Emily Greene Balch, a member of the first generation of American women to attend college in significant numbers, had three ground-breaking careers: social reform, the teaching of economics at Wellesley College, and international political activity.
Of Old New England stock, she would devote her life’s work to the coming of “an age in which the unlikeness of other races will be conceived as much of an asset as the unlikeness of wind and string instruments in a symphony.”
Born in 1867 to a prosperous family of liberal Unitarian persuasion, Balch grew up in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with a belief in dynamic good will, hard work, and hope as a discipline as well as a theological virtue. She recalled late in life: “When I was about ten, a prosy old Unitarian divine was followed at the Unitarian Church by Charles Fletcher Dole. His warm faith in the force that makes for righteousness became the chief of all the influences that played upon my life. He asked us to enlist in the service of goodness whatever its cost. In accepting this pledge, I never abandoned in any degree my desire to live up to it.”
She received her A.B. in Greek and Latin as a member of Bryn Mawr’s first graduating class in 1889. The faculty, discerning in her extraordinary beauty of moral character, awarded her their highest honor, the European Fellowship. This allowed Balch to study poverty alleviation policies for a year at the Sorbonne, an experience she found disappointing because her research never brought her into contact with poor people themselves.
On her return from Paris in 1892, Balch was determined to join the emerging female social reform movement in Boston. In that year, she founded Boston’s first settlement house, Denison House in Jamaica Plain, where she lived for several months as its head. During that time, she began what would become a lifelong friendship and working relationship with Jane Addams.
After working as a reformer for a few years, Balch decided she would be of greatest use to the social reform movement as a teacher who might instill the social reform drive in the growing numbers of women attending college. To prepare for a college teaching career, she studied at the Harvard Annex (later called Radcliffe), the University of Chicago, and at the University of Berlin for one year.
In 1900, Balch began her 18-year career at Wellesley with a course in sociology. Her subsequent courses reflected an interdisciplinary approach to economic issues, combining politics, philosophy, sociology, and gender—courses reflecting her own practical experiences as a reformer.
In the early twentieth century, many Americans favored immigration limits for Slavic Europeans. Balch combined a settlement worker’s interest in immigrants with academic discipline. In 1904-5, she took a sabbatical and lived in Austria-Hungary and in Slavic neighborhoods in the United States in order to research the conditions of Slavs in the “Old” and “New” worlds. In order to complete her research, she took an additional year’s leave from Wellesley without pay. While in Austria-Hungary, her politics became more radical. Of her decision to become a socialist, she wrote, “It was in Prague, in 1906, that one unbearably bleak winter morning, I saw a man fumbling with his bare fingers in an ash barrel in search of something to eat. Heaven knows I had seen enough of misery, actual starvation in 1893 (in Boston)…but the bare fingers in the icy ashes were somehow final.” Balch’s years of research resulted in her major work, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (1910). The Dictionary of American Biography noted that “the book was unique not only in presenting the firsthand viewpoints of immigrants but also in countering the nativist racial assumptions of her society.” In 1913, Balch became Wellesley’s chair of the Department of Economics and Sociology.
Balch was an outspoken, active pacifist throughout the First World War. She joined the American delegation to the International Congress of Women at The Hague (1915). She met with President Woodrow Wilson and unsuccessfully attempted to gain his support for the ICW’s plan for continuous mediation as an alternative to battle.
In 1918, Balch was dismissed from the Wellesley faculty—ostensibly for her long absences on behalf of the ICW, but in fact for her anti-war views. Balch was nevertheless soon finding worthwhile outlets for her commitment and purpose. She began writing for The Nation and, in 1919, founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with Jane Addams. As a WILPF member, Balch contributed to the first public criticisms of the Versailles Treaty. Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee, would later state, “It would have been wise to listen to what the women had to say. But there were few who would pay any attention.” As a key builder of the WILPF, Balch championed the inclusion of minorities, the expansion of the member nations and the democratization of the WILPF’s structure.
Her accomplishments and interests reflect a broad interest in world and human affairs and an abundance of energy. She organized the third International Congress in Vienna in 1921. In that year, she became a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), in part because of its unwavering pacifist philosophy. She was a supporter of peace education at several of the WILPF’s summer schools. In 1926, under a special mission for WILPF, she traveled to Haiti to investigate conditions there. At the time Haiti was occupied by U.S. Marines. The committee’s report, written mostly by Balch, recommended the withdrawal of American troops and self-government of the Haitian people. She was the first to propose internationalization of Antarctica, which came to pass. It was said of her that “she had a talent for enlisting the cooperation of diverse individuals and groups in the cause of peace.”
