Pelletier, Madeleine (1874–1939)

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Pelletier, Madeleine (1874–1939)

French physician and the first woman in her nation admitted to an internship in psychiatry who became a highly controversial socialist journalist and "integral" feminist, a precursor of 1960s' feminists. Pronunciation: MAD-LEH PELL-eh-tee-ay. Born Anne Pelletier (later adopted name Madeleine) in Paris, France, on May 18, 1874; died in the Perray-Vaucluse asylum near Paris on December 29, 1939, and was buried in the asylum's cemetery; daughter of Louis Pelletier (b. 1831) and Anne de Passavy (b. 1836); educated in a convent school, then by herself, and at the University of Paris Faculty of Medicine; never married; no children.

Left school (1886); passed the baccalaureate examinations after intensive self-study (1896–97); studied and published in anthropology and medicine (1898–1906); admitted as a psychiatric intern (1903); failed examination to enter the state psychiatric service (1906); was active in freemasonry (1904–46); led Women's Solidarity (1906–12); founded and directed La Suffragiste (1907–14); fined for breaking a window at a polling place (1908); wrote seven books on feminist and political topics (1908–14); was a member ofthe Socialist Party's Permanent Administrative Council (1909–11); ran for public offices (1910, 1912); was a member of the Communist Party (1920–26); went to Moscow to view the Russian Communist regime (1921); was a leading advocate of birth control (1920s–1930s); published two autobiographical novels (1932–33); was investigated as a possible abortionist (1933); published La Rationalisation sexuelle and participated in the Poldës pornography trial (1935); suffered a stroke (1937); arrested for directing an abortion and committed to an asylum (1939).

Principal writings—all published in Paris unless otherwise noted: (medical thesis) L'Association des idées dans la manie aiguë et dans la débilité mentale (J. Rousset, 1903); La Femme en lutte pour ses droits (Giard et Brière, 1908); Ideologie d'hier: Dieu, la morale, la patrie (Giard et Brière, 1910); L'Emancipation sexuelle de la Femme (Giard et Brière, 1911); Philosophie sociale: les opinions, les partis, les classes (Giard et Brière, 1912); Justice sociale? (Giard et Brière, 1913); Le Droit à l'avortement (Librairie internationale d'édition scientifique, 1913); L'Éducation féministe des filles (Giard et Brière, 1914); In anima vila, ou un crime scientifique: Pièce en trois actes (Conflans-Ste.-Honorine: A. Lorulot, 1920); Mon voyage aventureux en Russie communiste (Giard, 1922); Supérieur! Drame des classes sociales en cinq actes (Conflans-Ste.-Honorine: A. Lorulot, 1923); L'Amour et la maternité (La Brochure mensuelle, 1923); Trois Contes (L. Beresniak, n.d.); Capitalisme et communisme (Nice: Imprimerie de Rosenstiel, 1926); Une Vie nouvelle: roman (Figuière, 1932); La Femme vierge: roman (Bresle, 1933); La Rationalisation sexuelle (Éditions du Sphinx, 1935).

When Madeleine Pelletier died alone in an asylum in 1939, she was well on her way to total obscurity. In the decades before and after World War I, she had been one of the most visible and by all odds most controversial advocates of women's rights. But beginning in the 1970s, when the women's movement underwent skyrocketing growth, she was rediscovered because, well before Simone de Beauvoir , Pelletier had proclaimed that, in Beauvoir's words, "women are not born but made," i.e., that gender roles are mostly determined not by biology but by society. Unlike Beauvoir, however, Pelletier had been marginalized during her life because of her origins and highly unconventional behavior and was never admitted to the French intellectual establishment.

Madeleine (baptized Anne) Pelletier was born on May 18, 1874, in Paris and lived in a squalid two-room dwelling; her parents sold fruit and vegetables from the front room. Her father Louis Pelletier had emigrated from Champeaux (Deux-Sèvres) to Paris and become a cabdriver. When Madeleine was four, he was paralyzed by a stroke and ceased to work; he would die when she was in her teens. Her mother Anne de Passavy , born out of wedlock in Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme), was raised by peasants in Auvergne and then became a domestic in Paris, where she met and married Louis. They had a son, who left home when Madeleine was young, and possibly another daughter, who died in infancy. Madeleine later said her mother had suffered 11 miscarriages—an example (not lost on her daughter) of problems caused women by sex.

