Jeanne MELIN – pacifist and feminist

by Isabelle Quercioli

Jeanne Mélin grew up in an open-minded environment, touched by the horrors of the war of 1870 and aware of the pacifist movement, then in its infancy.

She recalls; “The war, still close by, was often the topic of conversation”. Jeanne Mélin formed a local group linked to the association La Paix et le Désarmement par les Femmes. Her pacifist tendencies were born of a refusal to see the return of war. She made a contrast between the masculine, a symbol of violence, and the feminine, a symbol of life.

Then she became a militant in favour of arbitration and an international code of nations. She took part in pacifist congresses, both national and international (the 19th Congrès Universel de la Paix in Stockholm in 1910).

She built up a national and international pacifist network with Bertha von Suttner.

She wanted to encourage the teaching of pacifism in schools. She sought to eradicate violence, not only at State level, but also at an individual level, seeking to stamp out violence among children. She worked out a system of co-education based on inter-changing masculine and feminine qualities.

Thanks to pacifism, Jeanne Mélin discovered feminist ideals, the result of “female education through peace”.

Pacifist, feminist, writer and propagandist, Jeanne Mélin travelled throughout Europe and met several Nobel Prize-winners.

She campaigned tirelessly for peace and voting rights for women.

Jeanne Mélin was above all a pacifist feminist, for whom feminism was the way to peace. She based her thinking on the communication of the values of peace by women, the life-givers. Female suffrage, above all else, opens the door to peace: women give life and, consequently, have no natural capacity to harbour warlike tendencies. This was her life-long belief.

In her opinion, the right to vote in the name of peace was not a political strategy, as certain feminists would wish.

On the contrary, it was the only way to successfully follow one’s pacifist commitment.

In 1906 she joined the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO), influenced by the pacifist and socialist beliefs of Jean Jaurès. She also subscribed to the mainstream feminist attitudes of the time by founding, in 1912, a group called l’Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes des Ardennes. Through this channel she worked for the right to vote in a phased approach and for municipal suffrage. For example, the presence of women on municipal councils would help to alleviate social ills.

In this way she acquired a solid reputation as a pacifist, feminist speaker both in France and elsewhere in Europe between 1910 and 1914.

In the November-December of 1913, she attended 30 conferences in France, promoting peace and votes for women.

Little by little she introduced into her pacifist message the idea of capitalism being responsible for war.

She was a supporter of Jaurès.

The radical pacifism of a well-known and respected female activist.

During the Great War, Jeanne Mélin incurred the wrath of the French authorities by demanding voting rights for French women to bring the combat to an end.

She supported the Congrès International des Femmes, which met in La Haye in April 1915.

She aligned herself with Dutch feminists (Arletta Jacobs), the future founders of the Ligue Internationale des Femmes pour la Paix et la Liberté (Jane Addams), and feminist radicals (Hélène Brion, Gabrielle Duchêne).

During the twenties Jeanne Mélin moved towards radical pacifism, whose aim was to prevent further wars and to establish a more effective form of internationalism than the Society of Nations, and then towards a broader pacifism, which she embraced for the first time in 1931.

From 1919 to 1925, she centred her activist activities on international relations, as witnessed by surviving letters.

Between 1915 and 1924, she received 852 letters from, in particular, radical feminists (Gabrielle Duchêne, Louise Bodin), from leaders of the LIFPL (Jane Addams, the President, Chrystal MacMillan, Gertrud Baer and Lida Gustava Heymann, members of the German branch).

From 1919 to 1925, she militated very actively for peace and for votes for women, most notably from within the LIFPL. She refused to accept the Treaty of Versailles, and particularly the theory of German culpability. She increased her symbolic and media-related activities in support of Franco-German reconciliation.

At the inaugural Congress of the LIFPL, in Zurich in 1919, she is remembered for shaking the hand of the German delegate Lida Gustava Heymann. In her speech, she refused to condone France humiliating Germany by way of the peace treaties. She proclaimed herself a sister of these women who, like herself, had fought so strongly against imperialism and militarism.

Jeanne Mélin travelled widely in Europe on behalf of the LIFPL. She was in Brussels and Liège in 1920 to launch the Belgian division and in Vienna in 1921.

She actively participated in the development of the European and international network of feminist pacifists. The positive influence of these networks is difficult to evaluate. For example, in December 1922, a delegation from the Messagères de la Paix, comprising Jane Addams, Catherine Marshall and Jeanne Mélin, won the support of the Scandinavian countries against French occupation of the Ruhr.

Unfortunately, their neutrality prevented them from putting pressure on France to prevent the Ruhr occupation and press for a re-opening of treaty discussions. The delegates proposed the setting up of an international loan to end reparations. They did not achieve the same success in London and Paris, where the French and British governments refused to receive them.

How modern their proposals were is not widely-known. Jeanne Mélin, in the Cahiers de la Paix, drawn up in 1924 at the LIFPL’s Washington congress, hoped for a radical change to the League of Nation’s constitution, to prioritise “the international rights and duties of nations”.

Jeanne Mélin played a part in the establishment of an international feminist pacifist movement. During the summers of 1923-24 and 1925, young men and women from around the world met in Honfleur. These meetings were to promote intellectual co-operation among nations and to prevent the younger generations from taking up arms by dispelling the misunderstandings disseminated by national propaganda. The initiators wanted the League of Nations to be replaced by an international society of nations advocating sex equality, the economic independence of women, the equal sharing of wealth and respect for minorities.

On 11 November 1931 she took part in a parade for peace. This march, bringing together 19 different societies working for peace, crossed Paris by bus, and was marked by two symbolic arrests, one at the Etoile on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and another at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

In 1933 Jeanne Mélin sent a manifesto the German people proposing a European economic federation.

In 1935 she took part in a number of meetings held by the world committee of Women against War and Fascism, created in 1934 by Gabrielle Duchêne. She was convinced that only a single union of feminists, united by a sense of internationalism, could wage the fight against war.

She claimed the supremacy of “the right to life, based on human rights”.

In 1957 in her memoirs, Jeanne Mélin bears witness to the desperation and isolation she felt when tackling the subject of the declaration of war:

“Well at this point, I find it impossible to describe my greatest disappointment… having worked so hard and relentlessly for harmony between nations, for peace and human fraternity, all I could do was stand by impotently as such a worthy ideal collapsed around me”.