Deraismes, Maria (1828–1894)

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Deraismes, Maria (1828–1894)

French feminist, well-known writer, lecturer, and anti-clericalist. Pronunciation: der-REM. Born in Paris, France, on August 15, 1828; died in Paris on February 6, 1894; sister of Anna Féresse-Deraismes; never married.

Selected writing:

Le théâtre chez soi (1863); Aux femmes riches (1865); Nos principes et nos moeurs (1867); Éve contre M. Dumas fils (1867); Les droits des enfants (1886); Éve dans l'humanité (1891). Founded Le Républican de Seine et Oise (1881).

Maria Deraismes was born in 1828 to a rich commercial family. Her parents, liberal republicans of a Voltairian stripe, were profoundly anti-clerical and believed that girls should be as well educated as boys. Hence, she and her older sister, Anna Féresse-Deraismes , received educations quite out of the ordinary for the time. Maria studied all the classical subjects, taking particular interest in music, painting, drama, history, literature, and philosophy (both European and Asian), and thus brought to her life's work intellectual resources denied most women. Free—being unmarried by choice and very wealthy—she set out to become a writer, producing several comedies collected in Théâtre chez soi (1863), as well as some pamphlets and collected articles and speeches, including Aux femmes riches (1865), Thérésa et son époque (1865), A propos des courtisanes (1865), Nos principes et nos moeurs (1868), L'Ancien devant le nouveau (1869), Ève contre Dumas fils (1872), France et progrès (1873), Lettre au clergé français (1879), Les Droits de l'enfant (1887), Épidémie natural-iste (1888), and Ève dans l'Humanité (1891). She contributed to several periodicals, among them Nain Jaune, L'Époque, Le National, and Le Grand Journal early in her career, and later to Le Semaine anti-cléricale, Le Rappel, L'Événement, Le Républicain de Seine-et-Oise (which she directed, 1881–85), as well as Le Droit des Femmes (1869–71, 1879–90), renamed L'Avenir des Femmes (1871–79), with which through Léon Richer (1824–1911) she was closely associated.

Even more than a writer, however, Deraismes was a woman of speech and action. Her earliest writings already revealed an interest in women's education and their right to participate in all public spheres. This led Adolphe Géroult, Jules Labbé, and Léon Richer to invite her to speak in a lecture series, the Free-Thinkers Conferences, in 1866 at the Masonic Grand-Orient Lodge. She was about to decline the offer—public speaking by women in mixed assemblies on public issues was exceedingly rare, usually forbidden by authorities, and in any event regarded as unseemly—when she read an article by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly in Nain Jaune savagely mocking women writers as "bluestockings." The diatribe so enraged her that she accepted the offer to lecture. Her debut was a triumph. An editor of Émile de Girardin's La Liberté, Édouard Siebecker, wrote:

I expected to find a pedantic old spinster, affected and worthless.

I was greatly surprised to see a young woman 24 or 25 years old. [She was 38.] She was slightly pale, with great refinement of shape and demeanor, of simple elegance, without ridiculous timidity or impudent self-assurance.

She won her listeners over from the start. Her voice was of good timbre, her elocution easy, her language of great purity, her flashes of wit were shrewd without being spiteful, well cast. With all this a great deal of good sense and high erudition.

I was seduced along with the others.

Henceforth, although she did not speak frequently, Deraismes became France's most celebrated female orator of the time.

At first, she spoke and wrote mostly on literary or philosophical subjects, but she soon began to address women's issues frequently and participated regularly in André Léo 's Society for the Claiming of the Rights of Women. In 1869, Deraismes helped Richer found the weekly Le Droit des Femmes, the longest-lived women's publication of its time; in 1870, they founded the Association for the Rights of Women, which in 1874, under conservative political pressure, was renamed the Society for the Amelioration of Woman's Condition. In 1881, Léo's group fused with the Amelioration to form the Society for the Amelioration of Woman's Condition and the Demand of Her Rights. A year later, for reasons never entirely clear, Richer formed another society, the French League for the Rights of Women, which still exists.

