Vérone, Maria (1874–1938)
Vérone, Maria (1874–1938)
First woman lawyer in France to plead in the criminal courts, who was a journalist, lecturer, and a leader in the struggle for equal rights for women. Pronunciation: mah-REE-ah vay-ROHN. Born in Paris, France, on June 20, 1874; died in Paris of hepatitis on May 24, 1938; daughter of an accountant and a shop clerk; educated at the École Primaire supérieur Sophie Germain and other public schools and at the Faculty of Law (Sorbonne); married and divorced; married Georges Lhermitte (an attorney), in 1908; children: (first marriage) two.
Worked as a substitute teacher in Paris (1894–97); wrote for La Fronde (1897–1902); named secretary-general of the French League for Women's Rights (LFDF, 1904); helped reestablish Le Droit des femmes and became its editor (1906–38); admitted to the Paris bar (1907); sponsored Jeanne Laloë's candidacy for the Paris Municipal Council (1908); author of a report to the National Council of French Women (CNFF) which formed the basis for the women's suffrage bill (1909); left the Socialist Party (1912); served as president of the Suffrage Section of the CNFF (1913–20); involved with the Jeanne Halbwachs trial and the Condorcet demonstration (1914); served as president of the LFDF (1918–38); was a columnist for L'Oeuvre (1918–35); named president of the Legal Section of the CNFF (1921); when Senate defeated the women's suffrage bill, became "Madame Quandmême" (1922); was convener of the Suffrage Section of the International Council of Women (1927–36); arrested in a suffragist demonstration (1928); wrote an Open Letter to Premier André Tardieu, and was a founder of Open Door International (1929); represented the CNFF at The Hague Conference on Codification of Law (1930); was a founder of the Sexological Educational and Studies Association (1931); assisted La Femme Nouvelle (1934–36); opposed Blum's project of a National Feminist Council (1936); final passage of the Renoult Law on women's civil rights (1938).
Publications (from M. Hamburger):
Le Suffrage des femmes en pratique: Documents réunis par Chrystal Macmillan, Marie Stritt, Maria Vérone, préface de Carrie Chapman Catt (Paris: L'Alliance international pour le suffrage des femmes, 1913); La Femme et la loi (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1920); Pourquoi les femmes veulent elles voter (Paris, 1922); La Séparation et ses conséquences (with Georges Lhermitte); Résultat du suffrage des femmes; La Femme et la loi autour du monde; La Situation juridique des enfants naturels; La Livre de la jeune fille (collaboration, crowned by the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques).
La Fronde (1897–1902); La Paix (1897–1900); Le Droit des femmes (1906–38); La Bataille syndicaliste (1911–12); La France libre (1916–18); L'Oeuvre (1918–35); contributed to other newspapers and reviews.
Maria Vérone was a leading trial lawyer in France in a time when female attorneys were exceedingly rare and almost never appeared in open court. Nevertheless, she was best known to the public as an advocate of women's rights, especially the right to vote.
She was born on June 20, 1874, in Levallois, a working-class suburb of Paris. Her father was an accountant, her mother a shop clerk. They were Voltairian agnostics involved in freemasonry and influenced her toward left-wing politics. Precociously bright, at 15 Vérone served as secretary at the International Congress of Freethinkers and at 18 was one of its lecturers. Her performance as a student won her a scholarship to an upper-level school in Paris, where she intended to pursue a career in mathematics. But her father died, so she had to help support the family. She and her mother worked as plumassières, making ornaments and artificial flowers and feathers for women's clothing. Still, she continued her education somehow, for in 1894 she was appointed a traveling substitute teacher.
In 1897, she was dismissed without her final two months' pay because of her political opinions and unionizing activities among teachers and found herself reduced to singing in a chorus line at a small theater. She married a young journalist and joined him on the staff of Georges Clemenceau's L'Aurore. In December 1897, she came aboard Marguerite Durand 's new all-female-operated newspaper, La Fronde, where until 1902 Vérone wrote a regular column (signed "Themis") on legal and judicial matters. She and Martha Meliot (financial affairs) challenged exclusively male institutions such as the stock exchange and forced them for the first time to accredit female journalists. Her experiences led her to decide to become a lawyer.
