Royer, Clémence (1830–1902)

views updated

Royer, Clémence (1830–1902)

French autodidact, philosopher, scientist, feminist, translator, and social critic whose works were alternately scorned, praised, and ignored. Name variations: Clemence Royer; Clémence-Auguste Royer; Lux. Pronunciation: Clay-MONCE Raw-yeah. Born Clémence-Auguste Royer on April 21, 1830, in Nantes, France; died in Paris, France, on February 5, 1902; daughter of Augustin-René Royer (a commissioned officer in the French army and entrepreneur) and Josephine-Gabrielle Andouard; partner of Pascal Duprat; children: son, René Duprat (b. March 6, 1866).

Translator of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species; author of 5 books and over 150 articles, reviews, and monographs ranging in subject matter from anthropology to economics to ethics to feminism to politics to various natural and social scientific disciplines. First woman member of the Société d'Anthropologie de Paris; recipient of Legion of Honor award (1900).

Selected writings:

translation of Darwin's Origin of Species, with extensive introduction and footnotes (1862, 1866, 1870); Théorie de l'impôt, ou la dîme sociale (Theory of Taxation, or the Social Tithe, 1862); (novel) Les Jumeaux d'Hellas (The Twins of Hellas, 1864); Origine de l'homme et des sociétés (Origin of Man and Societies, 1869); Le Bien et la loi morale: ethique et téléologie (Goodness and Moral Law: Ethics and Teleology, 1881); Natura Rerum: la Constitution du monde, dynamique des atomes, nouveaux principes de philosophie naturelle (The Nature of Things: the Constitution of the World, Energy of Atoms, and New Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1900).

In a culture in which women are barred from formal education beyond early grades and excluded from professional associations because of their gender, the opportunities for fame and acclamation are rare. This is especially true in the so-called "masculine" fields of science and philosophy. Clémence Royer sought to create her own opportunities in such a culture by educating herself, by finding supportive male colleagues, by gaining publicity with her French translation of Darwin's Origin of Species, and by refusing to be silenced. Royer herself reported that the highest praise noted French linguist and critic Ernest Renan could give her was to say, "She was almost a man of genius." For the articulate feminist, this description was hardly a compliment.

Born in 1830 in Nantes, France, Clémence Royer lived a troubled childhood. Shortly after her birth, her father resigned his commission in the army to participate in the royalist insurrection against Charles X and later in a legitimatist rebellion against Louis-Philippe. Her family fled from place to place, settling at last in Lausanne, Switzerland, which provided the locale for some of her earliest memories. In 1835, the family returned to France, where her father was tried for and acquitted of treason. Royer and her parents then went to Paris, where her father tried his hand at business, but succeeded only in losing most of the family fortune.

During this time in Paris, Royer apparently attended a number of primary schools, but received most of her education at home. This education was not structured and seemed to follow her parents' literary bent emphasizing literature, poetry, and theater. When she was ten, her parents decided that she should have a more formal education and enrolled her in a convent school in Le Mans. Here her natural intelligence was immediately recognized, and she finished the first classes in three months, winning all of the prizes.

At this school, she also received her first formalized religious training. During the next two years, her religious confusion, active imagination, and intense mysticism created a mental and emotional response that seems, from her autobiography, to have been a type of nervous breakdown. Finally, in 1843 her parents felt it necessary to remove her from this environment and took her back to Paris. During the next few years, she read and reread the classical authors, enjoyed music, and sewed.

The Revolution of 1848 was an important event in her intellectual, political, and personal development. Intellectually, she adopted as her heroes Lamartine and Michelet. Politically, she abandoned the royalist politics of her upbringing and adopted a rational belief in republicanism. Personally, she began to define herself and her mission in terms of a Joan of Arc figure who would liberate humanity from the dogmatism, prejudices, errors, and lies that imprisoned humankind and held back its progress. She was unsure how to fulfill this mission, but had to make some pragmatic decisions following the death of her father in 1850. He had squandered the family fortune on business and political failures, and she realized that with the small dowry left, there was little chance that she could marry as she would like. Moreover, her view of marriage, based on the domestic turmoil of her parents' union, was not something that attracted her, so she decided to prepare herself for a career.

