Auclert, Hubertine (1848–1914)
Auclert, Hubertine (1848–1914)
Founder of the women's suffrage movement in France who struggled for 30 years to win the vote through her suffrage league, her militant newspaper, and dramatic tactics including a tax boycott and violent demonstrations. Name variations: "Liberta," Jeanne Voitout. Pronunciation: o-CLAIR. Born Marie-Anne-Hubertine Auclert on April 10, 1848, in the village of Tilly, in the department of Allier, France; died in her apartment in Paris, France, on April 8, 1914; fifth of seven children of Jean-Baptiste (a well-to-do peasant landowner) and Marie (Chanudet) Auclert (daughter of neighboring landowners); residential pupil at the Catholic Convent of the Dames de l'enfant Jésus in Montmirail (Allier, France) from age nine (1857) through sixteen (1864); married Antonin Lévrier (a judge in the French colonial service) in Algiers, in July 1888 (died, February 1892); no children.
Father died (1861); rejected in effort to join Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at end of her studies (1864); sent back to convent as a pensioner by her oldest brother on the death of their mother (1866); inherited independent fortune at age 21 (1869); claimed inheritance and moved to Paris (1873), joining pioneering feminist league of Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes; founded her own feminist society, Women's Rights (1876); split from Richer and Deraismes during feminist congress of 1878, to seek women's suffrage; participated in socialist congress of 1879 to seek feminist-socialist alliance; organized voter registration campaign and feminist tax boycott in Paris (1880–81); founded feminist society, Women's Suffrage, and suffragist newspaper, La Citoyenne (The Citizeness) (1881); lead numerous petition campaigns and demonstrations (1881–85); ran as illegal candidate for French parliament (1885); left Paris to marry her longtime feminist collaborator (1888–92); returned to Parisian feminism as newspaper columnist (1893); resumed suffragist petition campaigns (1898); took active role in feminist congress and revived Women's Suffrage (1900); led militant demonstration to burn French Civil Code (1904); led violent election-day demonstrations and convicted of misdemeanor (1908); ran as illegal candidate for French parliament (1910); remained leading voice of militant suffragism as moderate suffragist movement grew in France (1910–14).
Publications—many pamphlets and newspaper columns plus: Les Femmes arabes en Algérie (Arab Women in Algeria; Paris, 1900); Le Vote des femmes (The Vote for Women; Paris, 1908); Les Femmes au gouvernail (Women at the Helm; Paris, 1923).
Women's suffrage received enormous publicity during the Parisian municipal elections of May 1908. Although French women had no legal right to vote or to run for office, Jeanne Laloë , a young reporter for Le Matin, announced her candidacy for the Municipal Council and began to write newspaper stories about her campaign. French suffragists, who had worked for political rights for 30 years, worried that this unprepared campaign was merely a newspaper's publicity gimmick. Militant suffragists, led by the founder of the movement, Hubertine Auclert, decided to make a more forceful demonstration. On polling day, the 60-year-old Auclert, wearing widow's black, led a suffragist parade through Paris. Later, on that same Sunday afternoon, Auclert marched into a poll, brushed aside electoral officials, and walked to a table where men were depositing their paper ballots in a wooden box. Before the eyes of stunned officials, she seized the ballot box, smashed it to the floor, and stamped on the spilled ballots. After a brief speech denouncing "unisexual suffrage," Auclert was arrested. At her subsequent trial, she proudly accepted the comparison to the "violent suffragettes" of Britain and vowed to continue the struggle to win the vote.
Hubertine Auclert was born in the department of Allier in central France in 1848. Her father, Jean-Baptiste, was a prosperous landowner who served as mayor of the village of Tilly, a republican in an age of monarchy. Auclert received eight years of formal education (1855–64) as a residential pupil at the convent of the Dames de l'enfant Jésus in Allier, and she developed her youthful personality in ascetic piety. At age 16, she felt called to a religious life, and she sought in 1864 to join the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. They apparently found her egalitarian Christianity too radical and rejected her.
Auclert lived with her widowed mother in 1864–66, and their conversations during these years awakened the young woman to the subjection of women. When Madame Auclert died in 1866, Hubertine learned that lesson in a more painful manner. Her older brother Théophile assumed control of the family properties and returned his sister to the now-hated convent as a "paying resident." After Hubertine Auclert received her share of the family estate, however, neither her brother, nor the convent, nor the provinces could keep her. Her inheritance did not bring great riches, but it brought freedom: it provided Auclert with sufficient income that she need never take a job or a husband.
