La Rochefoucauld, Edmée, Duchesse de (1895–1991)

views updated

La Rochefoucauld, Edmée, Duchesse de (1895–1991)

Catholic leader in the struggle to gain French women the right to vote, who was also a leading figure in the French literary establishment for more than 60 years. Name variations: (pseudonym) Gilbert Mauge. Pronunciation: ed-MAY, doo-SHESS der lah-ROHSH-foo-COH. Born in Paris, France, on April 28, 1895; died in Paris on September 20, 1991, and was buried in the tomb of the family's château in Montmirail (Marne); daughter of Edmund, Comte de Fels, and Comtesse de Fels, who was a founder of the UNVF (Edmée's autobiography does not include the name of her mother nor the names of her children); privately educated; married Jean, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, on December 27, 1917; children: two sons, two daughters.

Married the heir to the La Rochefoucauld ducal title (1917); published her first book (1926); became an officer in the Union Nationale pour le Vote des Femmes (1927); was president of the UNVF (1930); reported on the Spanish Civil War (1938); became a member of the jury for the Prix Fémina (1944); published studies of Noailles, Fargue, Goll, and Valéry (1950s); assisted her brother André de Fels, publisher of the Revue de Paris (1961–70); elected to the Belgian Royal Academy of the French Language and Literature (1962); published a guide to the Cahiers of Paul Valéry (1964–66); failed to be elected to the Académie Française (1983); published her last book, at age 94 (1989).

Principal writings—all published in Paris unless noted: Fonction de X (Éditions du Sagittaire, 1926); Nombres (Émile-Paul, 1926); Merveille de la mort (Kra, 1927); Faust et Marguerites (Émile-Paul, 1927); The Unknown Quantity (London: The Fortune Press, 1928); La Vie humaine (Émile-Paul, 1928); Le Voyage de l'esprit (Sagittaire, 1931); Le Même et l'autre (Sagittaire, 1932); Spanish Women (NY: Peninsular News Service, 1938); La Femme et ses droits (Flammarion, 1939); Les Moralistes de l'intelligence (Hermann, 1945); La Vie commode aux peuples (Sagittaire, 1947); Chasse cette vivante (Sagittarie, 1948); Images de Paul Valéry (F.-X. Le Roux, 1949); Vus d'un autre monde (Gallimard, 1950); Le Soleil, la lune, les étoiles (Odilis, 1951); Plus loin que Bételgeuse (Odilis, 1952); Paul Valéry (Éditions universitaires, 1954); Choix de poèmes (Gallimard, 1955); Le dernier quart d'heure de Marcel Achard, Louis Amade, et al. (La Table Ronde, 1955); Anna de Noailles (Éditions universitaries, 1956); Pluralité de l'être (Gallimard, 1957); Léon-Paul Fargue (Éditions universitaires, 1958); Hommage à Jean de Pange, l'historien, le français, le chrétien (B. Grasset, 1959); Menton (Hachette, 1962); En lisant les cahiers de Paul Valéry (Éditions universitaires, 1964–66); La Nature et l'esprit (Plon, 1965); Claire Goll (P. Seghers, 1967); Femmes dramaturges (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1968); Femmes d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (B. Grasset, 1969); Courts Métrages (B. Grasset, 1970); Spectateurs (B. Grasset, 1972); L'Angoise et les écrivains (B. Grasset, 1974); De l'ennui (B. Grasset, 1976); L'Acquiescement (B. Grasset, 1978); À l'ombre de Marcel Proust (A.G. Nizet, 1980); Courts Métrages II (B. Grasset, 1980); Flashes (B. Grasset, 1982); Flashes II (B. Grasset, 1984); Flashes III (B. Grasset, 1989).

Edmée, youngest of the two sons and two daughters of Edmund, Comte de Fels, was born to wealth and in due course married the scion of a family whose name had graced the rolls of the highest French nobility since long before the Crusades. If she had done no more than bear an heir and play Lady Bountiful for some high-toned charities, nobody would have expected more. Instead, she became a leader in the struggle for women's rights and made herself into a prominent figure in the French literary world, not a very forgiving environment. To the last days of her long life, she was a formidable personage, accomplished, highly intellectual, and, it seems, well-turned-out; as she wrote in her 90s, "[For a woman] to remain elegant despite her feelings of laziness and fatigue, doesn't this appear to be meritorious?"

