Léo, André (1832–1900)

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Léo, André (1832–1900)

French novelist, journalist, and feminist who founded France's first general feminist organization. Name variations: Andre Leo; André Léo was the pen name of Léodile Béra (also given as Léonide or Léonie Béra, Léonie or Léodile Bréa; Léodile Champseix or Champceix). Pronunciation: ON-dray LAY-o. Born Léodile Béra in Lusignan (some sources cite Champagné-Saint-Hilaire) in the department of Vienne in western France in 1832; died in 1900, possibly in Paris; daughter of the wife of a retired naval officer, who was at the time a notary and justice of the peace; mother's name unknown; described as well-educated; married Grégoire Champseix or Champceix (1817–1863), in 1852; married Benoît Malon (1841–1893), in 1873; children: (first marriage) twin sons, André and Léo, and possibly a daughter.

Moved with her self-exiled family to Switzerland and married; returned to France (1860) and became a successful novelist; founded France's first general feminist organization (1866); was heavily involved in the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in relief efforts and journalism (1870–71); fled to Switzerland (1871) and wrote for socialist papers; returned to France (1880) and continued as a novelist.

Principal writings (published in Paris unless otherwise noted): Un Mariage scandaleuse (Achille Faure, 1862, new ed. Marpon-Flammarion, 1883); Une Vieille Fille (1864); Les Deux Filles de M. Plichon (1864); Observations d'une mère de famille à M. Duruy (1865); Une Divorce (Le Siècle, 1866); L'Idéal au village (Hachette, 1867); Double Histoire: Histoire d'un fait divers (Hachette, 1868); La Femme et les moeurs: Liberté ou monarchie? (1869, Du Lérot, 1990); Aline-Ali (Librairie Internationale, 1869); Legendes corréziennes (1870); La Guerre sociale: Discours prononcé au Congrès de la Paix à Lausanne 1871 (Neufchâtel: G. Guill, 1871); Marie (Le Siècle, 1877); L'Épouse du bandit (Le Siècle, 1880); L'Enfant des Rudères (Le Siècle, 1881); Grazia (n.d.); La Justice des choses (1891); Le Petit Moi (Dreyfous, 1891); La Famille Androit (Duruy, 1899); L'Éducation nouvelle (Duruy, 1899); anticlerical pamphlet, Coupons le cable (n.d.).


The American Colony in Paris in 1867 (Boston: Loring, 1868, 1900, 1983); "Woman and Morals," partially trans. in Kate Newell Doggett, The Agitator (1869).


La Coopération (Paris, printed in Brussels, Sept. 9, 1866–June 4, 1868); Le Mirabeau (Brussels, Dec. 1, 1867–May 8, 1880); L'Égalité (Switzerland, March 2, 13, 1869); Le Droit des femmes (1869); L'Agriculteur (1870); La République des travailleurs (Jan. 8–Feb. 4, 1871); Le Rappel (March 18–May 23, 1871); La Commune (1871) La Sociale (March 31–May 17, 1871); Le Reveil internationale (Geneva, Oct. 1–9, 1871); La Révolution sociale (Switz., Oct. 26, 1871–June 4, 1872); L'Almanach du Peuple (Switz., 1872, 1873); other socialist papers in Switzerland to 1880; L'Ordre sociale (1880, no. 6); L'Aurore (c. 1897–c. 1900).

André Léo, whose given name was Léodile Béra, was born in 1832 to the wife of a retired naval officer, currently a notary public and justice of the peace, living in Lusignan (or in some sources Champagné-Saint-Hilaire) in the department of Vienne in western France. Described as "well-educated," she moved to Switzerland with her Republican family after Napoleon III's 1851 coup d'état leading to the Second Empire (1852–70). There, in 1852, she married Grégoire Champseix, a disciple of the utopian socialist Pierre Leroux (1797–1871). Champseix had fled to Lausanne in 1851 to escape a three-year sentence for trying to incite a revolt in Corrèze against the coup. He became a college professor in Lausanne, then moved to Geneva, where he administered the socialist paper L'Espérance. With Champseix, Léo had twin sons, André and Léo, and possibly a daughter.