This was a very tall order, because by now she was divorced and supporting two small children. She had to learn enough Greek and Latin to pass the baccalaureate examination in order to gain admission to the Faculty of Law. She carried it all off and in 1907 became only the fifth woman in French history to be admitted to the bar. (Jeanne Chauvin and Olga Petit in 1900 were the first.) Unlike the others, Vérone at once entered courtroom practice. Two months after becoming a probationary attorney, she pled before the Court of Assizes, the first woman to do so. More firsts followed, including pleas before the Council of War and the High Court of Appeals (Cour de Cessation). Small, alert, fearless, she spoke at the bar in a clear, distinct voice with great eloquence but without oratorical flights. Her forte was a remorseless logic that could shred an opponent's case in minutes.
Vérone accepted many kinds of cases, notably fraud and medical and pharmacological malpractice, but her specialty was juvenile justice. She was a major figure in establishing it as a distinct branch of the law. One result was laws on prostitution by minors (1908), juvenile courts (1912), and child vagrancy (1921). While working to create juvenile courts, she drew attention to anomalies permitting children as young as seven to be tried in regular courts even though the fault usually lay with the family. As early as 1911, after only four years in practice, she was being cited in Parliament as an expert. She also conducted an inquiry on these subjects in Budapest at an international congress. Moreover, in 1908 she was the first attorney to win a case in which the puissance paternelle—the father's exclusive legal power over his children, redefined in 1907—was granted to a woman because of the interests of the child, thus setting a precedent.
Her competence and character—good humored, frank and open, ardent, charming, cultivated, full of panache—made her one of the ornaments of the French bar and a distinguished member of a score of professional organizations. At various times she was a professor of law at the Philotechnical Association, a member of the Defense Committee for Prosecuted Children, the Organization Commission of the Children's Tribunal of the Department of the Seine, the Extra-Parliamentary Commission for the Editing of the Children's Code (1914), rapporteur (floor manager and spokesperson) for the Superior Consultative Commissions on Rentals (loyers, 1914), and secretary-general of its Housing Section. She was also founder and president of the National Union of French Lawyers and of the Union of Women Lawyers, president of the League of Nations' International Women's Committee on the Nationality of Women, and a corresponding member of the American Institute of Comparative Law and Legislation of Mexico.
Maria Vérone was one of the premier female public speakers of her time, and not just in the courts. She lectured widely on women's issues and legal topics, but additionally she revealed her cultural range and sophistication by holding forth on such subjects as "In the Days of the Courts of Love," "Woman and Love in the Old French Chanson," "The Court of Louis XV before Madame de Pompadour ," "The Rehabilitation of Madame de Pompadour," "The Household of Victor Hugo," "The French Woman and the Novel," "In Algeria: Manners, Customs, and Costumes," "Impressions of the East: The New Turkey," "A Traveler in the Kabyle" (Algeria and Tunisia), and others.
Long live the Republic just the same!
—Maria Vérone, 1922, upon the Senate's defeat of women's suffrage
As if these labors were not enough, during the La Fronde years, especially as a result of her involvement in 1900 with Durand in the Fifth International Congress on the Condition and Rights of Women, she had become active in the women's movement. She had also joined socialist organizations. In 1900, she was a delegate to the founding congress of the Social Cooperatives' Exchanges and was a member of its central committee for several years. She joined the new Feminine Socialist Group, founded in 1895 byLouise Saumoneau ; but it faded by 1905—which did not displease her altogether because Saumoneau emphasized preparation for the Revolution rather than women's issues as such. She then joined the Unified Socialist Party (SFIO, 1905) but soon found it likewise rather tone-deaf to women's concerns.
The French League for Women's Rights (LFDF, 1882) suited her better. It was friendlier to left-leaning ideas than most women's organizations, tended to appeal to well-educated and (increasingly numerous) professional women, and unlike many feminist organizations cultivated relations with prominent men favoring feminism. When Maria Bonnevial became president of the LFDF in 1904 following Maria Pognon (1894–1904), Vérone became secretary-general, from which position over the next several years she almost single-handedly revived this once-important organization and made the suffrage its main concern. She also helped re-establish (in 1906) the rather highbrow monthly Le Droit des femmes (1869), editing it with the aid of attorney Georges Lhermitte, whom she married in 1908, and Andrée Lehmann , vice presidents of the LFDF. Ensconced in the LFDF and Le Droit des femmes, Vérone occupied "an extremely important position in the evolution of French suffragist tactics," that is, the middle ground between militants like Hubertine Auclert and Madeleine Pelletier , who contemplated violence on the model of the English "suffragettes," and the great mass of moderates, who opposed all street action. She could be confrontational toward authority and sympathetic to calls for direct action, but her temperament and training led her to prefer working within and through the law: "For the decade before World War I, Vérone sought a careful compromise of legalism and militancy that could attract moderate feminists to more active suffragism," writes Steven Hause.
