Valette, Aline (1850–1899)
Valette, Aline (1850–1899)
French organizer, writer, and speaker who was a leading figure in the formative years of the French socialist movement. Pronunciation: ah-LEEN va-LET. Born Alphonsine Goudeman in Lille (Nord), on October 4, 1850; died of tuberculosis at Arcachon (Gironde), on March 21, 1899, and was buried there; daughter of a railway worker and granddaughter of a college dean; educated to be a teacher; married to a lawyer, separated, and widowed; children: two sons.
Elected secretary of the newly founded teacher's union (1878); joined the French Workers' Party (1879); published a widely circulated home economics text (1883); became a substitute inspector of child labor (1887); named secretary of the National Federation of Feminist Societies, and founded and directed L'Harmonie sociale (1892); elected to the National Council of the French Workers' Party and published Socialism and Sexualism (1893); elected permanent secretary of the French Workers' Party (1896); contributed articles on women's labor to La Fronde (1897–98).
La Journée de la petite ménagère (Paris, 1883); with "Dr. Z." [Pierre Bonnier], Socialisme et sexualisme, programme du Parti socialiste féminine (Paris: Typographie A.M. Baudelot, 1893); articles for L'Harmonie sociale (Valette, ed.), La Revue socialiste, La Petite République, Le Peuple (Lyons), La Revue féministe (Clotilde Dissard), Le Matin, and La Fronde (Marguerite Durand).
Aline Valette, with Louise Michel, Paule Mink , and Eugénie Potonié-Pierre , was one of the most prominent women socialists in France in the late 19th century. More than the aforementioned, she was involved in party politics. She was the first woman to sit on the National Council of the French Workers' Party (POF), whose chief, Jules Guesde (1845–1922), the "Marxist pope," described her (rather archly) as "the sole woman who has understood socialism."
Valette, née Alphonsine Goudeman, born in Lille (Nord), on October 5, 1850, was a daughter of a railway worker and granddaughter of a college dean. She was trained as a teacher and taught in Paris in a private school in Montmartre, a working-class district, and then as a professor of the City of Paris in a teacher-training school on the rue Ganneron. In 1883, after she had married and left teaching, she published a highly successful textbook (34 editions in 10 years) on home economics for Paris schools which she later adapted for working women. La Journée de la petite ménagère (The Little Housewife's Day) included much data and advice on housekeeping, cooking, and good grooming. Later she wrote a column on "domestic working-class economy" for an independent socialist journal, offering, for example, recipes for 365 "soups of the year."
Valette became active in social, political, and feminist causes by the mid-1870s, doubtless stimulated by her childhood in a working-class family and observations of life in Paris. She was an early member of Maria Deraismes ' Society for the Amelioration of Women's Condition (1870, 1874—), was a delegate to the first Workers' Congress (rue d'Arras, 1876), and with Gustave Francolin, Camecasse, and Maria Bonnevial (b. 1841, a socialist teacher whose license was revoked by the Second Empire) founded France's first teachers' union, of which she was named secretary in 1878. It included both public and private lay teachers. Drawn to socialism by humanitarianism, she joined the POF at its birth in 1879 and probably the Union of Socialist Women, founded by Potonié-Pierre, Marguerite Tinayre , and Léonide Rozade , which during its brief life (1880–81) succeeded in getting women's issues included in future socialist party programs. At some point, she worked for the Charitable Society for Women Released from Saint-Lazare, which sought to integrate former prostitutes into society. In 1887 (?), she also became an unpaid substitute child labor inspector, one of the first women so engaged. The conditions she witnessed helped persuade her to join a Guesdist study group, which she represented at the congress—the Marxist rather than the Possibilist version—which organized the Second International Workingmen's Association (1889). That year, she also attended the Second French International Congress for Women's Rights, but she came away disappointed by its narrow, moderate approach.
The proletariat of the factories loved this woman of action, gentle and sickly—but how ardent in battle!
