Select Page

At the Socialist Workers Congress

October 22, 1879 — 3rd Session, Congress of Socialist Workers, La Salle des Folies Bergères, Marseilles, France


Citizens, I come to represent at this Congress two organizations in Paris: Women’s Law, a group to which I belong and which claims the social and political rights of women, and the Workers of Belleville, a sales and production association.

I come, full of esteem for this great assembly, the first of the free bodies elected in France for so many centuries, which allows a woman, not because she is a worker, but because she is a woman—which is to say exploited—a slave delegate of nine million slaves, to make heard the complaints of the underprivileged half of the human race. Listening to our complaints is like starting to want to be fair. To let in women among you, in the same way as for the proletarians, is to make a pact of defensive and offensive alliance with them against our common oppressors.

I won’t rehash the history nor the process of our subordination since ancient times. Like you, we have been victims of the abuse of power. In our modern society, like you, we are still subjected to the tyrannical force of those who hold all the power, to which is added the tyrannical force of those who hold all the rights.

And all this is sheltered under the guise of the Republic! A republic whose name designates a time when all that was exclusively the prerogative of the holders of power and the usurpers of wealth had to cease to belong to them to instead be for all.

Ah! We live under a kind of Republic which proves that the most sublime words become vain titles which are on display, when the principles are not fully applied in the societies they represent. A Republic which will keep women in a condition of inferiority will not be able to make men equal. Before you, men, acquire the right to elevate yourself to your masters, it is incumbent upon you to elevate your slaves, women, to you.

Many have never thought about this. Indeed, if in this imposing assembly, I asked this question: Are you in favor of human equality? All would answer: Yes. Because the vast majority of them understand, by human equality, the equality of men amongst themselves. But if I changed the subject, if, pressing the two terms — man and woman — under which humanity manifests itself, I said to you: Are you in favor of the equality of men and women? Many would answer me: No. So what do you mean by equality, you, who are yourselves under the yoke, want to keep beings below you. Why do you complain about the ruling classes, when you are doing, you direct, the same thing with regard to women as the ruling classes?

Thank you for accepting and putting this question on your agenda: the full equality of women and men. It is to provoke discussion throughout France, and to prepare for its experimentation, that, so far, we have been content to deny without wanting to go deeper into the matter. We find a way to do scientific research for everything. Every day, we discover new qualities in animals and plants. We multiply the experiments seeking to create completely useful beasts, completely beneficial plants. But we have never thought of putting women in an identical situation to that of men, so that they can measure themselves with men and prove that their faculties are equivalent. We spend crazy amounts of money in France to obtain certain qualities, often fictitious, in animal breeds, and we have never tried to impartially test the sweat of women and men. No attempt has ever been made to take a certain number of children of both sexes, to subject them to the same method of education, under the same conditions of existence. “Reverse the conditions,” says one author, “put boys ages 12 to 16 in the kitchen, sewing, and leave young girls in industrial schools; give them all the rights which have hitherto been the exclusive domain of men; lock young people into the etiquette and prejudice that has garroted women and soon the relationship between the value of the two sexes will be completely reversed.”

You do not want to do this experiment. Do you realize that you allow us to believe, we women, that it isn’t that you doubt our equality but that you fear it? By continuing to leave us in an atrophying life, you, civilized men, imitate the barbarian slave owners who exploit to great profit the supposed inferiority of their fellow men.

Supporters of human freedom who want gender equality fall into two camps. Some deny this equality on the basis of these prejudices: that muscular strength makes the superiority of being and that the large dimension of the brain is the sine qua non condition of all intellectual value.

One of the greatest contemporary scholars, Doctor Louis Buchner, will refute these false allegations. Hear it: “The volume or material development of an organ,” says Buchner, “cannot in itself determine the value of that organ.”

I cite an example: Who would argue that a large nose can better smell than small noses? A smaller but well-formed brain will perform its function better than a larger, but less delicate, one. How many people, whose heads were small, left the big-headed people far behind

The supposed inferiority of the woman, as far as cerebral volume, is a completely erroneous notion. It is not in its absolute dimensions, but in its relative dimensions, that we must seek the real value of the brain; that is to say in its mass compared to the total mass of the body, and the quality of brain matter. If it were not so, then man would occupy a rank far below that of the elephant or the whale, which have a much larger brain than his own.

