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Misme, Jane (1865–1935)

Misme, Jane (1865–1935)

French feminist journalist. Pronunciation: MEEM. Born Jeanne Maurice in France in 1865; died in 1935; married Louis Misme, in 1888; children: daughter, Clotilde (b. 1889).

Born in France in 1865, Jeanne Maurice married a Lyons architect, Louis Misme, in 1888. They moved in 1893 to Paris, where she began to write for Le Figaro and Le Matin. She became involved in feminist activities when she joined Jeanne Schmahl 's L'Avant-courrière (The Advance Messenger) as its secretary. The organization was devoted to persuading Parliament to enact two specific reforms: the right of women to bear legal witness to public and private acts, and the right of women, including wives, to have full control of their own income. Schmahl's moderate feminism, focused on achieving practical reforms through conventional methods and rejecting partisan political appeals, permanently influenced Misme's approach to feminist activity.

Juliette Adam opened the columns of La Nouvelle Revue to Schmahl and Misme. In due course Misme joined Marguerite Durand 's La Fronde (1897–1905) after hesitating for a year because of Schmahl's objections and her own misgivings about the propriety of this pioneering all-female daily. She was a regular contributor, especially writing drama criticism—a novelty for a woman columnist—under the pen name "Jane." After La Fronde became a monthly supplement of L'Action in 1903 due to financial exigencies, Misme stayed on until its demise in March 1905. She then emerged as a leader in her own right when she set out in October 1905 with La Fronde's former financial columnist, Mathilde Méliot , to garner support to found a weekly. La Française appeared on October 21, 1906, and in time became the most important single publication in France devoted to women's life and issues, lasting to 1939. The paper was organized as a cooperative, with its collaborators required to purchase shares. From the start, Misme succeeded in attracting a wide variety of supporters, including notably the Duchesse d'Uzès , because she insisted upon an apolitical stance and, as she promised, "a moderate and seemly tone without pedantry or dogmatism." The paper would seek to prove the validity of feminism by "the demonstration of facts and acts" while advocating "modern and sensible ideas." As she put it in 1910, women's claims would have no chance of being generally understood and accepted "until their propagation, disengaged from any political, philosophical, or religious attachments, will clearly show what they are: a cause in the general interest." The paper also sponsored a circle offering courses, conferences, lectures, concerts, and theatricals, which attracted support from the upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Along these same lines, she cofounded (1908) and was vice-president of the Permanent Congress of International Feminism, which sponsored monthly meetings with foreign women residing or visiting in Paris in order to exchange ideas and information.

At first, La Française stayed clear of political causes, concentrating on familiar topics with broad support among women such as alcoholism, prostitution, pornography, and depopulation. Women's suffrage, she later admitted, seemed "terribly subversive" in those days, and the paper hence confined itself to sympathetic reportage but not active participation. This changed, however, when Schmahl—who had disbanded L'Avant-courrière, following passage of the "Schmahl Law" in 1907 giving women control of their income—floated a project for a non-partisan organization that would push for suffrage. Misme opened La Française's columns to Schmahl for a series of articles in January 1909, and on February 13, 1909, the French Union for Women's Suffrage (UFSF) was founded, destined to become the leading suffragist organization in France until the vote was granted in 1944. Misme was named secretary-general and was expected to work under Schmahl's close supervision.

In December 1910, the UFSF's central committee underwent a painful crisis as a result of the huge success Cécile Brunschvicg , an outspoken defender of the Third Republic, was having recruiting new members. Schmahl, imperious and increasingly difficult to deal with, challenged Brunschvicg's methods, which she charged were violating the non-partisan character of the UFSF and potentially alienating possible conservative and Catholic recruits. Schmahl lost, resigned as president, and went into a lonely retirement. Misme had sided with Brunschvicg against her old companion and gave up her secretary-generalship to Brunschvicg, who now became the principal leader of the organization. Misme had concluded that Schmahl's personality was no longer suited to leadership of the kind necessary to conciliate many points of view and that Brunschvicg's talents and recruiting successes promised a brighter future—which proved to be the case.

La Française continued despite steady financial losses; in 1911, Sarah Monod and Julie Puaux (Mme Jules) Siegfried saved it from an imminent demise. The paper's moderate tone no doubt helped it to survive by attracting and holding a wide range of readers. Misme continued advocacy of suffrage and undertook speaking engagements in the provinces for the UFSF. But she adamantly opposed the methods of the English "suffragettes" in the pre-1914 years. An "innate caution in the French temperament," she maintained, meant that "French suffragists are not ready for these gigantic parades that England and America constantly see. They will not be ready for a long time." French women should be "suffragists, not suffragettes." To do otherwise, she stated, would draw ridicule, which (as the adage has it) is fatal in France.

At the outbreak of the First World War (1914–18), Misme stopped publishing La Française. She soon resumed but dropped the feminist columns to concentrate on boosting morale. The suffragist campaign should be discontinued, she wrote, because "while the ordeal our country is suffering continues, it will not be proper for anyone to speak of her rights." Misme turned to problems women were experiencing in the war; she also waged a strong fight against alcoholism. The suffrage question revived at the war's end, with the women's movement divided and quarreling. Misme again advocated moderation, denouncing as "suffragist maximalists" those whose demands for full suffrage immediately rather than for a partial suffrage—e.g., for municipal elections—would, she believed, doom the whole movement at this juncture. As it turned out, the Chamber of Deputies passed a suffrage bill in 1919, but the Senate defeated it in 1922 and blocked it thereafter.

In 1920, Misme, who had been writing also in Gustave Téry's L'Oeuvre, was forced by illness to turn La Française into a monthly. In 1924, the National Council of French Women (CNFF), the national umbrella organization and hence moderate and relatively apolitical, appropriately took it over, with Brunschvicg, now president of the UFSF, assuming its direction in 1926. In her last years, Misme helped Brunschvicg organize the Estates-General of Feminism (1929), which laid women's issues before the country in well-publicized campaigns. She also presided over the press section of the CNFF and was convener (1930–34) of the letters committee of the International Council of Women.

Jane Misme was responsible for founding and editing the most important women's periodical of its time in France. Next to Jeanne Schmahl, she was arguably the greatest exemplar of a firm but moderate feminism, which she believed, for many sound reasons, best suited France's case. While outspokenly opposed to altering traditional sexual morality for women—like Brunschvicg, she would rather have men adopt women's traditionally strict standards—she warmly favored women becoming involved in the workplace and the professions as a means of fulfilling their potentialities. She thought that women's work experiences in the First World War would result in a permanent change of attitude and an end to one of the chief causes of women's inferior status—a status she devoted her life to eradicating.

sources:

Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Historical Dictionary of the Third French Republic 1870–1940. 2 vols. Edited by Patrick H. Hutton. NY: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'Égalité en marche: Le féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1989.

McMillan, James F. Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society 1870–1940. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: Stock, 1978.

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

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