Fifteen women have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Nine of them are alive today. Three of them found out only a couple of weeks ago that they are now Nobel Prize Laureates.

I will be speaking at our local library about the women’s side of the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday evening. We arranged for the talk — on research I did a few years ago that will be published soon (if not out already) in a book of essays on women’s transnational strategies from the 18th century to the present — months ago, so it’s just a lucky coincidence that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, both of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman, of Yemen, won the prize this year.

A woman inspired Alfred Nobel to include a prize for peace along with those he established in the sciences. That woman, Bertha von Suttner, won the prize in its fourth year. The way the prize criteria were applied in the early days of the prize, few women would have found themselves in a position to win it. How many presidents and diplomats were women in the early 20th century? von Suttner was an activist. She organized and wrote to influence public opinion and the men who made policy decisions. Those who spoke for the Nobel Foundation construed the role of women in peace processes more as influencers than as actors.

History constantly demonstrates the great influence of women. Women have encouraged the ideas of war, the attitude to life, and the causes for which men have fought, for which their sons were brought up, and of which they have dreamed. Any change or reformation of these ideas must be brought about chiefly by women. The human ideal of manly courage and manly deeds must become more enlightened; the faithful worker in all spiritual and material spheres of life must displace the bloodstained hero as the true ideal. Women will cooperate to give men higher aims, to give their sons nobler dreams.

Jørgen Gunnarsson Løvland, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said on April 18, 1906, in a speech that followed Bertha von Suttner’s Nobel lecture.

After World War I shattered the Nobel Foundation’s hopes that women’s influence would bring about peace, the Nobel spokesman who presented the prize to Jane Addams in 1931 said

We must nevertheless acknowledge that women have not altogether fulfilled the hopes we have placed in them. They have allowed too much scope to the old morality of men, the morality of war. In practical politics we have seen too little of that love, that warm maternal feeling which renders murder and war so hateful to every woman. But fortunately we have seen something of this feminine will which revolts against war. Whenever women have organized, they have always included the cause of peace in their program. And Jane Addams combines all the best feminine qualities which will help us to develop peace on earth.

Addams was deathly ill an unable to attend the ceremony to accept her prize. Emily Green Balch also won the prize after a long life of service to peace and human dignity. Both women were among the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mother Teresa was almost 70 when she accepted the prize; she died in 1997. Swedish diplomat Alva Myrdal was 70 and died only four years after winning the prize.

All of these women received the prize at the end of lives of sacrifice to the ideal of a peaceful world.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, in her early 30s when she won the prize for 1992, saw the award as a spur to continued personal action

In my opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize calls upon us to act in accordance with what it represents, and the great significance it has worldwide. In addition to being a priceless treasure, it is an instrument with which to fight for peace, for justice, for the rights of those who suffer the abysmal economical, social, cultural and political inequalities, typical of the order of the world in which we live, and where the transformation into a new world based on the values of the human being, is the expectation of the majority of those who live on this planet.

Menchu Tum and all of the women who followed her into the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have shared her views and have worked together when they can to amplify the voices of women working for peace in their own areas of the world. Wangari Maathai worked with them in the Nobel Women’s Initiative until her death in September.

Women who challenge powerful social and political systems that are intimately tangled up with violence face considerable risk. Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire have been working under some protection that comes with the aura of the Nobel Peace Prize. This aura is now extended to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman.

May they all live in peace, and may we all stand taller and speak up more often to challenge violence in all its forms because of their example. May we give thanks to them and to all the women who work, often in obscurity and danger, to end the sway violence has held on human society for far too long.

There have not been many women among the Laureates, and no doubt there should have been more. But let us at least take credit for having made an early start. With her self-sacrificing, untiring and fruitful service to humanity and peace, Jody Williams is a worthy successor to Bertha von Suttner, who inspired the Peace Prize and brought Nobel to the realisation that peace must be rooted in the human mind.

–Professor Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Oslo, December 10, 1997.