“If we observe that the material development of the female body generally remains much below that of the male, we will find (according to several scholars) that the relative size of the female brain, far from being inferior to that offered by man, would rather be appreciably superior to it.”

I will not add anything to this scientist’s thesis; those who deny the equality of men and women, are 99 times out of 100 lazy and superficial spirits who prefer to advocate false theories, borrowed from authoritarian schools, than to think of judging on their own. Let them reflect, because the ready-made ideas they advocate are exactly like those used by rulers to keep them under their domination.

Either women are the equals of workers and bourgeois, or the bourgeois, as they claim, are superior to workers and women.

Know it, citizens, that it is only the equality of all beings that you can rely on to be justified in demanding your arrival to freedom. If you do not base your claims on justice and natural law, if you, proletarians, you also want to keep privileges, the privileges of sex, I ask you, what authority do you have to protest against the privileges of the classes? How can you reproach the rulers who dominate you, exploit you, if you are in favor of letting superior and inferior categories exist in the human species?

You should be afraid your masters will accuse you of fighting over prerogatives you are jealous of! Proclaim equality between beings that the chance of the birth makes man or woman; or if you dare, deny it: this equality, and, as good logicians, recognize your native inferiority, the right for the ruling classes to think, to act, to enjoy in your place.

Put an end to these questions of pride and selfishness. Women’s rights do not take away your rights. Put natural law frankly in place of authority: for if, by virtue of authority, man oppresses woman, by the fact of this same authority, man oppresses man.

I have spoken for the greatest number. I now turn to those who declare themselves to be supporters of the equality of men and women, but whose watchword is Hush! Let’s not waste our time dealing with this detail. A detail! The exploitation of half of humanity by the other half! In future society, these so-called socialists continue, women will have their rights. In this they imitate the priests who promise enjoyment in heaven to the underprivileged on the earth. Neither those underprivileged in fortune, nor those underprivileged in rights, nor the poor, nor women can be satisfied forever with sweet promises.

Women have been hoped for too long for a social condition equal to that of men. When in 1789 Olympe de Gouges presented to the States-General on behalf of women, her book of grievances and complaints, she was told that it was useless to examine the condition of women, since a complete change had to take place in society for women to be freed like men.

The Revolution broke out: rights of man were proclaimed; women remain servants. These women who had worked for the Revolution naively believed that they had gained their share of freedom. When they saw themselves kept away from everything, they demanded. Then they were ridiculed, scoffed at, insulted; and later, when they went to demand their rights from the Council of the Commune, chased ignominiously by Chaumette. These indignant women protested; they had a club, where they were busy seeking their own rights as well as the common interests of all.

The Convention, the great Convention, closed its club and forbade women to come together to take care of public affairs.

And at the same time as these autocratic revolutionaries decreed the inequality of women, they were making melodious words of equality and freedom heard all over the world.

Another example of the little done to invite women into trust:

The fate of man changed, we feel the need to subject France to new legislation; we promulgate the Code: Open it: we will read this: All French people will enjoy their civil rights (1848). All French people can be called to such a function, to fulfill such dignity. In reading — all French – one would think that it is a question of the whole nation. Not at all: it only includes a part of the nation: Men. But let’s continue our investigations: there are other chapters in the Code, let’s go through it; we will see qualifiers like these: Any taxpayer, any accused, any bankrupt, any criminal, etc. There, no doubt either, are these only men? Come on! Men are not so selfish as taking care of only themselves; in conscience and as if to restore the balance between the chapters relating to compression and those which preceded relating to the law, they even gave more consideration to women than to themselves when it came to punishing; fewer rights for women, more rigor against her. O logic!

These examples are eloquent enough to protect women against those who, wanting to change the current social organization, are fighting our plan for claims, saying that in future society we will be their equals. Women have to be wary of those who advocate the equality of the future and who, in the present, oppose bringing their intelligence, their ideas, their tastes to the arrangement of this future society.

Women of France, I tell you from the top of this podium: Those who deny our equality in the present will deny it in the future. So let’s count on ourselves to free ourselves, let’s not abandon our claims. For centuries we have been too often victims of bad faith, for us to forget ourselves, and believe that by working for the general good, we will have our share of the general good.

Ah! If at the outset, women could sign a contract with men that guarantees equal rights in the face of joint conquests, I would say: Let us forget our special fate as slaves. Let’s mix up our claims with those of men! Alas without guarantee, I am afraid that human equality, preached by all socialist schools, is still only the equality of men among themselves, and that women are duped by men of the proletariat as the proletarians were by the bourgeois.

The various leaders of socialist groups are far from unanimously recognizing our equality. We can only count on the authoritarians, who to turn us away from what we regard as the source and principle of all rights, the vote, say: “What good is it to dispute civil rights, there will be no need for them in the future Society.” In the future Society even more than in this one, it will be necessary that an idea obtains the acquiescence of the majority to triumph. Besides, we are not yet in this future society, and to build it so that women are not harmed there, they need the right to work to build it; they need the tool that is found in the hand of man: the ballot.

I think that in these great seats of work, nobody claims that, by a magic subtlety or a tour de force, the old world suddenly disappears, and that in its place appears a new landscape, where everything will be perfect. The new society following the ascending march of progress will be built slowly, painfully; and if women refrain from taking part in the new arrangements, men will certainly not offer them the best place. Women must be able to lay the foundations of the society of the future with men; because woe to women if, not having argued step by step their equality, they arrive as slaves in a better social state. The victors will give them some gifts of happy arrival, but basically, they will remain disinherited, inferior. I say: Woe to us, woe to women, because the more that the future social organization is satisfying, the more it will be able to prolong their servitude.

To those who say it is useless to make a question of women, that in the future all beings will be equal, I answer: There is a very particular situation made to women; because women cannot be content with empty promises too often denied by the applicants of power, who, at the hours of voting, forget themselves until saying: When we arrive, we will see the place that we can give to the woman, without harming the species or annoying man.

We women will not help despotism to change hands, what we want is not to shift but to kill privilege.

I am far from wanting to question the good faith of the collectivists who say that they make no distinction between women and men; but others might come who would alter their doctrine, regarding gender equality.

This is why I ask them to understand with us the need for a question of women, and to help us to support it.

Our affirmation of the social and political equality of women and men is, at the same time as the expression of our conviction, a protest against those who, in defiance of human freedom, still dare, in the 19th century, try to assign a role to half of the human race.

How about, men, if you were locked into the narrow circle of a role? If you were told: You, because you are a blacksmith, your role is to forge iron, you will not have rights. You, because you are a doctor, your role is to care for the sick; you will not have rights. Woman is like man, a free and autonomous being. Give to her, as to him, the freedom to choose the path that suits her.

These attacks on the freedom of the woman make her simultaneously a servant and a perpetual minor, a beggar who lives at the expense of man. Our dignity makes us protest against this humiliating situation. We do not view marriage as a way to feed women. We want that even the mother of very young children can claim economic independence. After all, being a nurse is a paid profession — and if the mother dies, the father left responsible for a small child would have to pay a woman to raise the child. Let us divide the sum allocated to this woman in two; to the living mother, to the child’s nanny, half of this amount is returned.

Any work should be remunerated, so when a woman takes care of the household and the clothes, she has the right to receive half of the price for which this work is valued.

Man would not receive services from a stranger without paying: it is only fair that he should compensate his partner for his labor.

Perhaps you will find it strange that I make these divisions between husband and wife. Above all, I care about human dignity. It is because I believe that a man will value his wife, that a woman will cease to believe herself obliged to her husband, when, from the economic point of view, the two are mutually independent. It is that finally, contrary to what is socially accepted, I put before the economic independence of the man, the economic independence of the woman, because it is to the woman that naturally falls the charge of the child.

The husband may sometimes forget his duties as a father; he can abandon his wife and children. The lover steals away almost always from the charges of fatherhood. The mother attached to her child sometimes dies of starvation by giving him her last drop of milk, her last bite of bread.

And when the woman on whom such a responsibility weighs — the material life of the child; when women are admitted to any industry, men protest, men exclaim: “Woman, you are going to take our place.” “The child and I are starving,” says the woman. “It’s up to man to feed you and your children.” I don’t want to further push the dialogue between these two rivals, woman and man, in their struggle for survival.

I said it: I do not accept that the man alone should provide for the needs of the family. Any woman who, being able to work, finds it more convenient to be housed and fed by her husband, is, in my opinion, only a kept woman. But I ask you who admit this hypothesis, if a woman is supported by her husband, who will feed the woman before she is provided with a husband? Who will feed the woman when she remains single? Who will feed the widow and her children? Ah! I hear you! In the future society, the children will be the responsibility of the Municipality or the State; but while waiting for this better organized Society, all these categories of women and children are hungry and the stomach has no hopes.

Citizens, I find it with sadness, you who say that you are the strong, you make a game of the existence of those that you call the weak. Whether you are rich or poor, you exploit women. And when, at the end of their misery, you see them sickly, faltering, it’s work that kills them, you say. It’s not work, it’s poverty that kills women; it is the deprivations of all kinds that they take on themselves to pay for your vices or your pleasures, which give your children this haggard figure. The rickets of the body and the emptiness of the brain are inherent in the poverty of generations of women. It is necessary — and otherwise you will see the collapse your race — to change the economic situation of women; the mother must always have life-giving food. Behind this prejudice which leads to the withering of the generation and which consists in saying: The woman will be fed by the man, she lives on little, she must be paid less than him.

The woman lives on little, because she devotes herself to the point of depriving herself. But beware, the woman who does not eat her fill wears herself down, who sacrifices herself, loses not only her health but the health of the generation.

So, economically, civilly, politically, we do not exist; and it is we who give life, and it is we alone who allow civilization to take root. We protest against the situation of civilian deaths, of the original degradations done to us.

We proclaim like you, citizens, the principle of human equality, by which we mean not only the equality of all men among themselves bu also the equality of men and women. We want for them as for you, the whole education, the same facilities for physical, moral, intellectual and professional development.

We want for women, as for men, freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of action.

We demand for women, as for men, economic independence, easy production for all and the guarantee for everyone of the full product of their work, whatever the work may be.

We want for women as for men, deliberative voice in the Municipality, in the State, or in the group; because women like men are interested in the laws and regulations which are made, because women, paying taxes have as many rights as men to demand a good distribution of these taxes, because in a real Republic, there are no longer the privileged, there are only interested parties who, submitting to the same duties, must have the same rights.

It is in your interest, voters, to no longer be satisfied with this legalistic hypocrisy, stereotyped on all the programs of candidates for deputation, in General and Municipal Councils: — “War on clericalism!” Demand social reforms and among them, one of the first: the recognition of our social and political equality. Like the heirs of the Revolution, who had to show the human rights tables to liberators of the time, asking them: would you sign this?

You, the proletariat, must present the table of women’s rights to the candidates. It will be a criterion for recognizing in the future the opportunists, the traitors of tomorrow, and whoever misunderstands when it is no longer needed, to escalate power — the rights of the proletariat.

We address you, proletarians, as well as our companions in misfortune, to support our right to get out of bondage.

You are voters, you have the power of numbers, you are all women by heart, you are our brothers. Help us to free ourselves.

You admit voting for despots, priests, soldiers, birds of prey hungry for carnage. You even distinguish them in the crowd to give them the mandate to lead you, sometimes to murder you.

And to creative women, women who are friends of humanity, you refuse to give voice to the chapter of your destinies!

You say: the woman is too clerical. Is it more clerical than the priests, the Jesuits, the religious of all orders who vote? Is the woman, if she confesses, more clerical than the men, who house and pay confessionals and confessors? Is it finally the woman who becomes a priest? I say that those who enter clericalism — men — are more clerical than the women who practice them.

The time is no longer for saber and strength; it is no longer a question of bringing desolation and death to our neighbors. It’s about solving the question of happiness at home for everyone. Therefore have more confidence in this category of beings who want reforms, because the abuses weigh particularly on them — the proletarians and women. It is not those satisfied with life who will help the unfortunate to change their lot. They are the ones who cannot see suffering, those who cannot see crying. Namely: workers and women.

O! Proletarians, if you want to be free, stop being unjust. With modern science, with the conscience which does not have prejudices, say: Equality between all men. Equality between men and women. Ascension of the whole human race, united in justice, toward a better future.


Translation by Catherine Bolgar



Source: Discours lors du 3e Congrès ouvrier (Marseilles: Imprimerie Genérale J. Doucet, 1879), pp. 148-158.


Copyright 2020 by Catherine Bolgar. Used by permission. All rights reserved.