Auclert's feminist awakening was completed in 1872 when she read the press accounts of a great meeting held in Paris by the women's right league of Maria Deraismes and Léon Richer. She was especially moved by Victor Hugo's famous message to that meeting:
It is sad to say, that there are still slaves in today's civilization. The law uses euphemisms. Those whom I call slaves, it calls minors; these minors according to the law and slaves according to reality, are women…. Women cannot own, they are outside the legal system, they do not vote, they do not count, they do not exist. There are citizens, THERE ARE NOT CITIZENESSES. This is a violent fact; it must cease.
After reading accounts of that speech, Hubertine Auclert resolved to go to Paris and to devote herself to the cause of women's rights.
Auclert joined Léon Richer's group, L'Avenir des femmes (Women's Future), in 1873. The league called for numerous reforms in French civil and criminal law to improve the position of women: the right of women to file paternity suits against their seducers, the equal sharing of paternal authority and rights within the family, the abolition of a husband's control over the property and earning of his wife, the end of the legal
double standard concerning adultery, the acceptance of a woman's testimony in civil and public law, and the legalization of divorce.
Auclert worked for these reforms as a public speaker, a journalist, and a supporter of Richer's league for three years (1873–76). As she learned her way in Parisian politics, however, she became convinced that Richer and the other leaders of French feminism were making a major mistake in their program. In order to win the many objectives of Richer's program, Auclert concluded, they must demand the complete political rights of women. When women had the vote, the Chamber of Deputies would pay attention to them. Richer refused to add political rights to his program, so the 28-year-old Auclert left L'Avenir des femmes to launch her own association.
Hubertine Auclert founded a society named Le Droit des femmes (Women's Right) in 1876. Through this association, soon renamed Le Suffrage des femmes (Women's Suffrage), Auclert founded the women's suffrage movement in France. The group initially attracted only 20 members and rose to a maximum of 150, but they were enough to put the issue before the French public. Auclert hoped to present the case for political rights at the women's rights congress of 1878 (Congrès international du droit des femmes), which Richer and Deraismes organized. Instead, she learned that the moderate mainstream of French feminism strongly opposed calling for the vote: Deraismes and Richer refused to allow her to speak of women's suffrage at the congress.
Auclert responded by publishing her proposed speech as a pamphlet, "The Political Rights of Women—A Question That is Not Treated at the International Congress of Women." Her attack was blistering:
I know that the partisans of the emancipation of women find the claim of political rights premature. I have nothing to reply to them, except that woman is a despoiled creature who demands justice, not a beggar who pleads for charity from man…. What can the oppressors think, if those who desire to liberate women are anxious about not offending their oppressors and timidly ask for a little more education, a bit more bread, slightly less humiliation in marriage.
With these words, Auclert left behind the moderate feminist movement and began a search for new allies.
During the winter of 1878–79, Hubertine Auclert began attending Parisian socialist meetings in hopes of finding allies on the far left of French politics. This led to her being chosen as a delegate to the annual congress of French socialists held at Marseilles in October 1879. Auclert addressed that congress as "the slave delegate of nine million slaves," and proposed to French workers an "alliance against our common oppressors." She defiantly challenged French socialists to add women's suffrage to their program:
If you, proletarians, wish to protect privileges, the privileges of sex, I ask you what authority you have to protest against the privileges of class? … In the future society, pretended socialists [say], women will have their rights. In this they imitate the priests who promise to the disinherited of the earth the joys of heaven. Neither the disinherited of wealth nor the disinherited of rights, neither the poor nor women can always content themselves with holy promises. Women of France, I tell you from the height of this podium: those who deny our equality in the present will deny it in the future.
Auclert's speech won a socialist resolution in favor of women's suffrage, the first won from any political party in France. During the early 1880s, however, French socialists discouraged Auclert by giving women's rights only lip service, and her enthusiasm for the party waned by 1885.
Auclert launched her most energetic campaigns for women's suffrage in the early 1880s. Her small association, renamed Suffrage des femmes (Women's Suffrage) and a newspaper that she founded, financed, and edited, La Citoyenne (The Citizeness) sponsored numerous efforts to publicize their claims. In February 1880, she led a delegation of suffragists in an attempt to register to vote at the town hall. Denied registration, Auclert protested by announcing that she would no longer pay her taxes: "I have no rights, therefore, I have no taxes; I do not vote, I do not pay." After several months of controversy, Auclert backed down when the government came to seize her furniture—but she launched a new series of court cases to appeal these procedures. Her other demonstrations of the 1880s included the interruption of marriage ceremonies at town hall (to warn brides of their legal subjection to their husbands), polls of parliament, regular petitions on behalf of all forms of women's rights (22 petitions between 1880 and 1887), contacts with the American suffrage movement, parades in Paris (reaching 200 marchers in 1885), and even illegal candidacies for office. Perhaps Auclert's most lasting accomplishment during these struggles was to give the women's movement the word "feminist" in 1882: she was apparently the first advocate of women's rights (in any country) to adopt this label.
