- Behind the Frontlines: Women’s Wartime Experiences as Front-Page News (France 1870–1918)
For a growing number of women in France, the years leading up to the Great War constituted a period of intense lobbying for women’s suffrage. The founding of Marguerite Durand’s all-women run and written daily newspaper La Fronde in Paris in 1897 exemplifies the platform women gained during this time, offering them a vehicle through which to report on politics at home and overseas, with a special interest in the movement of women’s suffrage. In addition, women’s status changed with the educational laws of the early 1880s, which opened secondary schooling to girls. As women began taking jobs outside the home as nurses, schoolmasters, saleswomen, office and post office clerks, the movement for women’s rights gained strength in France, in a period when feminism became a transnational movement in the Western world. On April 26, 1914, in response to the growing intensity of the suffragist movement, Le Journal organized a “vote blanc” in Paris, offering women the opportunity to cast a ballot expressing their desire to vote – or not to vote. At the end of the day, more than 500,000 women had voted “yes, I desire to vote,” with only 114 opposed to the idea.
Despite this overwhelming affirmation, and the many rallies that followed, the women’s rights movement would become one of the first casualties of the war of 1914–1918, perishing along with socialist and pacifist Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated on July 31, 1914. The outbreak of war and mobilization of troops the next day, on August 1, 1914, immobilized thousands of women, who stepped back from their own battles for rights to take a supporting wartime role. Michelle Perrot emphasizes the impact of war on the women’s movement, inasmuch as “war had a profoundly conservative, even retrogressive, effect on gender relations” (qtd. in Higonnet 515). At a time when women had been pushing for rights and a place in public, the war [End Page 357] instead pushed men to the front to become fighters and national heroes, leaving women at home with the children. Women often described a “retrograde” attitude during the war of 14–18 in their daily writings as they coped every day with the harsh realities of wartime. Some women, it bears noting, did acquire more of a place in public life during the war, such as those who stepped into administrative positions in their villages, but this new role was then taken away with the return of the soldiers to the home front at the end of the war. In addition, women’s magazines such as Femina and La Vie Heureuse mounted a powerful new model of French womanhood through their publication of photographs, beauty advertisements, fashion plates, feature stories, and celebrity culture of the Tout Paris scene (Mesch 6). The women writers featured in Femina and La Vie Heureuse depicted the “conjugation of new equalities with traditional values” in that they could embrace a sense of equality as writers without abandoning traditional gender roles (Mesch 7). Despite the new visibility accorded to these working women, their powerful portrayal of womanhood remained illusory as women on the whole remained at odds in regards to their collective wartime role.
With the exception of the reporter Séverine, feminists of the fin de siècle and the Belle Époque, who had been united in the quest for women’s rights, were divided on the subject of war and did not comment on it at length. During the Great War, only a few radical feminists expressed their disapproval of the conflict, linking pacifism to feminism. From 1917 on, some even faced prosecution, like Hélène Brion, who was arrested for her pacifism and active opposition to the war and gained the support of Marguerite Durand, Nelly Roussel, and Séverine (Ripa 101). Most women, however, including a large cohort of reporteresses, respected the Union sacrée of men and women of all parties behind the war efforts, a position that the moderate feminists of the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises Julie Siegfried and Adrienne Avril...