The Cause of Women

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Hermann Paul4

The Cause of Women[1]

I could have written The Cause of “Feminism” but I did not want to because this suffix, however acceptable, however fashionable today, seems to me just another “ism” among all the others, a link in the chain of all those trials, ordeals and schools of thought that the old world is finally being freed of.

Let them understand me well. And if possible, whether by carelessness or malice, let them not make me say something other than what I want to say in all honesty—and in total freedom.

It is not because I am not “progressive enough” that I don’t get more involved with the present feminist action; it is because I am “too much” of one; it is because the desires of the agitators have long been left behind in my dream on the grand path to the future. When (being reserved for the sole usage of men) universal suffrage, eligibility, the electorate, all the old parliamentary mechanism arouses in me nothing but mocking astonishment, a rather aggressive aversion, I do not really see what miracle would change my view of the same things if applied differently.

Everything crumbles along these lines. Respect remains far if it speeds off at the same pace it started. Trust stumbles after it in hot pursuit. To be a deputy today—though no particular advantage for the individual elevates it—is to be a zero… a zero always doubtful, often harmful. The authority comes more from seniority than from any intrinsic value. The member of the lower Chamber is generally a municipal councilor who has not had any scandals just like the member of the higher Chamber is a deputy who has not faced any obstacles. It is a career, pretty well paid, that starts at a public meeting and ends up in a presidential speech: “My dear public, it is with deep regret that we have learned… distinguished competence… a heartfelt loss… consolation for his family… everyone grieves… the country and the Republic.”

So be it! The old men approve, from tip to chin, bobbing their heads, especially sad about what is to come. And this makes one less of them—and one more!

The very rich might escape suspicion of greed, but who is safe from plotting, from wicked ambition, from the need for domination to which everything is sacrificed? Are there more than ten, are there even ten of these elected from the people who burn with ardent faith, prepared for humility, for sacrifice, the denial of all personal gain, for the health of all and the common interest?

Honest men? Certainly, there are some, in the strict and limited sense of the word. But just as faith that does not act is not sincere faith, so honesty that is content “to be” is not a virtue—it is a habit!

#

It is, then, into this that women want to enter? Under the tree of knowledge Eve, when it is her turn, takes back half the apple from Adam… Except that the apple Adam is holding is rotten, gnawed to the core by parasites, stained and poisonous.

I have no taste for these tea parties. And if sharing now is necessary—out of selfishness and man’s ferocity—let’s at least pick a new, healthy and delicious fruit from the branch.

That’s why I am not with the women politicians. That’s why, with all my heart, with all my strength, I am with sensible, intelligent, practical people who strive to improve economically the lot of women, to emancipate them from their present condition—menial, unfair and degrading.

It was very wrong for Jules Bois, in his last article, to reproach me for not getting involved “in this heroic battle”. The sentiment is commendable but the allegation is off the mark. A newcomer, not seeing me in his ranks, he concluded that I was abstaining. The truth is that I have been in the heart of the battle for a long time, long enough that the reinforcements no longer see me!

Oh, in my way I hasten to add: in isolation, independence, not wanting to just change the yoke. But wherever one of my sisters cried out for help, a “victim of her sex”, a single mother alone to bear the sin, an abandoned or battered wife, an employee in a shop or in the administration subject to inhuman regulations, a worker in the same job but paid less than a male counterpart because she’s a woman, even a prostitute suffering shame and hunger, I have highlighted the grievances and taken up arms against the causes of these evils, bringing to light the injustice of our destiny.

What do you want? I believe in the school of actions and that they are the seeds of theories. So much the better if the harvest grows for others; and if others reap it; and if others enjoy the fruit! But don’t come and accuse me of indifference or laziness when I was a worker in the early season, doing my job without expecting any pay.

In seven years of journalism I can count more than 200 articles, almost four volumes, on the condition of women. Is that nothing?

#

Ah, I have joked about the women politicians? Yes indeed—fervently! But again that depends on which. Hubertine Auclert, Paule Minck, Madame Potonié-Pierre have always seemed to me courageous and devoted. But how could I take seriously “attack dogs” who, with touching persistence, criticized me daily because after a controversy I wasn’t on the (textual) field or because I went to see the Pope?

