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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Feminism in the Long 19th Century

Jules Chéret, artist. L'Etendard français, bicyclettes et tricycles.1891. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Few periods in French history saw as many transformations in power, politics and society as the long nineteenth century, which lasted from after the revolutionary period until 1914. This "long century" saw no fewer than six regime changes, their transitions marked by revolutions, rebellions, and political unrest. As these shifts took place, the debate over the social, political, legal and economic place of women in French society evolved, questioning the civic and civil rights of women. At the same time, questions surrounding workers’ rights and the rights of colonized peoples were beginning to gain national attention in France. Mass migration from rural villages to urban centers, and the dramatic shift towards factory production, triggered a resounding change in the composition of society. A new class of urban workers emerged. All this social transformation was set against the backdrop of the steam-powered transition to modernity. Spurred on by increasing literacy rates for women and girls from a wide diversity of classes, the popular media boom of the nineteenth century amplified the voices of women's rights advocates. Women’s magazines and journals, known as the presse féminine, sprung up over the course of the century, with Marguerite Durand’s La Fronde in the forefront. All of these transformations—political, economic, and social—paved the way for a coherent movement for women’s rights to emerge in France in the nineteenth century on a public scale. This movement culminated with the battles over women's suffrage at the start of the First World War.

After the brief attempt at reconstructing women’s legal rights in the period following the 1789 Revolution, during which single adult women were granted full property rights, Napoleon’s 1804 Civil Code gave men legal authority over their wives and children and established married women as legal minors. This relationship was enshrined in law in Article 213 of the 1804 Code: Le mari doit protection à sa femme, la femme obeissance à son mari: “The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.” Divorce remained legal until 1816, from which point it would remain illegal until 1884. This would be the first in a long series of changes throughout the nineteenth century in law and political reform which shaped the boundaries of women’s participation in public society. Until the installation of the Third Republic in 1870, both the Catholic Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830) and Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852-1870) resulted in a slow and non-linear pace of change.

The revolutions and rebellions which punctuated the regime changes of the nineteenth century offered women revolutionaries an opportunity to physically protest and make their voices heard. The July Monarchy (1830-1848) installed the liberal Louis-Phillippe and overthrew Charles X. This period favored the wealthy bourgeoisie and while Louis-Phillippe rejected much of the pomp of the Bourbon tradition, as the years went by more unrest ensued. In the Revolution of 1848, women participated in protests and advocated for women’s and worker’s rights in L’Union ouvrière (founded in 1844 by Flora Tristan) and La Femme libre (founded in 1834 by Marie-Reine Guindorf and which later became known as the Tribune des femmes). Les Voix des femmes, founded by Eugénie Niboyet, which published 45 issues in 1848 as the first daily feminist newspaper is considered to be the first overtly feminist publication of the time. The majority of these women had been Saint Simonian, and their proto-feminist philosophy was deeply influenced by socialism. The Second Republic lasted from 1848-1852. In 1852 then President Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte had himself declared Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire which lasted from 1852-1870. This mid-century feminism focused on the moralizing influence of women in the public sphere rather than towards voting rights or political equality.

The French were ill prepared for war with Prussia in 1870, and were swiftly defeated. Napoléon III was captured and abdicated the same day and France's Third Republic was proclaimed in Paris. Partially as a result of the humiliating terms for peace including the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, there was a revolt known as the Paris Commune during which much blood was spilt between the radical communards and the official French Government operating from Versailles. Scholar of the Paris Commune, Carolyn Eichner calls attention to the multiplicities of feminism that existed at this time. In her books Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune and Feminism's Empire, Eichner discusses how various feminists of the mid to late 19th century had both conflicting and intersecting views External. While all feminists were opposed to Imperialism for example, not every feminist self-identified as such. She argues that there is no binary between Imperialists versus Anti-Imperialists. Furthermore, as each woman is a product of her time and her experiences, they must be viewed with the nuance that this demands. In any case, the women of the Paris Commune achieved at the time a rather mythical and fear-invoking status among the right wing and in the bourgeois psyche. In particular the "crazed anarchist women", pétroleuses (who were alleged to have started the fires by throwing petrol bombs) left a lasting impression of Paris and the violent "red suburbs." This would eventually serve as justification for a reactionary government moving forward.

