CLIO TALKS BACK: World War and Women

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918).  On 28 June in Sarajevo,  the heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy (Austria-Hungary) Franz-Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie (the mother of their four children) was assassinated by a local terrorist.
            This tragic event led, within a month, because of the complex of secret diplomatic alliances between nations that fell into play, to the German Army’s swift invasion and occupation of Belgium and the northern part of France. 
            Thus began a European (then world) war that lasted for four long and brutal years, with many fighting fronts, much trench warfare, and – worst of all – horrific casualties. Airplanes became a weapon of war and poison gas was introduced. France alone lost 1.3 million men, and hundreds of thousands more were maimed for life or suffered severe psychological damage. Total war casualties are generally agreed to have topped 20 million. 
Most women in the combatant nations supported their country’s war effort, postponing their fight for the vote and other desirable reforms; victory seemed paramount. They took over men’s labor in the fields and factories, including the munitions plants.  By 1918, some 1.5 million women worked in building arms. There were a few women, however, who took a stand for peace. One of these was a French teacher and union administrator named Hélène Brion (1882-1962).
            In late 1917, Hélène Brion and several others were arrested and charged with treason; they were vilified by the mainstream press. They were tried in a military court in late March 1919. Brion was convicted, but her three-year prison sentence was suspended. 
            The unusual part of this trial was Hélène Brion’s statement of defense, in which she invoked her status as a non-citizen under French law and claimed the intrinsic links between her work for peace and her feminist commitment. She talked back to power in a military court! She speaks to the difficulty women faced in ostensible democracies where women had no say in the making of laws (French women did not obtain the vote until 1944).
            Here, in Clio’s English translation, is her statement. Her words are still worth reading and pondering in today’s troubled times.
            “I appear before this court charged with a political crime; yet I am denied all political rights.
            “Because I am a woman, I am classified de plano by my country’s laws, far inferior to all the men of France and the colonies.  In spite of the intelligence that has been officially recognized only recently, in spite of the certificates and diplomas that were granted me long ago, before the law I am not the equal of an illiterate black man from Guadeloupe or the Ivory Coast. For he can participate by means of the ballot, in directing the affairs of our common country, while I cannot. I am outside the law.

“The law should be logical and ignore my existence when it comes to punishments, just as it is ignored when it comes to rights. I protest against its lack of logic.
“I protest against the application of laws that I have neither wished for nor discussed.
“This law that I challenge reproaches me for having held opinions of a nature to undermine popular morale. I protest even more strongly and I deny it!  My discreet and nuanced propaganda has always been a constant appeal to reason, to the power of reflection, to the good sense that belongs to every human being, however small the portion.
“Moreover, I recall, for form’s sake, that my propaganda has never been directed against the national defense and has never called for peace at any price: on the contrary, I have always maintained that there was but one duty, one duty with two parts: for those at the front, to hold fast; for those at the rear, to be thoughtful.
            “I have exercised this educational action especially in a feminist manner, for I am first and foremost a feminist. All those who know me can attest to it. And it is because of my feminism that I am an enemy of war.
            “The accusation suggests that I preach pacifism under the pretext of feminism. This accusation distorts my propaganda for its own benefit. I affirm that the contrary is true, and it is easy for me to prove it.  I affirm that I have been a militant feminist for many years, well before the war; that since the war began I have simply continued; and that I have never reflected on the horrors of the present without noting that things might have been different if women had had a say in matters concerning social issues.
[. . . . .]
“I am an enemy of war because I am a feminist. War represents the triumph of brute strength, while feminism can only triumph through moral strength and intellectual values. Between the two there is total contradiction.
“I do not believe that in primitive society the strength or value of woman was inferior to that of men, but it is certain that in present-day society the possibility of war has established a totally artificial scale of values that works to women’s detriment.
            “Woman has been deprived of the sacred and inalienable right given to every individual to defend himself when attacked. By definition (and often by education) she has been made a weak, docile, insignificant creature who needs to be protected and directed throughout her life.
            “Far from being able to defend her young, as is the case among the rest of creation, she is [even] denied physical education, sports, the exercise of what is called the noble profession of arms.  In political terms she is denied the right to vote – what Gambetta called ‘the keystone of every other right’ – by means of which she could influence her own destiny and have at least the resource to try to do something to prevent these dreadful conflicts in which she and her children find themselves embroiled, like a poor unconscious and powerless machine. . . .
            “You other men, who alone govern the world!  you are trying to do too much and too well.  Leave well enough alone.
            “You want to spare our children the horrors of a future war; a praiseworthy sentiment! I declare that as of now your goal has been attained and that as soon as the atrocious battle that is taking place less than a hundred miles from us has been brought to a halt, you will be able to speak of peace. In 1870 two European nations fought – only two, and for scarcely six months; the result was so appalling that throughout all of Europe, terrified and exhausted, it took more than forty years before anyone dared or was able to begin again. Figure that as of now we have fought, not six months, but for forty-four long months of unbelievable and dreadful combat, where not merely two nations are at odds, but more than twenty – the elite of the so-called civilized world – that almost the entire white race is involved in the melee, that the yellow and black races have been drawn into the wake.  And you say, pardon me, that as of now your goal has been achieved! – for the exhaustion of the world is such that more than a hundred years of peace would be instantaneously assured if the war were to end this evening!
            “The tranquility of our children and grandchildren is assured. Think about assuring them happiness in the present and health in the future! Think about some means of providing them bread when they need it, and sugar, and chocolate to drink! Calculate the repercussions that their present deprivation will have on this happiness that you pretend to offer them by continuing to fight and making them live in this atmosphere, which is unhealthy from every possible point of view.
“You want to offer freedom to enslaved people, you want – whether they like it or not – to call to freedom people who do not seem ready to understand it as you do, and you do not seem to notice that in this combat you carry on for liberty, all people lose more and more what little they possess, from the material freedom of eating what they please and traveling wherever they wish, to the intellectual liberties of writing, of meeting, even of thinking and especially the possibility of thinking straight – all that is disappearing bit by bit because it is incompatible with a state of war.
            “Take care! The world is descending a slope that will be difficult to remount.
            “I have constantly said this, have written about it incessantly since the beginning of the war: if you do not call women to your rescue, you will not be able to ascend the slope, and the new world that you pretend to install will be as unjust and as chaotic as the one that existed before the war!”

Source: “L’Affaire Hélène Brion au 1e Conseil de Guerre,” Revue des Causes Célèbres, no. 5 (2 May 1918), pp. 152-154.  Transl.  Karen Offen,  orig. publ. in Women, the Family, and Freedom, ed. Susan Groag Bell & Karen Offen (1983), vol. 2, pp. 273-275.  By permission of the translator.