Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Bertha von Suttner

Episode Summary

Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Beautiful Mind was a famous pacifist and novelist who became the second woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s talk about Bertha von Suttner.

Bertha von Suttner was born in 1843 at Kinsky Palace in Prague into a very wealthy Austrian family. Her father, an Austrian Lieutenant general, passed away right before Bertha’s birth at age 75, leaving behind a pregnant wife 50 years his junior.

Raised by her mother and a series of private tutors, Bertha showed great promise from an early age. She learned multiple languages and became an accomplished singer and pianist, during her adolescence. 

When Bertha was 13, her mother and aunt,  both of whom believed themselves to be clairvoyant, spent the summer gambling in Wiesbaden. They expected to return with a fortune. Instead their losses were so serious that they were forced to move the family to Vienna. 

Three years later, the family returned to Wiesbaden to try their luck again, and lost more of what was left of the family fortune. They  had to relocate again to a small property in Klosterneuberg.

In 1873, Bertha began working as a tutor for a family with four adolescent daughters. She fell in love with the girls’ brother Arthur, who was seven years her junior. The two got engaged, but didn’t marry due to his family’s disapproval.

In 1876, with the encouragement of her employers, Bertha took a job in Paris as Alfred Nobel’s personal secretary and housekeeper. Though she only worked for him for a few weeks, Bertha and Nobel developed a friendship. It’s believed that he may have made romantic advancements. 

But Bertha was still devoted to Arthur and soon fled back to Vienna where she and Arthur married in a secret service. Bertha and Nobel maintained a friendly correspondence throughout the rest of his life.

Bertha published a number of minor works in her youth. After getting married she and Arthur gravitated toward journalism and spent the subsequent few years working as journalists in Georgia. 

When they returned to Vienna in 1885, Bertha continued her journalism work with a focus on issues related to war and peace. She began corresponding with leading intellectuals on these issues, and found herself heavily inspired by the founding of the International Arbitration and Peace Association in 1880.

Bertha became a leader of the Peace Movement in 1889 with the publication of her groundbreaking and highly influential pacifist novel Down With Weapons!.The novel was an immense success and was eventually published in 37 editions and translated into 12 languages. In English, it’s best known by the title Lay Down Your Arms!

In 1892, Bertha founded the German Peace Society and became its chair. By this time, she was a well-known international figure in the peace movement due to her novel and her work as an editor of a popular international pacifist journal named after her book. 

In 1897, Bertha took a list of signatures to Emperor Franz Joseph I calling for the establishment of an international court of law. Bertha believed that peace was the natural human state infringed upon by the existence of war and militarism. Thus, she argued, a right to peace could be demanded and arbitrated under international law if a court was established. 

Along with her peace advocacy, Bertha was also recognized as a leader in the women’s liberation movement. In 1904, Bertha was invited to address the International Congress of Women in Berlin. Her work in teasing out how sexism and forced gender roles negatively affect both men and women was particularly influential and pretty revolutionary for her time. 

That same year, Bertha did a seven-month tour of the U.S., during which she attended an international peace conference in Boston and met with President Theodore Roosevelt. 

In 1905, Bertha was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, becoming only the second woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first to win a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s believed that Bertha was a major influence on Alfred Nobel’s decision to include a Peace Prize along with the other prizes provided for in his Will.  

During the last months of her life, Bertha helped organize the third Hague Peace Conference scheduled for September 1914. However, this conference would never take place. Bertha died from cancer on June 21, 1914. A few weeks later Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the outbreak of World War I.  

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!