both victims and victimizers). She ran for President under the new constitution in 2005 and won. Two decades of civil war had left Liberia with no infrastructure, nearly universal unemployment, raging ethnic and tribal animosities, and mountains of debt. Sirleaf managed to get the international community to cancel almost all of Liberia’s debt and has encouraged international investment. Using Liberia mineral wealth, she has restored some of the infrastructure (most of the capital of Monrovia now has electricity and running water, again) and has helped to re-build schools and hospitals throughout the country. She signed into law a Freedom of Information Act, the first of its kind in Africa. But, Liberians, like Americans, think presidents can achieve miracles overnight so Sirleaf is nowhere near as popular at home as she is admired abroad. After all, unemployment remains about 80%! Also, though Sirleaf has waged battle against corruption, it has proven to be difficult to stamp out and several of her cabinet members have been fired for scandals. Further, many believe she should have worked more on reconciliation between ethnic groups and less on rebuilding the institutions of government and the nation’s infrastructure. So, Sirleaf is far from being assured of reelection next month (and she broke a 2005 campaign promise to serve only 1 term if elected). But whether or not she is reelected, the 72 year old Sirleaf is well-deserving of being a Nobel Peace Laureate.
Leymah Roberta Gbowee (b. 1972-) is known as “Liberia’s Peace Warrior.” A mother of six (6) children, Gbowee is a human rights and women’s rights campaigner. Born in central Liberia, she moved to the capital, Monrovia, at 17–just as the first Liberian Civil War broke out! She trained as trauma counselor and worked with the child soldiers of Charles Taylor’s rebel army. Surrounded by death and destruction, Gbowee realized that if the country were to ever have peace, it would have to be mothers who brought it–mothers tired of seeing their dreams for their children shattered by the horrors of war. Gbowee formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in 2002. She organized the Christian and Muslim women of Liberia to pray together for peace and to engage in nonviolent demonstrations for an end to the civil war. Gbowee, a Lutheran Christian, spread her movement to the churches and mosques and they forced a meeting with then-president Charles Taylor, getting him to attend a peace conference held in Ghana in 2002. Together with fellow Lutheran woman Comfort Freeman, Gbowee founded Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), whose nonviolent actions finally brought an end to the Second Liberian War in 2003, the abdication and exile of Charles Taylor, and a transitional government that paved the way for democratic elections in 2005. Wearing white t-shirts (to symbolize peace), Gbowee and the women of WIPNET marched by the thousands throughout Liberia. They formed the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which has been used to spread the women’s peace movement to other African nations such as Sudan (now South Sudan) and Zimbabwe where the women are also using prayer and nonviolent tactics to petition for peace and human rights.
Tarwakkol Karmen (1979-), a Muslim feminist and human rights activist in Yemen, represents the Nobel Committee’s acknowledgement of the “Arab Spring.” She is a journalist by profession and has chafed for years under press restrictions in Yemen’s dictatorship. She is a senior member of al-Islah , the main opposition party in Yemen. In 2005 she founded Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization dedicated to democracy and freedom of the press. As soon as Tunisia’s nonviolent movement toppled its dictator, Karmen pushed for a similar movement in Yemen. Photos of her heroes (Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela) adorn her home. In a country wear most women are forced to wear all-black niqueb, or full head covering, Karmen wears an open-faced head scarf, usually white with flowers, as a symbol of women’s dignity and defiance to the dictator Salleh and the oppressive culture. She insists that Islam itself does not demand the niqeb, but that it is a sign of outmoded patriarchal culture, instead. She has pushed for laws against the wedding of women younger than 17 and against violence against women and children. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Karmen has led in march after march in Yemen’s capital, been arrested and beaten. Her life and the lives of her children have been threatened by the government, but she presses onward. To the nonviolent pro-democracy movement, Karmen is known as “The Mother of the Revolution,”–a revolution that is, at present, incomplete since Salleh clings to power by the use of massive violence against his own people–as he done for 33 years, now. Karmen and her fellow Yemeni nonviolent revolutionaries are undeterred. She has dedicated her Nobel Prize to the entire movement. (Many within the movement have proposed her for president in a post-Salleh Yemen, which would make her the first democratically-elected female leader in any Muslim-majority nation, if it happens.)
Largely because of its longevity and the large monetary awards accompanying it, the Nobel Peace Prize is the most widely recognized and prestigious peace prize –despite ambiguities in Alfred Nobel’s will and oddities in the Norwegian Nobel Committee that have led to some bizarre recipients (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt, Nicholas Murray Butler, Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, & Yitzhak Rabin) and even stranger omissions (e.g., Mohandas K. Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dom Helder Camara, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J.). The committee has too often neglected women. Prior to this year, only 12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize in its over 100 year history. But this year’s prizes are to be celebrated by all who believe in nonviolence, human rights, democracy, and the full equality of women. I look forward to watching the ceremonies in Oslo this December and reading their speeches and lectures. I pray continued success to these brave women and the movements they lead.