Lacore, Suzanne (1875–1975)
Lacore, Suzanne (1875–1975)
Rural schoolteacher and socialist militant who was one of the first three women in France to be a member of the Cabinet. Name variations: (pseudonym) Suzon. Pronunciation: soo-ZAHN la-COR. Born Marie Lacore in Glandier (Corrèze), on May 30, 1875; died in Milhac d'Auberoche (Dordogne), on November 6, 1975; daughter of André Lacore (1839–82) and Marie Malaure Lacore (b. 1845); educated at a Catholic boarding school in Bugue (Dordogne) and the Dordogne Normal School for Young Women, in Périgueux; never married.
Certified as a teacher (1894); began teaching at Ajat (1903); converted to socialism and joined the Unified Socialist Party (1906); signed the Chambéry Manifesto (1912); helped found the Groupe des femmes socialistes (1913); published important articles on women and socialism (1913–14); defended socialism against the communists (1920s); retired from teaching (1930); helped found the Comité nationale des femmessocialistes and made a major speech at the Tours party congress (1931); reported on women in agriculture (1935); served as undersecretary of state for child protection (1936–37); served as vicepresident of the Superior Council for the Protection of Children (1937–38); opposed the CNFS policy on women in the party (1944–46); inducted into the Legion of Honor (1956); published Enfance d'abord (1960); promoted to officer in the Legion of Honor (1975).
Socialisme et féminisme (Paris: Éditions de L'Équité, 1914); La Rôle de l'institutrice and Féminisme et l'internationalisme (Cahors: Éditions de la Fédération féministe du Sud-Ouest, 1919); Femmes socialistes (Paris: Éditions de la SFIO, 1932); La Femme dans l'agriculture (Paris: Cahiers des "Amis de Jacquou le Croquant," 1938); L'Émancipation de la femme (Paris: Éditions de la Perfrac, 1945); editor of Jules Guesde (Paris: Éditions Perfrac, 1946); Espoir et lutte (Périgueux: Éditions Fanlac, 1951); Enfance d'abord (Périgueux: Pierre Fanlac, 1960).
Marianne Rauze, Féminisme économique (Paris: Éditions de L'Équité, 1914); Eugène Le Roy, Nicette et Milou (Paris: Éditions Christian Seignol, 1938); Jules Guesde (introduction de Suzanne Lacore, Paris: Éditions Perfrac, 1946).
Le Travailleur du Périgord (1906–07); Le Travailleur du Centre (1908–14); Le Populaire du Centre (1908–14); L'Équité (1913–14); Socialisme et lutte de classe (1914); Le Combat social (1925–26); Le Populaire de Paris (1927–31); Le Populaire du Périgord (1930–32); La Voix socialiste (1934–39, 1944–47); La Tribune des femmes socialistes (1936–39); Les Cahiers des "Amis de Jacquou le Croquant" (1938–39); Espoir et lutte (1951); Le Vétéran socialiste (1949–63).
When Suzanne Lacore, a 61-year-old retired provincial schoolteacher, was named undersecretary of state for child protection in Léon Blum's Popular Front government (1936–37), she was virtually unknown to the larger public. She was, however, well respected among the Socialists as a party veteran. Fellow undersecretaries Cécile Brunschvicg (education) and Irène Joliot-Curie (scientific research) joined her as the first women to sit in a French Cabinet—an anomaly because, until 1944, women still could not vote.
Save for the year she served in the government, Suzanne Lacore lived in rural southwest central France, where she was born Marie Lacore in the hamlet of Glandier (Corrèze) on May 30, 1875. She was the third child and first girl of the six children (three girls) born to André Lacore and Marie Malaure Lacore . André was a carpenter-contractor who moved fairly frequently in the region. He died suddenly in 1882, and in 1886 Marie Lacore married a prosperous landowner-merchant with whom she had three more children. Suzanne thus grew up in a large, comfortable family.
After grade school, she attended a Catholic girls' boarding school at Bugue (Dordogne), where she absorbed a strict, highly principled code and a dislike of Catholicism, both of which marked her for life. Graduating on July 13, 1891, she studied from October 1, 1891, to July 30, 1894, at the teachers college for young women at Périgueux (Dordogne). Life there was highly disciplined, the training broad and impressively deep. On October 1, 1894, she began her career at the village of Thenon (Dordogne) near her family at Ajat; from 1900 to 1903, she was at Fossemagne, near Thenon. She taught in the girls' grade school at Ajat from 1903 until her retirement as headmistress in 1930. Much admired as a teacher, she founded a school fund, cafeteria, library, and courses in health and childcare. She also was active in adult education and public discussions of health, social problems, and related issues. Her teaching, marked by loving individual attention, was much influenced by the methods of Maria Montessori . Lacore taught only by tutoring, never by lecture.