Royer began by publishing some poetry in minor periodicals, but when she tried to write prose, became aware of her real lack of education. Thus, at the age of 20, she started to relearn everything. Her re-education commenced with the most elementary rules of grammar and arithmetic. In two years, she passed three examinations without a failure, the last one being with honors. Both her autobiography and the biographical sources are unclear at this point as to where this education took place and who gave the exams, but Geneviève Fraisse suggests that they were probably the brevet élémentaire, the brevet supérieur, and the exams of the Hôtel de Ville. In her autobiography, Royer mentioned two courses that strongly influenced her during this time: Michelet's work on Roman history, which she viewed as a negation of all Christian history and which revealed to her a sense of historical criticism, and the course on physics given at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers by Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, which was for her a negation of all miracles.

Hence between 1850 and 1853, she worked, in the words of her autobiography, "to acquire the only diplomas then accessible to women." These diplomas assured her of a career, and in 1854 she went to Great Britain to teach French and piano in a girls' boarding school at Haver-fordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales. While there, she studied English language and literature and continued to reexamine and revise her religious views, now with the added data that came from her exposure to Protestant sectarianism.

She returned to France in 1855 and spent the summer at a school in an old château in Touraine, where she replaced one of the teachers who was on vacation. Utilizing the school library, she continued her self-education. As a result of this reading, and discussions with the school's priest, she rejected traditional Christianity and its domination of culture and learning. Bitter that she had been betrayed by what she viewed as false teachings that had misled her reason, she came to the conclusion that the mission she had sensed in 1848 was now clear to her. She was to discover Truth and communicate it to all who had been likewise deceived.

All that I know I have stolen by sheer force, and I had to forget everything that I had been taught in order to learn for myself.

—Clémence Royer

In the summer of 1856, Royer returned to Lausanne, where she had experienced safety as a toddler and where she believed she would have the safety to learn and to follow Reason where it led. Using the library in Lausanne, she read voraciously and broadly for four years. But she was not just acquiring knowledge. In 1858, she wrote a piece for a contest that contained the primitive form of her atomic theory that would be found in her last book, Natura rerum. She also gave a lecture on logic organized by the famous Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer . When this lecture met with great success, Royer decided to offer the following year a complete course, comprised of 40 lessons, on the Philosophy of Nature and History. Only the first lesson of the series was printed, but it contains the initial expressions of Royer's "equal but different" form of feminism and of the need for women to be actively engaged in the scientific enterprise. She affirmed that as long as science remained exclusively in the hands of men, it would never penetrate either the family or society. This "equal but different" form of feminism would be a focal point in several of Royer's works, and she would put it into practice through her own involvement with the feminist movement in France during the final decades of her life.

In 1860, she submitted a manuscript ( Théorie de l'impôt, ou la Dîme sociale) to a contest sponsored by the State Council of the canton of Vaud to settle the question of tax reform. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, one of the principal French socialists who had earlier denied that women had any intellectual capacities, also submitted a manuscript. When the prize was announced, Royer and Proudhon shared the honor, a situation that the press found ironic and newsworthy. As a result, Royer's work was publicized through Europe, and she began publishing in the Journal des Économistes, while continuing to contribute to the Nouvelle Économiste, a journal published by Pascal Duprat.

Duprat had brought his family to Lausanne just shortly before Royer arrived there. His supportive responses to Royer's work encouraged her, but gradually their relationship became more than that of intellectual comrades. Duprat left his family and the debts incurred by his wife in 1860, and began meeting Royer at various places throughout Europe during his travels. Finally, in 1865, Royer and Duprat decided to form a companionate marriage. Their son René was born the following year.

During this period of awakening emotions, Royer continued to be extremely productive intellectually. In fact, it was in 1862 that she published the first French translation of Darwin's Origin of Species. It is ironic that Royer, a woman who cherished her independence, should be known to most scholars primarily in her subordinate role as Darwin's French translator. Moreover, many scholars of this period have long accused Royer of distorting Darwin's text to serve her own philosophical and scientific purposes. More recently, some scholars have shown Royer to have been more faithful to the text and more critically astute than had been believed.

