Richer, Léon

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RICHER, LÉON (1824–1911), French pioneer of feminism.

In the 1860s Léon Richer quit his job of eleven years as a notary's clerk for the Orleans Railroad in order to become a full-time activist on behalf of liberal republicanism, anticlericalism, and, especially, feminism. An energetic Freemason and journalist, Richer initially wrote a controversial anticlerical column for Adolphe Guéroult's L'opinion nationale. Controversial, too, were the philosophical conferences that Richer organized at the Masonic Grand Orient in 1866, a series that, over objections from fellow Freemasons, afforded women the opportunity to speak in public. Among these women was one in particular, Maria Deraismes (1828–1894), with whom Richer worked closely during the years to follow as he came more and more to focus his activism on women's emancipation. In 1869, Deraismes backed the launching of Richer's journal, Le droit des femmes (The right of women), and then a year later joined him in founding the Société pour l'amélioration du sort de la femme.

Shortly thereafter, however, these initial feminist efforts by Richer and Deraismes fell victim to the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the collapse of the Second French Empire (1870), the Paris Commune (1871), and the bitter political infighting of the first years of the Third French Republic (1870–1940). Indeed, in the early 1870s, conservatives forced Richer to drop the word droit from the title of his journal, which he retitled L'avenir des femmes (The future of women), and then, in 1875, ordered the disbandment of L'Amélioration. In the meantime, Richer published Le divorce (1873), which later influenced the text of Alfred Naquet's 1884 law reestablishing the right to divorce, but had to await the republican resurgence that followed the seize mai (16 May) crisis of 1877 in order to begin rebuilding the feminist movement. From 1878 to 1883, Richer took advantage of the improved political climate to host with Deraismes the first French Congrès international du droit des femmes (1878), regain L'Amé-lioration's official authorization, restore his journal's title to Le droit des femmes, establish the Ligue française pour le droit des femmes (1882), and write Le code des femmes (1883). In 1889 Richer and Deraismes hosted the second Congrès français et international du droit des femmes.

In his pursuit of women's rights, Richer adhered closely to the moderate strategy of the politique de la brèche, a strategy aimed at lifting women's civil disabilities through temperate appeals to public opinion and quiet lobbying, hoping to "breach" the wall of masculine domination one reform at a time. Consistently, he railed against Hubertine Auclert (1884–1914) and her suffragist allies for employing the politque de l'assaut, a strategy bent on "assaulting" the wall of masculine privilege all at once through securing women's right to vote. To Richer, the partisans of the politique de l'assaut not only weakened the feminist movement by dividing it into competing wings and alienating many potential supporters, but also placed the newly won republic in mortal danger. Because "the feminine mind was still too crushed by the yoke of the Church," Richer charged, the Third Republic would not last six months if women were to vote. Out of the nine million women prospectively eligible to vote, Richer reckoned, no more than a few thousand possessed the independence requisite for casting a ballot responsibly; the remainder would take their orders from the confessional. Hence, Richer barred Auclert from addressing the issue of women's suffrage at the 1878 and 1889 women's rights congresses and, in spite of fierce criticism from within the movement, urged indefinite postponement of women's enfranchisement until all French women had undergone a thorough republican reeducation.

Richer thus imparted a mixed message to the embryonic French feminist movement. On the one side, he drew public attention to women's civil disabilities, provided the movement with an organizational structure, and helped secure several specific reforms. On the other side, his vehement opposition to women's suffrage provided opponents of women's right to vote with an authoritative "feminist" voice on which to base their arguments. Richer retired from the movement in 1891, by which time his Le droit des femmes had become the longest-lived of any nineteenth-century feminist publication in France. His Ligue française pour le droit des femmes still exists in the early twenty-first century. Other men also followed his lead in becoming feminist activists, but never again did a Frenchman play so pivotal a role in exercising dominance over the movement's organizational structure or by imparting to its ideology a vision so exclusively limited to the pursuit of civil, but not political, rights for women.

See alsoAuclert, Hubertine; Deraismes, Maria; Feminism; Suffragism.


Bidelman, Patrick Kay. Pariahs Stand Up!: The Founding of the Liberal Feminist Movement in France, 1858–1889. Westport, Conn., 1982.

Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'égalité en marche: Le féminisme sous la Troisiéme Rèpublique. Paris, 1989.

Moses, Claire G. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany, N.Y., 1984.

Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminisms français. Paris, 1978.

Patrick Kay Bidelman

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