Female Nobel Peace Prize Winners

Photo by Harry Wad.

Tawakkul Karman, Leymah Gbowee, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo by Harry Wad.

Why should this be a distinctive post in this website? Women Nobel Prize winners represent a persisting dream of the global women’s movement. Since the latter’s emergence in the 19th century, particularly in association with the International Council of Women (founded 1888), peace and arbitration have been widely embraced as core goals of global feminism. This was even more dramatically expressed in the vision of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (founded 1915) and initiatives such as Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (established 1981). That special relationship has been predicated on the assumption of a particular female nature, grounded in biology and the supposed particular capacity for nurture and subsequent distinctive socialization. If any part of ‘biology is destiny,’ it has been very attractive for many women and men to believe that the former possessed enhanced, although perhaps not unique, qualities of empathy and altruism. The ‘new science’ of the Victorian age, pronounced by authorities such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and Henry Drummond credited men and women with different trajectories regarding peace and war down to the very level of ‘sex cells’ and sexual selection (Dixon; Conway). In fact, such views drew on Victorian middle-class notions of women as the ‘angels of the home’. They nevertheless attracted many feminists because they offered a rejoinder to commonplace misogyny that reckoned women and their sexuality in particular as inferior and sometimes dangerous. Unfortunately the claim to special virtue was also double-sided since a counter-argument could insist that women’s uniqueness should be protected and left uncontaminated by involvement in politics and the harsh realities of the world and that their more pacific nature meant that they could not properly serve in the military, a role that in its defense of the nation gave men an enhanced claim to political rights, including the suffrage.

Given these presumptions, grounded in the European experience, it was not surprising that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, beginning in 1901, drew immediate attention from feminists. Indeed Baroness Von Suttner was a close friend of the donor, Alfred Nobel. Early on, however, feminist expectations encountered ignorance, hostility, and political partisanship from prize committees; not until 1948 was there a woman committee member (Abrams). One critic has gone so far to suggest that “the story of the Peace Prize is one of faltering democracy and a lack of respect for the rule of law” (Heffermehl 2011). It can be argued that women have been disproportionately disadvantaged when committees have sought to curry favour with prominent politicians and diplomats, such as Henry Kissinger.

The 15 women winners, 1905-2011, are worth examining more closely for what they reveal about authority and opportunity. Eight are European in origin; the first to originate from elsewhere was Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. Latin America and indigenous peoples have produced one (Tum); the Middle East and North Africa two (Ebadi, Karman); and Africa three (Maathai, Sirleaf, Gbowee). The long period between the first winner (1905) and the next (1931 and 1934) reflects the pervasive masculinism of the peace discourse and the interest in ‘state players’. The first three women were all closely associated with the first women’s movement. Many of the remainder have been identified as feminists but some, notably Mother Teresa, have not. The recent flurry of female winners draws attention to the greater interest in human rights in the new millennium. It is also noteworthy that it was not until Aung San Suu Kyi that a female winner was identified with the formal political system and not until 2011 that a sitting head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, won the award.

Prize Winners

  • 1905: Baroness Bertha Sophia Felicita Von Suttner né Countess Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau (Austria)
  • 1931: Jane Addams (U.S.A.) shared with Nicholas Murray Butler (U.S.A.); social activist; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
  • 1934: Emily Greene Balch (U.S.A.) shared with John Raleigh Mott; professor of history and sociology; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom activist
  • 1976: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement (renamed Community of Peace People) (Northern Ireland)
  • 1979: Mother Teresa, Leader of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity (India; Yugoslavia)
  • 1982: Alva Myrdal, shared with Alfonso Garcia Robles (Sweden); diplomat and writer; disarmament activist; first female head of department in the UN Secretariate.
  • 1991: Aung San Suu Kyi, Opposition leader, human rights advocate (Burma/Myanmar).
  • 1992: Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Campaigner for human rights, especially for indigenous peoples (Guatemala)
  • 1997: Jody Williams, shared with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
  • 2003: Shirin Ebadi for ‘her efforts for democracy and human rights’ (Iran)
  • 2004: Wangari Maathai for her ‘contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace (Kenya)
  • 2011: Ellen John Sirleaf (Liberia), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (Yemen).


Irwin Abrams, “Heroines of Peace—The Nine Nobel Women,” NobelPrize.org http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/heroines/

Jill Conway, “Stereotypes of Femininity in a Theory of Sexual Evolution” in Martha Vicinus, ed., Suffer and Be Still (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972): 140-54.

Thomas Dixon, Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford & N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Fredrik S. Heffermeh, The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010)

Fredrik S. Heffermech “The Nobel Peace Prize: Blessed be the Peacemakers?” History Today, 61:12 (2011). http://www.historytoday.com/fredrik-s-heffermehl/nobel-peace-prize-blessed-be-peacemakers

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."