Potonié-Pierre, Eugénie (1844–1898)

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Potonié-Pierre, Eugénie (1844–1898)

French feminist and socialist who worked to make the women's movement more socially conscious. Name variations: Eugenie Potonie-Pierre. Pronunciation: yew-JAY-nee po-TOE-nee-ay pee-AIR. Born Eugénie Pierre on November 5, 1844; died of a cerebral hemorrhage on June 12, 1898; sister of Dr. Marie Pierre; married Edmond Potonié (a historian and pacifist), in 1881; no children.

Served as secretary of the first French International Congress for Women's Rights (1878); helped found the Union of Socialist Women (1880); helped to run La Citoyenne (1886?–91); helped found the Women's Solidarity Group and the French Federation of Feminist Societies (1891); helped sponsor the French Congress for Women's Rights (1892, 1896); wrote for Argyriadès' La Question sociale (1894–97); served as delegate to the Brussels World Congress of Women (1897).

Born in 1844 and raised in comfortable circumstances, Eugénie Pierre was a teacher influenced by Saint-Simonian socialism (Comte de Saint-Simon, 1760–1825). In the mid-1870s, she joined Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes ' Society for the Amelioration of Women's Condition and contributed regularly to its review, Le Droit des femmes (Women's Rights, 1869–91), of which she was secretary. She emerged as an important figure when she served as secretary of the organizing committee of the first French International Congress for Women's Rights, convened by Richer and Deraismes in July 1878. Under the influence, however, of Hubertine Auclert 's Women's Rights Society (later the Women's Suffrage Society), she had begun moving toward socialist politics and a more militant feminism. With Auclert and others, she tried to register to vote (February 2, 1880) but was denied.

In April 1880, Pierre, Léonide Rouzade (a novelist), and Marguerite Tinayre (novelist, communard, and friend of Louise Michel ) founded the Union of Socialist Women in order to increase women's influence in the Socialist Party. The Marxist leader Jules Guesde spoke at the founding, and the Union soon tended to draw more socialists than feminists, notably Paule Mink and Michel. It never effectively married feminism with socialism, notes Charles Sowerwine, the group's analyses of these issues following separate but parallel lines. It did, nevertheless, succeed in persuading the party in 1880 to reject the Guesdist thesis that women's rights would result only from the great proletarian revolution; instead, it won confirmation of the rights endorsed by the Marseille congress of 1879. Eugénie spoke in these debates. This victory started a process which thereafter led all socialist parties to include women's rights in their platforms.

By the end of 1880, Eugénie and Léonide were more involved in party affairs than in the Union. Rouzade accepted the party's nomination in 1881 to run for the Paris Municipal Council—the first woman in France to stand for municipal office—but this affair contributed to the breakup of the party into warring factions. The Union faded. Eugénie, who had not supported the candidacy, left the Union after failing to be elected secretary of the Socialist party's central committee, where she represented the Union (April 1881). That same year, despite her theoretical objections to matrimony, she married Edmond Potonié, a pacifist utopian socialist historian, and inventor of the cry, "War on war!" They both took the name Potonié-Pierre. He probably persuaded her to back away from party politics, although she remained active in the women's movement. The Union had supported Guesde's expulsion of Auclert from the 1880 congress; Pierre and Rouzade, however, had kept up contact with her. Potonié-Pierre was the most frequent contributor to Auclert's La Citoyenne (1881–91), and her husband also contributed. In 1885, she declined an invitation from the League for the Protection of Women, a break-off group from Auclert's society, to run for Parliament. She concluded there were too many such symbolic candidacies to be productive. When Auclert temporarily drifted away from public life in the latter 1880s, Potonié-Pierre, along with Marie Martin and Astié de Valsayre , carried most of the burden of running La Citoyenne until its demise in 1891.

Potonié-Pierre resumed organizational work in 1889. She attended the second French International Congress for Women's Rights that year but grew unhappy with the narrowness of Richer and Deraismes' approach. So she, Astié, and Jules and Denise Roques organized the Women's League (or Women's Socialist League). Potonié-Pierre tried to run for Parliament as "an act of propaganda" but gave way when the prefect of the Seine forbade it. The League died almost at birth.

Potonié-Pierre returned to the charge in 1891 when, with Rouzade, Marie Martin, and Nathalie Lemel (a communard socialist), she founded the Women's Solidarity Group, which sought to bridge the gap between socialist and moderate women. She wanted to push "the whole cause of women's economic and social emancipation," as she put it. Hence Solidarity proposed a long, heterogeneous agenda, e.g., freedom of work for women, abolition of legalized prostitution, support of women's coeducation, language and women's dress reform, abolition of the death penalty, etc. Solidarity made overtures to the (now) five socialist parties but formed no official connections. For the 1893 election, it asked the parties to name a female candidate. They turned a deaf ear, so it finally nominated Rouzade, Deraismes, Séverine (the famous journalist), and Paule Mink. Only Mink accepted; Potonié-Pierre had won her over from the Guesdist position to the view that "the social question" needed liberated women to deal with it. Solidarity survived, but it never got support among working-class women—a common defect in the "social feminist" movement which it never overcame.