Madeleine's mother was much the dominant character, her father being a quiet, sensible, beleaguered man. Anne de Passavy, more intelligent than he, was a fanatical, outspoken Catholic and royalist, hence not a popular figure in an anticlerical, working-class neighborhood. She was also dirty and slovenly; the single room they shared stank of unemptied chamber pots, rotting garbage, and sweat. Unlike so many (mostly bourgeois-born) socialists with whom she later associated, Madeleine found nothing romantic about life in the slums, nor did she harbor any illusions about the character or intelligence of the working class. As for herself, from an early age she had ambitions. But when she once said in all innocence she'd like to be a great general some day, her mother tartly replied, "Women are not soldiers; they are nothing at all; they marry, cook, and raise their children." Tensions between mother and daughter mounted.

From ages six to twelve, Madeleine attended a convent school. She was unhappy there. She felt ashamed because her clothes were shabby and dirty, and the discipline only incited her to rebel. She left school and through her teens was at loose ends while living at home.

Her school leaving likely was connected with probably the most defining event of her life, namely, her first menstruation. Totally ignorant about such matters, she thought she was dying and received no help from her mother. Her father, in his dry, down-to-earth manner, explained the "facts of life." She found the whole business of menstruation, intercourse, and childbirth repulsive and was sickened to realize that she and her mother shared with all women what she considered a stern physical subjection to nature—one, moreover, not experienced by men. As Felicia Gordon has written, "To some extent her career can be interpreted as unraveling the consequences of her rejection of the female experience as she saw it played out in her mother's life."

While a teen, Pelletier changed her name from Anne (her mother's) to Madeleine and began to wear some male attire; the previous example of George Sand notwithstanding, this was regarded as shocking. Still, she resembled her mother in believing strongly in justice and the coming of a better world, if from human effort and not from heaven, and she had her mother's stubbornness in the face of criticism and unpopularity. Pelletier later gave few details regarding her teenage years beyond saying that she often attended meetings of feminist and anarchist groups. Chief among the former was one led by Astié de Valsayre , who had once fought a duel with an Englishwoman. As for the anarchists, she would associate with them all her life but never adopted their view that a stateless society was a practical possibility. What attracted her was their passion for liberty. She met and admired the aging anarchist icon Louise Michel ("The Red Virgin of Revolution"), though she distrusted her revolutionary mysticism. Michel advised Pelletier that feminism was too confining, that she must get into (socialist) politics. Pelletier began to realize that she needed to find means to support herself if she were to have any chance to further the causes of liberty and women's rights. She decided to resume her education.

She did so not by returning to school but by teaching herself, a daunting enterprise given the challenges of the baccalaureate examinations required for admission to a university. Women were allowed to take the "bacs" but were offered no formal preparation and thus needed tutors. Penniless (and a burden to her mother), Pelletier studied on her own. She passed the exams in July 1896 and July 1897, and, after a year gaining a required certificate in physics, chemistry, and natural science, she enrolled in 1898 at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris. (As of 1900, the Faculty had 3,746 men and 179 women students, of whom 380 and 98 respectively were foreigners.) Meanwhile, at some point her mother died. Charles Letourneau (1831–1902), a distinguished anthropologist whom Pelletier had met while auditing his lectures, supplied the critical help she needed to win scholarships. In December 1902, she applied for an internship in psychiatry, a specialty closed to women because they lacked political rights—a transparent excuse protecting a male enclave. She showed up for the entrance exam anyway and, of course, was denied. At Pelletier's instigation, Marguerite Durand 's all-female La Fronde and other papers launched a campaign. The embarrassed authorities finally relented, and on December 3, 1903, she (and one Constance Pascal ) sat for the exam and was admitted.

