The world didn’t make sense to 32-year-old Hubertine Auclert (1848-1914). On the one hand, she was considered a French citizen, expected to obey the laws of her country and pay property taxes. As a woman, however, she was denied the right to vote. She began plotting a way to unhinge the unfair system.
“I DO NOT VOTE, I DO NOT PAY”
On election day, February 1880, Auclert and several other taxpaying women of Paris walked past a line of startled men and presented themselves for voter registration, demanding rights as well as responsibilities. They were turned away.
Using the publicity she’d generated from the attempt to vote, Auclert called for a women’s tax strike. She wrote:
Since I have no right to control the use of my money, I no longer wish to give it. I do not wish to be an accomplice, by my acquiescence, in the vast exploitation that the masculine autocracy believes is its right to exercise in regard to women. I have no rights, therefore I have no obligations. I do not vote, I do not pay.
She was joined by 20 other women, eight widows and the rest, presumably, single women. When the authorities demanded payment, all but three of the women ended their participation in the strike. The remaining women continued to appeal the decision. But, when law enforcement officers attempted to seize their furniture, Auclert and the others gave in. They had done the best they could to call attention to the injustice.
“A REBEL … ALMOST SINCE BIRTH”
Auclert was an energetic organizer, activist, and writer. She’d been drawn to Paris, eager to fight for women’s suffrage. She had no parents or spouse. She wrote,
My life had been of little importance, everything was calm and perfectly simply: no accidents, no adventures, the existence of a recluse. But then I became a crusader, not by choice but from duty. Since no one else would undertake that which I want to attempt, I overcame my excessive shyness and went to war like a medieval knight.
It didn’t take long for her to leave liberal feminists behind and set out on a more radical route. In 1876, at age 28, she helped found an organization called Rights of Women, later changed to Women’s Suffrage Society. The motto was “No duties without rights; no rights without duties.”
“I have been a rebel against female oppression almost since birth,” she wrote. She claimed her fighting spirit was inspired by the “brutality of man toward woman which terrified my childhood, prepared me at an early age to demand independence, and consideration for my sex.”
In 1881, Auclert co-founded a newspaper, La Citoyenne [Female Citizen], with Antonin Levrier. She also organized petition drives, demonstrations, and boycotts. She traveled to England to meet with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and British suffragists. In 1885, although it was not legal, she ran for elected office, a symbolic gesture she repeated in 1910.
In 1888, Auclert married her publishing partner, Levrier, and moved to Algeria. There, she was outraged by the imposition of French customs on the Islamic population and published her observations in Arab Women in Algeria. After her husband died in 1892, Auclert returned to Paris, shocked to learn that La Citoyenne had folded.
In 1908, she was arrested for symbolically smashing a ballot box during municipal elections in Paris, which she denounced as “unisexual suffrage.”
Throughout her activist life, Auclert used the written word to persuade and educate. In her essay “Le Vote des Femmes,” she wrote: “Just as many modern inventions can function only by combining certain elements, suffrage needs all the female and male energy of our nation to become an evolutionary instrument capable of transforming the social condition.” A pacifist, it was her contention that women would use the vote to end war.
Bitter and witty, especially when articulating the economic injustice of women’s oppression, Auclert wrote, “If people were paid to bring children into the world, I truly believe that men would find a way to monopolize the job.”
TO GO DEEPER
Hubertine Auclert: The French Suffragette by Steven C. Hause. Yale University Press, 1987.
Pariahs Stand Up! The Founding of the Liberal Feminist Movement in France, 1858-1889 by Patrick Kay Bidelman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
French Feminism in the 19th Century by Claire Goldberg Moses. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.
Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Volume 1 by Helen Rappaport. ABC-CLIO, 2001.