An early—arguably decisive—showdown over tactics occurred during the municipal elections of 1908. Initially as a circulation stunt, Le Matin persuaded one of its young reporters, Jeanne Laloë , to run for the Paris City Council in the 9th arrondissement. Vérone took up her cause, gave her legal advice, and urged her to run seriously since the Municipal Elections Law of 1884 did not explicitly bar women candidates. She secured Laloë a school hall for a meeting—the first time such legal recognition had been afforded a woman. Over 2,000 people came out, including some 20 news photographers. Hecklers, however, turned the affair to derision. Auclert and Pelletier spoke but came away disillusioned and calling for forceful measures. On election day, Auclert smashed a voting urn and was arrested. When police prevented Vérone and Laloë from entering a polling place to witness the ballot counting, Vérone argued that the police were acting illegally. More police arrived. At this critical moment, she retreated rather than imitate Auclert, whose actions had shocked almost all the suffragists. Instead, she brought a suit (soon dismissed) over the counting and the denial of entry. Estimates of Laloë's illegal tally ran to 987 votes, or about 22% of the votes cast, a figure hailed by most feminists as a great victory. The more profound result was a defeat for the radicals' forlorn attempt to turn the French suffragists toward the English model of violent activism. For this outcome Vérone, for better or worse, bore considerable responsibility.
The movement forged ahead, exuding optimism. The important League of the Rights of Man and Citizen affiliated with the LFDF in 1908 (Vérone joined its central committee in 1910), and a national feminist congress endorsed the suffrage. In 1909, the National Council of French Women (CNFF, 1901), a federation of all types of women's organizations including the LFDF, asked her to write a report on the pending Dussaussoy Bill (1906), which granted women municipal suffrage. Her lengthy report was approved and sent to Ferdinand Buisson, who relied upon it heavily in his 400-page report submitted (July 16) to the Chamber of Deputies favoring full women's suffrage—the first formal endorsement of the idea the Chamber had received. It was not until 1919, however, that the suffrage question reached the floor, the First World War (1914–18) accounting for much of the delay.
For the parliamentary elections in 1910, Vérone launched an ambitious effort to run female candidates all over Paris. She organized a meeting in March which drew over 2,000 people, with hundreds more turned away. She favored big meetings such as were held in other countries, but the CNFF and the moderate, recently founded French Union for Women's Suffrage (UFSF, 1909) would not go along, leaving her to rely on smaller organizations and sympathetic politicians. The March meeting promised well, but in the end only 9 of 20 candidates registered and only 4 actively campaigned.
Despite disappointments and confusion, the suffrage seemed on the verge of victory before the war—although Vérone, for one, took a less sanguine view of its prospects than most women. She joined the Socialist Women's Group (GdSF), founded in 1912 by Marianne Rauze to promote the suffrage, and sat on the executive committee. She also became president (1913) of the Suffrage Section of the CNFF. The Section, founded in 1906 as a study body, was becoming more action-oriented. But that same year Vérone left the Unified Socialist Party over the Couriau affair, when the party failed to support women trying to join a trade union; and in the winter of 1913–14, Louise Saumoneau took over the GdSF in a coup and forced her off the board. Trying to link socialist politics with women's causes only earned her frustration. She concluded women needed some kind of autonomous political identity, although their own party, as in America, seemed out of the question. She spoke of "a new course," "a new place" in the struggle, but groped to define it. Non-violent activism seemed its closest equivalent. In December 1913, the LFDF opened a "suffragist kiosk" on the fashionable boulevard de Sébastopol. It distributed small Christmas gifts wrapped in feminist literature. It is indicative of the moderation of the women's movement as a whole that this timid example of "street action" drew considerable comment.
