Brion, Hélène (1882–1962)

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Brion, Hélène (1882–1962)

French schoolteacher, union activist, pacifist and feminist who—due to her pacifist stance during World War I—was the first French woman to be tried before a military tribunal, and who, after the war, researched and wrote her own feminist encyclopedia. Name variations: Helene Brion. Pronunciation: BREE-on. Born Hélène Brion in 1882 (probably January 12) in Clermont-Ferrand, France; died in 1962; orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandmother in the Ardennes; attended the école primaire supérieure Sophie-Germain in Paris; never married; had two children by a Russian immigrant around 1905–1907.

Taught at a nursery school (école maternelle) in Pantin until her revocation in 1917; participated in numerous feminist organizations, including the Feminist University Federation, the League for the Rights of Women, and the French Union for Female Suffrage; belonged to the Socialist Party and to the Confederal Committee of the General Confederation of Work (CGT); during World War I, opened a soup kitchen in Pantin, served as secretary-general of the National Federation of Teachers' Unions (1915–18), helped oversee an orphanage for poor children in Épône, and belonged to the Committee for the Renewal of International Relations; arrested for "defeatism" (1917); found guilty (March 1918) by a military tribunal and given a three-year suspended sentence; returned to teaching after the war (1925) and maintained contact with militant colleagues but retreated from public life; devoted many of her later years to the research and writing of a feminist encyclopedia.

On November 18, 1917, over three years after the beginning of World War I, the front page of the French daily newspaper Le Matin announced the shocking news that a traitor had been lurking in their midst. The accused was Hélène Brion, a schoolteacher from the town of Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris. The author of the article claimed Brion to be known throughout the northern suburbs for "the violence of her anti-patriotic feelings." The paper accused her of "malthusianism, defeatism, anti-militarism, and anarchism," as well as of visiting the famous suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst , in England, and of "exciting women to revolt" in France. According to Le Matin, "Toward the end of August 1914, as the German armies were marching on Paris, Hélène Brion rode to the front lines on her bicycle" at a time when "only a spy would have any reason for being there." The paper could only delight in the arrest of this woman whose face they claimed to be "in the least, abnormal," who dressed in masculine clothes, and who, the paper purports, once shouted in the middle of her schoolyard: "Oh how I want to set the Minister of War on fire!"

Some of the accusations in the article were malicious fabrications, which Brion's friends would spend the following months endeavoring to correct. Other charges were based on the truth but filtered through the eye of a nationalistic and chauvinistic press. Brion was indeed a pacifist and a feminist, but, in her mind, neither of these beliefs made her a public enemy. Who was Hélène Brion, and how did she end up the first French woman tried by a military tribunal in France?

We know relatively little about her childhood. She was born in 1882 in Clermont-Ferrand, but by a young age she had lost both her mother and her father, an officer who had fought in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. Raised by her grandmother, Brion spent her childhood in the Ardennes, near the Belgian border, until she left for Paris to attend the école primaire supérieure Sophie-Germain where, according to one classmate, she was voted the award of "good comradeship" by her peers. A teacher of Brion's, Mlle Jeanne Brochard , recalled that she was one of the few girls to live alone during her years of study: "denied the tenderness of family, she was obligated to learn quickly to forge her own way in life." At Sophie-Germain, she earned her brevet, the minimum requirement to teach elementary school in France at the time (until 1929, one did not necessarily need to train in a normal school), and soon after she took up her post at a nursery school in Pantin.

In early 20th-century France, teaching was one of the few "respectable" careers available to women, and Hélène Brion was determined to be independent. Her close friend Madeleine Vernet (who published a pamphlet in Brion's defense during her imprisonment entitled, Hélène Brion: A Noble Conscience and a Somber Affair) claimed that Hélène loved children and had a natural aptitude for her job, and the fact that Brion helped Vernet operate an orphanage for destitute children seems to corroborate the claim. Nevertheless, Brion's largest passions in life were the political causes to which she devoted so much of her time: feminism, socialism, and trade unions.