Meanwhile, to the discomfort of many parents and townspeople, she had joined the Unified Socialists (SFIO) in 1906, beginning a lifelong activity as a party militant. She was converted to socialism when she read the anarchist Sébastien Faure's La Douleur universelle (The Universal Sorrow, 1894). Humanity's misery is "man-made," he taught. She herself knew the misery of the peasants intimately. She adopted his rational and idealistic approach but rejected his solution—"the anarchist poison," she called it. Influenced in part by a prominent socialist, Paul Faure, to join the SFIO, Lacore was for years the only female SFIO member in Dordogne—in 1913 women comprised only 1% of the national membership—but she became the secretary of Dordogne's organization and a member of its executive committee. Ideologically, she followed Jules Guesde (1845–1922), the "pope" of orthodox Marxism. Mass revolution—not necessarily violent—would crown the evolution of society toward perfect justice and equality. The root of present evils is capitalism; the masses must be educated to understand this and their own condition. Her socialism was not just a doctrine, but a way of life, a vehicle for the highest values, "a living ideal, not an illusion."
At the same time, Lacore was active in the teachers' society (amicale). She thought it was ineffective, however, and pushed it to affiliate with the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Before 1914, the CGT was much influenced by revolutionary unionism (anarcho-syndicalism), which called for the General Strike as the way to bring down capitalism. To prevent war, it also promoted anti-militarism and anti-patriotism. Lacore signed the Chambéry Manifesto in 1912 calling for teachers to join the CGT. The government reacted by forcing the signers to retract under threat of dismissal. She did so with bitterness but at the same time made known her disapproval of the General Strike and anti-patriotism. She found such doctrines divisive and a waste of time. Instead, socialism should be spread and class war pursued in an organized way on the political stage, which was the Guesdist position.
In January 1913, Lacore helped organize the Socialist Women's Group (GDFS), which sought to attract women to the SFIO and give them more prominence. The GDFS did not achieve much success, but the pages of its review, L'Équité (1913–14), debated the relationship of socialism to feminism. Lacore took a leading role in this discussion.
When she joined the party in 1906, she had begun to write (using the pen name "Suzon") for its publications on the local and then regional levels. She addressed herself especially to women, and preferred current events or situations to ideology as subject matter. Paul Faure later praised her "elegant and warm style in which vigor of thought was joined to feminine sensitivity." In June 1913, L'Équité printed her essay "Féminisme et socialisme." It set off a six-month debate—Madeleine Pelletier , notably, opposed her thesis—and in 1914 Lacore published it in a brochure, Socialisme et féminisme, significantly reversing the title. Simply put, she placed socialism before feminism: "The liberation of women remains in our eyes subordinate to the revolutionary solution which will free the working proletariat." The fight, she wrote, is not against "the omnipotence of beards and moustaches" but against capitalism. For her, the current burning feminist issue of women's suffrage was secondary. Besides, the feminist movement was dominated by bourgeois women not opposed to capitalism. If they wished to join the SFIO, fine; but even there the GDFS must not become simply a female auxiliary, isolated and pushing an agenda separate from the party's.
Lacore's Socialisme et féminisme for better or worse largely fixed the role and place of women in the socialist movement for the rest of the Third Republic (1870–1940). For the moment, at least, she was the most prominent female theorist in the party. Guesde himself compared her role to Aline Valette 's in the preceding generation.
During the First World War (1914–18), Lacore supported the war effort to the end against the swelling pacifist current in the party. After the war, she favored American president Woodrow Wilson's program and rejected affiliation with Lenin's communist movement. She thought the Russian Revolution was an aberration because the Russian proletariat was not ready for the true Revolution, and stoutly defended the Socialists against Communist charges of anti-revolutionary "reformism." She continued to write, now signing her brochures "Suzanne Lacore" while keeping "Suzon" for articles until the 1930s. She also began to speak publicly more often. At conferences (1918–26) of the University Feminist Group of the Southwest, she defended her views on women's issues. She favored full legal and economic emancipation while rejecting "suffragism" and "integral" feminism. She wanted a woman to be fully open to the world, not "shut up in her garden." As for women's role in the home, she remained quite traditional: they should be the guarantors of family equilibrium, especially as protectors and educators of children. She liked to quote Nietzsche's "Woman has an insatiable need to give."