Deraismes and Richer were by all odds the dominant figures in the now burgeoning women's movement in the 1870s and 1880s. He concentrated on the paper while she mainly wrote and spoke and ran the Amelioration Society. Theirs was a hard struggle against entrenched attitudes and a web of constricting laws, and it was carried on while the Third Republic itself was continually being threatened by conservative and reactionary parties until the collapse of General Boulanger's movement in 1889. During the conservative era of the Moral Order (1873–77), the Amelioration was suppressed (December 1875–August 3, 1878). Deraismes waged a courageous fight for the Republic, turning her estate in Pontoise (Seine-et-Oise) into a resistance center during the Seize mai (May 16th) crisis (1877) and securing the election of the department's first republican deputy. Deraismes subsequently played important roles in getting educational reforms for women in the 1880s, the divorce law (1884), and the right of businesswomen to vote for judges of the com-mercial tribunals, which passed the Chamber of Deputies in 1894. She also was active in such causes as free thinking, anti-vivisection, protection of mothers and children, and societies and homes for mothers.

Deraismes and Richer organized France's first general women's conference, the International Congress of the Rights of Women (July 29–August 9, 1878), held at the Grand-Orient. Attendance was sparse, and the affair marked the split between Deraismes and Hubertine Auclert , who advocated first obtaining the vote—a position Deraismes and Richer rejected as divisive and a danger to the republic because of the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on masses of women. A second assembly, the French and International Congress of the Rights of Women (June 25–29, 1889), sponsored by both Deraismes' and Richer's groups as an alternative to a government-sponsored conference in connection with the Paris Exposition, likewise had a small attendance but did attract participants from six foreign countries and some important politicians. Deraismes, a staunch laissez-faire liberal, used the occasion to come out against "protectionist" legislation for women, such as forbidding night work, saying that more basic reforms should be passed, which would install equality between the sexes. She was also an important participant in the General Congress of Feminist Societies (May 13–15, 1892), which, however, failed to form a policy capable of integrating socialist feminism with the mainstream liberal movement. In the meantime, during the years when education laws were a center of attention, she also organized with Victor Schoelcher the Anticlerical Congress (May 15, 1881), participated in the National Congress for the Separation of Church and State (1882), and was president of the Federation of Free-Thought Groups of Seine-et-Oise.

In her later years, Deraismes, whose contacts with Freemasonry were of long standing, put a great deal of energy into trying to convert the order—a politically powerful organization to which a large number of prominent republican politicians belonged—to the feminist cause by opening its membership to women. She got herself admitted to the lodge at Pecq (Seine-et-Oise) on January 14, 1882, but the Grand-Orient Lodge promptly expelled the lodge, which in turn had to expel her to be reinstated. Not to be denied, in 1893 with the aid of Senator Georges Martin, Deraismes finally succeeded in forming a new lodge open to both sexes, the Grand Scottish Rite Mixed Lodge of France—Human Rights. Similar lodges soon formed at Lyon, Blois, Le Havre, then abroad, and the order still exists.

After Maria Deraismes' death from cancer in Paris in 1894, streets were named for her in Pontoise and Paris, a first there for a woman (17th arrondissement), and a statue of her was erected in the Square des Epinettes in 1898, of which, sadly, only the pedestal remains.

Maria Deraismes, with Leon Richer, began a new stage in the women's movement in France by firmly linking it to political life and issues. The most important early influences on her feminism stemmed from Saint-Simonianism through her family, John Stuart Mill, and her own full education, notably in philosophy. Her central themes were the education of women, their right to participate fully in all spheres of life, and the importance of a family life based upon rationality, justice, and an equal sharing by husband and wife, including even sexual fulfillment for the woman, hitherto a rare claim, but in Deraismes' case with a flat rejection of "free love" and any double standard for either partner: "We—women—we want to be what we are, not what you have made us" (1869). She presented these themes most effectively from the platform and in pungent, lively newspaper articles; her longer, more formal writing was far less successful. A woman of strikingly good looks, a fine voice, and distinguished bearing and style, she compelled attention by her appearance, her gifts for sharp debate and striking turns of phrase, and her brilliant intellect.