These women are laughable… and I laughed! Whereas Madame Schmall and Madame Cheliga-Loevy make me think, interest me, really impassion me by their logic and their constant effort. Scornful, fearful even of the eccentricity that puts off the simple and frightens the timid, not dressing themselves up like clowns, keeping their feminine and maternal grace that the work benefits from, they do good and useful work.

Personally I am aware of collaborating in it, with my pen—and with my example.

Example does not mean model here. I use the word in the sense of proof, in a very technical and modest meaning. It only means that by diligent work and invincible perseverance I managed to make the public admit, through the world of the press (hardly open to feminine competition nonetheless), that a woman could practice this tough profession of journalist, make a place for herself and live honorably.

Alas, many a young brain underneath little blonde curls, behind brown headbands, has been a little soured by an exaggerated success. But still, thanks to this precedent, when a little, trembling woman shows up in an editing room with her article tied with a ribbon, they do not judge her collaboration as ridiculous or impossible.

Of this, I swear, I am very proud and figure that I have earned the daily blue-stockingism[2]. It is one less prejudice—and there are so many to destroy!

That’s why those of my sex who, without going against the tender, merciful role that nature assigned us, want to conquer the right to live beyond servitude and degradation have always and will always be able to count on me.

As for the Bradamantes[3] with their pipes… where are they going?

 

[1] L’Echo de Paris, February 15 1895.

[2] Satirical term for intelligent, learned women.

[3] Famous female knight in legends about Charlemagne.

21-Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks

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5-7-14, manifestation des suffragettes (1)

21—Plundering Politics and Robbing Banks

“I’m a feminist and I’ll remain a feminist until I die, even though I don’t like women such as they are any more than I like people such as they are. The mentality of slaves disgusts me.”

–Madeleine Pelletier

 

Women’s suffrage seemed to be making progress in France when Ferdinand Buisson proposed to give the women the right to vote in municipal elections. As restrictive as this proposal was, at least it was step forward. 291 deputies agreed. But the Senate, the vigilant guardians of tradition, remained unanimously hostile.

     Le Journal started a campaign for the “vote blanc”: Don’t vote for any particular candidate, just say “I want to vote”. To kick off this campaign Séverine is the first they ask because she is a matriarch (at 59 years old). Despite her past reservations because of her anti-parliamentary stand, she is not afraid to evolve. As long as women remain dependent on men and defenseless against all economic exploitation, nothing would ever change.

More than 500,000 women came out and said “yes” on May 5 1914 against 114 “no”. And now what? Wait patiently for the kind deputies to make it official for the next elections in 1918? Not enough. They must continue to press on.

On July 5 1914 6,000 women took to the streets of Paris for the first time in French history. Arm in arm, Marguerite Durand and Séverine led the march to the Institut de France and the statue of Condorcet[1] about whom Séverine gives a speech. Unfortunately they did not count on the madness of men. Less than a month later World War I broke out and shattered their hopes in trenches and massacres. Women would face continual refusals by the Senate for 30 more years before getting the right to vote in 1944.

Along with women, labor was also continuing its struggle for rights, unsuccessfully for the most part. On May 1 1906 the CGT called for a general strike in demand for an eight-hour workday for all industrial workers. It would be the biggest strike, the first general strike in France but only 200,000 workers responded. The government under Prime Minister Clemenceau (and his so-called “Radical Party”) responded in force, declared a state of emergency, arrested the CGT leaders and put Paris under siege—60,000 troops were out patrolling the streets. The violent repression triumphed and the strikers returned to work. Despite the wealth being advanced, working conditions continued to decline and more and more workers were pushed in desperate or even criminal activities.

It seemed that for everyone but the working class this was an era of hope, as they sang on the sinking Titanic in 1912. And it was all being recorded on celluloid as some of the earliest cinema-vérité. Airplanes were flying across the English Channel; Jack Johnson became the first black Heavy Weight Champion of the World; the first neon light was introduced in Paris; and the first electric start was installed in an automobile. And then another automobile invention in France: the getaway car.