Until 1906, Pelletier served at various asylums. Harassment from doctors and patients made it a trying passage. Again she faced a roadblock when she was (as a woman) denied admission to the final examination required to obtain a permanent post in the state system. A month before the March 19 exam, however, she was suddenly granted permission. Very active now in freemasonry, socialism, and feminism, and lacking sufficient time to prepare, she narrowly failed the exam. It was probably the cruelest blow of her life. (For unknown reasons she was denied a second chance, assuming she applied for one.) She was thus excluded from the scientific elite and the research opportunities she craved. Lacking the necessary connections, she was now on her own as a general practitioner in poor neighborhoods. Her only anchor was certification as a physician for the postal department, which had many female employees.

As noted, Pelletier had led a crowded life while studying medicine. In truth, anthropology, not medicine, was her greatest love. Since the medical and anthropology faculties had close ties, she attended anthropology lectures and even co-authored four notable articles in anthropology. Her chosen field, psychiatry, in which she wrote four articles and her thesis (1903), was then a testing ground for sociological, anthropological, and evolutionary theories. Though Pelletier wanted to become a professional anthropologist, the Société d'Anthropologie had only 10 women among its 550 members. What chance did she have for a post in such a milieu? Virtually none, she was frankly told. So she stayed with medicine.

Her studies in anthropology nevertheless profoundly influenced her thought on social and feminist issues. Letourneau, in particular, led her to view society, like nature itself, as evolving toward liberty. To Pelletier, this all but proved that the emancipation of women was inevitable. Evolutionary theory permeated her writings. Influenced, too, by the theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) that acquired characteristics can be inherited, she viewed much of behavior as a product of social influences acting over long periods of time. Her articles in craniometrics (currently involved in a soon-to-be discredited theory that skull and other body measurements are indicators of intelligence) led her toward a view that women, despite their smaller brains, might be more "evolved" than men. Yet it is striking that, unlike some feminists, she never claimed a superiority for women over men, nor did she idealize them; the two sexes simply were equal, no more, no less.

On the other hand, she wrote in 1904, "There is no need to conceal the fact that our civilization … is the achievement of a restricted elite." This idea remained with her for life. She craved recognition as a member of that elite, and, due to her success against huge odds in the demanding French educational system, she believed she had earned it. Freemasonry attracted her precisely because it comprised a powerful elite dedicated to her fundamental ideals of "republicanism, progressivism, materialism, anticlericalism, and social justice." She wanted to open the order fully to women; mixed lodges were at best merely tolerated. In April 1904, she joined a mixed lodge of the Human Rights branch of the Grand Symbolic Scottish Rite, founded by Maria Deraismes and Georges Martin, and proudly brought Louise Michel in with her. Pelletier was intensely active, spoke frequently in lodge meetings on feminist and socialist themes, and surprisingly soon was named assistant secretary-treasurer of the board of freemasonry's weekly Bulletin. In her zeal to make mixed lodges the rule, however, she changed lodges, alienated male and female supporters, quarreled with powerful members, and once threatened one with a revolver she had begun to carry. Rather disillusioned after 1906, she poured her energies into feminist and socialist activities, but for the rest of her life she attended freemason meetings and encouraged women to join in order to open previously closed venues and to gain experience in public debate.

From 1904 to 1914, Pelletier worked ceaselessly promoting feminism and socialism. She was much in the public eye as a radical and eccentric figure in these movements, and her meager medical practice left her plenty of time for them. From early 1906 until it faded out around 1911–12, she headed Women's Solidarity (La Solidarité des Femmes), a "radical" feminist organization with socialist leanings. Eugénie Potonié-Pierre (1844–1898) and Marie Martin had founded it in 1891, and from 1898 to 1906 Caroline Kauffmann (d. 1926) ran it until she asked Pelletier to take over. Bored, isolated, and depressed, she accepted. She later described it as composed of "30-odd women all talking at once." Pelletier wanted to start a mass women's movement such as the Pankhursts had built in England. But she and the members of Women's Solidarity never fully understood each other. Her working-class expressions and gestures, her male attire, and her coolly analytical approach ("masculine" rather than emotional, sensitive, "feminine") put off these bourgeois women, almost none of whom wanted anything truly radical in ends or means. In Pelletier's opinion, "What they wanted above all was to pass their time pleasantly." The divisions in the women's movement (some two dozen major groups) and internal quarrels—"Every feminist has her own private feminism," she moaned—frustrated her intention, as did the Catholic-grounded conservatism of the masses of French women.

