Léonie La Fontaine (Brussels, 1857-1949) was more than just the sister of one of Belgium’s best-known political figures of the early 20th century: Henri La Fontaine, a socialist senator and the founder of the Mundaneum, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913. She distinguished herself above all as a pioneer in Belgium for the feminist and pacifist cause.
Léonie La Fontaine was born in Brussels on 2nd October 1857.
Like her brother, Léonie received a progressive education and her mother, Marie-Louise Philips (1826-1899), regularly organised functions attended by many intellectuals. The many campaigns led by Léonie on behalf of women and peace were marked by her influence…
Léonie was very close to her brother, Henri La Fontaine, and followed his career closely. They often joined forces to carry out projects, ranging from political initiatives to intellectual cooperation.
The Marie Popelin Affair, a trigger for the feminist struggle in Belgium:
The Popelin Affair broke in 1888. Marie Popelin (1846-1913), a law graduate from the Free University of Brussels, was refused access to the Brussels Bar Association because she was a woman.
This decision subsequently triggered a support movement highlighting the condition of women in Belgium. Progressive men and women, including Hector Denis, Louis Franck, Marie Popelin, Isala Van Diest, Henri La Fontaine, and Léonie La Fontaine, joined this movement, which resulted in the creation of the Ligue Belge du Droit des Femmes in 1892.
For Léonie La Fontaine, the feminist struggle then became a major concern. She joined the Board of the Ligue. In turn, she would become treasurer, president of the Welfare section, and editor of the Ligue’s magazine. She also spearheaded a general propaganda campaign for female emancipation - the abolition of Salic law, the right to suffrage, the right to make savings and to testify, and wider access to professions.
Shared knowledge for everyone: Information for girls
Very close to her brother and to his work, Léonie La Fontaine participated in the production of entries to the Universal Bibliographic Repertory alongside Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine from 1893.
These were the two men behind the creation of the Office International de Bibliographie in Brussels in 1895.
Léonie La Fontaine’s participation in this catalogue encouraged her to promote women, information, and feminist propaganda.
In 1895, she set up an office in her own home to provide information on trades, careers and professions for women.In the early 20th century, the project grew to international proportions with the creation of the Office de Documentation Féminine within the Institut International de Bibliographie.
Belgian feminism take on an international dimension:
In 1905, all the political agendas of the women’s movement in Belgium were united under the Conseil National des Femmes Belges.
This new institution enabled women to join the leading international feminist body, the International Council of Women (ICW) created by American women in the USA in 1888.
Beyond Feminism: a commitment to pacifism
Léonie La Fontaine’s commitment to pacifism officially dates back to her joining the International Union of Women for Peace, in 1895. The Hague Peace Conference in 1899 further strengthened her commitment to the cause.
From 1911, Léonie joined a campaign to spread awareness among the younger generations in the schools of Brussels. In Belgium, she came to be seen as the spokeswoman for pacifism and chaired the pacifist section of the Conseil National des Femmes Belges.
Internationally, her activities became diversified within associations such as the “Peace and Arbitration” section of the International Council of Women.
During the First World War, Léonie fled to Switzerland, where she took part in international mutual aid movements, and went willingly to meet her pacifist counterparts at the Hague meeting of 1915.
After the war, Léonie returned to her militant activities during the 1921 legislative elections.
With Marie Parent, she founded the Parti Général des Femmes, the women’s party.
No seats were won, but this party reflected the ideals upheld by women who still did not benefit from voting rights. In Belgium, they would have to wait until 1948 for these rights…
A new generation of feminists demand their place in society. Women were first granted access to the Bar in the twenties.
In 1924, Léonie set up the Belgian section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Her activity during the thirties tended to be less in favour of feminism than of pacifism. After the Second World War, women obtained the right to vote.
By a sad twist of fate, Léonie died on 26th January 1949, the same year as the law granting women the vote came into effect…
“We ardently hope that a day will come, nevertheless, when women will be called to sit alongside men. We are convinced that on that day, wars will no longer be possible. On that day, there will be no more militarism and no more imperialism, and we will see ‘United States of Europe’ written in gold letters on our lawcourts.”
Rôle — Stéphanie Manfroid, responsable des archives
Rôle — Raphaèle Cornille, archiviste responsable du département iconographique et des projets numériques