Emily Greene Balch was a social worker, reformer, peace activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (1946) for her lifelong work for disarmament and peace.
She was born after the Civil War on January 8, 1867 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts to Francis V. and Ellen (Noyes) Balch, the third daughter, weighing 8 ½ pounds.
She entered Bryn Mawr in 1886 and graduated with honors three years later, attending college at a time when few women did. She had hoped to study and work in the field of literature, but pursued a desire to improve social conditions.
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 was influenced by Charles Booth's Life and Labor of the People in London, Sue Walter Besant's All Sorts and Conditions of Men, Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, and the Fabian Essays.
She studied Latin and Greek, spoke French, German and Italian. She loved words, the arts; paintings, sculpture, and architecture but also crafts such as pottery, furniture, weaving.
Balch had a gift for creation and made colored pastel drawings of European and New England landscapes, "irises and reeds on a riverbank, a clump of ferns, acorns, flowers, pinecones, snowflakes out of a faery world."
In 1896, she joined the faculty of Wellesley College, becoming a professor of sociology and economics in 1913.
There she developed courses in economic history, immigration, and social pathology, and took her students on field trips to introduce them to the realities of immigrant neighborhoods, sweatshops, and union halls.
She became involved with movements for women’s suffrage, racial justice, control for child labor, and better wages and conditions of labor. Due to her outspoken views and radicalism, Balch’s contract with Wellesley was not renewed after 1918. She was 52 years old and without a job.
While she was not a member of Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, in 1915 she became a member of the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation in Stockholm, for which she authored the International Colonial Administration.
She authored Public Assistance of the Poor in France.
“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.”
She helped found Boston's first settlement house, Denison House. She founded the Women’s International Committee for Permanent Peace, later known as the Women’s International League for Peace of Freedom (WILPF), prepared peace proposals for warring nations, urged Scandinavian countries and the Russian government to initiate mediation, and collaborated with Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton in writing Women at The Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results (1915).
She relinquished her involvement with WILPF in 1922, but when the League was hard pressed financially in 1934, she again acted, without salary, as international secretary for a year and a half. It was to this WILPF that Balch donated her share of the Nobel Peace Prize money.
In 1926, under a special mission for WILPF, she traveled to Haiti, then occupied by U.S. Marines, leading a delegation of six "disinterested Americans," two African-American women, three white. The mission resulted in the publication of Occupied Haiti.
She was better known for her involvement in activist movements for racial justice, women’s suffrage, child labor, working conditions, fair wages, and, in particular, the pursuance of peace.
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.
In her mid-70s, she spent the war years working to help Japanese Americans in the internment camps and encouraged other members of the WILPF to do the same.
Emily Greene Balch converted from Unitarianism and became a Quaker in 1921. She died at the age of 94 on January 9, 1961.
"Religion seems to me one of the most interesting things in life, one of the most puzzling, richest and thrilling fields of human thought and speculation…"
- “Balch, Emily Greene (1867-1961).” Harvard Square Library, https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/emily-greene-balch-2
- “Emily Greene Balch Born.” First Newspaper Published in the Colonies, https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/emily-greene-balch-born.html.
- “The Nobel Peace Prize 1946.” NobelPrize.org, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1946/balch/biographical/.
- Randall, Mercedes M. Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch. Twayne Publishers, 1964.
- Vu, Angel. “Emily Greene Balch: Economist, Sociologist, Pacifist, and Nobel Laureate.” Emily Greene Balch: Economist, Sociologist, Pacifist, and Nobel Laureate | Inside Adams: Science, Technology & Business, 30 Jan. 2017, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2017/01/emily-greene-balch-economist-sociologist-pacifist-and-nobel-lau.
- Walsh, Kathleen, et al. “Balch, Emily Greene.” Social Welfare History Project, 29 Apr. 2018, https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/balch-emily-greene/.