The Bonnot Gang threw France into terror and confusion for half a year, a whole period of heroic folly and violent crimes. It started on December 21 1911 when they robbed a bank in Chantilly and escaped in a stolen car, shooting a guard in the process. On January 2 1912 they broke into a house and killed the wealthy owner and his maid during the robbery. The gang continued their spree, their stolen cars outspeeding the police who were on horseback or bicycles. They seemed to be everywhere at once. Four different sightings in the country at the same hour on the same day.

By March a number of their supporters were arrested and their identities were known: Octave Garnier, the founder, Raymond Callemin, René Valet and Jules Bonnot, the driver who gave the name to the gang.

Soon their close accomplices were arrested: André Soudy, Edouard Carouy and then Callemin himself in April. By the end of the month almost 30 accomplices and supporters were in custody. On April 28 Bonnot was cornered in a building in the suburb Choisy-le-Roi. 500 policemen besieged the place before blowing it up with dynamite and shooting Bonnot—he died the next morning. On May 14 it was the turn of Garnier and Valet in the suburb Nogent-sur-Marne. Over 1,000 police and soldiers fought for hours while hundreds of onlookers picnicked during the siege. Again the authorities blew the place up. Garnier died in the explosion but Valet shot it out to death.

The trial started in February 1913. Despite all kinds of contradictory evidence and obvious lies, many of the actors were given harsh sentences: Eugène Dieudonné, Marius Metge and Carouy life sentences for example. Victor Serge five years in solitary confinement for conspiracy. Raymond Callemin, Antoine Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined on April 21 1913.

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The real fear of this gang came from the fact that they called themselves anarchists and made no apologies for it. The newspapers would talk about their audacious bank robbery and shooting a guard but not about the banker who embezzled hundreds of times more money than they stole. These “Auto Bandits”, as they were called, were not your typical criminals. They wrote poetry, talked philosophy and science and sent mocking letters to the police. But they were anarchists and for decades anarchy alone was criminal to the public and the state. The Illegalists, however, were not mere criminals out to make money and they were not intellectual anarchists only spreading propaganda—they believed in direct action and the immediate need of revolution.

Toiling away for rich employers and completely losing their dignity before getting fired and ending up begging or stealing to avoid starvation—this is what the working class lived. Disenchanted with the defeats of labor strikes and rebelling against this system made the Bonnot Gang working class heroes and the best-known anarchists in France. But most anarchists were still relying on non-violent or syndicalist actions and turned against illegalism. Séverine also had a hard time swallowing their anarchist claims. She wondered whether their individualism was not just a cover for egoism and self-interest. Still she intervened to save some of the accused like Rirette Maitrejean and Antoine Gauzy, minor players in the drama.

Most importantly, perhaps, she refused to reveal the names of informants. Confidentiality was the “honor of the profession.” At a time when spies flooded the streets in hope of collecting the reward money, editors were receiving all kinds of letters and information (some of it planted by the police) about the whereabouts of the gang. Authorities were more than willing to do whatever it took to stamp out the least remnant of anarchism. Refusing to be a snitch was a rebellious act in itself.

In the final count, the bandits had killed 9 people and wounded 10. The police killed 9 of them (the tenth committed suicide before they could kill him) and imprisoned dozens more. Now everything was back to normal.

In hindsight the “outrages” of these bandits (probably more the threat to private property than to actual life) do not seem to deserve the panic that struck the bourgeoisie, especially in the countdown to the historic slaughter of World War I.

 

[1] Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), leader in the French Revolution and advocate of women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, etc.

20-On the Road

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Séverine-1905

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

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felix-vallotton-lanarchiste-1892

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!

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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

18-La Frondeuse

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18-La Frondeuse

Marguerite Durand, the brilliant actress of the Comdédie Française, had quit everything to marry Georges Laguerre in 1888. Séverine had met her in the conspiratorial atmosphere of her salon during the heyday of General Boulanger[1]. A young, blonde beauty Durand enjoyed her social life and was a strong supporter of Boulanger, but she was intelligent and critical and no blind zealot. Although nine years her senior, Séverine hit it off with her right away, finding in her not only a friend but a surrogate younger sister. They saw each other often, going to dinner and the theater, Séverine’s continuing passion and Marguerite’s former milieu. She and Sarah Bernhardt would become Séverine’s two best, livelong friends. However, Marguerite’s marriage to Laguerre was incompatible and they separated in 1891 (eventually divorcing in 1895), forcing her to earn a living. Like Séverine she turned to journalism.