In the political realm, Pelletier put primary emphasis on obtaining the vote, with emancipation coming ultimately via legislation; without the ballot, women had neither political power nor status as full adults. Pelletier led or joined in a number of public actions designed to draw attention to the suffrage issue. Briefly, on March 18, 1906, she and Hubertine Auclert led a march and rally at the Musée Social, and Solidarity put up posters in that election year despite some physical intimidation. On June 3, Pelletier and Kauffmann caused a stir when they showered the Chamber of Deputies with leaflets from the visitors' gallery, but the government prudently declined to prosecute them. And on December 24, they led a delegation to the Chamber to ask the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès for support. They marched again on June 17, 1907, and revisited Jaurès, who had done little. Then, on May 3 during the municipal elections of 1908, Auclert overturned a ballot box. Pelletier had gone home, but the press portrayed her as having been present. A week later (May 10), Pelletier led around ten Solidarity members who promised to break windows at a poll if they were not admitted. When they were refused, Pelletier threw a stone and shattered a window. She was fined 16 francs, but the real damage was done among her fellow feminists, who regarded such behavior as outrageous.

In fact, Auclert's and Pelletier's were the only violent acts of the whole French suffragist movement—in sharp contrast to events in England. One understands the envy Pelletier felt when on June 21 she watched hundreds of thousands of "suffragettes" rally at Hyde Park. The French rallies in 1906–07 had attracted fewer than a hundred marchers. After the summer of 1908, Pelletier's suffragist influence faded. In March 1914, while the English movement was climaxing in violence and excited rallies, she helped organize a demonstration. It was a fiasco, with around 50 demonstrators and 200 "Sunday strollers" attending. Pelletier had totally failed to gain a large following: "My adherents and I are like day and night," she admitted. Order and prudence, the watchwords of the French feminists, had prevailed—that and male prejudice, plus fears that votes for women would revive the Catholic-conservative threat to the republic.

Despite her setbacks in the suffragist cause, Pelletier pressed her feminist views on a host of subjects in pamphlets, brochures, books, and her monthly magazine, La Suffragiste, which appeared irregularly from December 1907 until 1914. It was heavily subsidized by Madame Remember (Louise Beverley Dupont , 1845–1925), who fiercely loathed all men (which Pelletier did not), and whom Pelletier had to humor by publishing her diatribes. In her writings, Pelletier proposed a radical agenda of "integral feminism." Its goals included suppression of all laws subordinating one sex to another; admission of women to all schools, occupations, and political positions; and—going beyond nearly all feminists anywhere—a total emancipation of women's private lives, i.e., full control over their own bodies, and the same right as men to sexual pleasure. As she wrote in 1912, "Feminism can never go too far" in its demand for equality.

Fundamentally, writes Christine Bard , Pelletier wanted to create "a world free of the bipolarity of the genders," because only in such a world would true equality be possible. The masculine should be the norm since it is men who have the power: "As long as … women continue to remain women, feminism will only be a vain word." A woman "should not be a woman in the way the world expects." Pelletier was struck by the paradox that women wanted men to shelter them yet also wanted equality with them. A woman must learn to make her own way and be economically independent, otherwise she becomes sexually enslaved by using her talent, youth, and beauty trying to catch a man. She must "virilize" herself, for "it is necessary to be men socially." To this end, because femininity is mostly the result of social conditioning, not biology, and because women, mother to daughter, tend to collaborate in their own oppression, girls' education should emphasize such things as assertiveness training (as it would later be called), tolerance of pain, and the use of weapons. Girls should be clothed like boys and given feminized forms of men's names (e.g., Renée for René). In short, she would not feminize girls' education but masculinize girls—not as an end, however, but as a means to achieve sexual equality.

Pelletier's behavior and her views on various women's issues confirmed her adherence to these basic tenets. She drew much attention because she sometimes dressed partly or entirely in men's clothing. Dress reform was needed, she believed, to change women's attitudes. She noted the power of uniforms as reflections of mentalities. Conventional women's clothing advertized women's powerlessness and their enslavement to male sexual desires. Dressed as a man, she said she was proclaiming "I am your equal." She despised "feminine" feminists, like Marguerite Durand, and hated décolletage; she would "show off mine when men adopt a special kind of trouser showing off their——." In practical terms, she found that male attire gained her liberty and security in the street, although she also admitted, "I am short and fat, I have to disguise my voice and walk quickly in order not to be discovered."