[We must] join the two causes of women and the proletariat in order to make of them one single cause, the humanitarian cause.

—Eugénie Potonié-Pierre

Solidarity played a role in another of Potonié-Pierre's initiatives, the French Federation of Feminist Societies, launched in November 1891. It linked some 16 Paris feminist groups in an attempt to compete with or even replace the more moderate elements of the women's movement. Its sole accomplishment was to convene the third French International Congress for Women's Rights (May 13–15, 1892), which brought together an amazingly broad range of delegates, from the moderate Deraismes to the revolutionary Édouard Vaillant. Inevitably, it lacked coherence. The congress did manage to endorse support of "the international proletariat's demands"—a victory for the radicals which pleased Potonié-Pierre but caused some walkouts. "For the first time," she proclaimed, "women finally have accepted the outstretched hand of the social cause … have united … their demands with those of the proletariat." But the hard truth was that the congress, like Solidarity, lacked proletarian followers. The Federation itself soon expired following Potonié-Pierre's resignation (June 17) as secretary because of a dispute with Aline Valette over control of the organization. A year later, writing in Le Journal des femmes, she had the satisfaction of charging Valette with "sexualism" for saying that once women had received their full rights they would return to motherhood, their "natural destiny." Interestingly, she was the only columnist to view Valette's position in this light.

Potonié-Pierre continued to head Solidarity. She also wrote for Argyriadès' La Question sociale until it died in 1897, collaborating with Marya Chéliga (a co-sponsor of the 1892 congress) and Mink. In 1894, at her urging, the deputies in Parliament organized a lobbying group for women's rights, an encouraging development. Another congress, the fourth, took place in 1896. It was sponsored by Solidarity and Richer's old French League for the Rights of Women, which was now being led by Maria Pognon and other social feminists—evidence of Potonié-Pierre's success. The congress turned into a replay of the 1892 congress. It endorsed everyone's pet reforms, so no coherent program emerged. Its most significant results were the confirmation of Potonié-Pierre and Mink as the leaders of current mainstream feminism, confirming the growing importance of social feminism; and the conversion to feminism of Marguerite Durand , who, in an effort to bring order to the movement, founded the first daily paper operated (including typesetting) solely by women, La Fronde (1897–1903).

At the Brussels World Congress of Women (1897), Potonié-Pierre and Mink clearly dominated the French delegation. Potonié-Pierre's influence had never been higher when she died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on June 12, 1898, at age 54.

Solidarity passed to Caroline Kauffmann , founder of the Feminine League for Physical Education, who left it to Madeleine Pelletier in 1906. Potonié-Pierre's advocacy (with her sister, Dr. Marie Pierre ) of greater physical activity for women and of dress reform—she wore skirt culottes—underscored her separation from the working-class women whose lot she was seeking to better. They took no interest in such reforms. Her socialism was humanitarian in inspiration, drawn from utopian socialist springs, in her case Saint-Simonian. She and her husband, in fact, jointly published a utopian futuristic novel, Un peu plus tard (A Little Later, Paris: Breton, 1893), like Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) filled with mechanical marvels. Edmond's pacifism and aversion to political activism influenced her approach to social questions. Eschewing grassroots organizing of the masses, she overflowed with good will and compassion toward the suffering working class. Her writings, abounding in stories of abandoned women, starving urchins, and desperate unemployed workers, are reminiscent of the work of Séverine, though Séverine was one of the greatest journalists of her time.

Potonié-Pierre's dream was, as she wrote, "to join the two causes of women and the proletariat in order to make of them one single cause, the humanitarian cause, so that social evolution may proceed peacefully." This dream was doomed to frustration. The gap between her solidly bourgeois following and working-class women only widened. Ideas of class warfare were taking hold among the proletariat; the old alliance between the republican middle class and the workers crumbled, writes Claire Moses , once this middle class came to power and governed in its own interest. Potonié-Pierre never realized her movement needed to incorporate proletarians. "Indeed," writes Sowerwine, "her aim was not so much to encourage the working people to be active as to forestall such activity" by meeting their needs for them, thus ensuring peaceful evolution. She did much, nevertheless, to make the women's movement far more socially conscious. Ineffective as her organizational approach proved to be, she helped middle-class women come to understand that their plight was, like it or not, linked to that of the humblest reaches of society.


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

Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français. Jean Maitron, dir. Paris: Éditions ouvrières, 1964—.

Hause, Steven. Hubertine Auclert: The French Suffragette. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

International Dictionary of Women's Biography. Jennifer S. Uglow, ed. NY: Continuum, 1985.

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

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

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

suggested reading:

Brogan, Denis W. The Development of Modern France, 1870–1939. New and rev. ed. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1967.

Chapman, Guy. The Third French Republic: The First Phase, 1871–1894. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1962.

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

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

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. 4th ed. NY: W.W. Norton, 1987.


Paris: Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand: dossiers for Potonié-Pierre and Solidarité.

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