In the political struggle, she adopted the "politique de la brèche," i.e., a focussed attack on the weakest part of the wall in order to open a breach and begin the demolition of sexual inequality, "the obstinate debris of the caste organization: man the high caste, woman the low caste" (1869). This tactic strongly resembled that of her many friends among the "Opportunists," the moderate republicans who came to power during the first two decades of the Third Republic and who, said Léon Gambetta, would enact reforms when "opportune." To her, this meant concentrating on obtaining women's social and civil rights first; the civic right to vote would then surely follow. Until 1879, she avoided the suffrage issue because it would divide the republicans and strengthen the conservatives, whose strongest support derived from the Catholic Church. The suffrage thus clashed with the anti-clericalism in which she had been raised. After 1879, she relented (Richer much less so) and even allowed her name to be put up as a shadow candidate in 1885, but she never gave the suffrage pride of place; preservation of the Republic and rule by the republicans would have to come first, whatever the cost to feminist demands.

The causes for which she worked on the political scene principally included better education for women; revision of the Civil Code, which made women perpetual minors; the right to divorce; the right to file paternity suits; equal pay for equal work; the right of women to control their own income; the ending of state-supervised prostitution; the right of women to bear equal witness to private and public acts; the right of women to enter all professions; and the right of businesswomen to vote for and serve on commercial tribunals. Obviously, political and social concerns intermingled. Deraismes was a laissez-faire liberal and rejected socialism and communism, certainly of the Marxian variety. She called the Paris Commune (1871) "a collective crime," although she protested the harsh sentences meted out to Communards such as Louise Michel . While she rejected talk of class (she preferred Gambetta's couches—strata) and class warfare, however, her Saint-Simonian background led her to criticize current social conditions, norms, and mores, and to pursue social betterment.

Neither Deraismes nor most other French feminist leaders of her time sought to build mass followings. Such was the status and outlook of most of these women that an enterprise of this ilk appeared chimerical at best if not downright dangerous. Rather, she worked among educated, bourgeois women to build pressure groups that could force the republican politicians to face up to the full implications of the new republic's motto, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," and recognize that half of the French population was still denied its rightful benefits. "In France," she chided her fellow republicans, "masculine supremacy is the last aristocracy" (1882).

It has been said that Deraismes' views contained at least two dilemmas. First, while maintaining women's natural equality with men, she held that women have certain innate qualities such as devotion, self-denial, balance, perseverance, and sagacity, and that women are by nature moral and virtuous. But by underlining differences that could so easily be linked to the care of family and children, she risked confining women to a role that ran contrary to her desire to see women participate equally in all walks of life. Secondly, if it was her special achievement to open to feminism a political dimension, she could hardly deny that the vote was fundamental to any truly effective political action. If she wanted to strike at the weakest link, it has been argued, that link was not the multiple strictures on women embedded in the Civil Code, but the republicans' refusal to allow women to possess a free society's single, most basic right.

Maria Deraismes—intelligent, courageous, passionate, strident, self-assured, aggressive, compassionate, prone too often to pontificating and moralizing but always ready to cry out against injustice—played a huge role in launching feminism in France, a role not always appreciated by many who came afterward. She was too domineering and impatient and lacked talent in building organizations and encouraging the emergence of new leadership, they charged. Her politics were too partisan, too colored by a visceral anticlericalism and vehement republicanism, and too imbued with elitist assumptions. But Deraismes had thrust feminism into the arena and made it a public issue in which respectable women could engage. From the low estate to which the women's movement had fallen after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Deraismes proudly proclaimed in 1883, "I have resuscitated it; I have once again put it into the limelight. I have examined it, studied it under all its points of view, under all its aspects." In 1921, a quarter century after her death, Léon Aben-sour justly remarked, "Many contemporary feminists have, without moreover always rendering unto Caesar that which belongs to him, borrowed ideas, facts, and arguments from the works of Maria Deraismes."


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David S. Newhall , Professor Emeritus of History, Centre College; author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991)