Helena Swanwick: a woman of International Law

by | Dec 22, 2016 | Biography | 0 comments

by Sara De Vido

We continue our series of biographies of women in international law with an analysis of the figure of Helena Swanwick by Sara De Vido. During the First World War Helena Swanwick extensively campaigned for peace, and wrote on women’s rights and the system of collective security of the League of Nations.

Name: Helena Maria Swanwick (formerly Sickert)

Date of birth/death: 1864-1939 

Nationality: British

Early life: Born in Munich, Germany, she was the daughter of Oswald Sickert, an artist of Danish nationality, and of Eleanor Louisa Moravia Henry, the daughter of a professional dancer and a fellow of Trinity College. She had three brothers, one of whom was the painter Walter Sickert. When she was four, the family moved to UK, first to Bedford and then to Notting Hill.

Education: She attended the Notting Hill High School, during which she read the Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill. She immediately demonstrated an interest for issues related to women’s rights. She could not accept the way women were treated, indeed, even in her family. She complained that: “[a] boy might be a person but not a girl. This was the ineradicable root of our differences. All my brothers had rights as persons; not I.” Her father refused to pay her fees to enter Girton College, which eventually she attended thanks to the support of her godmother. She then attended the University of Cambridge, where she met her future husband, Frederick Tertius Swanswick, lecturer in mathematics, who was thirteen years older than her. They married in 1888 and moved together to Manchester.

Career: During her life, she was an activist, a suffragist, a lecturer in psychology, economics and sociology, a delegate for the British government, and a journalist. At the turn of the century, she wrote for the up-coming liberal paper The Manchester Guardian, and she became an activist in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Before the First World War, she publicly spoke in favour of women’s political rights. In 1905 she joined the North of England Suffrage Society (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). In 1909 she became the editor of the journal The Common Cause, linked to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, but she resigned after facing some criticisms for her opposition to the Women’s Social and Political Union led by Pankhurst. During the First World War, she became the first woman member of the Union of Democratic Control, she wrote many key pamphlets as well as a history of the union. She was also the editor of the Union’s review, Foreign Affairs. She later became an active member of the Labour Party, and she sometimes joined the Labour Party advisory committee on international questions. She was also part of the 1929-1931 Labour British Empire’s delegation to the League of Nations. She was later criticized for her position with regard to Nazism. She was convinced that German aggression was due to the uneven treatment Germany had received at the end of the First World War and she supported the appeasement policies of the right wing national government. She underestimated the danger posed by Hitler. After the outbreak of the Second World War, deceived by the destruction of her dream for peace, she committed suicide in 1939 at her home in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Honours: She was made a Companion of Honour in 1931.

Contributions to international law

Swanwick has been considered a pioneer in the field of international relations, but she also contributed to international law as well. In particular, she outlined some examples of State Practice, which paved the way for the evolution of international customs in the 20th Century. Her scholarship were hence a precursor to the development of international law.

Firstly, in the field of the resolution of disputes, Swanwick joined the assumption of many commentators at the beginning of the twentieth century according to which the role of physical force was in decline and was used less in the resolution of disputes. It was this statement of practice that led to the affirmation of the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes in international law.

Secondly, on the prohibition of the use of force and the system of collective security, she criticised the provisions included in the Covenant of the League of Nations that contemplated the use of force in a system of collective security. Notwithstanding the criticism, she believed in the League of Nations as a new order capable of avoiding international anarchy. She abhorred war, which she considered to produce the worst consequences on civilians, especially women and children.

Thirdly, on State compliance, Swanwick was aware of the fact that States had not respected international legal obligations for centuries. She was convinced that peace could have been achieved by attitudes of mindfulness more than by the language of obligations. Here we can recognise the germination of the theories on moral suasion and network regulation at the international level.

Fourthly, she anticipated further feminist studies on the impact of war on women. She particularly stressed the fact that women during war do much of what is regarded as men’s work. War let women work beyond domestic walls and show their capabilities. As she said: “[t]he other kind of women are, through the war, becoming good ‘copy.’ But women have not suddenly become patriotic, or capable, or self-sacrificing; the great masses of women have always shown these qualities in their humble daily life. Now that their services are asked for in unfamiliar directions, attention is being attracted to them, and many more people are realising that, with extended training and opportunity, women’s capacity for beneficient work would be extended” (The War in its Effect upon Women). She believed that women could have played a key role in the prevention of armed conflicts.


Selected Publications

  • The Small Town Garden (1907)
  • The Future of Women’s Movement (1913)
  • The War in its Effect upon Women (1916)
  • Women in the Socialist State (1921)
  • Builders of peace: being ten years history of the Union of Democratic Control (1924)
  • Frankenstein and His Monster: Aviation for World War Service (1934)
  • I have been young (1935) – autobiography
  • Collective Insecurity (1937)
  • The Roots of the Peace (1938)


  • L.M. Ashworth, ‘The Lost Feminists of Interwar IR Theory: Helena Swanwick and the Women of the Twenty Years’ Crisis,’ Limerick Papers in Politics and Public Administration 2008, No. 2
  • Jose Harris, ‘Swanwick, Helena Maria Lucy (1864-1939),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Groan Bell, ‘Helena Swanwick’. In: H. Josephson (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders, (Greenwood, Westport-London 1985), pp. 925-927.


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