Elizabeth “Betty” Williams (née Smyth), peace activist and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, is born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on May 22, 1943.
Williams’s father works as a butcher and her mother is a housewife. She receives her primary education from St. Teresa Primary School in Belfast and attends St. Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls for her secondary school studies. Upon completing her formal education, she takes up a job of office receptionist.
Rare for the time in Northern Ireland, Williams’s father is Protestant and her mother is Catholic, a family background from which she later says she derived religious tolerance and a breadth of vision that motivated her to work for peace. Early in the 1970s she joins an anti-violence campaign headed by a Protestant priest. She credits this experience for preparing her to eventually found her own peace movement, which focuses on creating peace groups composed of former opponents, practicing confidence-building measures, and the development of a grassroots peace process.
Williams is drawn into the public arena after witnessing the death of three children on August 10, 1976, when they are hit by a car whose driver, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary named Danny Lennon, had been fatally shot in return fire by a soldier of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment. As she turns the corner to her home, she sees the three Maguire children crushed by the swerving car and rushes to help. Their mother, Anne Maguire, who is with the children, dies by suicide in January 1980.
Williams is so moved by the incident that within two days of the tragic event, she obtains 6,000 signatures on a petition for peace and gains wide media attention. With Mairead Corrigan, she co-founds the Women for Peace which, with Ciaran McKeown, later becomes the Community of Peace People.
Williams soon organises a peace march to the graves of the slain children, which is attended by 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women. However, the peaceful march is violently disrupted by members of the IRA, who accuse them of being “dupes of the British.” The following week, she leads another march in Ormeau Park that concludes successfully without incident – this time with 20,000 participants.
In recognition of her efforts for peace, Williams, together with Corrigan, become joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976.
The Peace Prize money is divided equally between Williams and Corrigan. Williams keeeps her share of the money, stating that her intention is to use it to promote peace beyond Ireland, but faces criticism for her decision. She and Corrigan have no contact after 1976. In 1978, Williams breaks off links with the Peace People movement and becomes instead an activist for peace in other areas around the world.
Williams receives the People’s Peace Prize of Norway in 1976, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1977, the Schweitzer Medallion for Courage, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Award in 1984, and the Frank Foundation Child Care International Oliver Award. In 1995, she is awarded the Rotary International “Paul Harris Fellowship” and the Together for Peace Building Award.
At the 2006 Earth Dialogues forum in Brisbane, Williams tells an audience of schoolchildren during a speech on Iraq War casualties that “Right now, I would like to kill George W. Bush.” From September 17 to 20, 2007, she gives a series of lectures in Southern California. On September 18, she presents a lecture to the academic community of Orange County entitled “Peace in the World Is Everybody’s Business” and on September 20 she gives a lecture to 2,232 members of the general public, including 1,100 high school sophomores, at Soka University of America. In 2010, she gives a lecture at WE Day Toronto, a WE Charity event that empowers students to be active within their communities, and worldwide.
Speaking at the University of Bradford before an audience of 200 in March 2011, Williams warns that young Muslim women on campus are vulnerable to attacks from angry family members, while the university does little to help protect them. “If you had someone on this campus these young women could go to say, ‘I am frightened’ – if you are not doing that here, you are dehumanising them by not helping these young women, don’t you think?”
At the time she receives the Nobel Prize, Williams works as a receptionist and is raising her two children with her first husband Ralph Williams. This marriage is dissolved in 1981. She marries businessman James Perkins in December 1982 and they live in Florida in the United States.
In 2004, Williams returns to live in Northern Ireland. She dies on March 17, 2020, at the age of 76 in Belfast.