The success of the kiosk persuaded her and the LFDF in January 1914 to sponsor women's voter registration for the parliamentary elections that year. The object was to force the issue into the courts. Officials reacted cautiously, but finally the prefecture of the Seine refused all female registration. Vérone and Georges Lhermitte brought suits in five districts, basing them on contradictory interpretations of "French" and "citizen" in the law. The case of a socialist student Jeanne Halbwachs (later a prominent pacifist as Halbwachs-Alexandre) drew the most attention. The trial judge and the High Court of Appeals ruled that men alone can be "citizens"; women remain "françaises" only and hence cannot exercise political rights. The blunt verdict effectively ended all the cases.
The year 1914 marked the apogee of the women's movement to date and arguably its most hopeful moment ever. The National League for the Vote for Women (LNVF) was formed, a more militant organization than the LFDF and most others. Vérone joined and gave lectures but grew uncomfortable with its tone. She, as did almost all the feminist leagues, refused to participate in a demonstration in late March (the Carrefour Feydeau affair—a dismal failure) sponsored by the LNVF to protest the Halbwachs verdict. She disliked the unauthorized use of her name and didn't want to denounce the courts, where she had cases pending. She served, however, on the committee, adroitly led by the great journalist Séverine , which put together a demonstration (July 5) at the statue of Condorcet, an 18th-century philosophe sympathetic to women's rights. It drew 5–6,000 participants from all the major women's organizations, making it the largest demonstration that French suffragists ever staged. But fate intervened less than a month later when France went to war. The catastrophe crippled the movement at the moment it had at last seemed on the verge of success.
After the war began in August 1914, Vérone directed, under the auspices of the LFDF, a clothing warehouse for refugees and some 13 workshops for needy women, subsidized by the National Aid. She also founded an organization (Marrainage de Guerre) of some 400 women who served as "godmothers" to soldiers, writing to them, sending packages, and receiving them in their homes.
The suffrage issue began to revive in 1917 when Pierre-Étienne Flandin presented a report to the Chamber's committee on universal suffrage which revived the Dussaussoy municipal-vote project. Vérone, Durand, and others regarded it as far too moderate and told him so. Action was postponed to the end of the war, by which time Vérone was again in full stride.
She succeeded the late Maria Bonnevial in 1918 as president of the LFDF, remaining there until her death in 1938. Wanting to make it a national federation and thus pressure the much larger UFSF from the left, she undertook lecture tours which spread LFDF chapters to 23 departments by 1920, with about 1,000 members. (By 1927, the figure had risen to 27,000.) She also began a collaboration with Gustave Téry's L'Oeuvre in 1918. She wrote more than 500 articles for the paper until she resigned in January 1935 because of differences with editor Marcel Déat over his support of the Laval-Mussolini accords. In 1920, Elisabeth Fonsèque succeeded her as president of the Suffrage Section of the CNFF, but in 1921 Vérone returned as president of the Legislative Section. She was also named head of the Legislative Section of the International Council of Women and in 1927–36 convener of its Suffrage Section. In politics, she rejected Bolshevism, left the Unified Socialist Party again, in 1920, as a result of the schism which produced the Communist Party, and (with Durand) joined the small, moderate Republican Socialist Party. The LFDF, which welcomed support from all parties, was probably closer to the Republican Socialists than to others, but that party's "anti-suffragist tendencies coupled with Maria Vérone's determination not to become identified with any one party made any closer collaboration quite impossible," writes Paul Smith. Nevertheless, in a report to the CNFF in 1926 she urged women to join parties in order to get their issues put on the agendas.
In response to the brave and economically vital performance of women during the war, women's suffrage came to the fore from 1919 to 1922. On May 20, 1919, the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill by a 395–329 margin (with numerous abstentions) and sent it to the Senate. Vérone worked to influence the parliamentary elections due in November 1919. She tried to organize a demonstration similar to the Condorcet rally of 1914, but police pressure—the Clemenceau government feared disturbances of any kind might harm France's position at the ongoing Paris Peace Conference—plus the fragmentation of the women's movement frustrated the project. Likewise, a mock election for women sponsored by L'Oeuvre in October fizzled when only 12,688 voted. Police surveillance in 1918–19 particularly galled her. She hinted that violence was a possibility, although she plainly preferred to stay within legal channels.