At the time Brion was beginning her career, schoolteachers in France first began to unionize. Although the government denied civil servants the right to unionize, the movement among teachers grew. In 1905, they founded the National Federation of Teachers' Unions, of which Brion was an active member. In addition to her work with the Federation, Brion served on the Confederal Committee of the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which functioned as an umbrella organization for many unions in France spanning a large variety of professions. Brion was also a member of the leadership of the local section of the Socialist Party. Hence, both at the local and national levels, Brion devoted much of her energy to trying to improve the lot of working people in general, and of schoolteachers in particular.

As devoted as Brion was to working-class politics, however, she never felt entirely comfortable within these circles. As a woman and as a feminist, she devoted the most energy to pressuring left-wing political parties and union organizations to recognize the oppression of women as a problem of as much urgency as the oppression of the working class. Throughout her life, Brion would maintain that neither socialists nor syndicalists (those who adopted a philosophy of radical trade unionism) would ever achieve a true revolution until they accepted equality of the sexes as a necessary prerequisite to a just society.

In an annotated re-publication of Brion's most famous feminist tract, La Voie féministe (The Feminist Path), Huguette Bouchardeau notes that Brion seldom bothered to critique the positions of the political right, and she justly points out that in criticizing the two groups to which Brion was most devoted—the Socialist Party and the CGT—Brion in no way hoped to undermine their potential success. Nevertheless, Brion used tough language in chastising her male comrades for failing to incorporate women and women's demands into working-class organizations and platforms.

La Voie féministe, which Brion wrote in October 1916, was addressed in general to her unionized male comrades who offered either socialism or syndicalism as the solution to all oppression. But Brion reminded them: "Socialism and syndicalism strive above all else to improve the condition of workers and the poor. But women are even more exploited as women by men as a collectivity than they are as producers by capital." While Brion criticized working-class movements for not taking seriously the issue of equal salary for equal work, her most bitter complaint was that men failed to recognize the exploitation of women in the home. "It is in the family," Brion wrote, "that the woman is the most oppressed."

Brion knew what she was talking about. In France, at the turn of the century, married women were still legal minors to their husbands. Prior to 1920, a woman could not even join a union without her husband's permission. Brion demanded that her male colleagues recognize that women were not only exploited in the home … they were virtual prisoners. Her tract challenged men on the Left to recognize that although they had dedicated their lives to eradicating inequality, they still accepted the domestication of women as natural. Until men overcame their "brutal instinct toward domination," they would never be able to achieve equality or justice.

I am an enemy of war because I am a feminist. War is the triumph of brutal force; feminism can only triumph by moral force and intellectual worth.

—Hélène Brion

Brion's impassioned appeal had little immediate impact on the CGT or on the Socialist Party, in part due to timing. Brion penned La Voie féministe in the middle of World War I. After fighting erupted at the end of August 1914, the rapid mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men and the exigencies of war meant that neither unions nor political parties had much time or energy left for internal debate. French president Raymond Poincaré dubbed the national war effort the "Sacred Union," and virtually all feminists, union activists, and socialists put their demands on hold in order to support the nation under attack. Union activity among teachers came to a halt as thousands of male teachers were mobilized and others struggled to keep schools running in their absence. Like most of the Left in 1914, Brion felt the French cause to be just due to the presence of the invading German army on French territory, and like so many teachers across France, she sought ways to help her local community, in her case, creating a soup kitchen for those hardest hit by war shortages.

By 1916, however, when Brion wrote La Voie féministe, a deep schism had developed within the Left between those who supported the war effort at any cost and those who believed that the government had tricked the working class to serve as cannon fodder for its own nationalist ends. Despite initial reservations, Brion joined the pacifist minority.

Initially, Hélène Brion did not become a pacifist out of deep conviction. She believed France had been unjustly attacked by Germany. Despite government promises in 1914 that the war would be over by Christmas, however, World War I dragged on for four long, murderous years. Life had to go on. With millions of men called to the front, women stepped in to fill their shoes in the fields, in the factories, in schools, and sometimes in positions of even higher authority. Under these conditions, Brion became the first female secretary-general of the National Federation of Teachers' Unions.

From the outset, the Federation maintained a respectful distance from the nationalistic hype surrounding the war, encouraging its members to do their best to provide an education to the nation's youth despite the war. Over the course of 1915, however, some of its members developed a more outright pacifist stance, questioning the government's motives for continuing the war. The French government claimed it would continue to fight jusqu'au bout (to the finish), but the teachers of the Federation believed that if their government would show its willingness to negotiate, and state its conditions for peace, then the German enemy would follow suit.

Hélène Brion had many reservations about the evolving pacifist position of the Federation, but as its leader she agreed to follow the wishes of the majority. Furthermore, as a woman and a feminist, Brion felt that war was largely the fault of the male leaders who had dragged the country into the conflict, and she reminded her male comrades in La Voie féministe that women "have been able to do nothing to stop the war, because we possess no civil or political rights." Hence, by 1916, Brion joined with other pacifist members of the Federation in calling for an immediate negotiated peace, a decision that would cost Brion her job and eventually land her in jail. It was thus not for her lifelong creed—feminism—which Brion became most known. Hélène Brion became a cause célèbre for taking a pacifist stance in the midst of a war of monstrous proportions.

Why exactly was Brion arrested on November 17, 1917? Part of the answer lies in the history of World War I, a war then unprecedented in its scale. By 1917, in the trenches as well as on the homefront, French morale was at its lowest as at any point during the war. Millions of men had already died, war rationing had begun, and the enthusiastic hype in the press seemed more and more distant from the daily reality of protracted war. The more the French people began to grumble, however, the more the government worried about and monitored public opinion. Hence, in midsummer, when a number of legislators and teachers began to receive anonymous notes with the messages: "Peace without annexation, conquest, or indemnity," "Women want their rights and Peace," and "Enough men killed, Peace," the government took the threat to the war effort seriously. A police investigation led to the following conclusion:

An investigation conducted several months ago after successive mailings of these notes to members of Parliament permitted our suspicion to fall on Hélène Brion, schoolteacher in Pantin, who has since been arrested. A search of her home on July 26, 1917, led to the notable discovery of 14 envelopes addressed to legislators and containing pacifist notes. These envelopes and their contents are identical to those received by the teachers at the Edgar-Quinet and Sophie-Germain schools.

Throughout the following autumn, Brion was called continually before the examining magistrate, while school officials suspended her from teaching. On November 17, 1917, the judge had her arrested, and the following day she was transferred to the Saint-Lazare prison to await trial. Furthermore, the judge determined that Brion's transgression fell under the authority of the military; hence, for the first time in French history, the judicial system sent a woman to be tried before a military tribunal. For the next four months, the Parisian and national press would avidly follow the arrest and trial of the "defeatist schoolteacher."

Although she was to stand trial for alarmist propaganda, Hélène Brion's feminism never ceased to be an issue in the case. A glance through the press coverage of the Brion Affair suggests that reporters were more worried about Brion's appearance than her ideas. Le Matin included a picture with its coverage of the Brion Affair with the caption "Hélène Brion in Masculine Clothing." In a March 25, 1918, article, La Voix nationale described Brion as she appeared at her trial: "A small man's hat placed devilishly on her blond hair, tied in back without any attempt to please, a loose lavaliere, a jacket that strangely resembles a man's coat, definitely a somewhat masculine and neglected ensemble." In fact, Brion dressed in a style typical of the feminist teachers of her generation, cutting her hair short, and dressing in more practical, flexible clothing than the corsets and petticoats just beginning to go out of fashion. Indeed, the picture in Le Matin captured Brion wearing her cycling outfit, more comfortable for shoveling coal at the Pantin soup kitchen. The press was not alone, however, in making gender an important issue in the trial of the "defeatist schoolteacher." Of all her various causes—pacifism, trade unionism, socialism, and feminism—the last was Brion's true passion, and she saw to it that her trial would serve as a soapbox not only for the pacifism for which she was arrested but also for the feminism that defined all of her political and social action.

