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Stiehm: Illustrating paths toward peace in times of war

By Jamie Stiehm - | Mar 14, 2024

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Jamie Stiehm

Accepting the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy dedicated his Oscar to “the peacemakers” in our post-atomic bomb world.

That struck a chord close to home. My mother wrote the book on women peacemakers.

An Austrian aristocratic novelist. A Guatemalan indigenous peasant. A Pakistani girl. The Chicago founder of the settlement house movement. These are four heroines who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this winter of two cruel wars, waged by Russia in Ukraine, and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza after a brutal Hamas attack, we may find timely wisdom in “Champions for Peace,” the book by Judith Hicks Stiehm.

I’m not my mother, but the next best thing. She is an author and professor. Hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, she and my father live in Santa Monica.

For openers, more women have won the Peace Prize than any other Nobel Prize, about 20 over the years. Her book on 15 winners shows, by brief biographical stories, myriad ways to further peace in one’s community and nation, such as planting trees in Kenya or marching for peace in Northern Ireland.

Common traits among all are vision, courage and gumption. They did not follow orders. They saw a flaw in their worlds they felt they could fix. Peace work does not require an advanced degree but the ability to inspire others.

Before touching on early winners such as Chicago great Jane Addams, founder of Hull House on Halsted Street, it’s sad to note that in recent years, Nobel Peace laureates were subject to violence and prison.

Young Malala Yousafzai was shot on a bus by a Taliban gunman during her vocal campaign for girls’ education in Pakistan. The teen won the Nobel Prize — awarded in Oslo, Norway — a decade ago and went on to study at Oxford University.

In 2018, Nadia Murad was honored as a crusader for survivors of genocide and sexual violence, which she suffered at the hands of ISIS. A member of a religious minority in Iraq, the Yazidi, she spent a nightmarish three months in Islamic State (ISIS) captivity.

Like Murad, the 2023 laureate, Narges Mohammadi, is a human rights leader. That is treacherous terrain in Iran. As I write, she is in prison, possibly on a hunger strike, for speaking out on women’s social station. “Defamation of authorities” is one charge against her.

The first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize was a Viennese baroness, Bertha von Suttner, who cut a swath in high society. In the late 19th century, Von Suttner wrote a bestselling anti-war novel, “Die Waffen Nieder!” (Lay Down Your Arms!) Among its admirers were Leo Tolstoy and Alfred Nobel, the wealthy inventor of dynamite.

Von Suttner won the Nobel Prize in 1905. Ironically, she died days before World War I broke out in 1914. Known as the Great War, its tragic trenches claimed a generation of British, French and German young men.

In sharp contrast, Rigoberta Menchu Tum was born to poverty in a Mayan Indian mountain village in Guatemala. Her family worked as peasants on a plantation. She began this backbreaking work at 10, sustained by a sense of belonging, with village rituals and her mother’s healing arts.

Civil war and military death squads tore her family apart. Three were murdered. In exile, Menchu told her life story of oppression to a Paris anthropologist.

A memoir, “I, Rigoberta Menchu,” reached thousands. She became a Nobel Prize Winner in 1992. Four years later, she played a part in establishing Peace Accords with human rights resolutions.

A staunch pacifist even during World War I, Jane Addams came under fire for her philosophy. She won the Peace Prize late in life, in 1931, too frail to travel.

Acting on social democracy ideas, Addams set up Hull House as a free city lighthouse for classes, art, a library, a band, a gym. In that year, 1889, when she was only 29, Chicago was a teeming mosaic of immigrants.

Benny Goodman, “king of swing” music, learned to play the clarinet at Hull House.

My mother’s profound message speaks clearly. We all share “the responsibility and a capacity” to help bring social change. It’s not an impossible dream.

The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.


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