Feminism in Lyon before 1848 — Eugénie Niboyet

This short account of the life of Eugénie Niboyet is the first part of an article that appeared in the Revue d’histoire de Lyon (Vol. 7, 1908, pp. 348-358). The second half of the article focuses on Flora Tristan in Lyon in 1844—which will be at least slightly more familiar subject-matter for most people—but the lesser-known Mme. Niboyet was really one of the most formidable figures of feminism in the 19th century. She was a prolific writer, editor, and translator. She organized around women’s issues, pacifism and the abolition of the death penalty. She had close ties to most of the prominent radical feminists of her day, as well as to many other prominent radicals. This biographical account really only scratches the surface with regard her various publications, but does give a nice introduction to her early career.

Maximilien Buffenoir
I. —Feminist Tendencies before 1834. Mme. Niboyet.

When Fourier and, after him, the Saint-Simonians denounced the inequality of the sexes as a denial of justice, they revived a long-interrupted tradition. After Condorcet, the ardent forerunner of feminism, who was concerned with the role of woman? The Revolution, accustomed to find in her an enemy more often than an ally, had neglected to take her part after the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday. Napoleon was not the man to make her a part of his plans; she herself seemed disinterested in her own cause. Enfantin and Fourier returned her to the consciousness of her rights. The former showed her a new society, where every function will be fulfilled by a couple; the latter claimed to free her, to revise the law of marriage, to raise the anathema pronounced against love by Christianity. Without accepting all these ideas, some women, already distinctly detached from catholic dogma, although all religious sentiment was not dead in them, felt vaguely that a greater share of influence was due them: at Lyon, from the year 1833, their complaints began to be formulated, and their aspirations as well.

L’Echo de la Fabrique, the journal of the workers, did not hesitate to open its columns to them, and to lend them its support. They would insert demands there inspired by Saint-Simonism and Fourierism. “It is to us,” wrote one of them, “that belong the greater part of human miseries, of rights distorted and misunderstood; to us that also the complaint and the hope of a better future.” They had had enough of being “grown-up children, alternately caressed or oppressed;” they waited with impatience for the society promised by Fourier, that triumph of harmony which will be the victory of their right. A collaborator of l’Écho advocated in education, in the laws, in the regime of industry, some reforms that he did not specify, but which would allow woman, by assuring her a breadwinner, to escape from dependence on her husband, from the role of “household utensils and living room furniture,” and finally receive some benefit from a civilization that is her work.

To many minds, the cause of women is intertwined with that of the people. Is there not for that matter an immense female proletariat, even more wretched than the other, which has the same interests and pursues the same ends? At each attempt of the workers to obtain higher wages, women have addressed to them the testimony of their sympathy. Finally, in a democratic spirit, Mme. Niboyet, grouping around her some collaborators, strove to give a center to the confused tendencies of her sex, and founded at Lyon, in November, 1833, a journal titled: le Conseiller des Femmes.

Mme. Eugénie Niboyet deserves to be mentioned among the first workers of the feminist idea, but it is hardly possible, if it is possible at all, to catch a glimpse of her face in the little information that we possess. We know that she was born in Montpellier in 1797. The daughter of pastor Mouchon, she must have been raised in the protestant religion. About her life and role until 1833, the date when she set up residence at Lyon, we have no information. She speaks somewhere of “combining by a fortunate agreement physical and moral strengths,” of “finding the law of emulative attraction,” so many formulas of Fourierism or Saint-Simonism, and let it be believed that she adhered to one or the other system. She was an educator at the same time as a journalist: in the notices, there is talk of her courses, without any more details. She was a journalist at heart, and a tireless one. After the Conseiller des Femmes, which ceased to appear in 1834, she published la Mosaïque, a literary journal, then, having left Lyon for Paris, she founded l’Avenir, a journal of social tendencies. In 1848, she could be found in the company of Désirée Gay, Pauline Rolland, Adèle Esquiros and especially Jeanne Déroin, at the Club des Femmes of which she was the president. She founded a new journal, la Voix des Femmes; she wrote to Cabet, to congratulate him for having spoken at a meeting in favor of female emancipation, a letter also signed by Jeanne Deroin and Désirée Gay, where she called for equality for all women as well as all men. La Voix des Femmes not being able to continue publication, after forty-six issues, she collaborated on l’Opinion des Femmes, which her friend Jeanne Déroin had just founded, and which lasted until the month of August, 1849.

From this date we lose her track, but there is enough for us to judge what prodigious activity she expended for the cause to which she was committed. Le Conseiller des Femmes is the first in date, at least to our knowledge, of the long series of journals that she created, or at least to the editing of which she contributed. She had at her side, in 1833, numerous collaborators, of whom the two most remarkable were Louise Maignaud and Jeanne Dubuisson.

