20-On the Road



20-On the Road

While in Rennes, Séverine was asked for reports on the Dreyfus Trial from Le Petit Bleu in Brussels. From this correspondence she created a reputation for herself in Belgium where the public was passionate about the case. When the affair was finally closed, they invited her to give three conferences in Brussels in October 1899. Her horror of speaking in public would have once compelled her to deny them straightaway, but she was no longer young and vulnerable, what with her white hair and all. And there were more pressing matters that took center stage (so to speak): Conference touring was a job and she needed the money.

So, at forty-four years old, Séverine made her stage debut. To prepare for her trip who better to ask for advice than her close friend, the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who told her everything from what she should wear to how to hold herself on stage and project her voice. At the Alhambra Theater Séverine wore a long, flowing black dress with bare arms. When she started speaking her fear disappeared as if by magic. Her gestures came naturally, as did the great applause when she finished. The second night at the Maison du Peuple, she appeared more militant in a simple black dress with long sleeves. Like her clothes, her voice was direct and austere and the audience responded enthusiastically. Then at the Salle Marugg to a select audience, she wore green velvet with a high collar and long white gloves. Her three talks were so successful that they invited her back in a month to talk about the uprising of Boers against the English Empire in South Africa. This time, however, was a little too much after her major surgery in the spring and all the emotional drama in Rennes—she fainted on stage. A disappointment but no discouragement. When writing you can make mistakes, cross out, correct and rewrite, start from scratch if necessary, but such luxuries are not afforded when speaking. Séverine had finally accepted this and learned quickly how to control it.

For years to come she made long, uninterrupted trips, shuttled from one hotel room, from one hall or theater to the next. Brussels, Nantes, Geneva, Annecy, Nîmes, Berne, Lausanne.   Jules Vallès, anarchism, war, vivisection, pacifist literature, women’s rights, classical theater. She was well paid and in her costume of a black dress her childhood dream of becoming an actress had, in a way, come true. But incessant travel is hard on life and over the next twenty-nine years that remained to her life, her body suffered for it. Her body but not her passion. Along with her conferences she continued writing articles for various papers and broadening her activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed, especially children. With Jules Vallès she had tried to start a League of Children’s Rights, but it never took shape. As an early advocate, a forerunner and herald, she never gave up the fight against child abuse, whether as beasts of burden in factories or as slaves of the street or trapped in violent homes. Was this a contradiction coming from a mother who gave up her own two sons to be reared by other family members? Well, even if we might accuse her of selfishness, at least she was innocent of neglect or abuse. In fact, as she grew older, along with other of her principles that refined and evolved with age, she learned to appreciate her young grandchildren, even before they could “hold an intelligent conversation.”

Another subject Séverine took on was feminism, as always in her own inimitable way. During the Universal Exposition of 1900 Marguerite Durand organized the 5th Feminist Congress from September 5-8 and insisted that she take part. The subject Séverine chose: Peace—and women’s primary role in it. Also in 1900 on December 1 France opened the Bar to women and after a long battle, against fierce opposition first Olga Petit and then Jeanne Chauvin became the first female lawyers, the latter becoming the first to plead before the court in 1907. Meanwhile, Alice Guy was directing films for Gaumont and defining the young cinema. In 1901 the Conseil national des femmes françaises (National Council of French Women) was formed to promote new rights under the flag of laicity and democratization of the nation. Marie Curie shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 (and in chemistry in 1911). Also in 1903 within months of the first Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary prize, being awarded to John Antoine Nau, a contra-prize, the Prix Femina was organized in protest against the all-male jury. Séverine was invited to preside over the all-female jury, but refused. The seat was taken by Anna de Noailles instead.

At a time when women seemed to be making headway in all fields and forging paths for emancipation, they needed pioneers and Séverine stood in the front ranks, a bridge between two epochs. Where she formerly hated Astie de Valsayre and her ostentatious wrangling over women’s right to wear pants in order to fight duels and ride bicycles, she could now see Jeanne Chauvin’s struggle to enter a profession as the future of woman.

