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A hundred years later, a Welsh women's peace petition returns home

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dreams of world peace are as old as wars. But as the women of Wales were recovering from the First World War, they demanded peace in droves. One hundred years ago, 1923, a group of Welsh women drafted a petition for peace, and they got three-quarters of all the women in Wales to sign on. Then they packed up the document into a big oak chest and sent it across the Atlantic so that women in America could join the movement, too. Well, now it has made the journey back home to Wales. Professor and poet Mererid Hopwood is overseeing the effort to start digitizing the signatures and find out just who all these women were. She joins us now from Aberystwyth in Wales. Professor Hopwood, welcome.

MERERID HOPWOOD: (Speaking Welsh). Thank you very much.

KELLY: Oh, it's lovely to have you and to hear that accent. I want to give people a sense of scale of this thing. I've read that it's almost 400,000 signatures, and that if you laid them into end, they would stretch 7 miles.

HOPWOOD: Well, that's right. That's how it was reported when it arrived in New York.

KELLY: So it sat on this side, the American side of the Atlantic, for a hundred years and I gather was largely forgotten. How did it resurface?

HOPWOOD: Well, that's right. So a hundred years after the end of the First World War, people went rummaging around the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff, which has a magnificent archive. And there was a curious plaque sort of thing made of Moroccan leather with gold lettering, bilingual message saying something about this petition that nobody seemed to know about. We certainly we hadn't been taught this in school or anything. So from then the story was sort of recovered. And in 2017, the first email was sent to the Smithsonian to say we believe this chest and petition is there. And it's from there that we've been working to see how best we can digitize it.

KELLY: What kind of interest are you hearing from people today in Wales? Are people interested in knowing, like, you know, did my great-great-great-grandmother sign this or did the person who lived in my house a hundred years ago sign this?

HOPWOOD: That's right. You can't imagine the excitement that the truck arrived in the National Library of Wales last Wednesday. And it was, yeah, an emotional moment.

KELLY: Just stay with that moment for a second. Is it still in that oak chest? Was there a moment where you got to open it?

HOPWOOD: It was in the oak chest. These 400,000 signatures have been carefully put together in boxes. We were given white gloves and were allowed to open just a few to have a look. And as you can imagine, the inevitable thing happened. One of the women in the gathering there on Wednesday said, oh, I know that house (laughter).

KELLY: Oh, my goodness.

HOPWOOD: I had a good little look, but didn't quite see anybody I could claim. But, you know, we will find these people in the end.

KELLY: The original goal was so idealistic. And here we sit in 2023, and we obviously have not achieved a peaceful world, a world without war. For you, this history - I can hear in your voice - it does bring hope. It brings joy. Tell me why.

HOPWOOD: It does. The ambition - these people weren't afraid to think that this was possible, and the common-sense approach, OK, so how can we do that? Let's call on our sisters in the States to see if they can help bring that about. And I think, you know, one of the things we've had as a guiding principle for the partnership is this - to hold on to hope and to interpret hope not as a crossing of fingers, but as a power and energy of force that can enable us to do two things. First of all, to see that better place, and secondly, to know the way to get there. It is possible. We have to believe that.

KELLY: That is Mererid Hopwood, professor at Aberystwyth University and chair of the Peace Petition Partnership at the National Peace Institute of Wales. Thank you so much. And good luck.

HOPWOOD: Thank you. (Speaking Welsh). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.