I remain a feminist. I will remain one until my death even though I don't like women as they are now any more than I like the working class as it is. Slave mentalities revolt me.

—Madeleine Pelletier

Naturally, questions arose as to her sexuality. Was she a lesbian? She denied it, writing to her feminist friend Arria Ly (Josephine Gondon , 1881–1934) that the "voyage to Lesbos tempts me no more than the voyage to Cythera" (Aphrodite's birthplace). If she had been a lesbian, she surely would have defended it—which she did not. She said she regarded lesbianism as an abnormality which ought to be tolerated but which would disappear when total sexual equality is achieved. Nor was she heterosexual. Men neither attracted nor repelled her sexually. Her personal disgust for sexuality, doubtless stemming from her childhood, alienated her from all forms of it. Objectively, she regarded sexual intercourse as "a physiological function like nutrition or breathing." For herself, she adopted virginity: "I have not wished to educate my genital senses." This choice was a political statement, she maintained. Unlike Ly, she did not advocate virginity as the norm for all women. It was only that in society as it is, sexual relations are exploitive, so she was refusing to take part in the oppression.

As regards motherhood and the family, Pelletier's views were "scarred," writes Gordon, by her own family life. Going beyond almost every feminist of her time, she would abolish the "patriarchal" family altogether and replace it with free unions, with children to be cared for by the state. She was not hostile to motherhood but wanted it to be a free choice, an "episode" in a woman's life, not its raison d'être. She deplored the prejudice against unwed mothers. Unlike most feminists, she would deal with the double standard not by repressing males but by giving females the same liberty in sex as in all other matters. Like other feminists, however, she also believed feminists had to be careful about violating society's sexual mores lest they harm the cause. She was very critical of Marie Curie , for example, when the widowed Curie's love affair with an unhappily married colleague Paul Langevin became fodder for the newspapers (1910–11).

Two other issues bear special mention: prostitution and abortion. Pelletier was nearly alone in discussing prostitution without raising moral questions. She remarked wryly that it marked a progress in civilization when men got the idea of paying a woman instead of simply forcing her. Anyhow, until they received full rights and equality, married women were in effect prostitutes. She opposed prostitution per se, although she excused it in the case of poor women; for "enlightened" women it was unacceptable. The answer lay not in state regulation (as in France) but in economic independence for women.

Her views on abortion—which, like providing contraceptive information, was illegal (if loosely enforced) in France—drew more attention than almost anything else she said or did and (as will be seen) led to her ultimate tragedy. She never admitted performing abortions, but the presumption is strong that she did. Physicians and mainstream feminists opposed abortion; she was the first female physician in France to call for a right to abortion: "Our right to control over our bodies is absolute." She admitted abortion rights would increase "dissoluteness," but she regarded that as preferable to infanticide (a real crime in her eyes) and the enslavement of women to pregnancy. Despite sweeping statements, however, she believed abortions should be limited to the first trimester; if a woman can't make up her mind by then, she deserves no consideration.

Pelletier was very ambitious to play a role, and what better stage than politics? From 1906 to 1912, she became the most prominent woman in the Unified Socialist Party (SFIO), the only one serving (1909–11) on its Permanent Administrative Council. She chose the Socialist Party because it alone was formally opened to women and because of her beliefs. Even though disillusioned (as with the masons) and ceasing regular party activity after 1912, she remained a socialist by conviction: "If I am a socialist it is because I passionately love justice." Marxism per se held no special appeal for her: "All I know is that I am in favor of social justice … the abolition of inheritance, free education at every stage, generous subsidies for children, old people and the ill, no more class distinctions, no more worship of money. Intelligence and work should be the only means to success."