Vérone continued to focus the LFDF's activities heavily on the suffrage, convinced that it was vital to progress on all other women's issues. The Senate procrastinated, while women's organizations failed to coordinate their efforts. Vérone floated an interesting idea of starting a national chain letter to inundate the Senate, but she couldn't carry it out. She did, however, organize two banquets that attracted large crowds and much press attention. In March 1921, the LFDF held a 50th-anniversary banquet at the Trocadero Palace which drew several thousand, and in December a "Feminist Festival" at the Trocadero featured a speech by former president of the Republic Raymond Poincaré, who was returning to the Senate and was shortly to become premier. The banquet was a huge success, but Poincaré never delivered on his promise to use his full influence in the Senate to get the suffrage bill passed.
In the meantime, an alternative, the "family vote," a proposal floating around since the 1870s, gathered support among politicians wary of granting women equal voting power with men. It would give women a vote and men a vote plus one for each child in the family. Writing in Le Droit des femmes and L'Oeuvre, Vérone and Lhermitte adamantly opposed this peculiar scheme, which many women supported as at least a start. They attacked any two-class voting system and had no difficulty pointing out the inevitable complications, practical and legal, e.g., how to count children in cases of divorce or illegitimacy or abandonment. Nevertheless, the idea in various versions remained strong for years. By the mid-1930s, Vérone would eventually decide to support it in alliance with Catholic women as a stopgap means of insuring that, if it passed, married women could vote and not have their votes delegated to their husbands.
After innumerable delays, the suffrage bill reached the Senate floor in November 1922. The debate lasted two weeks, at the end of which the bill was returned to committee on a 156–134 vote (November 21). From the packed, stunned gallery, Vérone called out, "Vive la République quand-même!" (Long live the Republic just the same!) It was a cry of anguish, not of acquiescence; from that time on, however, she bore the ambiguous nickname, "Madame Quand-même."
The 1922 disaster would prove irretrievable, a source of deep resentment for Vérone until her death 16 years later. "If only we had a fraction of the funds the British or Americans have," she moaned in 1922. Time and again she threatened to resort to illegal direct action. (She once also proposed, apparently seriously, that women embarrass senators by publicizing names of those observed patronizing brothels.) In April 1925, the Chamber passed a bill granting women the vote in municipal and cantonal elections. Vérone criticized the Chamber for appearing to back away from its 1919 position of equal suffrage rights across the board. Still, while the Senate stalled, officials allowed women to stand for local offices, 80 in Paris alone. Only 10 were elected, all in the provinces and mostly Communists, but Vérone hailed it as a "feminist victory." The Council of State, however, nullified these elections.
Feminists worked hard during the 1928 Chamber elections, with some success. The Senate remained obdurate. When it at last took up the municipal franchise bill, in June 1928, it refused full floor discussion by a 166–116 vote. This second Senate defeat so infuriated Vérone that she summoned women to imitate their English sisters ("En avant les suffragettes," L'Oeuvre, June 20). A week later the LFDF, CNFF, and some other organizations called for a mass demonstration outside the Palais Luxembourg (Senate). The authorities cancelled it, citing a recently enacted law (1927) forbidding marches. In reply, Vérone warned in Le Droit des femmes: "Feminist organizations are in agreement in declaring that they will stop short of nothing in order to win the vote."
No such agreement existed, as the lack of a truly forceful response made painfully clear. The vast majority of women and their organizations (including Vérone's own) harbored too many reservations about what she was calling upon them to do, wedded as they were to moderation and "proper" deportment.
In Angers, at the 1928 congress of the Radical Republican Party—actually anticlerical moderates, dominant in the Senate, who feared women's suffrage would endanger the Republic, especially (as they expected) by increasing the political power of the Roman Catholic Church—she organized a series of demonstrations to disrupt meetings and also to discomfit Cécile Brunschvicg , a feminist prominent in Radical party affairs. The climax of the campaign came on November 6, 1928, when at the opening of the fall session of Parliament a number of women wearing rosettes and carrying placards arrived at the Luxembourg in taxis decorated with feminist slogans. Over-zealous police moved in and arrested 28, Vérone among them. They were released after a night in jail. Further arrests of women in suffragist garb ensued outside the Senate in the days following. Vérone filed a complaint, but the suit was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence. In March 1929, the Senate refused to revive the municipal franchise bill, 164–120. (The question returned in 1931 and 1935 with similar results.) "Monsieur Véto [Louis XVI] has been resurrected in the guise of a Radical senator," was Vérone's acid verdict.