Writing for Le Figaro, Durand was sent to an International Feminist Congress in 1896 to write a nice little satirical piece. She went there indifferent, ready to have fun. She came away transformed, ready to take up arms. She refused to write the article for Le Figaro and dedicated the rest of her life to fighting for women’s rights, for which she would become a sort of muse. Her ambition was to found a feminist newspaper. Not just feminist in its editorial line, but really feminist: written, directed, administered, printed, everything run exclusively by women. And not just a paper for women, but a paper for everyone, like any other, covering politics, economics, culture and society. Such a thing was unprecedented in history. Not even in the United States or England, the hotbeds of feminism, had such a thing been accomplished, but by the autumn of 1897 she had found the money. And the name: La Fronde, i.e. Revolt.

One of the first people Marguerite Durand approached to collaborate with her was, of course, Séverine. The paper just could not appear without her. Séverine was hesitant, knowing La Fronde could not pay her going rates, and reluctant about the political stance and editorial control because she was entering the battle for Dreyfus and already facing antagonism. First of all Durand assured her the paper was pro-Dreyfus, but of course the money was another thing. She was paying all the women the same rates as men, the female typographers received the same wages as unionized males—the only man in the building was the old janitor—so, yes, she would have to take a pay cut. But she, like all the writers, would enjoy complete editorial freedom because the paper belonged to no organization and cared only for quality. They negotiated hard, but not too long, and Séverine joined the team. The first edition hit the streets on December 9 1897, barely a year and a half after it’s quixotic conception at the feminist congress.

Séverine’s articles appeared on the front page under the rubric “Notes d’une frondeuse” (Notes of a Rebel), the same title as the collection of articles about the Dreyfus Affair that she would publish in 1900. It was a haven for her, a refuge where she could write with humor or venom or outrage without censorship. After Zola’s trial, as the weeks rolled by, the camp of dreyfusards had grown, but their anti-Semite, nationalist adversaries had also strengthened their ranks and the battle was fiercely fought in public, in private and in the papers. Anti-Semitism had impregnated all levels of society, especially the different schools of socialists who argued bitterly among themselves as to which side to take. For others it was purely a matter of patriotism, of love of country, which quickly turned into a feeling of hatred for foreigners. Most anarchists sat on the sidelines and watched, waiting, their patriotism being defined by Sébastien Faure: a chemical product containing 40 grams of love and 60 grams of hate.

Séverine covered the case rigorously after the parody of the Esterhazy trial in 1898 where he was acquitted despite glaring evidence against him. Doubts about Dreyfus’ innocence had vanished and a retrial seemed assured. But Séverine soon faced a different battle in her life. She was forty-four years old in the spring of 1899 when she started suffering from fatigue. She thought it was a result of the good fight after years of combat had battered her health, but the doctor told her it was more serious, something in the ovaries or uterus that she would rather not think about but that would need a hysterectomy immediately.   She was bedridden with her mother at her side, but she continued writing up to the last minute because she needed the money but more importantly because she needed to forget her fear… of pain, of suffering and especially of death. On March 16 1899, she went under the knife.

The operation lasted a few hours and when she woke up Sarah Bernhardt and Marguerite Durand were there for her. When she asked how she looked they stammered. Finally they brought her a mirror and she stared blankly into it—her golden hair had turned totally white. “I prefer to be a young old woman than an old young woman,” she said with good grace. But she had little time to recuperate before jumping back into the fire.

La Fronde was a paper for all women no matter what their religion or race, but it was ostensibly pro-Dreyfus. On the other hand the big press along with the government was almost completely anti-dreyfusard and their arms were long and powerful. With the commercially-condemning dreyfusard slant came a lawsuit for illegally employing women: the typesetters night work was an infraction of the protectionist laws of 1892. And the subversive paper was banned from girls’ schools and factories where women were working. Money dried up and the ship sank. In October 1903 La Fronde closed its doors, but not before playing its role and setting a historic standard for feminists around the world.

[1] See 9-General Boulanger.