Her rise was remarkably swift. She made her mark in debates at the annual party congresses and the international congress at Stuttgart (1907), mainly trying to win a support for women's suffrage going beyond fine words. She first joined the Guesdiste (orthodox Marxist) faction but, finding it too stodgy, in July 1907 she joined Gustave Hervé's revolutionary, anti-militarist faction and became in effect its second-in-command. Her provocative behavior (including slapping a critic) aroused dissention, however, and in June 1911 she denounced Hervé as a false revolutionary. (She was perceptive: he went over to rabid nationalism during the war.) Pelletier drifted even further leftward, to the anarchists, although she still rejected their belief in a stateless society and found them no more friendly to women's issues than the Socialists had been. The Socialists would be "the last to take our ideas seriously," she wrote in disgust, and the working class "will be the last to come to feminism. It is in the nature of things, the ignorant respect only force."

Pelletier's foray into politics proved a failure. Yet some of her analyses remain valuable for an understanding of revolutionaries and women in politics. Ignoring simplistic explanations like "betrayal," she framed a psycho-social analysis of the operation of co-optation (as it would be termed now), why the revolutionary fervor of socialist politicians fades the higher they advance. And she was especially cogent in describing why women felt intimidated in the political parties and why at the grassroots level parties ignored women's issues. She concluded that parties needed to form women's sections. Yet, while she took the initiative in getting such organizations approved at the international and national levels, she did nothing to implement the resolutions. Why? Because she was jealous of other female leaders? Because she suspected the women's sections would become "kindergartens," as she put it? Because she raised her self-esteem by participating in the (powerful) male environment? There is no clear answer.

Twice she ran for office—symbolically, of course: for the Chamber in 1910 and for the Paris municipal council in 1912. She obtained 340 of 8,698 votes in 1910 and 306 of 3,610 in 1912, very creditable showings under the circumstances. These races, however, underscored a basic conflict between her socialist and feminist activities. Revolutionary socialism—she sometimes even advocated terrorist deeds—held that only revolution would bring a just society by abolishing classes, and hence elections and parliaments were irrelevant. As a feminist, however, she believed "equality between the sexes can well be realized in present society," that by granting the vote the state would pave the way for creation of a feminine elite "which will in turn bring about a transformation of mentalities." Obtaining the suffrage, while "perhaps an illusory goal," was "a stage women must pass through to free themselves." She never satisfactorily resolved this conflict.

By the eve of the First World War (1914–18), Pelletier was depressed by personal and financial woes. She had written seven books (1908–14) and frequent articles for L'Humanité, La Guerre sociale, Équité, Le Libertaire (1914, 1919–21), L'Idée libre (1912–24), and her own La Suffragiste (to 1914), but success had eluded her. She adopted two small girls, probably for company; the police (who kept her under surveillance) suspected a morals case in the making. She became a full-time temporary doctor for the postal service in 1912; run-ins with the administration (e.g., absences without leave) resulted in her relegation to part-time status in 1916. (She was fired in 1928.) To her credit, she battled her depression by earning a license ès sciences in chemistry during the war.

When the war came, she tried to become the first female army doctor but was denied. She worked briefly with the Red Cross in 1914—and was rescued from a mob in Nancy which, from her appearance, thought she was a spy. She also advocated drafting women to prove there was no difference in bravery between males and females; she herself visited the Marne fields alone only days after the battle. The war appalled her. Although she attended socialist and pacifist meetings and contributed to a feminist pacifist weekly, La Voix des Femmes (1917–23), she prudently avoided open war resistance. She kept a remarkable war diary (Aug. 25, 1914–Sept. 27, 1918) in which she recorded her alarm at the growth of irrationality and non-scientific belief systems and her disgust over the chauvinism of many feminists and socialists and the willingness of the workers to fight their brothers: "At bottom these people have got what they deserve; humanity is stupid."

The war over, she ardently defended the Russian Revolution in her revived La Suffragiste (1919), which printers' costs soon forced her to close. Back in politics, as a delegate to the Socialist Party congress at Tours in 1920, she joined the Communist schismatics. Frustrated because the Communist Party leaders distrusted her enough not to name her a delegate to a congress in Moscow, in May 1921 she set off for Moscow alone, intending to settle there. It took her six weeks, traveling alone sans passport and relying on the left-wing underground to get through. She returned in late autumn after realizing she missed the comforts and freedoms of Paris too much. Unlike many other pilgrims from the West, she kept her critical senses intact. The appalling degradation and fatalism of the masses, the suffocating bureaucracy, and especially the police terror cooled her ardor for this revolution. As for feminism, women had equality on paper but not much in reality. She asserted the revolution had brought "enlightenment" to thousands, and she expressed confidence that things would work out. Communism was still better than capitalism in the long run. A revolutionary elite would clean up ("degrease") the people, whom she dubbed "the amorphous dough good only to take the shape that a small number of intelligent and daring people wish to give it." All in all, the experience was sobering. A decade later, she admitted, "In theory I am a revolutionary, in practice I only kill the lice that my patients make me a present of from time to time."

