CLIO TALKS BACK: “Mothers, dare to be...” Words of Courage for Mothers from Cécile Brunschvicg

Credit: Archives du Féminisme (Angers, France)
Mother’s Day celebrations have become a worldwide phenomenon. Even when political and economic situations are at their worst, we rejoice in celebrating mothers (and fathers too). And we reflect on the importance of a mother’s role and responsibilities.

In honor of Mother’s Day 2014, Clio shares with readers the words of a celebrated French women’s suffrage advocate, Cécile Kahn Brunschvicg (1877-1946). The longtime president of the Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes and a great philanthropist, Cécile Brunschvicg courageously sustained the campaign for the vote despite myriad setbacks. In 1919, after World War I and following the first positive vote on women’s suffrage in the Chamber of Deputies (which the Senate refused to consider), Cécile Brunschvicg posed the issue in terms of national honor: "It is humiliating to think that we are Frenchwomen, daughters of the land of the Revolution, and that in the year of grace 1919 we are still reduced to demanding the 'rights of woman'."

In 1936 Cécile Brunschvicg would gain fame as one of three women appointed by Léon Blum to his Popular Front ministerial cabinet (1936-1937). The remarks below date from 1933, the very year that Hitler came to power in neighboring Germany and unleashed a series of threats that would culminate not only in war in 1939 but also in the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Brunschvicg’s observations about differing views of "the family" remain pertinent in many parts of the world today, as does her counsel on the importance of women’s development and participation in their communities as well as in their homes.

Brunschvicg’s tribute, "Mères, osez être" appeared in La Française, 27 May 1933. Translated by Karen Offen.

 "Mothers, Dare to Be"

"Throughout the world Mother’s Day is celebrated, a touching idea that came to us from America, the great sentimental and practical country which is not merely content with recognizing the moral and social value of woman, but which, since many long years, has given her a place and an influence in its public life that increases every day.

"Some people in France are not afraid to affirm that the development of women’s role can only harm the family and they oppose what they call "the development of individualism" to the idea of the family.

"In reality we and they do not share the same understanding of the family.

"For them, the family is a small group entirely dominated by the authority of the father. In exchange for the bread he wins, he has the right to command as a master to the servant-wife and to the children, in whom he seeks more to develop blind submission than to develop their personalities.

"For us, on the contrary, the family is the union of two beings who share the same spiritual and intellectual ideal, who have decided to give life to healthy and happy children. The common household is the source of energy, the possibility to increase the radiance [rayonnement] of each by the free development of his or her own faculties.

"How is it possible not to understand that it is from the perfectioning of the individual that will give birth to the most perfect family and by what aberration can one oppose a healthy individualism to a healthy family.

"On this day, consecrated to the Mother, let us hope that all the women in France will meditate on their role in the family organization. It is easier, in truth, to submit without reflection than to be responsible, and the individualism that we seek comes with rights and responsabilities. What we cannot sanction is that arbitrary hierarchy, the pater familias who embodies the recognition of an a priori sexual superiority, a recognition that has served as the basis for an unjust Code, which denatures the relations between spouses and creates a privileged situation for the father at the mother’s expense.

"Certain men and even certain women will perhaps regret the life of the wife of earlier days, a life extinguished, which satisfied itself with a thousand little nothings of daily life. But let us dare to say that if men find there their convenience, they are not forever happy with it and, all too often, they look outside the household for a companion capable of understanding their preoccupations and their desires. 

"For the children themselves, the concept of the wife confined to the household is certainly not to be recommended. If the mother is to remain the good "minister of the interior," she should also, even in the interest of her familial mission, look outside and meditate on her responsibilities and duties. 

"Any good-hearted man [homme de Coeur] retains a tender memory of his mother for the care and tenderness with which she surrounded him; but the recognition of the best men goes to the éducatrice, to her who inspired in him that which is most profound and most noble. To raise up the soul of her children, the mother must, first of all, elevate her own; in order to help [children] understand life and guide them, she must instruct herself.

"Women, do not sacrifice your personal growth to your children and your husbands; it would be in vain. They will be the first victims. For your happiness, and for the happiness of those you love, we remind you of the counsel of Julie Siegfried, who was an admirable spouse and the best of mothers: 'Women, do not remain passive; mothers, dare to be!'"

Today, women around the world are honored on Mother's Day. This year France celebrates la Fête des Mères on 25 May. For more Mother’s Day goodness, explore our online exhibition MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe, send your mother an e-card from us, or share your favorite Mother’s Day quotes.