When the family returned to France after the amnesty of 1860, she began to publish novels under the pen name André Léo, works much influenced by Leroux's humanitarian egalitarianism and by his good friend George Sand . Her first, Un Mariage scandaleuse (1862), was a success and was followed by Une Vieille Fille (1864), Les Deux Filles de M. Plichon (1864), Une Divorce (1866), Aline-Ali (1869), and a memorial to her husband, who died, worn out by illness, in 1863, Légendes corréziennes (1870). Critics compared her favorably to Sand. Her novels centered on the theme of the equality of women and men caught within a social order which subjugated women in the workplace with unequal pay and in marriages all too often made unhappy because they were (in the middle and upper classes) little more than property transactions motivated by "pride and cupidity."

Léo was the principal organizer of France's first successful general feminist organization, the Society for the Claiming of the Rights of Women (1866). Early participants included Maria Deraismes, Louise Michel, Paule Mink, Noémie and Élie Réclus, Maria Verdure, Eliska Vincent, Louise David , and Mme. Jules Simon . Because of the variety of views represented, the society chose to emphasize education for females equal to that of males in order to hasten legal recognition of equal rights for women. (In 1870, Deraismes and Léon Richer would break off to found the Association for the Rights of Women, and in 1881 the remnants of André Léo's organization would fuse with it to form the Society for the Amelioration of Woman's Condition and the Demand of Her Rights.) In the late 1860s, Léo's salon was a gathering place for radicals and feminists from Europe and North America. With Deraismes and Mink, in 1868 she began speaking in public (now that it was legal for women), e.g., at the Vaux-Hall, in favor of political rights for women. She also helped Deraismes and Richer found the weekly Le Droit des Femmes (1869), which became the longest-lived women's publication of its time. In 1869, Léo published her only "theoretical" work, La Femme et les moeurs: Liberté ou monarchie?, which called for absolute equality for women as the true fulfillment of liberty, in contrast to the existing male "monarchy."

The Franco-Prussian War, including the siege of Paris (Sept. 1870–Jan. 1871) and the ensuing revolt by leftist republican Paris against the National Assembly (the Paris Commune, March–May 1871), found Léo intensively engaged as a journalist and political activist. Early in the war, she, Louise Michel, and Adèle Esquiros , with shocking boldness, personally presented to the Paris commander, General Trochu, an open letter by the historian Jules Michelet endorsed by thousands of signatures calling for the release of several followers of Auguste Blanqui (the famous left-wing rebel) who had been condemned to death. Surprisingly, they won a stay of execution (Sept. 2). Two days later, the Empire fell and the Third Republic was proclaimed. During the ensuing siege, Léo was active in Jules Allix's Committee of Women, which tried to set up communal workshops giving women jobs and food, and in the Society for the Relief of Victims of the War, which supplied (when allowed to by antifeminist officers) ambulances and nurses to the defenders. She initially opposed the idea of women's battalions but finally supported it during the Commune. With a crowd of women and students, she and Michel led a demonstration in favor of an attempt—a chimerical project—to send relief to besieged Strasbourg; she and Michel were arrested and questioned but soon released. She also joined the huge left-wing demonstration on January 21, 1871, protesting the surrender. During the siege and the Commune, Léo was a member of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee with Louise Michel and Paule Mink, founded a society ("La Solidarité") to aid the needy in the 17th arrondissement, and spoke on socialism to the proliferating political clubs. But whether she actually joined the Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and the Care of the Wounded, founded in April by Karl Marx's friend Elizabeth Dmitrieff as a section of the First Workingmen's International, is a matter of debate; it is certain that she did not approve of its authoritarian methods.

It was as a journalist, however, that André Léo was most prominent. After the fall of the Empire, she, Élie Réclus, and Benoît Malon (1841–1893) founded a weekly, La République des Travailleurs, an organ of the International. It became a daily in February 1871, preaching liberation of the workers by the workers. She also wrote for La Commune and for La Sociale (March 31–May 17), which she founded with Anna Jaclard , Eugène Vermersch, and Alphonse Humbert. Léo beseeched the peasants to join with the workers and not be deceived by the lies spread about by the government about the Commune: "What Paris wants in the last resort is the land for the peasant, the tool for the worker, and work for all." She defended and promoted the role of women—an important one—in the siege and the Commune. Most strikingly, despite her soaring idealism and socialist ideology, she criticized, writes Edith Thomas , in "lucid and practical" articles, the Commune's Central Committee for its endless chattering about grand reforms. She maintained, justly, that the Commune first had to win over the provinces and successfully repel the government's forces before most reforms could be undertaken. Sadly for her, lucidity and practicality were not hallmarks of the great Paris uprising.