Valette's membership in the Eight-Hour League, an offspring of the Second International, brought her into Guesde's entourage, where she began a rapid rise in the POF. She had married a wealthy Paris lawyer some years ago and given birth to two sons. But the couple separated and he had died. As a comfortably well-off widow now, she was able to put to the full-time use of the party her first-class organizational skills and, it is said, excessively methodical ways. After Valette's election as permanent party secretary in 1896, her dining room in her spacious apartment at 12, rue de Notre-Dame de Lorette, became the party's office and meeting room for its executive committee. She was an altogether agreeable presence, lively in aspect, with a very expressive face, her blue eyes now sad, now twinkling in gaiety. Rather tall and slender, with blonde curly hair crowning a fine head which she carried high, she was graceful and gentle in manner, courageous in the face of difficulty or illness, and possessed an excellent mind. She was a talented public speaker and a capable, if too often rather dry, writer, well informed, especially in economic matters.
In 1891, Valette attended the Brussels congress of the Second International. Guesdist though she was, it was through feminism that she became a party leader. In November 1891, Potonié-Pierre launched the French Federation of Feminist Societies (FFSF), hoping through this umbrella organization eventually to replace the more moderate elements of the women's movement. Valette joined and assisted in organizing the Third French International Congress for Women's Rights (May 13–15, 1892). It attracted an amazingly broad range of participants, from Deraismes to the revolutionary Édouard Vaillant; as was all but inevitable, it failed to create much unity. It did endorse support of "the international proletariat's demands," however, and commissioned the drawing up of a "List of Feminine Grievances," which Valette eventually composed. Trouble soon arose in the FFSF, and on June 17 Potonié-Pierre resigned as secretary in a dispute with Valette over control of the organization. Valette succeeded her.
On October 15, 1892, the first issue of a weekly tabloid, L'Harmonie sociale, appeared, published and edited by Valette. While working on the List, she wanted to reach out to working women. The paper was the organ of a POF affiliate, the Feminine Socialist Party, and lasted until July 8, 1893. It tried to integrate the socialist and feminist causes through "sexualism" (see below). Valette's first article asserted that women had neglected their "natural role of reproducer" in favor of the "artificial role of producer"—a view which suggested that "sexualism" might have serious problems as a feminist theory. L'Harmonie sociale's socialist intentions were sincere, but Valette tended to portray Guesde, the POF, and the International as more sympathetic to women's issues than they truly were. Probably the wish was father to the thought, notes Charles Sowerwine.
The FFSF passed the List on March 16, 1893, at its first and only general assembly. It was no radical document, being in essence "a bill of rights for middle-class women," writes Sowerwine, advocating, for example, access to all levels of education, professions, and public office, and abolition of all articles in the Napoleonic Code consecrating female inferiority. The FFSF circulated the List to all the district mayors of Paris and then disintegrated. Yet it was as secretary of the defunct federation that Valette attended the POF congress in October, one of only three women among the 92 delegates.
The congress elected her to the party's national council, the first woman in France to sit on any party's governing board. (Women did not obtain the vote in France until 1944.) Her elevation was somewhat fortuitous. Following a failure to recruit many female members at Lille, a labor stronghold, by supporting (as did Valette) a short-lived women's committee there working for a school-lunch program, the leadership decided they needed to reach out to women more visibly. Valette, to whom the party had entrusted a lecture mission in Roubaix in April, was ready at hand when it was decided to revamp the national council. She was considered the only woman in the party—only 2–3% of whose members were female—to have leadership potential.
As a member of the national council, Valette attended the annual party congresses from 1894 to 1897, after which illness intervened. In November 1896, she was elected permanent secretary of the party. A series of articles on women's labor conditions which she published in the party's official journal, Le Socialiste, from May 26, 1895, to January 5, 1896, formed the basis of a report she presented to the 1895 congress. The congress passed a resolution calling for the organization of women with male workers. At the 1897 congress, she sought approval of a program of women's rights which mostly repeated the usual bourgeois feminist demands—reform of the civil code, abolition of the legal power of husbands over wives, full political equality, the right to divorce, authorization of paternity suits, equalization of rights between legitimate and illegitimate children, and so forth. She stated that a "feminine program" was needed because "women's aptitudes and sexual burdens" create "a situation distinct from that of men." In effect, she was calling for the party to put theory into practice as regards women. The resolution passed, but then Guesde raised questions, so it was tabled for study until the next congress. By that time (1898), she was too ill to attend. Little came of the initiative.
Valette was engaged also in activities outside the party. Following the death of Deraismes, Valette was elected to the board of the French League for Women's Rights (LFDF). She also was a member of the Union of Socialist Writers, where she served on the study and propaganda committee. Aside from writing for Le Socialiste and La Revue féministe (1895—), her most prominent collaboration was at La Fronde, Marguerite Durand 's all-female-written-and-printed daily begun on December 9, 1897. It was a moderate journal on the whole, but a few radicals like Valette contributed because Durand was especially interested in women's labor unions. Valette wrote the "Labor Tribune" column, which contained detailed studies of women's working conditions, suggested reforms, encouraged women's unions, and supported strikes. Between December 15, 1897, and August 28, 1898, she produced some 25 articles on these subjects, after which illness forced her to hand over the column to her old friend Marie Bonnevial.
When Valette was reaching the peak of her powers, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. During the winter of 1897–98, her coughing began to alarm her friends. In April, she went to take the cure at Arcachon (Gironde), south of Bordeaux. The warm climate and mineral waters did not avail. She continued to write until September 1898, convinced she was going to recover. The end came on March 21, 1899, six months shy of her 50th birthday. Guesde presided on January 31, 1900, at the dedication of a monument over her grave at Arcachon.
As a socialist and feminist, Valette has not fared well at the hands of critics. In 1892, she and Dr. Pierre Bonnier ("Dr. Z."), a gynecologist, published a brochure, Socialisme et sexualisme, setting forth ideas they had developed in articles in L'Harmonie sociale. (The brochure appears to have been mostly her product; Bonnier's role was perhaps to lend her scientific respectability.) Unfortunately, the work lacked intellectual rigor and organization. Briefly, in the brochure and articles (which were more influential) Valette argued that women have to wage two fights: social, as members of the working class, and sexual, as oppressed females. Men are producers of goods, women producers of the race. Capitalism owns what workers produce, and men own women, but "it is economic revolution [with the coming of socialism] which will set the absolute condition of human emancipation in its social form and in its sexual form." Once production is properly "organized" (a favorite socialist term), women can look forward to a "happy era when woman will be restored to her biological role of creator and educator of the species." In the meantime, until the Revolution women should organize unions and enter "the struggle of life" as the "ransom for their emancipation." Again, once emancipated, women would become free to leave the workplace and devote themselves fully to their maternal function.
Was such a program feminist? Valette did concern herself with the lot of working women, notably their low wages. And insofar as some feminists have always reserved a special place for women's maternal function, Valette was a feminist. On the other hand, so intent was she on emphasizing maternity that she did not even consider, for example, a community role in child-rearing, e.g., day-care centers, which was important in the widely read recent work of the eminent German socialist Auguste Bebel. Valette exemplifies the problem socialism, notably in France, was having—and for decades continued to have—with the place of women. It preached equality for all while at the same time preserving traditional sexual roles, which, in practice, meant female inferiority. It is instructive that Potonié-Pierre (who admittedly had a score to settle) was alone at the time in criticizing Valette's theory: "Sexualism is nonsense, a separatism, a hindrance to progress. It puts the man and the woman in different categories."
As usual, the Revolution would solve all social problems. Feminism, in Valette's formula, was to be incorporated into socialism as a means to improve the condition imposed upon women by capitalism—until the Revolution would solve the underlying problem for women, namely, writes Marilyn Boxer , "the self-serving individualism of men," by organizing men's work and making good socialists of them.
Ironically, Valette was no true revolutionary, a Paule Mink or Louise Michel, for example. Notwithstanding Guesde's accolade, she apparently did not tackle Marx's Capital until near the end of her life. It was not Marxism but humanitarianism and loving kindness which fueled her concern for the poor and downtrodden. Inevitably, however, she often found it difficult to communicate with the masses of still-unpoliticized working women because she herself had become a solidly middle-class woman. Class lines were painfully distinct. It is to her credit that she freely took to heart the suffering of others less fortunate than she. If the socialists never seriously accepted feminism and women did not join them en masse, she bore some of the responsibility. But these results were mostly due to causes far larger than the merits or faults of any individual however deeply dedicated—as Aline Valette most certainly was.
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David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)
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