A French View of Women’s Rights
The Pioneer, December 2,1880
With a little book entitled “Les Femmes qui Tuent et les Femmes qui Votent”, Alexandre Dumas, fils, has just entered the arena of social and political reform. The novelist, who began by picking up his Beatrices and Lauras in the social gutter, the author of “La Dame aux Camélias” and “La Dame aux Perles”, is regarded in France as the finest known analyst of the female heart. He now comes out in a new light; as a defender of Women’s Rights in general, and of those women especially whom English people generally talk about as little as possible. If this gifted son of a still more gifted father never sank before to the miry depths of that modern French realistic school now in such vogue, the school headed by the author of l’Assommoir and Nana, and so fittingly nicknamed l’École Ordurialiste, it is because he is a born poet, and follows the paths traced out for him by the Marquis de Sade, rather than those of Zola. He is too refined to be the rival of writers like those who call themselves auteurs-naturalistes and romanciers-expérimentalistes, who use their pen as the student in surgery his scalpel, plunging it into the depths of all the social cancers they can find. Until now he idealized and beautified vice. In the work under review, he defends not only its right to exist under certain conditions, but claims for it a recognized place in the broad sunlight of social and political life.
His brochure of 216 pages, which has lately been published in the shape of a letter to J. Clarétie, is now having an immense success. By the end of September, hardly a week after its appearance, it had already reached its sixth edition. It treats of two great social difficulties—the question of divorce, and the right of women to participate in elections. Dumas begins by assuming the defense of the several women who have recently played an important part in murder cases, in which their victims were their husbands and lovers.
All these women, he says, are the embodiment of the idea which for some time past has been fermenting in the world. It is that of the entire disenthralment of the woman from her old condition of slavery, created for her by the Bible, and enforced by tyrannical society. All these murders and this public vice, as well as the increasing mental labour of women, Mr. Dumas takes to be so many signs of one and the same aspiration—that of mastering man, getting the best of him, and competing with him in everything. What men will not give them willingly, women of a certain class endeavour to obtain by cunning. As a result of such a policy, he says, we see “those young ladies” acquiring enormous influence over men in all social affairs and even in politics. Having amassed large fortunes, when older, they appear as lady-patronesses of girls’ schools and of charitable institutions, and take a part in provincial administration. Their past is lost sight of; they succeed in establishing, so to say, an imperium in imperio, where they enforce their own laws, and manage to have them respected. This state of things is attributed by Dumas directly to the restriction of Woman’s Rights, to the state of legal slavery women have been subjected to for centuries, and especially to the marriage and anti-divorce laws. Answering the favourite objection of those who oppose divorce on the ground that its establishment would promote too much freedom in love, the author of “Le Demi-Monde” bravely pushes forward his last batteries and throws off the mask.
Why not promote such freedom? What appears a danger to some, a dishonour and shame to others, will become an independent and recognized profession in life—une carrière à part—a fact, a world of its own, with which all the other corporations and classes of society will have to reckon. It will not be long before everyone will have ceased to protest against its right to an independent and legal existence. Very shortly it will form itself into an integral, compact body; and the time will come when, between this world and the others, relations will be established as friendly as between two equally powerful and recognized empires.
With every year women free themselves more and more from empty formalism, and Mr. Dumas hopes there will never again be a reaction. If a woman is unable to give up the idea of love altogether, let her prefer unions binding neither party to anything, and let her be guided in this only by her own free will and honesty. Of course it is rather to review an important current of feeling in an important community than to discuss au fond the delicate questions with which Mr. Dumas deals, that we are taking notice of his book. We may thus leave the reader to his own reflections on this proposed reform, as also in reference to most of the points raised.
A certain Hubertine Auclaire, in France, has lately refused to pay her taxes on the plea that political rights belonging to man are denied to her as a woman; and Dumas, with this incident as a text, devotes the last part of this brochure to a defense of Woman’s Rights, as eloquent, impressive, and original as other portions which will less bear discussion. He writes:
“In 1847 political reformers thought it necessary to lower the electoral franchise and distribute the right of vote according to capacity.”
That is, to limit it to intelligent men. The government refused, and this led to the Revolution of 1848. Scared, it gave the people the right of universal suffrage, extending the right to all, whether capable or incapable, provided the voters were only men. At present this right holds good, and nothing can abolish it. But women come, in their turn, and ask: “How about us? We claim the same privileges.”
“What,” asks Dumas, “can be more natural, reasonable and just? There is no reason why woman should not have equal rights with man. What difference do you find between the two which warrants your refusing her such a privilege? None at all. Sex? Her sex has no more to do with it than the sex of man. As to all other dissimilarities between us, they go far more to her credit than to ours. If one argues that woman is by nature a weaker creature than man, and that it is his duty to take care of and defend her, we will answer that hitherto we have, it seems, so badly defended her that she had to pick up a revolver and take that defense into her own hands; and to remain consistent with ourselves we have to enter the verdict of ‘not guilty’ whenever she is caught in that act of self-defense.”
To the plea that woman is intellectually weaker than man, and is shown to be so by sacred writings, the author sets off against the biblical Adam and Eve, Jacolliot’s translation of the Hindu legend in his Bible dans l’lnde, and contends that it was man, not woman, who became the first sinner and was turned out of Paradise. If man is endowed with stronger muscles, woman’s nerves surpass his in capacity for endurance. The biggest brain ever found—in weight and size—is now proved to have belonged to a woman. It weighed 2,200 grammes—400 more than that of Cuvier. But brain has nothing to do with the electoral question. To drop a ballot into the urn no one is required to have invented powder, or to be able to lift 500 kilogrammes.
Dumas has an answer for every objection. Are illustrious women exceptions? He cites a brilliant array of great female names, and contends that the sex in which such exceptions are to be met has acquired a legal right to take part in the nomination of the village maires and municipal officers. The sex which claims a Blanche de Castile, an Elizabeth of England. another of Hungary, a Catherine II and a Maria Theresa has won every right.
If so many women were found good enough to reign and govern nations, they surely must have been fit to vote. To the remark that women can neither go to war nor defend their country, the reader is reminded of such names as Joan of Arc, and the three other Joans, of Flanders, of Blois, and Joan Hachette. It was in memory of the brilliant defense and salvation of her native town, Beauvais, by the latter Joan, at the head of all the women of that city, besieged by Charles le Téméraire, that Louis XI decreed that henceforth and forever the place of honour in all the national and public processions should belong to women. Had woman no other rights in France, the fact alone that she was called upon to sacrifice 1,800,000 of her sons to Napoleon the Great, ought to ensure to her every right.
The example of Hubertine Auclaire will be soon followed by every woman in France. Law was ever unjust to woman; and instead of protecting her, it seeks but to strengthen her chains. In case of crimes committed, does law ever think of bringing forward as an extenuating circumstance, her weakness? On the contrary it always takes advantage of it. The illegitimate child is given by it the right to find out who its mother was, but not its father. The husband can go anywhere, do whatever he pleases, abandon his family, change his citizenship, and even emigrate, without the consent or even knowledge of his wife.
She can do nothing of the kind. In case of a suspicion of her faith, he can deprive her of her marriage portion; and in case of guilt may even kill her. It is his right. Debarred from the benefits of a divorce, she has to suffer all, and finds no redress. She is fined, judged, sentenced, imprisoned, put to death, and suffers all the penalties of the law just as much and under the same circumstances as he does, but no magistrate has ever thought of saying yet:
“Poor weak little creature! . . Let us forgive her, for she is irresponsible, and so much lower than man!”
The whole eloquent, if sometimes rhapsodical plea in favour of women’s suffrage is concluded with the following suggestions:
“First, the situation will appear absurd; but gradually people will become accustomed to the idea, and soon every protest will die out. No doubt at first the idea of woman in this new role will have to become the subject of bitter criticism and satire. Ladies will be accused of ordering their hats à l’urne, their bodices au suffrage universel, and their skirts au scrutin secret. But what then? After having served for a time as an object of amazement, then become a fashion and habit, the new system will be finally looked upon as a duty. At all events it has now become a claimed right. A few grandes dames in cities, some wealthy female land-owners in provincial districts, and leaseholders in villages, will set the example, and it will soon be followed by the rest of the female population.”
The book winds up with this question and answer:
“I may, perhaps, be asked by some pious and disciplined lady, some fervent believer in the idea that humanity can only be rescued from perdition by codes and gospels, by the Roman law and Roman Church:
“Pray, tell me, sir, where are we driving to with all these ideas?”
“Hé, madame! . . . we go where we were going to from the first, to that which must be, that is, the inevitable. We move slowly onward, because we can spare time, having some millions of years yet before us, and because we have to leave some work to do for those who are following us. For the present we are occupied in enfranchising women; when this is done we will try to enfranchise God. And as soon as full harmony will have been established between these three eternal principles—God, man, and woman—our way will appear to us less dark before us, and we will journey on the quicker.”
Certainly the advocates of Woman’s Rights in England have never vet approached their subject from this point of view. Is the new method of attack likely to prove more effective than the familiar declamation of the British platform, or the earnest prosing of our one great woman’s champion, John Stuart Mill? This remains to be seen; but certainly for the most part the English ladies who fight this battle will be puzzled how to accept an ally whose sympathy is due to principles so frightfully indecorous as those of our present author.
H. P. BLAVATSKY.