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.


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