Pauline Roland, “Have Women the Right to Labor?” (1851)


A Letter from Pauline Roland
We extract from the Espérance a letter of a courageous and intelligent woman, a martyr of modern times, a heroine of Socialism, dead fighting for Progress and for Humanity.
Pauline Roland is no more—and yet she still fights among us, with the drops of her blood as with the pearls of her thought, she shakes the scourge at the heads of the reactionaries, revolution in the faces of the civilized?
Have Women the Right to Labor? [1]
A Simple Question
Addressed by a captive to the citizen Emile de Girardin,
editor of the Bien-Etre universel
Prison of Saint-Lazare, April 1851
I just read the first issues of your new publication, and I must confess, one article among those that it contained attracted my attention in a very particular manner. So permit me to chat with you about a subject that, no doubt, concerns as much as it does me.
If, in what you wrote on the subject of my sex, you were moved by serious moral considerations and the love of truth, deign to give some clarifications to a woman who finds herself in prison for having believed that labor is the right of every human being, and that women are human beings just like men, equal to them, and having roughly the same rights and the same duties.
Let us see, then, and respond in good faith: you have enough wit to admit when you are wrong. I cite your words:
“The first and supreme function of women is to bear strongly constituted, healthy and robust children, to feed and raise them.
“It is thus for men to labor,
“For the woman to administer her household.
“She must only do what she can without leaving the paternal roof when she is a child; the conjugal roof when she is a wife; the cradle of her children when she is  mother.”
That is, in all its simplicity, the law of the life of woman as you will decree it if tomorrow, which God forbid, citizen Emile de Girardin, should call you, like the Bérards or Armand Marrasts, to produce some Constitution for us: you would give us the right to idleness, which we do not want, by holding us under a perpetual tutelage, which we equally reject; for, as the popular song says:
Labor is liberty.
But let us continue.
Does woman have a soul? wondered the doctors of Mohammedanism, as, before them, had wondered a certain bishop of the Council of Macon, whose question, according to Gregory of Tours, was drowned in the general disapproval of his colleagues.
Has woman a life of her own, or is she only an appendix of the life of man? Is she a free, equal being, existing as a member of Humanity, independent of the functions that are assigned to her? As a human being, does she have the right, as much for herself as in the interest of the family of which she is a part, of the society of which she is a member, of acquiring all the physical, moral, and intellectual development of which she is susceptible? That, citizen, is the moral question that in three lines – tossed out a bit absent-mindedly, allow me to say – you have resolved in the negative. If the thing had occurred under some Council of Macon, they would not have let you pursue it, and I doubt that you would have been more fortunate if you had posed it at a conference of doctors the new faith, of which you proclaim yourself a follower.
Here, allow me to tell you a little anecdote, very truthful, the principal character of which is one of the most illustrious physiologists of our times, doctor Lallemand. One day, in Montpellier, that learned man having to examine an aspiring doctor, he asked him what the role of woman was in the life of Humanity. – “To charm our existence by making herself love, then to reproduce the species and nurse the children,” the candidate responded immediately. – “And that is all?” – “Yes, Monsieur!” – “All! The whole role of woman?” – “Without any doubt.” – “Young man, do you have a mother? – “Yes, Monsieur.” – “How old is she? – “Fifty.” – Well! You must drown her!’’, responded the doctor, sharply. And, in truth, if your system prevailed, that would be true.
But let us take up the debate seriously again.
No doubt woman is a mother, and it is a holy law of nature that that long confides the child to her tenderness. No doubt it is desirable for society that the son she gave birth to developes a robust constitution—to which you would have added a solid soul, if universal well-being did not reside for you in life and government at the lowest price. No doubt she must, when possible, nourish the baby with her milk, and in any case watch over its crib. She also needs to educate it, together with the father and society. But, in good faith, is that the occupation of a lifetime? Many women do not have children. The average maternity may be three per household. By greatly extending the cares of food and primary education, the only cares, certainly, we deign to confide solely to the mother, we would have ten years from an active life which can be about sixty years. The rest will go to dressing up, knitting socks, playing the piano, cleaning pans, or playing a game of whist. Thank you for your generosity, citizen, but we prefer real work to this boring leisure, and we affirm that the household will only be better when it is no longer our only business.