One battle, however, was still being lost. The right to vote. In 1903 the parliament once again postponed the vote for women. The idea that Séverine had long opposed, she now accepted along with all the other suffragists across Europe, not by sacrificing her distrust of parliaments, but by recognizing the need to battle on all fronts. In the past she had preached electoral abstention along with the anarchist journals like Emile Pouget’s Le Père Peinard that presented as candidates only dead communards who had been shot. Refusing to vote was a radical break from the democratic tradition, but the parliamentary system, she insisted, was a lure to allow a minority in power to live off the sweat and blood of the majority. Whether the candidates were republican or socialist, male or female, the results would be the same. As soon as someone was elected into office they were corrupted and poisoned by the disease of government. But now, after years of individual work and especially after the united battle she participated in for Dreyfus, Séverine realized that a new step was necessary to achieve her goals. She was ready to join a movement.

Although it would take until World War II to pass the law recognizing women’s right to work without asking permission of her husband, anarchist women had already found economic independence to a certain extent. In their own often marriageless relationships as companions, either in “les milieux libres” (like communes) or in the cities, they were free and equal, not slaves to their husbands’ will and whim. If feminism meant struggling for the right to vote and aspiring to be judges, cops and soldiers, then anarchists were not feminists. Universal suffrage was seen as an invention of the masters to distract the slaves and focus their discontent into harmless byways. The anarchists’ goal was the destruction of the State, not like socialists its infiltration and possession. Séverine appreciated this ideology, but was always more practical and willing to compromise when she saw an immediate relief for the oppressed. Thus after Dreyfus she saw suffrage as a practical means to reach a necessary end.

As a visionary feminist, however, more than the right to vote she spoke out for women’s right to get an education, divorce and abortions and equality in the workplace. In La Fronde her polemical articles had only increased her popularity and when she finally conquered her stage fright and began speaking in public she became a leader. But she would remain “a woman” above all else. She loved her long curly locks and frilly dresses too much to cut her hair short like when she was a child or to start wearing pants and she could pay homage to men when they earned it while castigating them when they deserved. But the heart of the women’s movement was in universal suffrage and as World War I approached Séverine walked at their head, literally. Unfortunately in vain, as we shall see.


The Defenders



The Defenders[1]

There was just held in Paris a kind of International Congress where the rights of women were eloquently and energetically defended by women. Some of the participants wanted to ask me why I, usually so full of fight and in the front lines, systematically stayed outside, seeming to distance myself from such interesting demonstrations.

The fact is true—or rather the appearance of the fact. But I guarantee, it is not for lack of solidarity, which would be bad, not out of disdain, which would be extremely ludicrous toward women of rare value and real talent such as were sitting in that assembly, nor through a hostility that is unlikely for my sex with respect to anyone who fights in its favor. Moreover, in this context, I expressed my respect and echoed no protest, no complaint, no feminine prayer.

So, my distance comes not from desertion or from antipathy. It has at heart a bunch of basic instincts that I cannot get rid of and which, I admit, I do not want to get rid of. I admire the speakers and applaud their generous heart… but I have no desire to imitate them.

I think that I know how, as much as they do—perhaps I am wrong—to pursue an argument and embellish a speech. But my physical being is too shy to show it off. I can offer my words but not my voice; my energy but not my gestures; my thoughts but not my look.

Although I have never spoken in public, I did not always think like this. When I was younger, very young, less knowledgeable about human infamy, I was less pervaded by this fear—I was about to say this modesty. Illusions at that age make you confident and ignorant!

But now, the actress hiding behind make-up, recognized as a fiction, speaking words written by another for another and separated by the audience by a bright curtain of footlights, seems to me to reveal less of herself, even if she bares her arms and shoulders, than the conference speaker or the ranter in a gown or a skirt. The former is an instrument who sings thanks to a musician and thrills thanks to a poet; the other is herself, i.e. a woman, nothing but a woman who with her feeble voice and child-like hands throws herself to the curiosity and hostility of the public, like a Christian in the past was thrown to the lions.

I salute those who have this spunk—I admit that I do not. It is a leftover from an old-fashioned upbringing, a relic of outmoded prejudices. It is what they want, but my entire femininity revolts against the idea of climbing onto the rostrum; and I hardly think that one can ever get over these scruples. To conquer them there needs to be—which fate does not like—such tragic events that no one can foresee them: a country in flames or a street on fire! Then, Isaiah’s burning coal[2] falls like lightning onto the crowd! And if the lips of women are set ablaze, like inspired prophetesses they have to repeat the word that the Invisible dictates, to revive the bold, to give hope to the weak and courage to the strong!