Edmée's father was a diplomat for a time, notably as vice-resident at Tunis (then, the capital of the French protectorate of Tunisia), and for many years director of the prominent arts magazine La Revue de Paris. His father had been a Luxemburger who converted to Protestantism, moved to Denmark, and become a shipowner (armateur). Edmund was born in France and was converted back to Catholicism by the Abbé de Broglie. He was not an ardent Catholic, but he was generous to the Catholic Institute of Paris and founder of its library, named for him. He was a friend of a claimant to the throne, Louis Philippe Robert, Duc d'Orléans ("Philippe VIII"), and a contributor to L'Oeuvre during the First World War.

Edmée's maternal grandfather was a banker and industrialist who had loaned money to Ferdinand de Lesseps to build the Suez Canal. His daughter, Edmée's mother, the Comtesse de Fels, was cultured and a devout Catholic, an avid reader of writings by the mystics, although Edmée noted that she kept novels by Colette in her bedside table. She had been brought up strictly and was rather austere. Edmée experienced pangs of jealousy seeing her mother dandle deprived children on her knees and kiss them, things she did not do to her own.

An 18th-century country château in the Beauce region southwest of Paris, pulled down and rebuilt during her childhood, was young Edmée's home much of the time. She loved gardens but not the country, preferring the townhouse in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris or the seaside at Deauville. Her father did not believe girls needed a high education, and consequently she felt frustrated. It was only after her marriage in 1917 that she took private lessons in Latin and mathematics. Still, her father favored good reading, being a devotée of the diarist Saint-Simon, and discussed Kant and Fichte and others with her. She learned the piano and painting, in later life taking lessons from Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865–1953) and becoming a respected portraitist. Watched over by English and German nannies, she, like her mother, received a strict Catholic upbringing, but in the liberal Catholic tradition. She remained devout for life but not at all closed-minded. Religious bigotry was foreign to her.

As with most families in France, the Great War of 1914–18 took a toll. She lost a brother (an aviator) in 1916 and a suitor. On December 27, 1917, she married Jean, future Duc de La Rochefoucauld , who was, like her late brother, an aviator. After the war they settled into an affectionate if uninteresting life—"Each felt himself to be in a limited world"—during which she gave birth to two sons and two daughters. Certainly she experienced no grief at the hands of her mother-in-law, whom she later described as a humble, kind, very religious, and charitable woman who, despite her high status, did not own an automobile and traveled about Paris to her charities by tram or subway.

Edmée La Rochefoucauld became active in the feminist cause in December 1927, when she agreed to be vice-president of the Union Nationale pour le Vote des Femmes (UNVF), the principal Catholic women's rights organization. Several influences propelled her in this direction. Her mother, the Comtesse de Fels, had been a founder of the UNVF in 1920 and was on its central committee, and Edmée had heard Charles Loiseau speak "brilliantly" on feminism at her parents' home. She had numerous important political connections. Her father and later her brother André were directors of the Revue de Paris, and through André, a deputy in Parliament, she had links to the Paris press and the Alliance Démocratique (with the Fédération Républicaine, one of the two most important moderate-conservative political parties), of which he was vice-president; as well, her father-in-law was prominent in her uncle Jacques Piou's Action Libérale Populaire, the principal Catholic republican party, while her husband was its president. To all this might be added a lingering resentment over her early lack of education because she was a girl, writes Christine Bard , "a feeling of injustice since infancy, and a precociously critical mind which pierced the hypocrisy and contradictions of adults. … From the young girl who at age 15 taught the catechism to peasants to the suffragist evangelizing crowds of women there is a continuity which preserves the role devolving upon the male and female elites."

The UNVF's leaders were liberal Catholics running a Catholic version of the secularist Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes. Unlike the latter, it heavily emphasized the family and established hierarchies. Consequently, it differed with other feminists over Civil Code reforms. It experienced its own internal stresses over church-state relations and education and over the "family vote" projects often favored by conservatives which, for example, would give fathers more votes in proportion to the number of their children. It officially opposed vote familiel schemes or any others whereby women would not vote on the same basis as men, saying such matters should be taken up only after women received the vote.

La Rochefoucauld entered the UNVF during a crisis in 1926–27 which resulted in the founding by Aimée Bazy of a split-off organization, the Féderation Nationale des Femmes. The FNF was more familiel and, unlike the officially apolitical UNVF, politically oriented—although the UNVF sometimes gave electoral advice to voters. Bazy asked La Rochefoucauld to take the presidency of the FNF, but she politely declined. Instead, she accepted the call of the UNVF's president and co-founder, Mme Levert-Chotard , to be vice-president and take charge of the organization's first regular publication, a monthly, the Union Nationale des Femmes: Défense des intérêts féminins, familiaux et professionels.