I need you. … [Y]ou must above all be there, for your presence signifies many things.
—Léon Blum to Suzanne Lacore, 1936
Women's place in the party continued to concern her. The GDSF had broken up during the war over the pacifist issue. It was revived in 1922 but had little success. Lacore was a principal founder (1931) of its successor, the National Committee of Socialist Women (CNFS), and at the party congress at Tours in May 1931 she delivered an impressive speech against the party's neglect of women. Her performance brought her to the attention of the top party leadership. Her brochure Femmes socialistes (1932) generally repeated the ideas of the 1913 brochure. The CNFS, she argued, should not be a device to isolate women in their own organization, but rather should be used to put women's problems before the party and recruit female members. In short, feminism per se, no; a more powerful voice for women, yes.
As time passed, she took a deep interest in two subjects: the development and protection of infants and children, and the problems of women in the agricultural sector. Retired since 1930, she conducted a detailed survey (1931–35) of the latter, reported to the Lille conference (1935) of the CNFS, and in 1938 published a brochure on the subject. Dordogne, as always, was the center of her activity. She organized women's groups, a youth group, and meetings on public issues. She was also active in elections and in early 1936 toured France promoting women's and socialist causes. Her principal themes were world peace, workers' security, and anti-fascism. (Hitler was the tool of capitalist interests, she maintained.) For her, the triumph of the Popular Front coalition of left-wing parties on April 21 and May 3, 1936, was a welcome reward for tireless efforts.
To Lacore's astonishment, Léon Blum (1872–1950), premier-designate, now asked her to be undersecretary of state for child protection, a new office. He wanted to make a gesture to women, a growing political force; the idea of women in the Cabinet did not, in fact, cause great public shock. But he did not want to raise the suffrage issue for now because it threatened to divide the left (which feared women would vote for conservatives) and draw attention from the economic crisis, due to the Great Depression, and the foreign crises caused by Hitler's rise and the Spanish Civil War. Blum had known Lacore from the time he was the directeur of Le Populaire de Paris and had invited her to write for the paper (1927–31); he also had been impressed by her 1931 speech and her women-in-agriculture report of 1935. Lacore firmly declined his offer. But Blum insisted, "I need you." He assured her she wouldn't be expected to administer, but to stimulate (animer): "You must above all be there, for your presence signifies many things." Her appointment would be "a continuation of the social and educating work which has marked your life." Bowing under this barrage, she gave in.
The official photograph of the new ministry showed her, barely five feet tall, standing demurely in Blum's shadow, dressed in black with a prim cloche hat and looking rather out of place. Appearances proved deceptive, as the public, to whom she was all but unknown, soon discovered. She plunged into her work with enthusiasm. The idea of a Cabinet office devoted to child protection won universal approval. Due to the Depression, child abuse, abandonment, and juvenile delinquency had come to the fore. During the year the ministry lasted (June 4, 1936–June 21, 1937), Lacore's office issued a stream of directives on many subjects. Her energetic chief, Minister of Health Henri Sellier, facilitated her administration, as did the chief of staff she chose, Alice Jouenne , like herself a retired teacher and CNFS member, but a Parisienne of a practical bent. Fortunately, Lacore and Brunschvicg (at Education), whose intelligence Lacore admired, got along well in dealing with overlapping spheres (e.g., children with learning problems) which caused tensions between Sellier and Minister of Education Jean Zay.
Lacore's directives dealt many measures. She wanted to aid mothers tempted to abandon their children; to create child-care centers for foundlings; to provide financial aid for vocational education for abandoned children; to ensure that children on welfare would benefit fully from new social and school laws; to coordinate hygiene services and welfare; to create centers for wet nurses so all infants could receive mother's milk; to build recreational centers, especially in rural areas; to increase oversight of children on welfare and encourage adoptions; to start summer camps for children of the unemployed; to conduct a national survey of handicapped children; to institute formal training stages for social workers; and to form three national commissions, and parallel local bodies, to coordinate services for recreation and for handicapped and abused children. Merely to catalog these projects is to underline how much needed to be done to provide services which in the future would be taken for granted.