Pelletier stayed in the Communist Party until 1926. Only with the Communists, for example, could fascism be defeated. But her libertarian anarchist side won out over her belief in authoritarian revolutionary government. Party discipline was not for her. Besides, the Communists were proving no more likely to get votes for women than were any others. The Senate's defeat of a suffrage bill in 1922 was a bitter blow. After the mid-1920s, Pelletier mostly worked outside the parties. In 1932, she joined Paul Louis' tiny Party of Proletarian Unity (PUP) and, surprisingly, accepted election as secretary of the women's commission—perhaps because it included some men. She also was on the executive committee of an organization of left-wing pacifists founded by the Communist Party, and in 1933 she joined the "integral" pacifist organization Mundia. But none of her political posts preoccupied her. Nor did her place on the executive committee of the sizeable antifascist-pacifist Movement Against Imperialist War (Amsterdam-Pleyel), animated by Henri Barbusse and Romain Rolland. She attended its congresses in 1932 and 1933, where she defended the Soviet Union's cause, but she found them too dominated by Communists, especially Germans. After Hitler came to power (1933), her pacifism faded and her antifascism became more pronounced.

Dearest to her heart was the feminist cause. As a leading light among the proponents of birth control ("neo-Malthusians"), she was a target of the strong "neo-natalist" movement in the 1920s and 1930s to raise France's population following the huge losses of the war. In 1929, she defended abortion at the London congress of the World League for Sexual Reform and continued her advocacy of it and other feminist concerns in books, articles, and meetings of the Club du Fourbourg, a well-attended public debate society. Her frank discussion of sexual topics there helped bring on the widely discussed prosecution in 1935 of Léo Poldës, the club's founder, for pornography. She defended him and her views at the trial. (He paid a small fine.) Two years before, the abortion issue had singed her personally when the police investigated her after a complaint that she was performing abortions, but she was not formally charged. The affair had frightened her into contemplating moving to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where her friend Arria Ly lived.

Pelletier's medical practice bloomed enough that she was able to buy a car and a weekend retreat in the country at Gif-sur-Yvette, ten miles southwest of Paris. It was another place to write. In addition to her usual articles for left-wing and feminist publications like La Voix des Femmes (where she was especially important), La Nouvelle Revue socialiste, L'Insurgé, Plus Loin, Le Semeur contre tous les Tyrans, L'Intransigeant, Les Vagabonds, Anarchie, Lueurs, La Rumeur, and L'Éveil de la Femme, plus 15 articles for L'Encyclopédie anarchiste, she wrote La Rationalisation sexuelle (1935), a recasting of her L'Emancepation sexuelle de la Femme (1911) and Le Droit à l'Avortement (1913). Under Freud's influence, she became less concerned with legal reform and more with women's psychology, notably the role of masochism in explanations of why women resist liberation.

Perhaps because her views on contraception and sexual emancipation were in effect censored in the 1920s and 1930s, Pelletier turned to fiction, writing three short stories, two plays (unproduced), and two novels. Besides an unpublished autobiography, "Doctoresse Pelletier: Mémoires d'une féministe" (early 1930s) and a memoir dictated in her last months, "Anne dite Madeleine Pelletier," these writings contain extensive autobiographical details. Their leitmotif, writes Gordon, is that of a solitary, working-class intellectual frustrated by contemporary society and family alienation. Une Vie nouvelle (A New Life, 1932), even though the protagonist is a man, climaxes in a feminist-communist utopia following a revolution. The masses are governed by an authoritarian elite and pursue self-improving education; people live in hotels, preserving individuality and communal life but not the family; complete sexual freedom prevails, with children cared for by the state if the mother wishes; even the pope becomes a communist, and he has an organ transplant to live longer. The book illustrates her continuing attempt, unsuccessful, to reconcile individualism and collectivism. In La Femme vierge (The Virgin Woman, 1933), she imagines—at last—a truly powerful woman. She becomes a successful politician in Germany, where she is accidentally killed in a crossfire between revolutionaries and government forces.

