AUCLERT, HUBERTINEthe founding of the french women's suffrage movement
second suffrage career
the program of hubertine auclert's le droit des femmes, april 1877
AUCLERT, HUBERTINE (1848–1914), militant feminist and the leading founder of the women's suffrage movement in France.
Hubertine Auclert was born to a family of prosperous peasants in central France, local notables who provided mayors to two villages in Allier. She received a convent education and considered taking religious vows, but was rejected due to her adamant personality. The death of her father provided Auclert with an inheritance large enough to give her independence—she never needed to work or to marry.
The words of Victor Hugo, which Auclert read in an account of a women's rights banquet in 1872, drew her to Paris: "It is sad to say that there are still slaves in today's civilization… women. There are citizens, there are not citizenesses" (quoted in Hause, p. 19). The twenty-four-year-old Auclert was soon one of the most active members of the leading liberal-democratic women's rights organization in Paris, L'Avenir des femmes (Women's Future), led by Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes.
Auclert left L'Avenir des femmes in 1876 after concluding that Richer and Deraismes "went too slowly in their claims." With a small group of militants, Auclert founded (and financed) her own organization, le Droit des femmes (Women's Rights), bluntly dedicated to winning "the accession of women, married or not, to full civil and political rights, on the same legal conditions as apply to men" (quoted in Hause, p. 237). Although the rupture with Richer and Deraismes worsened in 1878 over the issue of women's suffrage, Auclert found new allies in the nascent socialist movement. In 1879 Auclert attended the Marseilles congress that founded the first socialist party in France, the Parti ouvrier français (French Workers' Party), and she persuaded the party to include women's suffrage on its agenda. Auclert remained nominally a socialist for much of the 1880s, but she grew disillusioned with all socialist parties for their inaction on women's rights.
During the 1880s, Auclert conducted an energetic but lonely campaign for women's suffrage. She renamed her organization Suffrage des femmes (Women's Suffrage) to stress this emphasis, and she founded (and financed) a weekly newspaper, La Citoyenne (The Citizeness), to publicize the cause, as soon as the press law of 1881 allowed women to publish newspapers. Auclert's campaigns included an effort to register women to vote, a tax boycott, letters to the editor, petitions to parliament (twenty-two petitions between 1880 and 1887), court cases, protests at public ceremonies (including weddings), marches in the streets, a census boycott, and the organizing of women's candidacies. After an exhausting decade, Auclert had persuaded neither parliament nor the women's movement to adopt women's suffrage. Tired and lonely, Auclert abandoned her opposition to marriage (as unequally constituted in French law) and left Paris to marry one of her longtime supporters, Antonin Lévrier, who had accepted a judicial appointment in Algeria.
Auclert enjoyed her married years in North Africa, and published a book on the situation of Arab women, but the early death of Lévrier led her to return to Paris in 1892, although her newspaper and her few followers had been lost. She rebuilt Suffrage des femmes, but it remained a small organization in the era when the French women's rights movement—now called a "feminist" movement (a term Auclert claimed to have coined)—began to grow into a mass movement. Auclert was never comfortable with reserved and respectable bourgeois women, such as the leaders of the National Council of French Women (which had one hundred thousand members by 1914), but she was hurt not to be invited to lead the French Union for Women's Suffrage, which became the first large-scale women's suffrage organization in France when a coalition of feminists founded it in 1909.
Droit des femmes will seek, from the beginning and by all means in its power:
- The accession of women, married or not, to full civil and political rights, on the same legal conditions as apply to men.
- The reestablishment of divorce.
- A single morality for men and for women; whatever is condemned for one cannot be excusable for the other.
- The right for women to develop their intelligence through education, with no other limitation than their ability and their desire.
- The right to knowledge being acquired, the free accession of women to all professions and all careers for which they are qualified at the same level as applies to men (and after the same examination).
- The rigorous application, without distinction by sex, of the economic formula: Equal Pay for Equal Work.
Source: Le Radical, 3 April 1877. Translated by Steven C. Hause.
Between 1900 and her death in 1914, Auclert and a few followers conducted more vehement demonstrations. In addition to her old tactics, such as petitions (twenty-eight between 1900 and 1912), she was now more militant in the streets. For the centennial of the Napoleonic Code in 1904, Auclert publicly burned a copy of the code. In 1908 she seized the title of "the French suffragette" when she broke into a polling hall on election day, smashed a ballot box to the ground, and stomped on the ballots—the most violent demonstration that French suffragism ever produced. Auclert was convicted of a misdemeanor and paid a small fine, but the episode underscored her unacceptability for women of the respectable middle class. Auclert died in 1914, thirty years before the Comité français de la liberation adopted the ordinance allowing women to vote"on the same terms as men" in the departmental elections of February 1945 and the national elections for a Constituent Assembly in October 1945.
Auclert, Hubertine. Le vote des femmes. Paris, 1908.
——. Les femmes au gouvernail. Paris, 1923.
——. La Citoyenne: Articles de 1881 a' 1891. Edited by Edith Taïeb. Paris, 1982.
Hause, Steven C. Hubertine Auclert: The French Suffragette. New Haven, Conn., 1987.
Scott, Joan Wallach. "The Rights of the Social: Hubertine Auclert and the Politics of the Third Republic." In her Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, 99–124. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
Steven C. Hause