In that case yes, but only in that case. With the madness of heroism, the vertigo of devotion as a motive and an excuse!

But this an opinion, or rather an impression, that is totally personal. And, I’m repeating on purpose—for, I would be sorry if they saw the shadow of malice in the expression of a strictly personal feeling—this confession implies no kind of blame on those who consider or feel differently. Their preeminence—aside from the hoarseness—even seems obvious to me: they are better armed, taste the physical joy of combat, and having been in difficulties, they have the right before anyone else to be held in favor… in honor!

However, let’s be clear. There is firewood and there is firewood. Just so there are defenders and there are defenders. A few, a very few stand out and we should be grateful to our masculine colleagues for having introduced them—even those who are the least aware—with undeniable tact.

Except for the obligatory jokes, the usual, somewhat worn-out wisecracks that the subject entails—for, every good reporter would rather swallow his penholder than not take part in this good old pastime—we have in general joked a lot less (notice this) about the meeting of women who have come from all over the world to discuss the sinful situation of their sex and the ways to improve it.

So we do not find ourselves among eccentrics whose name, for Paris, is a synonym of disorder and has a dodgy reputation. The flashy girls and the whip-girls, the league members and the wags, the “offensive” ladies, with their hair too short and their tongues too long, all the Mademoiselles de Maupin[3] of the socialist republic—heaven protect the socialist republic from their compromising allies—were noticeable there only by their absence; or if a few of them had slipped in, they were out of their element, destroyed by the ambient honesty and reason.

Besides, what figure would they cut among the elite: Maria Deraisme [1828-1894], eloquent, learned and unapologetic; Clémence Royer [1830-1902], doctor and philosopher in the old way; Léonie Rouzade [1839-1916], with her lively, energetic, acclaimed voice; Louise Koppe [1846-1891], the admirable founder of the Maison Maternelle of Belleville[4] where so many young children have been saved; Madame [Marie de Vienne] Léon Bequet [1854-1913], also an apostle, president of the shelters for pregnant women; Madame [Eugenie] Potonié-Pierre [1844-1898], so good to people and so good to animals that she is known all over Montmartre as much for her actions as her principles; Madame Popelin [1846-1913], the distinguished lawyer, Doctor of Law if you like; Madame Blanche Edwards [1858-1941], an academic among academics, a doctor and the daughter of the late-lamented master; Madame [Marie] de Morsier [1844-1896] and Mademoiselle de Komar and Madame Maria Martin [1839-1910] and delegates from Europe, America and even Australia, each bringing her own dose of integrity and renowned prestige to the work of redemption.

They did not, I affirm, discuss wearing pants or other nonsense like that. There was even very little talk of political rights and if it could not be helped, while defending the weaker sex, only slightly abusing the stronger sex, the matter was carried out simply, discreetly, without ridicule and in good taste. It was a sign of strength, you know, this alarming moderation. And right away the discussion, far from getting sidetracked, from soaring off into pointless skies, plunged into the heart of social ills, into the heart of the feminine hell. They talked about the women’s access to liberal careers; about the equality of the sexes from the point of view of scientific and artistic studies; about their solidarity in reforms; about the role of a mother, sister and wife with respect to peace, both internal and international; about the protection owed by law to vulnerable beings; about the situation of pregnant women in business and workshops; about the research of paternity; about prostitution; etc., etc. The agenda was very practical, very useful and very daring in its conclusions; and it was followed point by point.

It was beautiful and praiseworthy work.

Only, this uncommon benevolence of the masculine to the feminine, as justified as it may be, says nothing to me. I feel like there is something treacherous there and it is not without anxiety that I criticize the wish that has been expressed about the “eligibility of woman”. There, I follow my intuition, is the secret cause, unconscious maybe, of this unexpected urbanity.

As long as man believed universal suffrage was a good thing, he wanted it for himself alone, he did not pull away from his egoism, he did not loosen his notch; considering the woman as an adversary, bearing his teeth like a dog fighting over a bone, battling with her using irony, insult, need and slander!

Today, sated, he sees that the bone is down to the marrow, that the worm is in the fruit, rotten apple to the core. And, being generous, he invites us to bite into it—it is Adam’s revenge! Yesterday we were the competition; today we are the way!