By the late 1880s, Auclert was frustrated and disillusioned. After 15 years of labor, she had not even persuaded the moderate majority of the feminist movement to support women's suffrage. Her organization never attracted many members, nor her newspaper many subscribers. The Parisian press ridiculed her.
And Auclert was deeply lonely. The love of her life, a strong supporter of her feminism named Antonin Lévrier, was a judge. When the Ministry of Justice transferred Lévrier out of Paris, he proposed marriage but Auclert chose to stay in Paris to work for feminism. When Lévrier was posted overseas in 1885, he again proposed marriage and Auclert again declined. When his career moved Lévrier back to Algeria and his health declined, Auclert reconsidered. Deeply frustrated in Paris, Auclert married Lévrier in Algiers in July 1888. For the period 1888–92, her contact with French feminism was limited to writing letters and articles. One series of those articles formed the basis of her subsequent book, Les Femmes arabes en Algérie (Arab Women in Algeria, Paris, 1900), outraged at the life of women in the most important French colony.
Though Hubertine Auclert returned to Paris after Lévrier's death in 1892, she only gradually returned to the women's rights movement. She felt like an outcast when she tried to participate in the feminist congress of 1896, but she had recovered her vigor and dedication by the time of the next congress in 1900. Auclert launched a vigorous second feminist career in that year and reestablished her organization, Suffrage des femmes. She did not found another newspaper, but she became a regular columnist (under the rubric "Le Féminisme") for an important Parisian daily paper, Le Radical.
During the first decade of the 20th century, Auclert worked with the same energy that she had shown in her 30s. French feminism was then beginning the transition from small, pioneering societies to large, active organizations with tens of thousands of members. Although she never became an insider in these large, moderate organizations, Auclert and her society revived the issue of women's suffrage and contributed significantly to the acceptance of this issue by the French women's rights movement. She revived the tactics of her suffrage campaigns of the 1880s, such as petitions to the Chamber of Deputies, but during the years 1904–08 Hubertine Auclert also introduced more militant suffragist tactics to France.
Auclert's most famous demonstration, during the Parisian municipal elections of 1908, earned her the appellation "the French suffragette." Her seizure and destruction of a ballot box was, with Madeleine Pelletier 's breaking of a polling place window a week later, the greatest violence used by French suffragists before World War I. Auclert was not by nature a violent person, and she tried to explain her militancy in court:
It is regrettable that I committed this act which brings me before you; regrettable because I am strongly opposed to violence. But I acted this way because I have been pushed to the limit—as all of my suffragette comrades have been—by the egoism of men.
Please consider that for many years I have tried in vain to claim the political rights of women, in a lawful manner…. I am very respectful of legality, I am not a violent person. But I believe that there are moments in life when violence is excusable.
Driven to desperation by seeing my legal efforts lead to nothing, I bore in mind that when men were excluded from politics, as women are today, they built barricades…. They cannot be surprised that women, in their turn, revolt.
When Hubertine Auclert made that speech in court, she was 60 years old and near the end of her career. She lived long enough to witness the acceptance of suffragism by French moderate feminists at a congress in 1908, and to watch as they founded a new league committed to moderation, the L'Union française pour le suffrage des femmes (French Union for Women's Suffrage), rather than join her organization. She tried to lead the new suffrage movement to more vehement tactics by participating in a series of women's candidacies in the parliamentary elections of 1910, and lived long enough to see a suffrage movement with more than 10,000 members plan marches in the streets in 1914.
I leave to men the privilege of paying the taxes that they adopt and portion out according to their pleasure…. I have no rights, therefore, I have no taxes; I do not vote, I do not pay.
Bidelman, Patrick K. Pariahs Stand Up! The Founding of the Liberal Feminist Movement in France, 1858–1889. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.
Hause, Steven C., and Anne R. Kenney. "The Limits of Suffragist Behavior: Legalism and Militancy in France, 1876–1922," in American Historical Review. Vol. 86, 1981, p. 781.
Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'Egalité en marche: Le Féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1989.
Moses, Claire G. French Feminism in the 19th Century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984.
Sowerwine, Charles. Sisters or Citizens? Women and Socialism in France since 1876. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Taïeb, Edith, ed. Hubertine Auclert: La Citoyenne: Articles, 1848–1914. Paris: Syros, 1982.
Papers located in the Bouglé Collection at the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris; important dossiers located in the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand (Paris) and in the Archives du Préfecture de Police (Paris).
Steven C. Hause , Professor of History and Fellow in International Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and author of Hubertine Auclert: The French Suffragette