Femina. Cover of the French Women's Magazine, Femina, 1909. Library of Congress General Collections.

From the middle of the century, the extension of education to girls, first by La Loi Falloux in 1850 and then by Les Lois Ferry in 1881, increased literacy rates for the growing French population and created new generations of female readers and writers. Moreover, the proliferation of printed materials such as magazines, pamphlets and journals created forward momentum for a discussion of women’s civil and civic rights in real terms (See French Women's Press). It was during this period that the term féminisme came to be widely used to describe the fight for full citizenship and voting rights for women (See Le Petit Journal 1908, L’action féministe). La Fronde, the first French journal to be run entirely by women, was started in 1897 by Marguerite Durand with an initial print run of 200,000 copies. Similar magazines and pamphlets began to emerge in the last decades of the nineteenth century which placed women firmly at the center of the debate about women’s rights—La Francaise and Le Journal des femmes were among this proliferation of printed media, now more accessible than ever to a growing reading public. Though primarily led by educated, urban, and predominantly Parisian individuals, feminist political associations sprung up and were essential to sustained feminist action from the beginning of the Third Republic. Léon Richer’s Ligue française pour le droit des femmes organized the first Congrès international du droit des femmes in 1878. Hubertine Auclert’s militant Société le droit des femmes, founded in 1876, and later known as Société le suffrage des femmes, advocated for women’s voting rights through civil disobedience. Both influenced public thought and paved the way for legal changes in the twentieth century.

Closely watching the suffrage movement unfold in Great Britain and the United States, some French feminists of the late nineteenth century began advocating for voting rights. The early women’s rights movement was splintered between more radical feminists demanding civil equality such as voting rights, and republican feminists who urged a slower civic equality based on societal change in an effort to preserve the stability of the republic. These patterns of debate were reflected in the feminine and feminist press, as well as by the wider popular media of the era. Moving into the twentieth century — although women would not gain the right to vote for nearly fifty years — women’s rights and suffrage were increasingly being included in wider-reaching media.

H.W. McVickar, artist. The evolution of woman. 1896. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Aside from the political front, women were pushing boundaries on the cultural and social front. The world of sports for example, was now beginning to attract women. The proliferation of the bicycle in France as well as the popularity of the automobile were important for women symbolically as well as practically. The independence of biking around, not to mention driving, was synonymous with liberation for many women. Advertisements or illustrations on the covers of women's magazines often included women on bicycles or driving cars. Some women became actively involved in sports as well, such as tennis, or in the case of Mme Camille du Gast — automobile racing. This, along with the more modern dress and the shorter hair, all gave way to an alternative to the feminine ideal of the past as the modern woman was coming into existence. As scholar Rachel Mesch discusses in Having it All in the Belle Époque, these femmes moderne were now making themselves visible to society at large. Famed writer Marcel Proust's heroine Albertine in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was an avid cyclist who with her inhibition seemed to deny all of the delicate mannerism of the "times past." There was plenty of anxiety about these changes in dress, attitude and appearance. The culottes (a type of pants that made cycling easier) caused such a stir that authorities issued a directive in 1892 that stated these garments could only be worn for the act of cycling. Distress over the independence that cycling permitted had undertones of concern over the potential for sexual indiscretion and even the potential for sexual pleasure from riding the bicycle itself. Surprisingly even such independent women as actress Sarah Bernhardt predicted that the liberties of women riding around would ultimately cause the domestic sphere to be neglected. The coming World Wars would amplify these tension. As men left to fight in the army, women stepped into their roles and proved that their capabilities extended far beyond wife and mother. Despite the turmoil at the start of the Third Republic, it lasted until 1940. During this time France experienced relative economic stability and a great cultural blossoming in the arts and sciences. It is within the context of these nonlinear social and political changes that we must situate any approach to discussing the history of French women and the early feminist movement in France.

Complete digitized collections of French women's press are available for both Presse féminine External and Presse féministe External from Gallica.