Pelletier suffered a tragic end. Partly paralyzed by a stroke in late 1937, she, with her nurse and maid, was arrested for supervising an abortion on April 25, 1939. The case resulted from incest between a teenaged sister and brother. Suspiciously, the timing of the arrest coincided with a neo-natalist anti-abortion campaign. The judge ordered a mental examination; the psychiatrist reported she was "totally irresponsible." Accordingly, Pelletier—the first woman psychiatric intern in France—was committed on June 2 (May 27?) to the Perray-Vaucluse asylum at Épinay-sur-l'Orge, near Paris. Doubtless she was in bad health (stroke, arteriosclerosis, lung and eye problems) and exhibiting signs of failing judgment. But ill enough to warrant committal without the charge of abortion? There is strong reason to suspect the judge responded to political pressure to "put away" this scandalous woman to avoid a potentially messy trial.

"You can't imagine," she wrote to Hélène Brion , "how terrible it is to be in an asylum when one has all one's mental faculties." A pacifist socialist friend, Brion was her only visitor, five times. Pelletier dictated to her some memoirs of her childhood, "Anne dite Madeleine Pelletier," which exhibit no mental impairment, but her health deteriorated. She died in the asylum, alone, on December 29, 1939, and was buried without ceremony in the asylum's cemetery.

Madeleine Pelletier was an anomaly: a feminist who identified with men and thought her sex was "the worst misfortune of my life." She sought to free women and the working class but identified with neither. If she failed to build a massive women's movement, she had in some measure herself to blame. Angelica Balabanoff , a fellow revolutionary, remarked that it was too bad nature—she might have added a traumatic childhood—seemed to have deprived her of "a little kindness, of sympathy for those around her, a little trust [ confiance]." Pelletier's misanthropy, superior airs, and acid tongue sooner or later alienated everyone around her; even Brion was more disciple than friend.

Despite—more likely because of—her peculiarities, Pelletier was an independent, original, unclassifiable thinker. In her own fashion, she became what she fought to make all women become: an independent creature not enslaved by her biology. She was probably the first to put an equal right to sexual pleasure into the context of political rights, as witnesses, for example, her stand on contraception and abortion. But beyond legal considerations, she helped mightily to shift the focus of debate from the political to the social and sexual origins of women's oppression. As one of the earliest inventors of the concept of social gender (or possibly the earliest), she argued convincingly that psychological sex is almost wholly a social, not biological, construct.

Virtually everything she attempted failed somehow. "Evidently I was born several centuries too early," she wrote. Well, a good 50 years, anyhow. Time brought reparation, for she has come to be ranked as one of the earliest and most important theorists of the 20th century's feminist movement.


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suggested reading:

Bock, Gisela, and Pat Thane, eds. Maternity and Gender Policies: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 1880–1950. London: Routledge, 1991.

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——. "When Radical and Socialist Feminism Were Joined: The Extraordinary Failure of Madeleine Pelletier," in Jane Slaughter and Peter Kern, eds., European Women of the Left: Socialism, Feminism, and the Problem Faced by Political Women, 1880 to the Present. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981, pp. 51–74.

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Mitchell, Claudine. "Madeleine Pelletier (1874–1939): The Politics of Sexual Oppression," in Feminist Review. No. 33, 1989, pp. 72–91.

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Wheelwright, Julie. Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness. London: Pandora Press, 1989.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. 5th ed. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.


Paris: Archives nationales (Académie de Paris, Faculté de Medicine, Faculté des Sciences); Archives de Paris (Internat des asiles de l'Assistance publique); Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris (Fonds Bouglé, Caroline Kauffmann, F. Buisson); Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand (Dossier Pelletier); Institut Français d'Histoire Sociale (Fonds Sowerwine).

David S. S. , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)

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Pelletier, Madeleine (1874–1939)

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