During the 1928–32 legislature, constitutional revision, e.g., proportional representation, no runoff elections, and halving the size of the Chamber, began to affect the suffrage cause. It split the feminists. Vérone thought revision could open the door for the suffrage; she would support whomever supported the vote. On November 13, 1929, she published an Open Letter to Premier André Tardieu urging him to include women's suffrage with his revisionist proposals. Because revision tended to be supported by many moderates and the Right, however, Radicals and Socialists began to fear it. As the Great Depression deepened and the fascist threat mounted in Europe, even in France (e.g., the rioting on February 6, 1934), suffragists faced a tougher fight with the Radical-dominated Senate, now more determined than ever to hold the line on innovations they believed might threaten the Republic's survival. Vérone took the opposite view, writing that February 6 proved the government had grave faults and needed sweeping reforms such as abolition of the Senate or its election by popular vote (senators were chosen by members of local governing bodies) and the recognition of women as full citizens. Such measures would strengthen, not weaken, the Republic. In this context, the fact that the Left took to calling pro-revision feminists "fascists" contributed to her decision (noted above) to resign from L'Oeuvre in January 1935 when its editor supported the Laval-Mussolini accords.
Women's suffrage limped on. The Chamber added it as an amendment to an election reform bill (February 12, 1932), but the Senate detached it and postponed discussion. At the end of the 1932 session (March 31), the Chamber reaffirmed women's suffrage, 463–68, and urged the Senate to act; but in June, when Senator René Renoult introduced a bill to reform women's civil status (see below), the Senate used this as an excuse to put off the suffrage bill once more. In December 1933, the Senate again adjourned the bill, 155–114—its last vote on the suffrage, it turned out, before the Third Republic collapsed during Hitler's conquest in 1940. Not that the suffragists had given up. The 1933 setback led to the birth of La Femme Nouvelle (The New Woman), a movement founded by Louise Weiss , a journalist heretofore not active in the feminist movement. Vérone gave a "sparkling" speech (according to Weiss) at the founding rally on October 6, 1934. La Femme Nouvelle went on to stage a series of highly publicized demonstrations and stunts—women chaining themselves together at the Place de Bastille monument or interrupting the running of the Grand Prix de Longchamps. Vérone limited her help, perhaps fearing a loss of LFDF members and feeling some pangs of jealousy.
The LFDF helped sponsor a large rally on March 19, 1935, which supported yet another pro-suffrage vote in the Chamber (although the bill was returned to committee) and backed female candidates for the municipal elections in June. It also helped set up a broadly leftist Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Women, which played a role in getting the coming Popular Front government of 1936 to guarantee women the right to work. Feminists won some success in the municipal elections. Returns from the Senate elections in November prompted Le Droit des femmes to proclaim "Feminism has won," but the results actually were inconclusive.
The year 1936 was charged with drama. The Popular Front coalition of Communists, Socialists, and Radicals led by Socialist Léon Blum swept to victory in April and swiftly enacted a number of important social reforms. Women's issues, however, were treated with promises and then postponed because other matters seemed more pressing and because of their perceived linkage to constitutional reform and hence too often to the Right. Blum made a widely noted gesture by appointing three women to his cabinet, a historical first, as under-secretaries of state—Cécile Brunschvicg, Suzanne Lacore , and Irène Joliot-Curie . Vérone and Weiss could not fathom why they (Brunschvicg in particular) would accept Cabinet posts with no firm assurances on the suffrage. When in June Blum proposed a National Feminist Council to deal with women's issues, Vérone and the editors of La Française persuaded him to scrap the idea; they said they appreciated the thought but preferred the vote.
Although the Chamber voted yet again (July 30, 1936) for full political equality for women, the bill languished because of the government's reluctance to push this divisive issue in the face of current domestic and foreign crises. As for a bill reserving a certain number of seats for women on municipal councils, Vérone opposed it as just another timid gesture. In short, to Vérone the Popular Front (1936–37) proved to be a cruel disappointment—hardly assuaged by her receipt of the Legion of Honor, of which she nevertheless was justly proud.