8-Abortion and Feminism

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They dubbed her “The Child Killer”. In the backroom of a bistrot in Batignolles Constance Thomas had performed over 2,000 abortions before she was arrested in 1890. Along with this “angel-maker” they summoned 45 women to court: workers, maids, cooks, prostitutes, housewives, milliners, a flower vendor and a bookseller, many of them married and already mothers. They paid between 5 and 50 F to rid themselves of their burdens. Some could only offer a shawl or dress, a pound of sugar or their wedding ring. Officially only three women died in the course of the operation.

When the trial opened in November it was front-page news in all the papers, each participating in the heated debate on one side or another according to its editorial slant. Those calling for a harsh sentence supported the economists and politicians who denounced the crime as a veritable plague against society that was depopulating the nation and depriving it of necessary forces for the next war. With this in mind the government had raised taxes on bachelors, lowered taxes for fathers, made marriage mandatory and tried to enlarge its colonial population (even in the penal colonies). It also encouraged women to stay home and make babies. Abortion, then, was not only illegal, it was unpatriotic.

On the other side, however, the critics of this policy argued the real social causes of abortion. Women were faced with financial ruin if a child came into the world. Families that were barely scraping by could not afford another mouth to feed. Domestic workers would be fired if they had a child. There were also important medical reasons for legalized abortion that some doctors were quick to point out. And the upper classes wanted to avoid scandal, like in the case of Madame de Jonquières whose case had aggravated the issue.

When Constance Thomas, the Child Killer, was arrested, the public was still reeling from scandal of Toulon. Madame de Jonquières, the wife of a naval officer and the mistress of the former mayor of Toulon, was arrested for having aborted the fruit of her extramarital relation. In their privileged milieu they did not have to resort to the backroom of a bar, they paid 800 F for a clean and private operation with a midwife. On top of the abortion she was guilty of adultery, which was illegal, and sentenced to two years in prison. Ex-mayor Fouroux was given five years for complicity in the crimes. It was a tragedy worthy of a novel—with Fouroux’s two other mistresses, one of whom helped find the midwife and the other who turned them all into the police—but it was also an outrageous display of the country’s heinous and hypocritical laws[1]. “Hypocrisy is the thing that disgusts me the most in the world and it is a pleasure to rip off its sweaty mask” (Séverine in L’Eclair, March 23 1893).

With the case of “The Child Killer” and the lower classes, justice was even more heavy-handed. Twelve years of hard labor for Constance Thomas. Séverine was indignant. She had always defended the right to abortion (and the right to suicide as well) against the fetishism of life at any price as can be seen in “The Right to Abortion”, which carried a wave of controversy in its furious wake because Séverine’s stance was rooted deeper than the feminism of the time. Female anarchists sought to emancipate themselves from the role of mother and wife, from their physical and economic dependence on the child and husband. For the most part they went much further than the feminists in their demands regarding the body and sexuality by adding the moral slavery of marriage and prostitution to the material and economic servitude and basing everything on their general resistance to society at large. In short, women’s only hope was in revolution.

Now, Séverine’s feminism was rather unconventional. First of all, she was not a feminist. No one was. The word did not exist until May 1892 when it was invented at the Congrès Général des Sociétés, an international conference, which was organized for women’s rights, the third such congress held since 1878. Séverine had been invited to participate but had declined. Why? Well, it was not the first time she turned down her female peers. Back in August 1885 the Republican and Socialist Federation decided to present female candidates for the legislative elections. They came up with several names included Louis Michel, Marie Deraismes and Séverine. She was flattered but refused, giving three reasons: 1 – She was too much of a woman to do a job that required a more virile female; 2 – She was not and never would be part of any group or organization because she loved her independence too much; 3 – she long ago chose her post in the social struggle and so preferred to stay with the ambulance rather than mount the public platform.

Later we will see how she modified some of these opinions over time: she would join a group and she would speak in public, but she would do so only to support the feminists’ claims for social equality that she was fighting for—the right to work, equal pay for equal work, equal access to scientific and artistic studies, etc. But we will also see one thing she would never compromise: her disdain for the parliamentary system—she would never become a politician.

So, she fought for change in her own way, in her own corner, being the individualist that she was, using her energy and talent as weapons in the service of justice against the powers that be.

[1] Male adultery was only punishable when he was caught at home. A woman’s adultery anywhere could be punished.