Are we going to be caught in this trap? Aren’t we going to follow the holy task of legitimate reclamations, of just defense, or will vanity, ambition, love of trifles ruin everything for us as it has done for them? After the male puppets of the parliamentary regime, will we have their twins in petticoats: Madame Counsellor, Madame Deputy, Madame Senator? On the pretext of sharing, oh Sisters who fight for progress, are you going to taste the drop of sour wine that sits at the bottom of their glass and revel in their leftovers? Bon appétit, in that case!

Eat, but I prefer

Your black bread, Freedom![5]


[1] L’Éclair, May 20, 1892. Séverine’s early refusal to speak in public and her distrust of certain aspects of the feminist cause.

[2] Isaiah 6:6-7

[3] I.e., who dress like men.

[4] Founded in 1891 for women and children in distress.

[5] Victor Hugo

Our Work


Auguste Roubille

Our work[1]

Heartache, yes, we can feel some—for the homeland and for humanity!

That our France could be so debased by the very ones who claim to defend it, that such wickedness of soul is possible and becomes visible like rotten meat rising to the surface of water, yes, such things were done to make us sick and sad.

But these sentiments are a luxury in battle: we could not dwell on them or become soft. That our senses were offended, that the collective dignity suffered was not very important to continuing the effort or to the uninterrupted current of energy that must bind tomorrow to today.

The true sentiment of the situation, the pride necessary for reviving the muscles, our support and reassurance will be drawn from the examination of what we gained—in spite of such obstacles!

A man was in the penal colony, locked up under illegal conditions after having been judged illegally. He fell victim to Lebon, to Deniel[2], to immurement, to eternal silence, to double shackles, to crucifying lies, alone, all alone, as dead as a corpse in the grave!

He was never supposed to see France again nor his fellow countrymen nor his family! His wife was a widow, his children orphans: all the social powers, joined together, had crossed out his name. He was stricken forever from among the living.

Bernard Lazare lit the first torch from which other flames afterwards lit up. We were a handful of pioneers in the darkness and the light became a target for stoning us. We experienced all the calumnies, all the outrages, all the proscriptions! The strongest held up the weaker: we did not abandon the wounded on the road and no one ever ran away. Thus, slowly, we advanced.

After that, Destiny joined our ranks. What we should have served, served us, instead, in a powerful way. At critical times miracles came. The enemies were pointed out and knocked down like by an invisible finger. Even the apparent failures were changed into victories, without fanfare but with considerable impact.

From twenty we became a hundred, then a thousand… and from then on at every public demonstration, at every new fact, the number of partisans of Truth grew. The reflection from its mirror gained ground and invaded, like the light of dawn, the hitherto dark corners of the still darkened consciences.

We pulled the man out of the penal colony. Our will raised Lazarus from the dead. Do you remember that we defied that this would never happen without a general revolution? It only took four customs officers and a few policemen to keep within decent limits not the furious but the curious crowd.

Did we deny that the caste or chapel spirit could have influenced his conviction? The event revealed [General] Mercier trying to repeat the secret communication blow of 1894 with the judges in 1899. We could see the generals joined together to try to save one of their own at the expense of the innocent man, preferring the impunity of Esterhazy to the confession of the initial error that covered up so many crimes afterwards!

Dreyfus was saved physically—expecting better—and will not return to Devil’s Island nor suffer again, of course, the torture of degradation. Such is the material conquest.

The moral conquest is huge. In open court, in the cold, cruel light of day, when it was the people’s turn to judge, they could appraise some of their leaders, gauge their special mentality, survey their immoderate tongues and childish tricks and realize how these sea snails could led them into the promised slaughter…

This evolution is worth two revolutions because it was not bloody and it liberated minds.


[1] La Fronde, September 14 1899, in Vers le lumière 1900.

[2] André Lebon, Minister of the Colonies and Oscar Deniel, The Governor of Guiana and Director of its prisons.

19-End of Dreyfus Affair



19-End of Dreyfus Affair

The dreyfusards paid dearly for their commitment to the cause. Their names were smeared, their reputations darkened and their careers suffered in the venture. Even if at first most, like Séverine, were not convinced of Dreyfus’ innocence and were only outraged by the farcical trial, as time went on, evidence came out and it appeared almost certain that a real travesty of justice had transpired. Nevertheless, it took almost two years after Zola’s “J’Accuse” for a new trial to be granted. In the interim the investigation continued and it was discovered that the second document that had been produced to prove Dreyfus’ guilt was a forgery by Major Henry at the urging the General Staff. After his arrest and confession Major Henry committed suicide. Mathieu Dreyfus’s appeal to the Military Court was transferred to the Supreme Court for review. The court of appeals annulled the 1894 trial and pulled Dreyfus off Devil’s Island to lock him up in Rennes for a new trial. It took place in August and September 1899.

