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A title in bold text reades "Pourquoi les Francaises doivent et veulent voter
Title of pamphlet by Pauline Rebour, “Pourquoi les Françaises doivent et veulent voter” [Why French women must vote and want to vote], Paris: Publications de l’Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes, 1925. Box 57, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Les femmes Françaises veulent voter! Celebrating 80 Years of French Women’s Suffrage

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This post is coauthored by Elizabeth A. Novara, Historian, Manuscript Division, and Erika Hope Spencer, Reference Specialist, French Collections, Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division.

Eighty years ago, on April 21, 1944, France decreed that women would have the right to vote in postwar elections. At the time, France remained under German occupation and General Charles de Gaulle was leading a provisional government. World War II was drawing to a close and as other priorities took precedence, French women would not have an opportunity to go to the polls until April 1945.  After more than 150 years of agitating for this fundamental right of citizenship, French women finally secured the vote.  This victory came rather late, especially considering the promising proclamations of women such as Olympe de Gouges during the French Revolution of 1789.

Philosophers and politicians in France and America have participated in a lively exchange of ideas since the creation of our respective modern nations. The Library of Congress itself includes the personal library of one of the most adamant Francophiles, Thomas Jefferson. It stands to reason that the Library’s collections reflect the rich exchanges between political and cultural figures. The Manuscript Division’s women’s suffrage collections are home to some fascinating documents tracing these dialogues between French and American suffragists. In celebration of the landmark decision granting women’s suffrage in France, we are highlighting several French women who led the crusade for women’s suffrage, all of whom are represented by papers, publications, and more at the Library of Congress.

Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914) was a leading French feminist, suffragist, and founder in 1876 of the Société le droit des femmes (Rights of Women Society), which later became the Société le Suffrage des Femmes (Women’s Suffrage Society) in 1883. Auclert believed in equal political rights for women and in militant tactics, including nonviolent public acts of civil disobedience. American suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Europe in 1883 to begin organizing for women’s rights on an international level. Auclert met Anthony in Paris in May 1883. Anthony noted in her diary that she “called on M’lle Hubertine Auclert — a bright young woman — editor of [the newspaper] “La Citoyenne” — demanding suffrage for French women.” The following year, Auclert sent a letter in support of the Washington Convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association. The grand purpose for Anthony and Stanton’s European visit was to form the International Council of Women (ICW), which first met in Washington, D.C., in 1888, with attendees from nine countries and 53 women’s organizations.

A one page letter in French on notepaper headed Congres Francais & International du Droit de Femmes de 1889
Letter from Maria Deraismes to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, March 26, 1889. Box 1, Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

 

Although Auclert had been inspired by the activism of French feminists Léon Richer (1824-1911) and Maria Deraismes (1828-1894), she had moved away from their more guarded and moderate feminism. Both Richer and Deraismes had founded important women’s rights organizations as well. Richer established the Ligue Française pour le Droit des Femmes (French League for Women’s Rights) and Deraismes formed the Société pour l ’Amelioration du Sort de la Femme et la Revindication de ses Droits (Society for the Improvement of the Plight of Woman and the Reclaiming of Her Rights). These two organizations thrived even after the deaths of their founders and claimed such adherents as Victor Hugo. Deraismes developed a friendship and corresponded with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, including sending her information about an international women’s rights convention in Paris in 1889.

Jeanne Schmahl (1846-1915) was another French feminist with connections to the women’s movement in the United States. Rather than directly support women’s suffrage, Schmahl believed that other political rights, such as women’s rights to their own wages, should be won first. Her interest in medicine, which she studied in Edinburgh and Paris, likely encouraged her friendship with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States. Blackwell and her many reform-minded family members, supported women’s rights and women’s suffrage in the United States and in England. Schmahl exchanged letters and ideas with Blackwell in the 1890s, and they discussed many topics, including women’s rights, public sanitation, domestic life, and her feminist journal, L’Avant Courrière (The Forerunner).

Postcard image of a woman in neoclassical drapery at an open window with a dove hovering upper right. Text advertises the tenth Congress of L'Alliance Internationale Pour le Suffrage de Femmes.
Postcard, Tenth Congress of the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, Paris, 1926. Box 72, NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

 

Frustrated with the International Council of Women’s refusal to support openly women’s suffrage, American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, whose papers are in the Manuscript Division, founded the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in 1904 with other international women’s suffrage leaders. Although women had already won the vote nationally in the United States by 1920, many other women around the world, including women in France, still did not enjoy that right. In 1926, Catt continued to support international suffrage movements and joined other American women in attending the IWSA conference in Paris. The 1926 IWSA Paris conference proved to be a battleground for the leaders of women’s organizations from the United States. Delegates from the U.S. League of Women Voters (LWV), led by Catt, and delegates from the National Woman’s Party (NWP), led by equal rights advocate Alice Paul, had a history of disagreement over strategies and issues dating back to the American suffrage struggle. The LWV delegates convinced the IWSA to reject the NWP’s application for membership, calling the NWP too radical and aggressive.

A group of women in 1920s outfits seated on the deck of a ship.
National Woman’s Party delegation en route to Paris to seek admission into International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, May 1926. Box II:276, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The NWP, not to be deterred from joining international networks, formed its own international organization, the International Advisory Committee (IAC). The IAC comprised members from eleven European nations, including Germaine Malaterre-Sellier (1889-1967), a World War I nurse and suffragist, as one of the representatives from France. Alice Paul, sailing for France in June 1925, a year before the 1926 IWSA conference, had already laid the foundation for this group along with NWP benefactor Alva Belmont, who was living in France at the time. They met with various feminist leaders across France and England. Additional French supporters of the NWP’s IAC at the time included Maria Vérone (1874-1938), feminist and president of Richer’s French League for Women’s Rights from 1917 to 1938; Simone Téry (1897-1967), a writer and journalist; and Gabrielle Duchêne (1870-1954), vice-president of the International League for Peace and Freedom. The NWP continued to participate in international conferences dealing with women’s equality and eventually founded the World Woman’s Party in 1938 based in Geneva. At the time, French women still did not have the right to vote, but the impending world war would bring sweeping changes for them.

Group of five women in 1920s outfits on a porch, two standing behind three seated.
Meeting of International Advisory Group to the NWP at American Women’s University Club, Paris, France, Wide World Photos, May 1925. Left to right, standing, Alva Belmont and Simone Téry; seated, Gabrielle Duchêne, Germaine Malaterre-Sellier, and Alice Paul. Box I:159, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The French American connection is not limited to trans-Atlantic relationships. Camille Lessard-Bissonnette was a suffragist and writer who immigrated from Québec and settled in Maine where she began writing for the local paper, Le Messager. She lobbied for women’s suffrage as early as 1910 and wrote about her experience as a Franco-American immigrant in her book, Canuck and Other Stories , which has been translated into English.

A deeper examination of the lives and ideas of these individual women underscores the variety of viewpoints that made up the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality throughout history. While these women and their respective organizations did not always agree on the priorities of the women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements, they successfully created international networks and exchanged ideas and tactics.

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 Sources Cited

“such adherents as Victor Hugo…” Steven C. Hause with Anne R. Kenney, Women’s Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 8.

“should be won first…” Hause, Women’s Suffrage and Social Politics, 56.

“too radical and aggressive…” Newspaper clipping, “World Suffragists Bar Woman’s Party,” New York Times, May 29, 1926. Scrapbook, International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance, Paris. Box V: 406, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

 

For Further Reading and Research

Archives du Féminisme

French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A Historical and Literary anthology

France & French Collections at the Library of Congress

French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century 

Presse féminine, Bibliothèque nationale de France Digital Library

Press féministe, Bibliothèque nationale de France Digital Library

Women’s Suffrage Collections in the Manuscript Division

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. im really glad women can vote. i really would not want to live in a place where women could not vote and control the direction of the country. cheers to these women for making the other ones able to vote

  2. This is a concise and helpful summary of the women involved in fighting for women’s rights, especially to vote. I’m thankful they never gave up, as it took generations to achieve this.

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