FEMINISM IN LYON BEFORE 1848
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 would be fulfilled by a couple; the latter claimed to free her, to revise the law of marriage, to remove 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, beginning in 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 Fouriérism. “It is to us,” wrote one of them, “that belong the greater part of human miseries, of rights distorted and misunderstood; to us also the complaint and the hope for 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[i] advocated in education, in the laws, in the regime of industry, some reforms which 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.[ii] 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.[iii] 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 journalit 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.[iv] 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.[v] 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.”[vi] The feminist tendencies did not exclude a religious inspiration: Mme. Niboyet further declared “that it will draw all its precepts from the divine books.”[vii] 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.[viii] 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:”[ix] 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!”[x] 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:[xi] 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.[xii] 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[xiii] “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.”[xiv] 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.
II. — The Passage of Flora Tristan at Lyon, in 1844.
Ten years after the attempt of Mme. Niboyet, a woman came to Lyon who worked as she had with zeal to spread the feminist ideal. Without doubt, the lectures given in that city by Flora Tristan, addressed to a working-class audience, were not of an exclusively feminist character: far from it, but feminism was at least mingled there. Also, her propaganda was sufficiently linked to the very name of Flora Tristan to justify the place that we grant it in this study.
Many apostles had already come to preach their gospel of social happiness before the Lyonnais when, after their example, in 1844, Flora Tristan arrived at Lyon. She had, the year before, developed in a small book a curious project of a “Workers Union,” but she realized that the common people, to whom she addressed herself, didn’t know it or could not read: her devotion to their cause gave her strength and faith; she would then teach them fraternity and union herself. “I have understood,” she wrote, “that, my book published, I have another work to accomplish, that I must go myself, with my project in hand, from one end of France to the other, to speak to the workers.”[xv]
As an itinerary, she adopted that of the Companions of the Tour de France: she would walk in the footsteps of those she came to help. Leaving Paris in April 1844, after having stopped at Auxerre, Dijon, Chàlons and Màcon, she was in Lyon sometime in the month of May.[xvi] The Fourierists from Paris with whom she was connected opened doors for her in this city where their system was widespread. Besides, it was not her first appearance there: Benoit reported her involvement with the Société Lyonnaise des Familles, dispersed in 1843: we must then admit that one of her voyages had been prior to that date.[xvii] In 1844, Victor Considerant put her in contact with the weaver, Joseph Reynier who, in his Mémoires, not without some pride, relates her visit. “I aided her with all my power,” he said, “and with a great devotion: and I regarded her very highly.”[xviii] Indeed, he introduced her to the Lyonnais Societies of compagnonnage, introduced her to the mayor of each arrondissement, and organized with her some meetings where she explained her ideas.
Flora Tristan came to spread a doctrine and found an association. A restless and unhappy life, a voyage to London, in the course of which she had been able to observe in its horror the poverty of the worker, had predisposed her, the grand-daughter of a viceroy of Peru, to take up the defense of two great causes, that of women, who already claimed some rights, and that of the workers, who demanded an improvement of their condition. With the very clear sense of the antagonism of the classes, inherited from the Saint-Simonians or brought back from London, she dreamed of organizing the workers. Let them elect some representatives, let them form a solid union across the borders,[xix] let them have in each capital of Europe some committees of correspondence where they will register: these are the words of advice, mixed with strange fantasies, that she did not stop lavishing on them in every town where she passed, and especially in Lyon.
Everywhere she sought members for the great association which, in her thought, must first cover France, and then Europe, and which we can consider as the true draft of the International Association. To make her ideas accessible, she presented them in palpable form; the gave the workers a glimpse of palaces being raised in the administrative center of every department, then in each arrondissement, then in each commune, where the incapacitated workers would be housed and fed, palaces constructed in no time, thanks to an annual assessment of a few francs, contributed by each worker.[xx] Doubtless she also made an appeal to the women, whom she regarded as the indispensable auxiliaries of every social renovation, and she proclaimed their unrecognized rights. How seductively she propagated her ideas, we know by the testimony of Sébastien Commissaire. He portrays her as he say her in the course of a meeting of workers in Lyon, a woman of medium height, still young, — she was then thirty-eight years old, — the sympathetic expression on her face framed by black hair, and still possessing the remains of a beauty that her contemporaries all recognized. “She spoke with a great ease,” he said. “Her vibrant, harmonious voice impressed me: I was under the charm.”[xxi]
Could Flora Tristan freely continue the course of her Conferences? The Echo de la Fabrique for May 15 spoke of judiciary proceedings; on the contrary, it emerges from the Censeur of July 11 that it was not worried. Perhaps it must be admitted that the prosecutions did not succeed, and that the authorities, once moved, remained quiescent. We know, moreover, that the meetings were secret, that only reliable persons were invited.