Royer translated two more editions of Origin of Species (1866 and 1870), but in the last (3rd) French edition, argued passionately against Darwin's theory of pangenesis, causing Darwin to withdraw permission for Royer to continue with the translations. She did not see this action, however, as a setback. By this time, she had published at least 24 articles, reviews, and monographs on a variety of topics, the aforementioned treatise on tax reform, a two-volume novel ( Les Jumeaux d'Hellas), and a major book applying Darwinian theory to the evolution of humans and human society ( Origine de l'homme et des sociétés). Especially with this latter book, she believed that she had intellectually moved beyond Darwin. The book was published just three months before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, however, and by the time things had settled down in France, Darwin had published The Descent of Man. According to her autobiography, many people believed that her book was the translation of Darwin's, "probably in accordance with the public's prejudice that the translator of a first work never does anything more than translations."

There were a growing number of intellectuals, however, especially among liberal republicans in the anthropological community, who recognized Royer's contributions, and after some debate, she was elected in 1870 as the first woman member of the Société d'Anthropologie. Though this was an honor, her position within the organization was that of a second-class citizen, for she was not allowed to serve on committees, become an officer, or gain professionally—or economically—as a result of her membership. It did, however, provide her a venue for promulgating her views and for debating issues about which she felt passionately. Increasingly she used this forum to disseminate her feminist and scientific beliefs concerning women and their roles in society. She argued for increased education and economic freedom for women, a position that many of her colleagues were willing to support. However, some of her proposals were too extreme for them, especially after the election of the new conservative monarchist government in 1873. One of those extreme proposals was a change in the legal relationship established in the Napoleonic Code between husband and wife. In that Code, wives had no legal rights. Royer contended that marriage should involve a contract in which both partners had equal rights and obligations, including the opportunity for women to initiate divorce proceedings. She also advocated changes in attitudes and behaviors surrounding sexuality and childbirth, including the right of motherhood outside of marriage. In developing these arguments she directly challenged the Roman Catholic Church and indirectly all forms of Christianity.

Her comments, expressed in a paper entitled " Sur la natalité," read before the Société in 1874 and scheduled for publication in the organization's journal the following year, were suppressed by the leaders of the Société in deference to other professional colleagues, to the clerical leaders in the country, and to the new governmental leaders. In 1877, the Paris police denied her request to speak on a related topic in a lecture series organized by her friend Céline Renooz Muro , a Belgian writer. Joy Harvey , who has studied Royer extensively, argues that

this denial explains why Royer did not participate in the first Congress on the Rights of Women held in Paris in 1878.

During the decade preceding this Congress, the French feminist movement had developed a new vigor and had begun to lobby for changes in laws and attitudes. Royer had been espousing feminist causes since her days in Lausanne, and she became involved in the International Congresses for the Rights of Women sometime in the early 1880s. Although ill, she chaired the history session of this group in 1889 as one of its honorary presidents. She gradually became more active in the women's movement by joining a mixed Masonic lodge (1893) and by writing for the feminist newspaper La Fronde when it was formed in 1897.

Royer's participation in the feminist movement and her sensitivity to the plight of women were grounded in the philosophical system she had developed over 40 years of study and reflection. They were undoubtedly increased, moreover, by her own troubles following the death of Duprat in 1885. She had no rights to Duprat's estate, and no source of income other than public lectures and her own writings, which she had difficulty getting published and more difficulty getting sold. She petitioned the government for a pension, and for four years received a small grant. Finally, around 1890, Royer, feeling forsaken, accepted "free" room and board in the Maison Galignani, a home of "indigent men and women of letters," where she lived until her death.

