Schmahl, Jeanne (1846–1916)

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Schmahl, Jeanne (1846–1916)

French feminist. Pronunciation: jhan shmall. Born Jeanne Elizabeth Archer in Great Britain in 1846; died in 1916; naturalized French citizen through marriage to Henri Schmahl in 1873.

Jeanne Schmahl, who was born in England in 1846 to an English father and French mother, went to Paris to study medicine. She never finished her studies but until 1893 practiced as a midwife, living comfortably in a fine residence at the Parc Montsouris with her husband Henri Schmahl, who supported her activities and served discreetly as her secretary. Jeanne had already joined Maria Deraismes ' Society for the Amelioration of Woman's Condition and the Demand of Her Rights when she was strongly drawn into the movement for women's rights by the sad case of a patient of hers. The woman had been fired after she protested to her employer about his regularly giving her wages to her husband, an alcoholic who beat her. From 1884, she began to work to change provisions of the Code Napoléon (1804—) which denied women the right to dispose of their own income. She became active, too, in the Protestant women's movement for moral and social reform centered around Sarah Monod and the Versailles Conferences of the 1890s.

Although she supported Deraismes' causes and helped the suffragist Hubertine Auclert financially, she concluded that removing the Code Napoléon's restrictions on women—which made them perpetual minors before the law—should take precedence over obtaining the vote. She also concluded that the anticlerical republicanism of Deraismes and Auclert was a hindrance to building a large women's movement in France and achieving concrete gains. Hence, in 1893, she founded L'Avant-courrière (The Advance Messenger), an organization focused on persuading Parliament to enact two specific reforms: the right of women to bear legal witness to public and private acts, and the right of women, including wives, to have full control of their own income. She enlisted women from both conservative and liberal circles as co-founders, including Anne, Duchesse d'Uzès, Juliette Adam, Jane Misme and Monod. Her tactics joined an uncompromising feminism with a strict adherence to moderate methods and conservative personal behavior—a combination which had wide appeal and proved effective. Parliament passed the legal witness act in 1897. The income control bill, however, stalled in the Senate after passing the Chamber of Deputies in 1896. It became the most ardently sought bill for women since the divorce law of 1884. To some extent, Schmahl agreed with the socialist feminists: "Where does one start? With the economic interests of women" (1895). England had had the Married Women's Property Act on the books since 1882, and other countries had been enacting such legislation since the 1850s. The Senate finally relented and passed the "Schmahl Law" in 1907.

Having achieved its goal, L'Avant-courrière dissolved itself as it had stated it would do. In the meantime, however, Schmahl had become convinced that the suffrage question had to be pressed despite its political and social divisiveness in France, where the ruling republicans feared that votes for women would give the Roman Catholic Church and the conservatives enough influence to endanger the Third Republic. In 1902, Schmahl was elected as one of the three French delegates to the 1904 organizational meeting of Carrie Chapman Catt 's International Women's Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). Because of disagreements between Auclert and Catt, however, the French delegation did not participate. Isolated and rudderless, the women's suffrage cause in France struggled until Schmahl, having ended L'Avant-courrière, decided to take matters in hand. Once again she viewed the non-partisan approach as the one most likely to rally the widest support. Her longtime friend Jane Misme supported this tactic and in January 1909 opened her La Française to Schmahl, who wrote a series of powerfully argued essays on the suffrage question. On February 13, 1909, with strong support from the National Council of French Women (CNFF), 300 women, representing all but the most militant suffragists, answered her call to organize a national body, the French Union for Women's Suffrage (UFSF). Schmahl was elected president and Misme secretary-general, and in London in April 1909 the UFSF was accepted as the French branch of the IWSA.

Schmahl's presidency came to an early end as the result of the extraordinary success of the head of the membership and propaganda committee, Cécile Brunschvicg , in attracting new members. Schmahl saw Brunschvicg, an outspoken republican, as threatening the non-partisan character of the UFSF and Schmahl's intention to keep a line open to the Catholics. At the same time, Schmahl's own growing distemper, exacerbated by her domineering manner, was alienating members and undercutting her ability to lead a large organization with a heterogeneous clientele. In a wrenching meeting in December 1910, Brunschvicg was elected secretary-general and Schmahl resigned the presidency rather than accept "a purely honorary role." Misme supported Brunschvicg, while the Duchesse d'Uzès reluctantly stood by Schmahl, whose last years were spent in a deepening isolation.

Despite her sad end, Jeanne Schmahl had made her mark as one of the most influential feminists of her time. It has been said of her that "few other contemporary feminists could claim so direct an influence on legislative reform." The UFSF, of which she was the founder, grew apace and became the principal French organization advocating women's suffrage. Perhaps most important of all, it was her example of moderation and concentration on practicable achievements which "drew increasing numbers of high-born, reform-minded women into social activism," a major result of which was the union in 1901 of French women's organizations into the CNFF.


Hause, Steven C., with Anne R. Kenney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Historical Dictionary of the Third French Republic 1870–1940. 2 vols. Patrick H. Hutton, ed. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

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.

Moses, Claire Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984.

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

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Schmahl, Jeanne (1846–1916)

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