Brunschvicg, Cécile (1877–1946)

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Brunschvicg, Cécile (1877–1946)

French feminist who was at the heart of her country's women's suffrage movements. Name variations: Cecile Brunschwicg. Pronunciation: say-SEEL BROON-shvig. Born Cécile Kahn in 1877; died in 1946; daughter of Arthur Kahn; married Léon Brunschvicg (a philosopher at the Lycée Henri IV and the Sorbonne), 1889 (died, 1944); children: four, born 1901–19.

Cécile Brunschvicg was the daughter of Arthur Kahn, an Alsatian industrialist who opposed girls' education. She passed her brévet supérieur secretly and then married Léon Brunschvicg (1869–1944), a celebrated philosopher at the Lycée Henri IV and later the Sorbonne. She became politically awakened during the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906), and her husband acquainted her with doctrines of sexual equality and of equivalence theory that stressed that women and men differ but have complementary qualities and thus are equal. At first, Brunschvicg involved herself in labor and rights issues that impacted women and children. In 1909, she founded the Réchauds de Midi, which provided working women with warm places to eat. In time, however, her husband persuaded her that women would gain little unless they had the vote.

Brunschvicg joined the suffrage section of the National Council of French Women (CNFF), attended the 1908 Amsterdam congress of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), and in 1909 joined Jeanne Schmahl 's newly founded (February 1909) French Union for Women's Suffrage (UFSF). In December 1909, she was made head of a membership and propaganda committee she and Mme. Pichon-Landry had proposed. Her talent and energy resulted in a dramatic surge in membership. Schmahl, jealous of her authority and charging that Brunschvicg's outspoken (though moderate) republicanism was violating the non-partisan character of the UFSF and thus endangering prospects of recruiting Catholic women, challenged Brunschvicg at a meeting of the central committee in December 1910. Brunschvicg won out; Schmahl, refusing to be relegated to an honorary role, resigned as president, and Brunschvicg was named secretary-general, from which post she thereafter ran the UFSF, assuming the presidency in the mid-1920s.

Under Brunschvicg's leadership, the UFSF became openly republican but welcomed Catholics and conservatives providing they did not oppose the regime. Under the presidency of Marguérite Witt-Schlumberger (1856–1924) after 1912, the UFSF also took on a social coloration by promoting traditional women's causes such as opposition to alcoholism and prostitution. The combination of moderate republicanism and social feminism was especially successful in attracting women of the urban middle class and in reaching out to the provinces, where the UFSF achieved its greatest successes, due in large part to tactics devised by Brunschvicg. By 1914, the UFSF had 12,000 members and was established as the principal women's suffrage organization in France.

During the First World War (1914–18), Brunschvicg was awarded the Legion of Honor for her work in finding lodgings for 25,000 refugee families from the invaded provinces. In 1917, she founded a school to train women factory inspectors to deal with problems arising from the huge wartime employment of women; she was also cofounder of a league, Pour la vie (For Life), which promoted raising the French birthrate.

In 1919, the Chamber of Deputies passed a women's suffrage bill, but in 1922 the Senate defeated it and continued to block the bill until the end of the Third Republic in 1940. The suffrage campaign continued in the meantime. Brunschvicg became president of the UFSF, the director (1926–34) of the monthly La Française, and in 1924 joined the Radical-Socialist Party (France's principal centrist party in the 1920s and 1930s), where she had long cultivated friendships with the leadership despite (or because of) the fact that the party included many of the most influential opponents of women's suffrage. The UFSF grew to 100,000 members by 1928. Its continued adherence to moderate tactics, however, caused Louise Weiss (1893-1983) to found a more militant group, La femme nouvelle (The New Woman); through the 1920s, Weiss became a leading presence in the suffragist movement and was openly critical of Brunschvicg.

Brunschvicg was a founder of the Estates-General of Feminism, which convened in 1929, 1931, and 1937; amidst great publicity, it set women's grievances before the nation. She reached the peak of her prominence when Léon Blum made her one of three women under-secretaries of state—a historic first in France—in his Popular Front government (June 4, 1936–June 21, 1937): she at National Education, Irène Joliot-Curie at Scientific Research, and Suzanne Lacore (1875–1975) at Public Health. Brunschvicg saw to the creation of 1,500 new school canteens, instituted a certificate for teachers of slow-learning children, initiated a reform of disciplinary schools, and involved herself in the education of sailors' children. She pressed the Ministry of the Interior for the revision (enacted in February 1938) of Article 215 of the Code requiring husbands to give consent for wives to enroll in schools, open bank accounts, or obtain passports; and she intervened with the ministries of Colonies, Labor, and Foreign Affairs to admit women to their competitive examinations. Nevertheless, she was criticized by Weiss and others for doing little or nothing to advance the suffrage cause. It had soon appeared, in fact, that Blum, while making the gesture to include women in his cabinet, had no intention of moving on the issue in the foreseeable future. To her critics, Brunschvicg had appeared too ready to accept, or remain in, office under these conditions.

With the German invasion in 1940, Brunschvicg and her husband fled to southern France to escape anti-Semitic persecution. She was employed at a girls' school in Valence under the name of "Madame Valéry." Her husband died in 1944. With the Liberation of 1944–45, Charles de Gaulle granted women the vote at last. At the end of her life, Brunschvicg was internationally known, sitting on United Nations commissions and the executive committee of the International Democratic Federation of Women; she was also honorary president of the National Council of Radical-Socialist Women.

Brunschvicg joined high intelligence with administrative and organizational skills and reforming zeal. She worked for practical reforms, if necessary on a piecemeal basis, and while a fervent, outspoken republican supporting the Third Republic she was moderate in her views and methods. She worked for social and civil equality for women but would have nothing to do with a loosening of sexual morals: "We demand the unity of morals not so that the woman should have the morals of the man, but that the man should have the morals of the woman" (1924). These views spread into her work for the suffrage, where she succeeded in drawing large numbers of women to the cause but where her critics charged that she was not sufficiently militant. Whatever the case may be, it should be noted that women's suffrage was an even more complicated and divisive issue in France than in America and Protestant Europe: class divisions were intrusive, union leaders resented "interference" by bourgeois women reformers, Catholics feared for the future of the family, Socialists feared the Revolution would be postponed, and liberals often feared for the future of the republic itself.

Cécile Brunschvicg, exceptionally well-connected in political and, through her husband, intellectual circles, was by most accounts "the grande dame of the feminist movement" in France from the 1920s until her death. She lived to see the victory, being the only pre-1914 leader of the women's suffrage movement to survive to cast a first ballot in 1944.


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David S. Newhall , Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College; author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991)

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Brunschvicg, Cécile (1877–1946)

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