Madame S. Perouse, president of "L'Union des Femmes de France". 1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Women of 19th-Century France

  • Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914) is often credited as the "first French feminist" or the "founder of the French women's suffrage movement." Auclert was a republican socialist and an important early militant feminist of the late-nineteenth century. Founder of the feminist newspaper La citoyenne in 1881, Auclert was an advocate of French women's civil rights and suffrage. She traveled to Algeria with her partner and eventual husband which opened her mind to women's status world-wide and to the problems of France's Imperialism.
  • Olympe Audouard (1832-1890) One of the more conservative feminists of the 19th century, Audouard was a royalist with republican ideals. She traveled extensively, and published her observations of her travels to the Middle East in L'Orient et ses peuplades. She ventured as far as Russia, Egypt, Turkey and the United States. In her observations of Mormon communities and the practice of polygamy she compares the rights of French and American women in interesting ways. Her idealized view of the United States and of US laws led to some massive misunderstandings surrounding the rights of black women in America.
  • Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) Bernhardt was a stage actress who spans both 19th and 20th centuries and remains one of the most popular and well-know figures in France. Daughter of a Dutch-Jewish courtesan, she won the favor of Alexandre Dumas père, and had a turbulent life marked by an inexhaustible spirit, energy and passion that she put into each of her many roles on stage. Memorable roles included La Dame aux Camelia by Alexandre Dumas fils, and Joan of Arc in a play by Paul Jules Barbier. Her stamina had her performing into her 70s-and she insisted on entertaining the troops during WWI even after having one leg partially amputated.
  • Madame Clicquot (1777-1866) née Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, Widow Clicquot or Veuve Clicquot was the Grande Dame of Champagne. Widowed at only 27 she had entrepreneurial instincts and a drive to experiment. She made significant advancements and created the first "vintage champagne." She brought her brand of champagne into direct competition with the established rival Moët.
  • Claire Démar (1799-1833) Démar was a radical and active Saint-Simonian who used Saint-Simonian ideas to defend her positions on the rights of women. Advocating for the rights of married women, Démar supported feminist journals such as La femme nouvelle and La tribune des femmes, eventually publishing her own feminist tract, Appel d’une femme au people sur l’affranchissement de la femme.
  • Marguerite Durand (1864-1936) Durand was a stage actor turned journalist who would later become a prominent suffragette in France and found the feminist newspaper La Fronde, run exclusively by women. The foremost collection of feminist archival material is held in a library in Paris bearing her name, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand.
  • Rose de Freycinet (1794-1832) Circumnavigated the globe with her husband on a French scientific expedition disguised as a man. She came from a middle class family but her husband was from the nobility which allowed her to go on her travels. She kept up correspondences with her family throughout their voyages. The first woman to circumnavigate the globe was Jeanne Baret. Her life and adventures were recounted by Australian historian and biographer Flora Marjorie (Marnie) Bassett in her 1962 book, Realms and Islands.
  • Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836) Madame Lavoisier was a French chemist and noblewoman. She was seen as a traitor, due to her social class, during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror and despite her ardent defense, her husband was executed. In her lifetime she contributed greatly to the perfection of the Scientific Method and translated countless academic works into French.
  • Louise Michel (1830-1905) Radical teacher and central figure of the Paris Commune, Michel was a radical participant in the 1871 revolutionary government and was deported to New Caledonia following its collapse. Upon her return she continued her radical feminist, anarchist, and abolitionist work. She was one of the few feminists to side with the indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia during their revolutions for independence from France and even in the current political atmosphere as they debate their autonomy, she is still well regarded.
  • Paule Mink (1839-1901) Born Adèle Paulina Mekarska, she was a flamboyant and well-known revolutionary socialist feminist of Polish descent. Mink (sometimes spelled Minck) joined the Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes in the 1860s and was an outspoken writer and orator on socialist and feminist issues. She was also an active organizer in the Paris Commune. She spent a year in Algeria on an Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Clerical tour speaking in various cities. One book, En zigzag du Maroc à Malte : à travers l'Algérie, la Tunisie et les états barbaresques : souvenirs d'Afrique External written by missionaries A. Beguin, and B. Peigneaux relayed the details of her tour with great dismay over the amount of influence Mink exerted at the time. Scholar Carolyn J. Eichner explores this text on page 39 in her work, Feminism's Empire.
