Pelletier, Madeleine

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PELLETIER, MADELEINE (1874–1939), French feminist.

Madeleine Pelletier was a pioneering feminist and socialist, doctor, anthropologist, and psychologist, significant for her work as a feminist theoretician, which in the decade before World War I prefigured the insights of second-wave feminism.

Born on 18 May 1874 to a poor Parisian family, Pelletier obtained a science degree from the University of Paris and became an active member of the Paris Anthropological Society. In the early 1900s, she published a dozen major papers in the materialist craniometry then fashionable, but moved on (probably because the materialist paradigm led to the conclusion that women's intelligence was inferior to men's because their brains were smaller) to study medicine and then psychology, becoming the first woman psychiatric intern in France. In 1906, after a major battle, she obtained the right to sit the competitive examination to become a doctor of the state asylums, the equivalent of a psychiatrist today, but did not succeed. Subsequently she earned her living as a general practitioner.

Pelletier was a leading activist in a surprising variety of areas. In 1904, she was initiated into a mixed Freemasons' lodge, where she became a Venerable. Her campaign for women's entry into regular (i.e., male) Masonry made significant inroads before she was blocked in 1906. She was a founding member of the unified French Socialist Party (the Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière) in 1905. In 1906, she steered a strong resolution committing the party to women's suffrage through the national congress. In 1910 she became the first woman member of the party's central committee (the Commission Administrative Permanente) and represented the party at international socialist congresses before the war. She acted and dressed as a man insofar as possible, arguing that to act and dress as a woman was to accept "servility." She rejected mainstream feminists who sought to "remain feminine"; for her the task was "to virilize women."

Also in 1906, Pelletier became secretary of La Solidarité des Femmes (Women's Solidarity) and made of it the most radical feminist organization in France. She represented this group in the famous 1908 Hyde Park (London) demonstrations for women's suffrage and from 1909 until the war published a monthly feminist magazine, La Suffragiste. She was a major figure on the extreme left of the neo-Malthusian movement, as birth control was then known. Her 1911 book L'émancipation sexuelle de la femme (Woman's sexual emancipation) contained a chapter supporting the right to abortion, published as a separate brochure in 1913. She was the first French doctor to support abortion publicly and the first person to base the argument on women's equal right to sexual pleasure. Above all, she was the first to place abortion in the context of a woman's political rights.

After World War I Pelletier wrote and spoke extensively, playing a prominent role in Parisian left-wing intellectual circles. A founding member of the French Communist Party, she traveled to the Soviet Union in 1921. This led to disillusionment with the party and she did not challenge her expulsion as a Freemason in 1924. Subsequently, she was active in a debating forum, the Club du Faubourg. In 1939, she was prosecuted for practicing abortion. She was not tried but was committed to the asylum of Perray-Vaucluse, where she died on 29 December 1939.

Pelletier's outstanding achievement is as a theoretician. She analyzed for the first time the question of the gendered structure of society and the resulting construction of the individual's gendered identity (or "psychological sex," as she termed it). To explain these issues, she wrote countless brochures and articles, a dozen works of general socialist and feminist theory, several plays, an autobiographical novel, and a utopia.

La femme en lutte pour ses droits (1908; Woman's struggle for her rights) began her analysis of gender formation. The first chapter is entitled "The Sociological Factors in Feminine Psychology." Pelletier pursued these questions in L'Emancipation sexuelle de la femme (1911), where she argued against the nuclear family: men profited from marriage, but not women: "Instead of being served it is [women] who serve," she wrote. Marriage restrained women from fulfilling themselves: "The woman, for her part, does not live, she only watches her husband live."

Pelletier believed that women's struggle for political rights was burdened by the psychological devaluation of self of which they were victims. L'éducation féministe des filles (The feminist education of girls), published in 1914, attempted to break the vicious circle. "It is the mother who begins to create the psychological sex," she stated. Feminist mothers should raise girls so that they attained a sense of self-development and aimed at making a mark in the "real world," not simply finding a marriage partner, for only through work could women improve their self-esteem, as she had long argued. In these analyses, she prefigured key ideas not to be voiced again until Simone de Beau-voir's The Second Sex (1949) or even second-wave feminism of the 1970s.

See alsoAuclert, Hubertine; Feminism; Population, Control of; Suffragism.


Primary Sources

Pelletier, Madeleine. L'éducation féministe des filles, suivi de Le droit à l'avortement; La femme en lutte pour ses droits, la tactique féministe; Le droit au travail pour la femme. Paris, 1978.

——. La femme vierge. 1933. Reprint, Paris, 1996.

——. Mon voyage aventureux en Russie communiste. 1922. Reprint, Paris, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Bard, Christine, and Jean-Christophe Coffin, eds. Madeleine Pelletier: Logique et infortunes d'un combat pour l'egalite. Paris, 1992.

Gordon, Felicia. The Integral Feminist—Madeleine Pelletier, 1874–1939: Feminism, Socialism, and Medicine. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. See chapter 5

Sowerwine, Charles. Sisters or Citizens? Women and Socialism in France since 1876. New York, 1982. See chapter 5.

——. "Woman's Brain, Man's Brain: Feminism and Anthropology in Late Nineteenth-Century France." Women's History Review 12, no. 2 (2003): 311–329.

Sowerwine, Charles, and Claude Maignien. Madeleine Pelletier, une féministe dans l'arêne politique. Paris, 1992.

Charles Sowerwine

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