She continued to press for greater acceptance of refugees into the 1930s. Her book Refugees as Assets (1930) was an argument for U.S. acceptance of refugees from Nazi Germany for economic, cultural as well as humanitarian reasons. She personally helped dozens of such refugees relocate to the United States.
As the 1930s progressed, Balch spoke out against the growing trend of isolationist politics in the U.S., “The national group as an enlarged ego should have many-sided concerns and functions including that of giving expression to impulses of a generous ‘idealistic’ and non-self-regarding kind.”
Deeply disturbed by Hitler’s Germany, she reluctantly made an exception in her pacifist position and supported U.S. involvement in the Second World War. She explained: “A small barking dog cannot stop a dashing train…Fascism and national socialism today can be destroyed only through means which are capable of impressing the brutal men of fascism and national socialism…We women pacifists have come to recognize this…without even for a moment, becoming untrue to our pacifist convictions.”
Writing in 1942 to Rabbi Wise, president of World Jewish Congress, upon first learning of the mass murder of Jews in Europe, she wrote, “Those of us who are not Jews are oppressed by a sense of our own responsibility for we too are guilty. We are all answerable in part for the development of a state of things where the moral insanity of Hitler’s Germany was possible. And for a state of things where the civilized world can find no better way out than competition in reciprocal slaughter and destruction. We were not ready in time with any other method than this slow and cruel one.”
For her extraordinary contributions to world peace, she became the third woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. Her close friend Jane Addams had been the second (the first was Bertha von Suttner in 1905). In her Nobel acceptance speech, she said, “We are not asked to subscribe to any utopia or to believe in a perfect world. We are asked to equip ourselves with courage, hope, readiness for hard work and to cherish large and generous ideals.”
Although she had many friends, she insisted on living alone and never married. As one of America’s first career women, she deeply regretted missing the experiences of marriage and motherhood. Of her personal life she wrote, “In the midst of the unbroken and serene content of my life, I know that I still have been shut out except in imagination and sympathy from the most human and deepest experiences…the most simply primitive human gift, the deepest reach of life, I have not.”
In her old age, lack of money forced her to live in a nursing home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She remained intellectually active, and was in close and constant contact with a loving extended family and a supportive network of friends. She died in Cambridge in 1961 at the age of 94.
The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Gunnar Jahn, in awarding Emily Greene Balch the Nobel Peace Prize, stated, “She has shown that the reality we seek must be won through hard work in the world in which we live, but she has shown us more than this; that one does not become exhausted and that defeat gives new courage for the struggle to those who have within them the holy fire.”
In 1996, Wellesley College, the Jamaica Plain Unitarian Church, and the International League for Peace and Freedom jointly held commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
— By Heather Miller, Writer and Editor
The American Unitarian Association
the Seventh Annual Unitarian Award
in recognition of distinguished service
to the cause of Liberal Religion
to Emily Greene Balch
Economist, sociologist, poet, teacher and humanitarian, she has devoted a lifetime to crusading for civil liberties, interracial brotherhood, social and civic righteousness, and world peace.
During her years as Professor of Economics and Political and Social Science at Wellesley College, she began her efforts in behalf of world peace, and in 1915, with Miss Jane Addams, founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which she is presently honorary International President.
Her constructive statesmanship, her intellectual leadership, her work for the League of Nations and the United Nations Organizations have spanned the continents of the world, and in 1946 she was co-recipient with John R. Mott of the Nobel Peace Price in recognition of her “contribution to the benefit of mankind.”
Miss Balch’s Unitarian background, her present Quaker and Unitarian affiliations, her religious insights and her contagious faith that men of good-will can fashion peace, make it especially appropriate that she be honored by the Association at this particular time. Namely, the fortieth anniversary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the General Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women, and the critical year in history when the quest for peace in a nuclear age demands recognition and encouragement.
May 2, 1955
“Those about her, from her, shall read the perfect ways of honour.”
Frederick May Eliot
Lawrence C. Brooks
Chairman of the Board of Directors
Fred A. Brill
Chairman of the Award Committee
“Vision of a Vast Brightening Field”
by Emily Green Balch
Acceptance speech upon receiving the above award
We are told that the young men see visions, but visions come also to the old.