Five months after her surgery Séverine was ready to go but La Fronde did not have the funds to send her to Rennes, so she paid her own way. On Sunday August 5 the Parisians were leaving for vacation at the train station, but Séverine was off to battle. In Rennes she found a new family. Bernard Lazare was there, carrying the torch he had lit more than three years earlier. Anatole France, Georges Clemnceau, Fernand Labori the attorney and Jean Jaurès among many others. Jaurès had understood very quickly that besides an excuse to foment anti-Semitism the affair was being used to undermine relations between France and Germany. Both of these issues would spill over into the 20th century.

In Rennes she stayed at Trois Marches where the dreyfusards gathered every evening around a big table to relax. Séverine the libertarian and pacifist fighting for a bourgeois officer of the French army met a group of socialists and anarchists who understood and accepted this contradiction. Some remained for the entire trial, others like Octave Mirbeau or Elisée Reclus only passed through. They all had different political inclinations but were not sectarian. They were not there to proselytize or impose their dogma but to seek justice and the truth. The atmosphere was serious but surprisingly cheerful, maybe because they were sure that Dreyfus would be acquitted. For the first time in her life Séverine felt comfortable in a group and she began to understand the real value of collective action.

But the anti-dreyfusards were present as well. At one point a mob of a thousand students led by three priests attacked a hotel were many dreyfusards were staying. Although a lot of property was damaged, no one was seriously injured. There was no police investigation. On August 14, a week after the trial began, Dreyfus’ lawyer Fernand Labori, who had defended Zola after Clément Duval and Augsut Vaillant, was shot while leaving the house where he stayed with his wife and two daughters. Fortunately the wound was not fatal, but the shooter ran away. Everyone knew that the incident had been instigated back in Paris by Edouard Drumont the anti-Semite and Henri Rochefort, that ex-communard, ex-penal colonist, who had once confronted Napoleon III but had now turned nationalist, anti-Semite and misogynist. The trial continued with the second lawyer, Edgar Demange.

For more than a month, the witnesses came forth and the evidence was presented to the military tribunal. After five years in hell, Alfred Dreyfus awaited his acquittal before overwhelming proof. On September 10 1899 the soldiers were out in force, ready for a riot on one side or another of the street. After less than two hours of deliberation, a verdict was reached. 5 to 2 majority. Guilty as charged. But with extenuating circumstances, so only ten years in prison, thus saved from the penal colony. Military prejudice had triumphed again, but they were far from Paris, so there were no riots, only gaping mouths and stunned stares in watery eyes at the absurdity of the ruling.

Nine days later on September 19 President Emile Loubet pardoned Dreyfus for political reasons but he was not deemed innocent, so it changed nothing on the greater scale of things. Dreyfus almost refused the offer, but his desire to be free and return to his family was too great. His exoneration would wait six more years until 1905 to happen. After years of battle the Affair had left its mark on everyone, especially Séverine. In 1900 she published her collection of articles on Dreyfus, Vers le lumière [Towards the Light], starting with “Une Lache” [A Coward], January 24 1895, and ending with “Notre Oeuvre” [Our Work], September 14 1899. Almost five years of effort for nothing.

In fact Séverine did gain a great deal in the Dreyfus Affair, despite the crushing disappointment of the outcome. She had come out of her solitude when she left Rennes with a group of friends and colleagues who had stood side by side on the front lines and sat together in back rooms. She saw how strength in numbers, in union, was potent and valuable, which she could use in her causes, especially as World War I approached. The Affair also, perhaps, raised her up to a different, higher level of journalism as she became aware of the more universally profound repercussions of the power of the press.

After the Affair Séverine was anything but idle, but being an ex-dreyfusard she was blacklisted and had to take any opportunity that arose. The result was a scattering of varied articles with no real focus. She was adrift and unsettled, but not beaten. Very soon a new career would open up to her in what she had once shunned like the plague: Public Speaking.