But what it is especially important to know is the opinion that the Lyonnais formed of the doctrine. The bourgeois republican party could only be hostile. To the tolerance of the publics powers, whether right or wrong, the journalists of the Censeur[xxii] opposed severe measures to be taken against the workers, as soon as they attempt to unite. Flora Tristan prompted some gatherings with the very complicated aim of regenerating Society: wouldn’t it be better to content oneself with demanding some increase of wages for the workers? Isn’t it by an insidious calculation that authority suppresses the workers as soon as they pursue a precise and immediate interest, while it delivered them to all the chimeras, while it left all the makers of systems free to lull them? Mistress of illusion, this is how Flora Tristan appeared to the Republican formalists of the Censeur. Perhaps they also, but without admitting it, feared on behalf of the bourgeoisie, whose interpreters they were, the threat of a general association of workers. Always they went as far as demanding the strict application of the laws of September, that they blamed the judiciary power for allowing to lie dormant with regard to the socialist dreamers of both sexes.
The attack was so violent, that Cabet, then present in Lyon, addressed to the Censeur, on August 3, 1844, a letter in which he took up the defense of Flora Tristan, although he did not share her ideas.[xxiii] He had read with “a sad astonishment” the articles directed against her. It was important to him that the legality of the meetings she had held was recognized.
A paper ordinarily rather indifferent to social ideas, the Kaléidoscope, gave the opinion of the merchants and industrialists. Antony Luyrard, whose name appeared at the bottom of the article,[xxiv] was more moderate than the journalist from the Censeur. He recognized the necessity of an organization of labor, but the thoughts of Flora Tristan frightened him. He did not want to admit that the working class needed a legal representation; but above all he could not stand the idea of a compact and solid union of the workers. Let them content themselves “with an association of efforts,” he said in vague terms, “though it only be temporary.”
The Republicans of the Censeur, and the industrialists of the Kaléidoscope agreed then to reject the project of the workers’ union, and that agreement was not astonishing. Did Flora Tristan have, on the other hand, the approval of the working class, the only one which matters?
It would not seem so, to read the Echo de la Fabrique. Even before Flora Tristan was in Lyon, Marius Chastaing had critiqued her book,[xxv] and on several points, it must be said, the critique was penetrating. The projected association, supposing that the government allowed it to survive — which could not happen — would be a veritable state within the State; it would result in the division of France into two camps, and “as two armies facing one another will not be able to delay coming to blows,” it would lead to an unholy war. Finally, a democrat such as Chastaing could not allow the principle of equality to be undermined, even if it profited the most numerous class. He did not applaud the idea of raising palaces, or of creating an education which would be the privilege of the workers. Let education be common to all, he demanded; let us take nothing to heart as much as inculcating in the children “the spirit of equality.” Also, as soon as he learned of the arrival of Flora Tristan,[xxvi] he strove to protect the workers against her doctrine: “let them not fool themselves, and let themselves be taken in, by listening to such reveries. By wishing to put it into practice, they compromise the future of the cause of progress, far from hastening its coming.”
Did the Lyonnais workers listen to that advice, partake in this regard of the theories of the Union, and the disdain of the editor of the Echo? Chastaing himself declared that by taking sides against Flora Tristan, he separated himself from a great number of his friends.[xxvii] Commissaire and Reynier attest to the success won among the workers by the ardent socialist. Many doubtless rallied to her plan, not because it fit their own ideas, but solely because it was an attempt to improve their condition, and, as Commissaire wrote, “to shake off the drowsiness of the masses.”[xxviii] Others had to accept it without reservation: it was for them, it seems, that there appeared in Lyon the third edition of The Workers’ Union. When Flora Tristan left the city, she went with many subscriptions, and even more numerous sympathies. She was linked, during her short stay, with one woman, Eléonore Blanc, doubtless a Lyonnaise,[xxix] who had been converted to her ideas, and who has passed on to us the memory of a friendship that was very strong, but very short.
Some months after her departure from Lyon, on November 14, 1844, Flora Tristan died at Bordeaux, Flora Tristan, crushed by the severe task that she had been given, and with her disappeared that project of Universal Association, which later, taken up again by foreign hands, would succeed. Eléonore Blanc was able to carry to her the farewells of the Lyonnais workers. All lamented her early death. “I have always regretted it,” wrote Reynier, and Commissaire acknowledged “that the workers have lost an ardent and devoted friend.” When it was a question of raising a monument to Flora Tristan at Bordeaux, a folder from the Croix-Rousse, Lardet,[xxx] was charged with collecting subscriptions, along with the faithful Eléonore Blanc, who in 1845 published in Lyon a little book on his departed friend, exhorting the workers, in mystical terms, to accept the legacy of labor left to them, to be “the worthy brothers, the worthy sons” of she who, such a short time before, hard charmed them with such lovely words of assurance.
Revue d’histoire de Lyon, Volume 7 (1908), 348-358.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]