Moreover, citizen, even though woman should accept the lot you want to make for her, is that by confining her to the gynaeceum, which never takes long to become the harem or the slaves’ quarters, that you will make her the robust generatrix that you depict; the healthy nurse, the sensible educator that you want for your son? Some examples drawn from antiquity can illuminate the question.
The Athenian women lived at the back of the women’s quarters, and one can not doubt, it seems to me,that the terrible corruption that Plato and Plutarch depict, just like Aristophanes,comes, among the most gifted people on earth, from the absence of women in all transactions of civil and political life. As feminine types, the City of Arts and leaves us Xantippe and Aspasia: the nagging housewife, the shameless courtesan.
On the contrary, the Spartan girls took part in the games of the gymnasium indeed even the struggles by which adolescents of the austere city gave a prelude to the combats; and the ideal of the mother of the citizen, if not the citizen woman, still remains today the Spartiate.
Finally, let us see some features of the portrait of the virtuous woman, according to the famous book of Proverbs attributed to Solomon:
‘”Who will find a valiant woman?Because her price surpasses many pearls. The heart of her husband is assured in her …She knows to do good every day of his life, and never evil. She seeks wool and flax, and she does what she wants with her hands. She is like the merchants’ ships, she brings her bread from afar… She considers a field and acquires it, she plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands. She girds her loins with strength and strengthens her arms… She makes cloth and sells it; she makes belts that she to gives the merchant… She contemplates the progress of her house, and eateth not the bread of idleness.”
I know, citizen, that you could tell me that you do see any harm in the woman as Solomon paints her, since she still seems a bit confined in the household; however, to be consistent, you must reject several of the verses that I quoted. I also would respond that I myself have too much faith in the holy law of progress to satisfy myself with an ideal conceived twenty-eight centuries ago, any more than the virtue of the Spartan woman.
The life of the modern woman must be superior to both, because the progress of Humanity profits the woman like the man. And if we have gained in value, we should have gained equally in right.
So I summarize, and to the four propositions advanced by you, and cited at the beginning of my letter, I respond:
Woman is a free being, equal to man, whose sister she is. Like him, she has to fulfill some duties towards himself, by preserving, out of reach, her individual dignity, by developing herself in virtue, by making her life, not from the labor, the love, and intelligence of another – be that other her father, her husband or her son –, but of her own labor, her own love, and her own intelligence. Like man, she has to fulfill some duties to her family, which are the sweetest reward of the other labors, but cannot absorb her, even when the man, as happens to often, no longer fulfills towards the family other duties than that of provider of material bread. Finally the woman is a citizen, by right, if not in fact, and as such, she must be involved in the life outside, in the social life, which will only be normal when the entire family is represented there.
There, citizen, is my response to your first proposition.
As for the second and third, which, properly speaking, are only one, I would say: woman has the right to work like man, and to a productive, independent work, which frees her from all guardianship. She has a right to choose her own work, as much as the man, and no one can legitimately confine her to the home, if she feels herself called otherwise.
Finally as soon as the woman reaches the age of maturity, she is entitled to do with her life as she sees fit. The paternal roof should be a refuge for her, not a prison from which she can escape only to pass into another prison. The marital home is her home, her property, at the same time it is that of the man and within the same limits. She is no more forced to remain there than he is, if her conscience calls her elsewhere. Finally,her arms being the natural cradle of her children, she carries wherever seems good to her, and we can imagine nothing more beautiful, more respectable in the future, and that the woman adorned with all her duties, of her virtues, of her loves,taking part as a human being, in industrial and civil life.
All of this, citizen, was discussed twenty years ago in Saint-Simonianism; and it seemed to me that the cause of the emancipation of women was so well won that, when someone began to cut and thrust to gain the equality of the sexes, I used to laugh, saying that it didn’t seem necessary to me to break down open doors. You and the citizen Proudhon have just shown me that unfortunately we still must fight again!
I appear weak, almost unarmed, before such illustrious champions, but I stand with faith, remembering the outcome of the struggle of David with Goliath. Those who fight for the truth have no need of armor.
Awaiting your response, whatever it may be, I pray you, citizen, accept my fraternal greetings.
Pauline Roland
[1] Also published as “Does Woman have a Right to Liberty?”
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]