Following the bloody crushing of the Commune in late May, Léo, facing arrest, fled to Switzerland with Malon in June 1871. She was condemned in absentia along with Anna Jaclard, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, and Marguerite Tinayre . Léo, with Paule Mink and other Communard women, attended the Fifth Congress of the League of Peace and Liberty in Lausanne that September, where she delivered a ringing defense of the Commune which the chair finally felt obliged to shut off.

Through the 1870s, she contributed to various, mostly ephemeral, socialist papers. Sympathetic toward the ideas of the anarchist Michael Bakunin, she expressed her suspicion of Marx's centralizing tendencies while nevertheless deploring the divisions in the socialists' ranks. In 1873, she may have married Malon, a father of French socialism, and the founder of "integral socialism," a non-Marxist, humanitarian variety. They returned to France in 1880 after the amnesty, where Malon founded La Revue socialiste, France's leading socialist paper until 1914. Léo resumed novel writing, but critics, mostly very conservative, now wrote her off as a radical revolutionary. Her last years, after Malon's untimely death from cancer in 1893—they may have been separated from 1878 on—found her ignored and unhappy. During the Dreyfus Affair in the late 1890s, she joined the staff of L'Aurore, but death found her in 1900 at age 68. In her will she left a sum to endow the first town in France to "try the collectivist system by purchase of a communal land, worked in common with division of the product."

André Léo remained true to the humanitarian socialist principles she first imbibed from her husband and Pierre Leroux. Marxists regarded her as an "anarchist" who was too "individual," anarchists thought her too moderate, and bourgeois critics, after 1870, shunned her as a "rabid revolutionary." There was no "category" for her, writes Thomas. Her feminism was steadfast and logically consistent. The true revolution bringing liberty for all was impossible without ending women's "slavery." "When it comes to woman," wrote Léo, "the man does not want to be logical and seems not to be able to be so" (La Femme et les moeurs). As a novelist, she has probably been unjustly neglected. As a journalist, she was in the front rank during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune and was, during that crisis, the most important woman in the profession.


Bellet, Roger. "André Léo, écrivain-idéologue," in Romantisme. Vol. 22, no. 77, 1992, pp. 61–66.

Bidelman, Patrick K. Pariahs Stand Up! The Founding of the Liberal Feminist Movement in France, 1858–1889. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Decaux, Alain. Histoire des françaises. Vol. 2: La Révolte. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1972.

Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français. Sous la direction de Jean Maitron. Paris: Éditions Ouvrières, 1964—.

McMillan, James F. Housewife or Harlot: The Place of French Women in French Society, 1870–1940. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Moses, Claire. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Offen, Karen. "Léo, André," in An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. Ed. Katherine M. Wilson. NY: Garland, 1991.

Perrier, A. "Grégoire Champseix et André Léo," in L'Actualité de l'histoire. Vol. 30, 1960, pp. 38–39.

Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des feminismes français. Paris: Stock, 1978.

Sowerwine, Charles. Sisters or Citizens? Women and Socialism in France since 1876. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Thomas, Edith. The Women Incendiaries. Translated by James and Starr Atkinson. NY: George Braziller, 1966 (originally Les Pétroleuses. Paris: Gallimard, 1963).

suggested reading:

André Léo, un journaliste de la Commune. Aigre: le Lérot rêveur, 1987.

Edwards, Stewart. The Paris Commune 1871. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971.

Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870–71. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1965.

Lambertz, Sigrid. Die femme de lettres im Second Empire: Juliette Adam, André Léo, Adèle Esquiros und ihr Auseinandersetzung mit dem weiblichen Rollenbild im 19 Jahrhundert. St. Ingbert: Rohrig Universitsverlag, 1994.

Moreau, Thérèse. "Un divorce: André Léo [Léonie Béra] et la révolution bourgeoise," in Les Femmes et la Révolution français. Vol. 3. Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail, 1991, pp. 179–184.


Léo, André. "Mémoires." Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History. Descaves Collection.

Paris: Archives de la Préfecture de Police, Dossier B/A 1008.

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