Poverty and opposition did not, however, halt her productivity. Between 1890 and 1900, she published over 20 articles and a book in which she developed her grand theory of nature ( Natura rerum). Moreover, regardless of her feelings of abandonment, a number of her friends were still seeking to honor her. In 1897, over 250 celebrated intellectuals, including two political leaders—Georges Clémenceau and Anatole France—the celebrated chemist Marcellin Berthelot, and the writer Emile Zola, attended a banquet organized by the Bleus de Bretagne, a republican organization of Brittany, to honor the life and work of this celebrated Breton. In 1900, La Fronde carried a four-part review of her last book, Natura rerum, which predicted that some day Royer would receive the glory that was due her. That glory came when, on August 16, 1900, the Minister of Public Instruction named Royer a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor because of her services as a " femme de lettres, écrivain scientifique" (woman of letters and scientific writer). She received her certificate and cross on November 12, and her friends organized a second banquet as a tribute to her on November 16, to celebrate what they considered a long overdue honor.

Royer's health continued to decline during the year following this second banquet. Asthma had taken its toll, and she began to cough up blood. She also suffered from an intestinal problem, and some of her friends believed she had a kidney disease. Unable to complete her weekly assignment for La Fronde early in 1902, Royer sent word that she needed some rest. When her friend Mary Léopold Lacour noticed on February 5 that the weekly article was absent, she went to see her, only to find her in a coma. Help was summoned, Royer was given oxygen to help her breathe, and she gradually regained consciousness. She made it known to Lacour that she did not want a priest called. Lacour left for supper, and when she returned, Royer had died. She was buried on February 10, 1902, in the cemetery of Neuilly. A number of friends and colleagues attended her burial, speaking of her powerful mind and her impish and sparkling good nature.

Following her death, many of her writings were lost, but for a while she was not forgotten. In 1913, the International Freethought Society undertook a subscription drive to raise funds to honor Royer. The project was to place a marble plaque on the house in Praz-Parey, near Lausanne, where Royer had stayed while re-educating herself. This was accomplished in September 1913. In 1930, two events honored the centenary of Royer's birth: one on May 4, which was an allday affair including a visit to her grave, dinner, and lectures; and one on June 12, which was an evening of lectures by scientific and literary personalities. These activities attest to the impact of Royer's life and thought within some groups a full quarter century after her death. She continued, however, to be marginalized by both the academic community and the feminist movement. Interest in her and her work later reemerged, as historiographical methods evolved in the history of science to include an understanding of socio-cultural influences and as women's studies became more scholarly and less hagiographic. Today Clémence Royer is recognized as an exceptional woman who rose above the limitations imposed by 19th-century French culture. Her contributions to the natural and social sciences were sometimes brilliantly insightful and sometimes remarkably naive and erroneous. In these ways, she paralleled the intellectual path of many men of whom the same could be said, but she did it without the possibility of formal learning and without the support of the professional academic community. As she said near the end of her life, what she accomplished was a result of "sheer force" and against many obstacles, but that accomplishment fulfilled an important role in the French intellectual community and within the French feminist movement.


Fraisse, Geneviève. Clémence Royer: Philosophe et femme de sciences. Paris: Éditions de la Découverte, 1985.

Harvey, Joy. "Almost a Man of Genius:" Clémence Royer, Feminism, and Nineteenth-Century Science. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Miles, Sara. Evolution and Natural Law in the Synthetic Science of Clémence Royer. Ph.D. dissertation that includes the transcription of Royer's handwritten autobiography, an English translation of her Introduction to Philosophy for Women, and her prefaces to the 1st and 3rd French editions of L'Origine des espèces. University of Chicago, 1988.

suggested reading:

Harvey, Joy. "'Strangers to Each Other': Male and Female Relationships in the Life and Work of Clémence Royer, 1830–1902," in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science 1789–1979. Edited by Pnina G. Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987, pp. 147–171.

Miles, Sara. "Clémence Royet et De l'origine des éspèces: Traductrice ou traîtresse?" in Revue de Synthèse. 4th series. 1989, pp. 61–83.

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


Correspondence, papers, and dossier are located at both the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Paris, and the French National Archives, Paris.

Sara Joan Miles , Ph.D., Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness and Professor of History and Biology, Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania