By Katherine Li ~
Jeanne Deroin was a French socialist and activist who contributed hugely to modern feminist theory, specifically, the “difference” school of thought. Perhaps recognizing the vast social obstacles that women faced to gaining equality, Deroin often presented ideas that played on existing beliefs and were somewhat savory and potentially acceptable to the largely male, public opinion. Contrary to many of her peers, Deroin argued for feminism by emphasizing the difference between women and men. Rather than fighting against or even conceding that women were by nature suited for different social responsibilities, Deroin used this “sexual difference” to argue for the rights and equality of women. She spent much of her life attempting to congregate women and workers, engaging them in public discourse about the rights that they deserved. She worked with multiple other activists and philosophers in the exploration of feminism and socialist theory and attempted numerous times to found newspapers that advocated for the suffrage of women and the rights of workers. Although these publications often did not succeed because they were crippled by financial challenges raised by the government, Deroin influenced the thinkers that she wrote with and to.
Deroin was born into a working-class family in 1805 and began her career as a seamstress. She was entirely self-educated – her mother did not believe that a woman needed education – which motivated her ardent support for universal education later in her life. She became a supporter of Henri de Saint Simon, a utopian socialist theorist who advocated for the needs of the proletariat working class and claimed that the suppression of the laborer was due to the exploitation by the “idling class.” In the early 1830s, Deroin left the followers of Saint Simon and began to follow Charles Fourier, one of the other founders of early utopian socialism and an advocate for feminism. Along with a few other followers, Deroin founded a newspaper called La Femme Libre, or The Free Woman, journaling for the first newspaper catered to women. During the Revolutions of 1848, also referred to as the February Revolution, Deroin founded another newspaper and club called La Voix de Femme, which petitioned for the right to vote from the government for unmarried women over 21 and widows, appealing to the belief that divided political beliefs would divide a family. This was unsuccessful, and Deroin followed with a new newspaper titled La Politique des Femmes (The Politics of Women), which was immediately rejected because the name implied that women were political participants – this newspaper was then named l’Opinion des Femmes. In 1849, convinced that the right to work irrevocably conferred the right to vote, Deroin stood for a seat in the legislature in the election of 1849 but received a pitiful 15 votes. However, this was still a landmark event because it was the first time a woman had ever stood in a French election. Upon a publication of a plan for a cooperative association that accepted all workers, Deroin was arrested. Upon her release 6 months later, she fled to London and attempted to establish a school for children of other exiles, which failed due to financial struggles caused by its low cost of attendance.
Many of Deroin’s beliefs and political activity surfaced during the February Revolution in 1848. It set the background and became an impetus for Deroin’s efforts to extend new freedoms to women. During this revolution, the newly instituted French government declared that “[The Republic] has as its principles Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It has as its foundation Family, Work, Property, and Public Order.” This statement represented the recognition of individuality and equality based on an individual’s right to family, work, property, and order.
When the revolution pronounced universal suffrage based on these principles, Deroin, heading the Committee on the Rights of Women, sought affirmation that women were included in this suffrage. Unfortunately, this affirmation was neither granted nor seriously considered, since the assembly that wrote the succeeding constitution was made up of men. It became apparent that “universal” rights meant everyone but women. The right to family belonged to men, a social fact that was represented by the adoption of a man’s last name within a family, or as Deroin describes, “the branding iron that imprints the initials of the master on the forehead of the slave”. The concept of “paternity”, abstractly, referred to a man’s mastery over “nature”, which was primarily associated with maternity, sexuality, or more generally, the feminine. In a sense, because men had the right to family, this justified the reasoning that women owed men children and also owed men childcare in exchange for the man’s provision of resources and protection. Childbirth and motherhood were considered to be natural biological byproducts of feminine instincts. Deroin, however, argued against this social opinion, asserting that motherhood was not just something women owed to men, but rather a unique, moral labor that was socially necessary and something only women could perform. In her book Almanach des femmes, Deroin claimed that “most important of all work is the production of the human being” and that the patriarchal claim to a child was expropriation of the highest degree. Therefore, since a woman carried her husband’s name and the product of her labor was also his, marriage was a form of slavery. The universal “right to family”, although an equalizer among men, was a justification for men to subordinate women and strip them of their independence by reducing the social worth and individual choices of their labor. The rights delineated by the French Second Republic belonged solely to men while women belonged in the “private life” of their husbands and the domestic sphere of the house.
The contradiction between the Second Republic’s declarations and actions were made even more confusing by the fact that women had already been given the right to work and were recognized as workers, even outside of Deroin’s argument that motherhood was a type of labor in its own right. Women were able to perform economic labor but were not given the suffrage that supposedly followed the right to work. This motivated Deroin to view fellow workers as potential allies and organize political actions by grouping labor associations regardless of gender. When she ran for office in 1849, she ran on the democratic-socialist ticket. She attempted to win over fellow socialists by suggesting that women would be much more sympathetic to the proletariat worker’s cause and its “severe labors” due to her humanitarian disposition. In her newspaper and club l’Opinion des Femmes, her published plan for a cooperative association included details for schooling and courses for women. Deroin believed women had earned rights just like every other proletariat during the revolution and argued for the individuality and independence of women due to their right to work.
Deroin believed that because a woman was subordinated to her husband and because she was not given suffrage even though she could work, she had been robbed of her independence and individuality. During the time, the concept of motherhood as “nature” was frequently said to be a natural byproduct of a woman’s sexual desire – this was an idea that Deroin considered to be a pollution and degradation of the moral duty of motherhood. She believed that women who became prostitutes were pushed to do so due to the lack of recognition of the importance of their duties as mothers and the subordination that a woman faced in the institution of marriage. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a well-known socialist and anti-feminist of the time, famously believed that a woman’s choice in life was to become either a housekeeper or courtesan. Throughout her lifetime, Deroin frequently interacted with Proudhon’s ideas. In a letter to him, Deroin points out that perhaps women “become courtesans only to escape the necessity of being housewives.” To counter Proudhon’s version of a woman’s choice, she suggests the dichotomy of “slave and prostitute, or free and chaste.” Deroin acknowledges that due to this suppression of women’s freedom, women often turn to reject these societal norms completely and are, as a result, severely censured. She defends these women in her article “The Mission of Women in the Present and in the Future” published in l’Opinion Des Femmes. She writes that “…they misunderstand their duties because their rights are misunderstood.” Deroin believed that the labor of motherhood deserved recognition as socially-productive work. However, because the product of this labor is expropriated, Deroin argued that prostitution is preferable to marriage because at least women receive some economic recognition of their “sexual desire” and of the labor that had been performed, thus regaining some sense of independence and individuality.
Unlike many of her fellow feminists, Deroin did not argue against the concept that women were biologically different. Deroin’s feminism was unique in that she emphasized the “sexual difference” between women and men and used it as an argument for feminism and female representation in the public sphere. Deroin frequently likened the institution of family to the realm of politics. In her view, the woman was already responsible for keeping order in the family and household, and could bring that order into politics. In a letter to Proudhon, she wrote “the mother…is predisposed to love the weak and suffering…she will do for the great social family what she does in her home when she will widen the egoistic circle of domestic affections by rising to the height of humanitarian questions.” Deroin wrote that the motherly woman, due to her nature, would apply her sympathetic nature when it comes to matters of the state. Deroin even attributed much of the violence in politics to the fact it is dominated by men. In her “Prospectus” for the l’Opinion des Femmes, a newspaper that she founded in 1848, she writes that “Wars of invasion, civil discord, and all the miseries that degrade humanity are the consequences. Endless political convulsions testify to the suffering state of societies, and prove that man alone cannot organize and reveal the approach of a new era.” Deroin believed that woman’s tendency to motherhood and order were beneficial to politics and were even more of a reason that women should have the right to participate in politics.
She also reasoned that women should be represented in politics because men and women have aligned incentives and that “Daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, women have the same interest as men in social happiness.” Deroin argues that “…if the family remains based on inequality, society will always go back to its rut, and reenter, as you say, the natural order of things.” Deroin believed that the unit of family, or the “social individual”, was a couple, and that political decisions made without half of the population that it would affect were invalid – women should be allowed the right to vote because the civil laws and principles created through the political process would also apply to them. The problem that she saw with the social unit was that it was hierarchical when she believed it should be symmetrical – the ideal couple she imagined would be a woman and a man, symmetrical in their worth and rights and thus equal agents of their will – “It is because woman is the equal of man and not the same as him that she must take part in the work of social reform.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Deroin’s thought was her personal relationship to religion. She was so strongly Christian during a time when religious rhetoric was often used to argue against the rights and equality of women. Furthermore, she often used religious reasoning to argue for the civil and political equality of women. In Deroin’s battle against man’s proprietary claim to children, the product of woman’s labor, Deroin uses the Virgin Mary and Christ as an example of how motherhood and a mother’s labor should be represented in society. Although deeply religious, Deroin shied away from religion as an institution, likely because it was dominated by male representation. In her letter “To the members of the commission of the banquet of socialist priests”, she asserts that women can also be religious leaders, writing that “women can also be priests…women can also be apostles.” She cites the story of Jesus Christ, Mary, and Martha, in which Martha busies herself with chores and Mary listens to Christ’s teachings. When Martha complains that Mary is not helping with chores, Jesus responds that “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Deroin points out that if women were not meant to spread the word of Christ, Jesus would not have allowed Mary to sit and listen. She attempts to promote the visibility and agency of women in the religious settings as well, claiming that women “must have a place in the temple, as in the State and in the family.”
Deroin was ahead of her time in her assertions about the rights that women deserved and was aware of the sentiments of her time. In her efforts to reconcile the anti-feminist beliefs of the time, her own ideas about female individuality, many of her ideas ended up posing interesting questions – if a woman was different from a man, how could she be the equal other half of the social individual? In addition, since a woman’s unique labor was motherhood, would a woman with no children who worked as a common laborer and participated in politics be considered a man, not a woman, since that woman would have lost all the distinctiveness that earned her rights as a woman? Many of these questions are somewhat relevant today – some feminists present women as feminine in their own right and emphasize the difference between women and men, while other efforts aim to provide women the same access to spheres previously dominated by men. Regardless, Deroin’s writings and actions influenced the concept of feminism as we know it today.
About the author:
Katherine Li is a senior at the University of Chicago majoring in Economics and Computer Science. She comes from the sunny state of California and loves to go for jogs. Outside of work and school, she is currently working on building an application for a very young startup. In her free time, she enjoys playing videogames and drinking coffee. She enjoyed writing this blog post for Jeanne Deroin, although, in the process of finding primary sources, she wished she knew how to read French.
 (Joan Wallach Scott 2004)
 (Eichner 2014)
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 Luke 10:38-42
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Eichner, Carolyn J. 2014. “In the Name of the Mother: Feminist Opposition to the Patronym in Nineteenth-Century France.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39 (3): 659–83. https://doi.org/10.1086/674321.
Joan Wallach Scott. 2004. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press [C.
Wilbur, Shawn. 2012a. “Jeanne Deroin, ‘To the Members of the Commission of the Banquet of Socialist Priests’ (1849).” The Libertarian Labyrinth. August 1, 2012. https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/working-translations/jeanne-deroin-to-the-members-of-the-commission-of-the-banquet-of-socialist-priests-1849/.
———. 2012b. “Jeanne Deroin, ‘Prospectus’ of l’Opinion Des Femmes (1848).” The Libertarian Labyrinth. October 14, 2012. https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/working-translations/jeanne-deroin-prospectus-of-lopinion-des-femmes-1848/.
———. 2012c. “Jeanne Deroin, ‘The Mission of Women in the Present and in the Future’ (First Article) (1849).” The Libertarian Labyrinth. October 14, 2012. https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/working-translations/jeanne-deroin-the-mission-of-women-in-the-present-and-in-the-future-first-article-1849/.
———. 2011. “Jeanne Deroin to Proudhon, January 1849.” The Libertarian Labyrinth. May 16, 2011. https://www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/working-translations/jeanne-deroin-to-proudhon-january-1849/.