During her trial, which lasted from March 25 to March 30, 1918, Brion's lawyer called upon prominent witnesses to speak to the moral integrity of the accused. Several well-known men, including the writer Paul Brulat and the deputy to the National Assembly Jean Longuet, testified to Brion's good character and defended her freedom of opinion. Also on the witness stand were the most distinguished feminists of the period. The socialist-feminist Séverine (1855–1929) compared Brion to Louise Michel , the famous 19th-century activist for women and the poor, once maligned by her compatriots, who was later honored with a statue on Montmartre. Séverine reminded the court that history often sees acts of resistance in a very different light. Marguerite Durand also spoke on Brion's behalf, lecturing the court on the intimate link between feminism and pacifism. She claimed Brion had opinions no different than other women; she was merely more courageous. In all, even the suspicious press seemed impressed by the line-up.

Brion was clearly moved by the support shown her, at times shouting out an emotional "Merci!" during the trial, but the most eloquent spokesperson on her behalf was Brion herself. Her lawyer called her personal defense a "profession of faith"; indeed, Brion's speech was much more than a simple plea; it was a statement of creed. "The law should be logical and ignore me when it comes to sanctions just as much as it ignores my existence when it comes to rights," Brion opened. She denied ever calling for peace at any price; she had merely insisted her government make known its willingness to negotiate. Nevertheless, as a feminist, she willingly called herself a natural enemy of war. "I am an enemy of war because I am a feminist," Brion told the court. "War is the triumph of brutal force; feminism can only triumph by moral force and intellectual worth." She claimed that men had been so busy ruling the world that they had lost track of their goals.

You want to free those who are enslaved … [but] you do not realize that in this fight for liberty, we are all losing our rights bit by bit, from the material right to eat and travel as we please all the way to the intellectual right to write, to meet, to think, and most of all, to think justly. All these rights have disappeared little by little because they are incompatible with a state of war.

Hélène Brion's profession of faith put the problems of the world squarely on men's shoulders. That she, a woman, would want to distance herself from the politics of massacre she believed to be only natural, but she also reminded the court that at least one prominent man, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, had issued calls for peace not far removed from her own. She concluded by quoting 19th-century French socialist Victor Considerant: "The day that women are familiar with social questions, revolutions will no longer be fought with rifles."

Brion's spirited defense and the ardent pleas of witnesses did little to soften the heart of her military judges. She was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. Nevertheless, the court gave her a suspended sentence; hence, once the trial was over, Brion was free to return to Pantin.

On November 11, 1918, World War I finally ground to a halt, but not before nearly 1.5 million French men and women had given their lives. It would take a long time for the country to heal its wounds from the war, both physical and emotional. Not until 1925 would Hélène Brion be allowed to return to teaching.

The end of the trial seems to mark the end of Hélène Brion's active public life. According to Bouchardeau, Brion maintained close contact with friends from the Federation as well as from various feminist organizations, but from the 1920s to the end of her life in 1962, she ceased involving herself in political activities. Instead, Brion turned her intellectual and rhetorical talent to another purpose: the research and writing of a massive feminist encyclopedia, a mammoth project that she never completed. To the end of her days, then, Brion remained devoted to the feminist principles and cause that had animated all the turbulent actions of her younger years.


Brion, Hélène. La Voie féministe. Preface, notes, and commentary by Huguette Bouchardeau. Paris: Editions Syros, 1978.

Dossier Brion, in the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand.

Gerbod, Paul. Les Enseignants et la politique. Paris: P.U.F., 1976.

Vernet, Madeleine. Hélène Brion: Une Belle conscience et une sombre affair. Épône: l'Avenir Social, 1917.

suggested reading:

Becker, Jean-Jacques. The Great War and the French People. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. U.K.: Berg Publishers, 1985.

Feeley, Francis. "French School Teachers Against Militarism, 1903–1918," in The Historian. Vol. 52. Winter 1995, pp. 315–328.


Correspondence, articles, and manuscripts can be found in the Dossier Brion at the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand in Paris, France.

Mona Siegel , Detling Fellow and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin