Nelly Roussel, “What is ‘Feminism’?” (1906)


No French word is more often badly understood and falsely interpreted than the one that designates the ensemble of our demands.

And I do not fear to affirm that some men, and men women, are “feminists” without knowing it, all while rejecting the title.

Some—despite the evidence—persist in seeing in “feminism” only a masculinization of woman, a servile and grotesque copy of the male by his envious companion.

Others believe they have discovered there a disturbing tendency to invert the roles, to replace masculine domination with an equally unjust, equally abusive feminine domination, and to reduce the former “lords and masters” to slavery.

The first of these ideas is, on the part of men, somewhat vain. We do not have such a profound admiration for these gentlemen that we would want to resemble them in every respect. We prefer to be ourselves. We aspire to something other than the role of imitators.

The second attributes to us desires for revenge that are foreign to us, and that would be, moreover, very clumsy. Experience has taught us that there is no harmony possible between the master and the slave. As long as any part of humanity will claim to dominate the other, and believe that it has rights over it,…tyranny will be inevitable and revolt will be legitimate.

We no more approve of gynocracy (government by women)—which, if we must believe the scholars, has existed in very ancient times—than the fiercely masculinist society of today.

The “feminist”—let us repeat it without ceasing—proclaims the natural equivalence and demands the social equality of the two factors of the human race.

Some will objet that they are different. All the more reason to admit that they complement one another, and that no perfect work is possible without their close collaboration.

They will also say that woman is, by reason of her very nature, unsuited to certain functions. That matters little to us. We do no pretend to oblige all women to do such and such a thing. We only demand for them the freedom to choose, judging that every human being knows better than anyone what is suitable for them. We do not know the Woman, a vague abstraction. We see around us women, concrete creatures with very diverse skills, tastes, tendencies, and temperaments. And without being unaware of the differences between the sexes, we want to take account of the differences, no less great, between individuals.

Feminism is a doctrine of individual happiness and general interest. It desires, for each unity, the right and the means to live its complete life, to blossom completely in all aspects of its personality, to make itself a place in the sun; and it desires, for Society, the active and open cooperation of all forces, all initiatives and all human resources.

Feminism is also a doctrine of justice. It aspires to balance between duties and rights, compensations and cares. It refuses to accept that a creature can be at once minor and major—minor with regard to rights, major with regard to failings—and that woman, as worker, housewife, or génératrice (sometimes all three at the same time), representing a social value at least equal to that of her companion, should be subordinated to him, and treated as an accessory, always by the laws and often by customs.

Feminism is, finally, a doctrine of harmony. It dreams of the human couple, united by heart and mind—and not only by the senses and especially by interest—composed of two unities equally conscious and free, and sustaining one another mutually; and side by side, hand in hand, always marching towards more love, more light, more beauty!…

L’Almanach Féministe, 1906.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur.]