Mme. Niboyet took care to inform us of the goal that she pursued: “We believe,” she wrote, “that we labor at a work of organization, in accordance with the will of God and the needs of the era, for if in fact and in right woman is in the natural and numeric order one half of humanity, it seems to us just and necessary that she take her part in the ascending movement impressed on our civilization.” The feminist tendencies did not exclude a religious inspiration: Mme. Niboyet further declared “that it will draw all its precepts from the divine books.” That profession of faith did not prevent le Conseiller des Femmes of being the target of the attacks of the Catholics, of whom le Réparateur is the organ, which she dismissed eloquently, by invoking with Louise Maignaud the right that every conviction has to be respected. But what the editors especially took to heart was the education of their sex. They thought to create “a practical journal;” their desire was to contribute, to the extent that they could, to improve the sort of women of every condition.

Without doubt, it would be much lamented here and there that woman, “tributary of the State by taxes and by her children, could not take any part in political or administrative affairs:” but such complaints were rare; instruction was considered, at least in the present state of things, as the only means of feminine emancipation. Let woman “be able to enter in her turn the careers of science and industry!” The journal abounded with projects for her education. It even published some lesson in grammar for her usage; it followed all the periods of her life, in the course of her daily occupations: a multitude of stories and poems, of which many were the work of Mme. Desbordes-Valmore, then present in Lyon, gave it a literary tone without ever distracting attention from that which was its eternal subject.

The solicitude of the editors was especially aroused by the women of the working class, so numerous in Lyon. Louise Maignaud, Jeanne Dubuisson laid out in long pages the tableau of their misery. Are they not reserved to the fabrication of étoffes unies, that is to those labors that are worst remunerated; don’t they work fifteen to eighteen hours per day for a pittance? To the claims in favor of the workers, add those particular to the romantic age in favor of the fallen woman: “You, poor women who have found in the world only snares, seductions and injustices, whose passions have overflowed the soul… does one think that for you there will not be love and sympathy in our hearts?” L’Echo de la Fabrique reproduced these articles: it congratulated the collaborators of Mme. Niboyet for the interest that they brought to the plight of the daughters of the people, they who, placed by their condition far from misery, could divert their thoughts to other objects.

From the month of December 1833, Mme. Niboyet was no longer content to write; she wanted to act in order to make her ideas triumph. She thought to create free schools, two for the boys, and two for the girls of seven to twelve years of age, by appealing to private subscriptions, and asking the city to lend a location for it. The teacher had not abdicated. Imbued with the Fourierist idea of attractive labor, she hoped that children would be employed at small labors the products of which would be turned to their benefit, that instead of imposing a task on them, one would make them ask for it. The project remained a dead letter. She does not seem to have had a great determination to make it succeed: but another took it more to heart.

Thinking that among women, the little girls are not the only ones to be raised, she considered founding in Lyon a feminine society, a special Athenaeum for women. “All will not be called to be permanent members of this body, but all could attend the courses that will be held there. It will be a moral and intellectual forum open to all women.” The ladies of the society would pay a subscription of 20 francs per year; several would be charged with the instruction. There would be courses in grammar, reading, and expression, then courses bearing on the study of social science, political economy, education, history, literature, and morals. An appeal will be made to all the devotions to establish a library and distribute books for free.

By dint of patience, Mme. Niboyet was able to start fulfilling her ideas. On March 8, 1834, her paper congratulated the city of Lyon on being the first to possess a women’s Athenaeum. You can read at the head of the statutes of the new society “that in a century of progress women must labor in an active manner at the development of their moral and intellectual faculties,… that it is given to them to do things both good and useful to humanity.” But the terrible days of April, which came so soon after, would abruptly the courses that had hardly commenced, and would cause, amidst so many ruins, the ruin of that fragile institution, the hope of the Lyonnais feminists.

Le Conseiller des Femmes however, survived them until the month of September, 1834. The editor had clearly taken the part of the vanquished. She wrote “that one could, by combining the use of capital, by utilizing all the branches of industry, organize immense workshop where all, as associates, would receive the price of their labor.” The women who followed her closely or from afar, would not hide their devotion to the cause of the workers any more than she did. In a letter to a friend, Mme. Desbordes-Valmore called divine wrath down on “the cruel authors of the bloody week.” But the feminist impulse was nonetheless broken. Le Conseiller des Femmes became entirely literary and insignificant, and little by little died away. Mme. Niboyet herself was not slow to leave Lyon. The feminists would cease to form a distinct group, but, though their number was doubtless very limited, there influence was not nothing, and they would contribute their part to the propaganda and to the success of Fourierism.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

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