Important, even consuming, as the suffrage was to Vérone, it was far from her only preoccupation. The First World War forced a reexamination of the civil rights of women, especially married women. Napoleon's Civil Code of 1804, which had undergone only minor revisions in this regard, made a married woman a legal minor, equivalent to a child, criminal, or mental defective, totally subject to her husband, unable to acquire or dispose of property or raise her children without his authorization. The war had left women to run their households unsupervised or work outside the home, and a postwar influx of immigrants to fill jobs left by fallen soldiers led to marriages with French women who therewith lost their French nationality. On this latter point, Vérone, who had pled the Halbwachs case in 1914, was a major advocate in obtaining passage of a law (1927) allowing married women to keep their nationality, with certain limitations, upon marriage to a foreigner. She welcomed the law as a progressive step but continued to argue for an unrestricted right.
On the broader question of civil rights, she and the LFDF campaigned for a reform to end the "slavery" of women. She thought France should follow Italy's example (1919) and simply abolish all legal distinctions between men and women at one stroke with a single amendment. The government, however, decided to examine and alter the Code line by line, arguing that this method would make the abolition more secure by leaving less to judicial interpretation. Most feminists in the early 1920s thought that the suffrage was nearly won and that new legislation would soon finish the job. But the suffrage stalled in the Senate. The government nevertheless went ahead on women's rights and in 1925 appointed an Extra-Parliamentary Commission on the Revision of the Rights of Women. (Neither Vérone nor Catholic representatives were named to it, i.e., the Left and Right were in effect shut out.) The commission's report (May 20, 1928) favored abolition of married women's civil incapacity and rewriting the Code as regards marriage contracts. Despite its omissions, Vérone, as president of the CNFF's Legislative Section, defended the report before the Estates-General of Feminism—a large affair drawing wide attention—in February 1929. But she added that the puissance paternelle should be abolished, and the Estates-General agreed. She repeated similar views when she represented the CNFF at The Hague in 1930 at the International Conference on the Codification of Law.
The 1928 report formed the basis for the bill presented to the Senate on June 23, 1932, by Minister of Justice René Renoult, late president of the Extra-Parliamentary Commission. The Renoult bill, sent to committee, made substantial revisions in the Code but, to Vérone's disappointment, kept hands off the puissance paternelle. Still, prospects looked good—the Senate's Radicals disliked the suffrage but favored civil rights—until Renoult suddenly announced (June 24, 1933) that issues concerning marriage contracts and the conseil de famille—a council of a man's relatives which assumed his puissance paternelle after his death, his widow being excluded—would be dealt with later in other bills. Vérone and most of the non-Catholic ("secular") feminists were outraged, suspecting (rightly) that this mutilation of the original bill was a maneuver to help the Senate ignore the suffrage bill. She pointed out that the division gutted any attempt to grant married women full civil capacity: "In his haste," she wrote sarcastically, "the rapporteur [Renoult] forgot to propose the abolition of certain articles of the Code which will effectively nullify the reform proposed by M. René Renoult." Marriage contracts must be reformed and the conseil de famille ended, otherwise "the vast majority of married women would not be capacitated in practice." What Vérone wanted was simple legal equality within marriage. Unlike a Nelly Roussel or Madeleine Pelletier, however, she was no radical prepared to consider abolition of marriage or dissolution of the family.
Bad luck stalked the civil-rights movement. By the time the Renoult bill reached the Senate floor (December 1936), a backlash in France and elsewhere in defense of the traditional male-dominated family was in full swing, fed by the crises attendant upon the Great Depression and the darkening international scene. In the end, the bill which passed the Senate (March 19, 1937) had evolved from one liberating women into one protecting the family. Nevertheless, most feminists, Vérone included, wanted the Chamber of Deputies to pass it (which it did, on February 18, 1938) so they could move on to reforming marriage contracts and getting the suffrage. The Renoult Law was at best a gingerly step in the right direction. The whole business had confirmed Vérone's dictum that "parliament only votes laws for those who vote for parliament." Not even she, unillusioned as she was by now, would have imagined that comprehensive reforms of marriage contracts and mothers' rights over their children would wait until 1965 and 1970, two decades after a world war had brought the enfranchisement of women.