I see a vision of a vast brightening field ready for the harvest. I believe we are at the opening of a wonderful amazing era for the growth of all that Unitarianism stands for, of nobler and deeper thinking and of spiritual growth. I see a world of liberal religion, not just Unitarian, but of something much wider than that.
Hosts are, I believe, ready, not only among those whose background is Christian but among Buddhists and Mohammedans and in the East generally, and certainly not least in the world of physical science. We need to awake ourselves and to kindle a contagious fire of zeal for the beautiful possibilities which God opens to human life.
My reason tells me we have seen the last of the world’s great wars. In our hands lies a kind of prosperity we have little dreamed of. We do not dare let ourselves realize what is possible. The time has come to break down the dikes and let the healing waters flow over us. I see in us, young and old, the seed of the world that is to be.
An Exploration of the Infinite
by Emily Greene Balch
IT IS COMMON TO SAY, “I do not believe in a personal God,” but this simple statement needs definition. What does “personal” mean?
I believe in a personal God; but perhaps my belief is compatible with that of many of those who say they do not.
By a personal God, I mean a being not limited by the attributes of human persons, but a being whose nature is not less than personal. I mean a being adequate to the cosmic immensities of space and power but one, also, certainly not inferior to the intelligence of the greatest intellect we can imagine and not poorer than the purest and strongest love and goodness. How this is possible is difficult to explain or even conceive, but I believe I find evidence of the reality of such a God—the God of the astronomer and the God of the saint. This evidence is what teachers call the “inner light.”
Another common position is denial of the possibility of “the supernatural.” Like the word “personal” this needs definition. Few “intelligent” or “educated” people today believe in miracles in the old sense. In another sense we may well say that we not only live in the midst of continuous miracles but are miracles ourselves.
Whether this miracle is “supernatural” depends on what we mean by supernatural and what it would be to be above or beyond it.
To a modern mind, it is inconceivable that anything can be contrary to reason, inconsistent with experience or involving a self-contradiction in the universe.
For our own fathers to sit and enjoy music being sung on the other side of the planet would have seemed to call for a supernatural explanation. Yet without even connecting wires the “wireless” brings this about.
To our fathers, the facts that we know about radioactivity and the transformation of elements would have seemed contrary to the law of nature, yet we have had to widen our conceptions to accept these novel revelations of research.
In the field of “psychic” experiences, scientific minds are no longer content with a universal denial but endeavor to investigate them as objectively as any other problem. There is much sober evidence in the field of telepathy or paraphysical perception of which Professor Rhine, at Duke University, is trying to test certain aspects.
As the Curies were baffled by something in their results that did not tally with their equations, so in the curious and often sordid world of mediums, spiritualists and all this tribe—a world clouded with deliberate fraud as well as with emotional states of mind and other deceptive influences—it is by no means clear that there is not a residue which accepted explanations do not cover.
Science suffers whenever there is a refusal to face evidence or accept results, however revolutionary.
There is, however, one thing of which modern man is sure: however much he may have to modify his idea of what is possible in this strange and complex world, he will not have to admit as an explanation for things any type of supernatural causation that is inconsistent with the whole orderly universe.
If Messiah should arise bodily from death, it would mean there was more for us to learn in our efforts to understand than we had expected. It would not overthrow any truth that we had ever truly reached, whatever adjustment our thought might have to make.
Thought and will and emotion, as we know about them, are bound up with the brains and nerves. They are as physical as a beefsteak.
Yet the courage which a beefsteak may help to refresh in an exhausted man is not to be explained in physical terms alone.
Thought and will and emotion are as different, when experienced, as a toothache felt is from a toothache described. Scientific knowledge, however far it is carried, does not even tend to make known to us aspects of facts as experienced. There are worlds with which science does not deal, the world of values being one.
To speak for myself, most of what is commonly called supernatural I believe to be superstition and unreality. But to affirm that nothing is supernatural, in a sense which would limit reality to these dimensions of experience that are all we, in a scientific sense, know, would seem to me “brash” in the extreme. Let us beware of positing barriers in a world as yet so incompletely understood.
— The following article was published in The Christian Register of the American Unitarian Association following the celebration of Emily Greene Balch’s 85th birthday.
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Randall, Mercedes M. Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch. New York: Twaine Publishers, 1964.