Cécile Brunschvicg was one of the grandes dames of French feminism during the first half of the twentieth century and especially during the interwar years. She was born into a well-to-do Jewish family of Alsatian provenance in Enghien-les-Bains just north of Paris on July 19, 1877. Her father, Arthur Kahn, was a prominent textile manufacturer who had opted for French citizenship after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Although he strenuously opposed her pursuit of higher education, she studied in secret and received her teaching certification at the age of seventeen. In 1899, she married the eminent French philosopher and Sorbonne professor Léon Brunschvicg (1869–1944), with whom she had four children between 1901 and 1919. According to Brunschvicg’s daughter, it was Léon Brunschvicg, who in 1911 became vice president of the newly created Ligue des Electeurs pour le Suffrage des Femmes, who initially sparked his wife’s involvement with feminism and especially the suffrage movement, since he believed that without the vote women’s achievements would never be recognized.
From 1909 on, Cécile Brunschvicg played a major role in two French feminist organizations: the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises (CNFF), a federation which had been founded in 1901, and the Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes (UFSF), which was founded in 1909 as the French branch of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. Together with Jeanne Schmahl (1846–1915) and Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger (1853–1924), Brunschvicg helped found the UFSF and served as its first general secretary. La Française, the weekly newspaper of the CNFF, referred to Brunschvicg as “a woman of action of the first order.” It was largely due to her organizational talents that the UFSF grew rapidly into a national organization in the years before World War I. Although the movement began with a mere three hundred members in 1909, by 1914 its membership had risen to approximately fourteen thousand and regional chapters had been established in all but ten departments.
Brunschvicg’s brand of feminism was moderate and non-confrontational. Although her chief demand was women’s suffrage, she also focused on a range of practical reforms, including greater parity in women’s salaries, expanded educational opportunities for women, the elimination of prostitution and alcoholism, and the drive to reform the French civil code, which treated married women as if they were minors. During World War I, Brunschvicg endorsed the patriotic the view of the majority of French feminists that “As long as the war continues, the women of the enemy are also the enemy,” and she participated in the war effort by organizing lodgings and job programs for approximately twenty-five thousand refugees displaced from their homes in northern and eastern France, an activity for which she was named chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1917 she also persuaded the Ministry of Labor to create the Ecole des Surintendantes d’Usine in Paris—a school intended to train a professional cadre of women factory inspectors—an activity that reflected Brunschvicg’s interest in reaching out to working-class women.
During the interwar years Brunschvicg emerged as the leading personality in the suffrage movement. In 1924, after the death of Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger (1853–1924), she assumed the presidency of the UFSF and in 1926 she also took over the editorship of La Française, which was transferred from the CNFF to the UFSF in the same year. In 1924, when the Radical Party for the first time opened its ranks to women, Brunschvicg was among the first women to join and in 1925 she became one of ten women nominated to the Radical Party’s executive committee. Although most leading Radicals did not support women’s suffrage, fearing that the majority of French women would vote for conservative and clerical political parties, Brunschvicg nevertheless remained convinced that the path to victory resided in cultivating relationships with high-ranking republican politicians. As she explained in the Radical newspaper L’Oeuvre in 1926, women “should not lose sight for an instant of their fundamental duty, little by little to win over the men around them to our ideas.” Under her tutelage, the UFSF continued to grow and by 1928 it numbered approximately one hundred thousand members. In 1929, on the hundred and fortieth anniversary of the Estates General of 1789, Brunschvicg helped organize the Etats Généraux du Féminisme, complete with cahiers de doléances, or grievances, presented by French women to the nation as a whole.
In the 1930s, Brunschvicg’s campaign on behalf of women’s suffrage seemed to be stalled. Despite repeated votes in favor of women’s suffrage in the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate voted on six occasions against ratifying this decision. As a result, some feminists lost patience with Brunschvicg’s moderate tactics and began to press for greater militancy. Brunschvicg, however, refused to sever her ties to the Radical Party and in May 1936, when the Popular Front led by Prime Minister Léon Blum (1872–1950) was elected, she was repaid for her loyalty when the Radical Party recommended her to serve as a junior minister in Blum’s cabinet. Blum named a total of three women to junior ministerial posts: Brunschvicg, who served as undersecretary of state of national education; Suzanne Lacore (1910–1960), who became under-secretary of state for the protection of children; and Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956), who served as under-secretary of state for scientific research. These were the highest offices ever held by women under the Third Republic. Although Brunschvicg remained in office only until June 22, 1937, when Blum’s first ministry fell, she scored some notable achievements. She oversaw the opening of one thousand seven hundred school canteens and she introduced improved health and physical education facilities into the public schools. In 1937 she was recognized for her service when she was promoted to officer of the Legion of Honor. Brunschvicg’s decision to participate in Blum’s government, despite his refusal to make women’s suffrage a priority for the Popular Front coalition, again sparked controversy in some feminist circles. As Louise Weiss, another leading feminist of the interwar years, commented, “Three swallows do not make the spring.” Most feminists, however, believed these high-level appointments constituted an important victory in the battle for full equality between the sexes.
Although Brunschvicg had to relinquish her post as president of the UFSF as well as her editorial duties at La Française when she assumed her ministerial duties, she continued to engage in other social activities throughout the 1930s. In 1931 she helped found the Association d’Etudes Sexologiques, a center-left organization aimed at promoting sex education and population control within a liberal and republican framework, as opposed to the right-wing policies of the pro-natalist Alliance Nationale pour l’Accroissement de la Population Française. She was also an outspoken opponent of the conservative and anti-feminist policies of the High Committee on Population, an interministerial committee created in the spring of 1939, which called on women to stay at home in an effort to increase the birth rate and curb rural depopulation. Finally, although Jewish issues were not high on her agenda, she did write a piece in La Française in the 1930s criticizing the French branch of WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, for embracing a Jewish as well as a French national identity. For Brunschvicg, French Jews had only one national identity—French.
After the French defeat of June 1940, Brunschvicg and her husband fled to the unoccupied zone of Vichy France where she taught at a girls’ school in Valence under an assumed name. Her daughter joined the Gaullist resistance in London. Léon Brunschvicg died in January 1944. From 1944 to 1946 she served on various United Nations reconstruction committees, as well as the executive committee of the Fédération Démocratique Internationale des Femmes. She also served as honorary president of the Conseil National des Femmes Radicales Socialistes. On April 21, 1944 General Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government in Algiers finally issued an ordinance granting women the right to vote, and on April 29, 1945 women participated for the first time in nation-wide municipal elections. Cécile Brunschvicg was the sole member of the pre-World War I generation of French feminists to survive to witness this victory. She died shortly afterwards, on October 5, 1946 at the age of sixty-nine. A memorial service was held in her honor at the Sorbonne and the tributes paid to her have been collected in a printed volume. In the year 2000, her private archives, which had been taken from France to Berlin in 1940 and were subsequently transferred from Berlin to Moscow at the end of World War II, were returned to France. Today they are housed at the Centre des Archives du Féminisme at the University of Angers.
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Caron, Vicki. "Cécile Brunschvicg." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/brunschvicg-cecile>.