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]

 

Next:  20–On the Road

[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