La Rochefoucauld advanced rapidly, becoming secretary-general and in December 1930 president, succeeding Levert-Chotard. The UNVF became a more dynamic organization under her impulsion, attracting many enthusiastic young women, founding chapters in every département, and by 1939 boasting a membership of 100,000—an impressive number in a country not famous for high numbers of "joiners." She was aided by a coterie of highly capable women, including Marie-Thérèse Moreau , an attorney who gave technical advice and became secretary-general in 1930, Henriette Chandé , of Paris Match, Muriel Brunhas-Delamarre, Suzanne Desternes , and Agathe Rouart-Valéry , daughter of the poet Paul Válery, who himself wrote and spoke for the UNVF.

Future generations will never know the efforts and persistence that were required of the women who led the feminist movement.

—Suzanne Grinberg and Odette Simon-Bidaux, 1938

La Rochefoucauld strongly believed that if women were to win the vote, they must become educated in public affairs, show they could speak knowledgeably in public, and build an organization. The UNVF was more concerned with doing things than making a noise. Its methods were entirely peaceful, even sedate, but she recalled that she nevertheless reaped much acid criticism, notably in the press. The educative role—a tradition in the Catholic women's movement—was wide-ranging, with lectures and congresses devoted to the functioning of Parliament and the State, the State budget, urbanism, municipal government and finance, the national economy, professional training, etc. The UNVF also involved itself in public health, the rights of working women, and reform of the Civil Code. The object was to teach women how to vote and why, indeed, they should.

In the struggle in the late 1930s to reform the Code, the UNVF differed from secular feminists by a willingness to retain (with some revisions) the husband's role as "head" (chef) of the "natural hierarchy" of the family. To that extent some have questioned whether the UNVF was truly feminist, since it did not challenge all gender-defined roles. However that may be, in extreme old age La Rochefoucauld once defined feminism as "conquest of a part of the rights which men little by little have been led to accord one another." Earlier, in 1939, she had written that "the first and natural function of women is maternity." Unlike some other Catholic conservatives, however, she favored opening as many vocations to women as possible and even encouraging them to work if they wished—providing, of course, their jobs were not incompatible with women's "first and natural function." And, unlike many thoroughly egalitarian feminists, she favored legislation giving women special protections in the workplace. It is worth noting that in old age she observed, "It is the physical power of the man which has rendered the woman a slave despite her intelligence. And this for millenia." In short, she had no trouble in asserting that the "chiefs" of the "natural hierarchy" had egregiously abused their power, physical and legal.

The Chamber of Deputies voted for women's suffrage in 1919, 1932, 1935, and 1936, but the Senate refused to budge. Catholic leaders and laity, like most of French society, disagreed over the issue. Significantly, no Cabinet or party made it a priority. The Second World War changed minds. To La Rochefoucauld's fervent praise, Charles de Gaulle, as head of France's provisional government after the war, simply granted women the vote in 1944; they cast their first ballots in 1945. At her death in 1991, Edmée de la Rochefoucauld would be the last survivor of those who had led the fight for female suffrage to victory.

After the war, the UNVF became the Union Nationale des Électrices. La Rochefoucauld continued to write for its small monthly until 1964, when she gave it up. Since 1961, she had helped her brother André at the Revue de Paris, and she continued until it ceased publication in 1970. For a time after 1945, she also made a bid for a political career with the Republican Party of Liberty (PRL), which soon folded into de Gaulle's Assembly of the French People (RPF). She became a Gaullist municipal councillor in Montmirail (Marne), the family seat. When a place became vacant in Parliament for that district, she was planning to run when Jean Taittinger persuaded her to withdraw, opening the way to him for a brilliant career. Sexual and class prejudices against her certainly contributed to frustrating such political ambitions as she had. The same may have been the case when she failed (by one vote) to gain election to the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques. She had addressed it in 1938 on women's suffrage and on April 21, 1952, on seeking (with Hitler's example in mind) to install in international law a right of peoples to resist oppression and the waging of wars of aggression by their rulers.

As her political activity gradually faded after the war, she turned to what was her first love and most lasting interest: literature. Her mother had called her a "'philosophe' the girl who had read Bergson." Her first books, timidly offered under the pseudonym Gilbert Mauge, were a surrealistic story, Fonction de X (1926), and some poems in Nombres (1926). Under her own name came a story, Merveille de la mort (1927), a pseudo-gothic tale, Faust et Marguerites (1927), and her only novel, La Vie humaine (1928). They were written in a "rather dense" style, she noted in her memoirs, which she abandoned when she turned thereafter to biography, criticism, poetry, essays on science (mathematics, astronomy, biology), philosophical and religious musings, and observations about her times and acquaintances. In short, she had found herself "caught in the literary gears," and after 1945 two years seldom passed without a book or two until her last, published at age 94.