Although administration necessarily occupied Lacore to some extent, her most signal contribution was to bring children's issues to the fore. She spoke tirelessly, touring everywhere (even to Algeria) to preach her gospel. She wrote articles, attended conferences, and even spoke at Christmas on national radio. She was strikingly successful in these endeavors and drew almost no criticism. Suzanne Dudit , in Minerva, wrote that she appeared "timid, self-effacing. But this being arises, speaks, and suddenly light shines. … If you haven't heard Suzanne Lacore speak, you don't know what faith is."
Of all this, what bore fruit? In the short run, almost nothing. The commissions made some proposals, and the lot of abandoned children did improve. France in the latter 1930s simply lacked both time and money to cope with its massive problems at home and abroad. When Blum's government fell in June 1937, his successor, Camille Chautemps, chose to discontinue Lacore and her office—not a popular decision. He did, however, create a Superior Council for the Protection of Children (Oct. 27, 1937), to which he named Lacore and Brunschvicg as vicepresidents. Still, the council achieved little before it expired in turn in May 1938. In the long run, however, what was begun in 1936–37 laid the foundations of public awareness of children's problems, which led to legislation after World War II providing France with a vast range of social services. In this evolution, Suzanne Lacore as a prophète-animatrice played a worthy—and underappreciated—role. Happily for her, she lived long enough to see most of what she had proposed come to pass.
Lacore returned to her village home in Milhac d'Auberoche. She continued to write, speak, and organize for the party in Dordogne and the CNFS. Reporting for the CNFS at the Socialist Party's congress in Royon (June 1938), she was warmly applauded. She defended the role of women in the home, their "elected domain," and in the party as necessary and equal participants. From then on, she faded from the national scene but remained prominent on the regional level.
Facing up to Hitler's takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, she joined (with Irène Joliot-Curie, Gabrielle Duchêne , and other notable women) the French Union of Intellectuals for Justice, Liberty, and Peace, which pledged armed resistance. During the war, she encouraged the Resistance and was searched by the Vichy police and the Gestapo. In 1945, she published a collection of articles, L'Émancipation des femmes, which went further than her previous writings in insisting on total emancipation (women in France had just received the vote) and in refuting anti-feminist arguments. Yet she never became a feminist in the usual sense, for she insisted that the full liberation of women could come only with the social emancipation of all the workers. Predictably, when the revived CNFS approved a policy of directing propaganda exclusively to women, she opposed this (successfully) in Dordogne and also opposed, again, the setting up of autonomous party sections for women. "Socialism," she wrote, "is a whole. … [I]ts ideal [is] accessible to women who grasp the relation of their particular interests to those of the whole mass of workers."
For six months in 1951, Lacore published a monthly review on her own, Espoir et lutte (Hope and Struggle), until her money ran out. In it, she wrote on a huge range of subjects, notably in defense of the public schools against the controversial Béranger Law, which gave state aid to Catholic schools. She also focused on child welfare, the subject of her last production Enfance d'abord (Infancy First, 1960), when she was 85. The older she grew the more the importance of earliest infancy preoccupied her. As ever, children were her first love. She always carried a pocketful of candy for them on her walks.
Lacore remained true to Marxism. In 1946, she published a collection of Jules Guesde's texts, and in her last articles, in the early 1960s, she defended Marx's analyses. Nevertheless, her socialism had become tempered by the humanistic approach of the great pre-World War I leader Jean Jaurès (1859–1914). It was less rigid, more reformist, and broadened beyond the economic and political spheres to embrace all aspects of human existence. As she wrote in Le Populaire de Paris in 1959, "Socialism does not have several faces: it is One, at once realistic and idealistic, reformist and revolutionary, national and international, and above all human."
Suzanne Lacore had been inducted into the Legion of Honor in 1956. In a touching ceremony on her 100th birthday, she was made an officer. Six months later, on November 8, 1975, she died peacefully at home and was buried beside her parents.
Suzanne Lacore is a striking example of a teacher whose dedication to children and her ideals never flagged. When, against all expectations, she was called from retirement in her village to serve them at the highest level, she responded with enthusiasm and acquitted herself nobly. When her time in government ended, she simply returned home—and continued to be their advocate to the end.
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Suresnes: Service de documentation de la Mairie, Archives Henri Sellier.
David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, Centre College, author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)