There was one other area of special concern to Vérone: sex education, motherhood, and France's low birthrate. The last-named had worried prewar France, and the immense loss of young men in the war made it during the 1920s and 1930s a matter of grave concern about the country's economic and military future. "Natalism" (so-called) and the Family Movement (its participants, the " familiaux," emphasizing traditional moral values and large, traditionally structured families) sought to meet the challenge and were most influential in the years 1919–23 and 1934–40. Vérone supported natalism. She praised motherhood as "a rare enough sport" and pleaded that it "ought not to be seen solely as a burden but also a joy, and above all never a source of shame" (L'Oeuvre, November 29, 1923). She also believed that celibacy in women often causes "nervous illnesses, such as anemia and neurasthenia," although she stopped short of advocating sexual activity for single women. She couldn't, however, resist tweaking the government for awarding medals to mothers of large families, saying women would prefer the vote in exchange for doing their "patriotic duty." At the same time, nevertheless, she opposed laws against advertising or supplying contraceptives (1920) and forbidding abortion (1923). "To prevent abortion," she wrote, "we must respect motherhood" and concentrate instead on positive steps to ease the conditions women face.
Not surprisingly, Vérone and other secular feminists found themselves by the mid-1920s quite out of tune with the increasingly reactionary tone of most natalistes and familiaux. (She took to calling them lapinistes—"rabbiteers.") She and her feminist cohorts—most notably Cécile Brunschvicg, Germaine Montreuil-Strauss, Marcelle Kraemer-Bach, Suzanne Schreiber-Crémieux , and Yvonne Netter —were more interested than they in the new science of pediatrics and the latest advances in obstetrics and gynecology and were also impressed by the ideas of Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes and others in England and the United States promoting sexual reform and education. Such subjects along with a revived interest in eugenics (which intrigued Vérone) grew quite fashionable by the late 1920s. In 1931, she became a founder and vice-president of the Sexological Education and Studies Association (AEES). In 1929 (in Berlin) she had also helped found Open Door International to oppose the mounting calls for women to confine themselves to their homes and children; and in 1935, she was named honorary president of the newly founded branch in France. Her point of view regarding the general situation of women was well stated in her Open Letter to Tardieu (Nov. 13, 1929), translated by Paul Smith:
We are forever hearing about the needs of large families, but before you get to the twelfth child, you have to start with the first. The State must take steps to protect the life of every being conceived either in or out of wedlock. Things would be very different if you had to present your program to an assembly of women.
Opinions such as these fueled her opposition to the family-vote schemes, which enjoyed a considerable vogue in the interwar years. The natalistes and familiaux in turn generally took a dim view of feminism, blaming it for promoting a "selfish individualism" to which they attributed the decline of the birthrate. At a meeting of the LFDF (January 23, 1935), she vented her anger over the frustrations the feminists were experiencing in trying to make any progress whatever on the suffrage, civil rights, the promotion of sex education, and the protection of mothers. Men, she said, because of the double standard, are responsible for the destruction of the family: "Marriage is no longer safe for women. There are women today who prefer to live in free unions, because that way a woman, the mother, keeps her rights." Clearly her tone on this subject had changed since the early 1920s. Certainly, she was less optimistic about women's imminent attainment of equality and security than she had been. In those hopeful days, even the new fashions for women had promised a brighter future—short hair, non-constricting clothing more suited to outdoor and professional activity: "The women who had preceded us," she wrote, "gave us examples of false hair, false sentiments, marriage without love." No doubt changes for the better had occurred, but in her last years Vérone was having trouble seeing them as harbingers of dramatic improvements in women's lives any time soon.
By 1937, her health was failing. She stayed the course as best she could. Quite in character, during her last three months she took great interest in Louise Weiss' new (February 7, 1938) Union of French Women Decorated with the Legion of Honor. It sought to strengthen the country through non-partisan efforts to improve civil rights and lobby on questions of general interest, especially public morals and health.
Maria Vérone succumbed to hepatitis on May 24, 1938, at age 64, six years shy of General Charles de Gaulle's grant to women of the right to vote. She was survived by her husband, children, and several grandchildren. (Andrée Lehmann, a long-time associate, succeeded her as president of the LFDF.) Visitors to her deathbed viewed a tiny, white-haired lady with diaphanous skin, the Legion of Honor pinned over her heart. Decorating an attorney, journalist, lecturer, and tireless activist and organizer serving the causes she believed in, the red-ribboned medal was well placed. Few if any women of her generation owned better title to it.
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David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)