To mention only a few, there were biographies of poets Anna de Noailles (1876–1933), Léon-Paul Fargue (1876–1947), Claire Goll (1891–1977), and Paul Valéry (1871–1945); observations in Pluralité de l'être (1957) and Spectateurs (1972); "encounters" with writers in Courts Métrages I, II (1970, 1980); a report on a visit to Spain in 1938 during the Civil War, translated as Spanish Women (1938), which the Loyalist government used for propaganda purposes; and Femmes d'hier at d'aujourd'hui (1966), a defense of celebrated women. Her last works were three volumes of Flashes (1982, 1984, 1989), an odd title for what she termed "pseudo-memoirs by fits and starts." Indeed, only the first contains some bits of autobiography, the remainder being short pieces or snippets on many subjects in a style reminiscent of Blaise Pascal's Pensées. Beyond doubt, her most lasting contribution was her indispensable three-volume commentary, En lisant les cahiers de Paul Valéry (1964–66), on her great friend's 29 volumes of notes and thoughts.

When not at her writing table, she painted portraits—notably of Valéry, André Maurois, Francesco Garcia Calderon, and Marshal Franchet d'Espérey—entertained writers such as Maurois, Jules Romains, Paul Morand, Noailles, Fargue, and especially Valéry from the 1920s on, gave dinners (entitled "Cells, Atoms, Stars") for scientific and literary luminaries, and lectured in Europe, South America, the United States, Canada, and French-speaking Africa. From 1944 until her death, she was a member of the jury for the prestigious Prix Fémina, noted for voting for works she loved and not for writers whose "turn" it was. She was made a commander in the Legion of Honor and, in 1962, a member of the Belgian Royal Academy of the French Language and Literature. In 1983, however, she failed election to the Académie Française.

Also in 1983, a reporter from the Manchester Guardian visited this incisive critic and astute observer of her time. He found her, at age 88, a "regal" personage, firm of step, living with a butler-chauffeur and "doom-faced" Spanish housekeeper in an "echoing" mansion in the fashionable Passy quarter. She was cordial, insisting upon sharing a new bottle of wine, but he found her "in a most courteous way overbearing of mind." When asked if rumored deals with publishers and cabals had a bearing on who won prizes, she answered "imperturbably, 'I am outside all that. Voilà mon sentiment.'" The reporter departed duly impressed by this grande dame from another age: "It was Sunset Boulevard—but with little sign of the sun setting."


Bard, Christine. Les Filles de Marianne: Les Féminismes, 1914–1940. Paris: Fayard, 1995.

La Rochefoucauld, Edmée de. En lisant les cahiers de Paul Valéry. Paris: Éditions universitaires, 1964–66.

——. La Femme et ses droits. Paris: Flammarion, 1939.

——. Flashes. 3 vols. Paris: B. Grasset, 1982–89.

McMillan, James F. "Clericals, Anti-Clericals and the Women's Movement in France under the Third Republic," in The Historical Journal. Vol. 24, no. 2, 1981, pp. 361–376.

Obituaries: Chicago Tribune, Sept. 23, 1991; The Guardian (Manchester), Sept. 27, 1991; Le Monde (Paris), Sept. 23, 1991.

Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: Éditions Stock, 1978.

Smith, Paul. Feminism and the Third Republic. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1996.

suggested reading:

Brée, Germaine. Twentieth Century French Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Desternes, Suzanne. Trente ans d'efforts au service de la cause féminine. Paris: R. Laffont, 1959.

Duchen, Claire. Women's Rights and Women's Lives in France, 1944–1968. NY: Routledge, 1994.

Grinberg, Suzanne, and Odette Simon-Bidaux. Les Droits nouveaux de la femme mariée. Paris: Librairie du Receuil Sirey, 1938.

Irvine, William D. French Conservatism in Crisis: The Republican Federation of France in the 1930s. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'Égalité en marche: Le Féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1989.

Paul, Harry W. The Second Ralliement: The Rapprochement between Church and State in France in the Twentieth Century. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967.

Weiss, Louise. Mémoires d'une européenne. Vol. 3: Combat pour les femmes, 1934–1939. Paris: A. Michel, 1978.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times: From the Enlightenment to the Present. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.


Paris: Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand.

David S. Newhall , Professor Emeritus of History, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky

About this article

La Rochefoucauld, Edmée, Duchesse de (1895–1991)

Updated About content Print Article


La Rochefoucauld, Edmée, Duchesse de (1895–1991)