  • Eugénie de Montijo (1826-1920) Wife of Napoleon III, Eugénie, who was Spanish, was the last empress of France. She used her influence to advance equality for women and tried unsuccessfully to have writer George Sand inducted into the Académie française as the first female member. She traveled widely and advised her husband one matter of importance, including some tragically poor decisions such as the French "intervention" in Mexico, otherwise known as the Franco-Mexican War of 1861.
  • Morisot Sisters: Berthe (1841-1895) and Edma (1839-1921) These sisters, close for all their lives, were artists and figures in the art world of Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, and other famous painters of 19th-century France. Berthe pursued her painting to much greater extent and became one of the most respected and admired impressionist painters of her time.
  • Eugénie Niboyet (1796-1883) Niboyet is noted as one of the first French ‘feminists,’ writing on issues of disability, incarceration, and abolition in addition to women’s issues. She is best known for founding the first daily feminist newspaper La Voix des Femmes in 1848.
  • Léonie Rouzade (1839-1916) Republican socialist feminist, Rouzade was also a science fiction novelist who published a work called La Monde Renversé (The World Turned Upside Down). The plot of her novel unfolds in a fictional Muslim community where she takes over and essentially flips the gender hierarchy and in some ways foreshadows the modern concept and law of Parité in France where equal representation of the genders is mandated. Rouzade also wrote Voyage de Théodose à l'île de l'Utopie (A Voyage to the Isle of Utopia). She co-founded the first women's socialist organization, Union des femmes along with Eugénie Pierre.
  • George Sand (1804-1876) Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known as George Sand, was a well-connected and widely popular French novelist and journalist. Sand challenged feminine norms in both her writing and her gender presentation. She was a staunch republican involved in the Revolution of 1848. Many of her writings were inspired by her tumultuous relationship with famed pianist Frédéric Chopin. She wrote Un hiver à Majorque about their time spent in Mallorca but later in life they had a complicated falling out and she destroyed all but four letters of correspondence with Chopin. Her writings remain important sources for research into French feminism today.
  • Pauline Savari (1887-1907) Savari is little known, but was an advocate of practical feminism that centered on professional and working- class women and focused on financial liberation. She herself was a poor mother and artist living during the so-called Belle Époque, but she had a strong ambition to make concrete changes and advancement for women in her situation. She founded the Fédération féministe and created two unions, one for writers and another for artists. She also sought to provide working mothers with a way to get insurance.
  • Jeanne-Elizabeth Schmahl (1846-1915) Schmahl was a British-born advocate of a practical or gradual French feminism, enshrined in her founding of the Union française pour le suffrage des femmes. Her marriage in 1873 to a Frenchman gained her French citizenship. She was involved in the feminist groups of Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes in the 1870s, Schmahl’s feminist ideas were influenced by social and legal changes in Great Britain and she moved away from radical feminist groups to promote gradual integration of women’s social and civil rights into the law. Bio here External.
  • Flora Tristan (1803-1844) Also known as Flore Celestine Thérèse Henriette Tristán y Moscoso, Tristan was a French-Peruvian writer, activist and fierce defender of both womens' and workers' rights. A devoted socialist, she also contributed much to feminist theory.

For further historical context see Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones.

Print Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Finding Additional Materials in the Library's Online Catalog

The Library of Congress Online Catalog represents a collection of over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections. To find additional materials about Women in the French Revolution it is useful to browse by authorized subject heading. The following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) will reveal the most relevant materials in the Library's collections.

There will be some overlap, and sometimes subject headings are rather similar. For example, Feminism--France--History--19th century--Sources and Women's rights--France--History--19th century--Sources.

For biographies of individual women, it is recommended that you browse by name (be sure to try several different forms of the name).

For example, to find all forms of the name George Sand, browse "AUTHORS/CREATORS beginning with":