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Lemonnier, Elisa (1805-65)

Lemonnier, Elisa (1805-65), a founder of vocational education (éducation professionelle) for young women in France, decided to work for this kind of instruction because of her experiences in the revolution of 1848. Born in Sorèze in the Tarn on March 25, 1805, Elisa Grimailh was the daughter of middle-class Protestant parents. She attended the elementary classes of a girls' boarding school and also lived for several years with Mme. Saint-Cyr de Muratel, a relative of her mother who helped complete her literary education and preparation for social life and running a household. In 1828 she met Charles Lemonnier, newly hired as a professor of philosophy at Sorèze's long-established collège. Lemonnier's refusal to profess Catholicism publicly led to his dismissal some months later, but by the time he left for Paris he and Elisa had fallen in love. Jules Rességuier, a friend of the Grimailhs, had also introduced Lemonnier to Saint-Simonianism, Rességuier being the first subscriber outside the Paris area to Le Producteur, the journal of the Saint-Simonian socialists Olinde Rodrigues, Saint-Amand Bazard, and Prosper Enfantin.

Married on August 22, 1831, Elisa and Charles Lemonnier contributed most of her wealth -- about 50,000 francs -- to the Saint-Simonian cause. The Saint-Simonians' doctrine of historical progress and the equality of the sexes attracted them, but they did not support Enfantin's eventual rejection of marital fidelity, a position which helped split the Saint-Simonian movement. Charles' refusal to leave the Saint-Simonian group after Enfantin's profession of what Elisa termed "monstrous immorality" led the couple to quarrel and separate, but they later reconciled. After the dispersal of the Saint-Simonians in 1831-32, Charles resumed and completed legal studies and then moved with his wife and first son to Bordeaux, where he practiced law for ten years. During this period Elisa considered opening a lingerie shop but did not because she knew society frowned upon a lawyer's wife becoming a merchant. In 1845 the Lemonniers returned to Paris because former Saint-Simonian acquaintances, the Perieres, offered Charles an administrative post with the Chemin de Fer du Nord.

During the 1848 revolution Elisa Lemonnier's concern for the plight of poor women led her and some friends to start an workshop on the rue du faubourg Saint-Martin for seamstresses. While Charles spoke in political clubs, Elisa's enterprise eventually employed about 200 women, many of them with families. They made mattresses and other items for hospitals and prisons. To attract and give incentive to women workers, Elisa used the slogan, "Do not wait until men act for you; act for yourselves, and when they [men] see you at work, they will begin to take you seriously." Elisa herself bought the workshop's supplies, kept accounts distributed finished work and helped supervise the workers. The project enabled her to combine the work ethic acquired through her Protestant upbringing with the Saint-Simonians' social conscience, which she and Charles still embraced. Her ouvrier lasted only two months, however, before succumbing to a changed political climate after the June Days and closure of the ateliers nationaux.

The brief experience directing women workers left Elisa Lemonnier impressed by their willingness to work but also dismayed by their lack of skills, which had made it difficult for them to sew simple straw mattresses. Attributing their deficiencies to a poor or nonexistent education -- at a time when France had noticeably fewer schools for girls than for boys, she became convinced that education was the key to spurring poor women to work and save themselves from destitution. Elisa's Société de Travailleuses-uniés, an effort to create a center to train apprentices and provide work, was not successful, and neither was a subsequent attempt to found a créche. In December 1851, after the coup of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, she and a friend tried in a different way to influence the social and political climate. They visited the archbishop of Paris and proposed to stop the bloodshed by having women and children march with the clergy through the streets of Paris; Archbishop Sibour did not support their plan.

The revolution of 1848 was thus the catalyst for Elisa Lemonnier's launching in 1856 of the Société de protection maternelle, which sent a few young women for professional training at a special school near Frankfurt. Started in her salon in 1856 with 18 other women, the society also enlisted the help of a private Parisian school run by Mmes. Thiébault and Batin. In 1862 she and fellow philanthropists, using the title Société pour l'ensignement professionnel des femmes, opened France's first non-religious vocational school for young women. Within two months this school on the rue de la Perle had 50 pupils from poor or modest families. It and a sister institution, opened in 1864, offered adolescent girls both traditional academic subjects and professional training in sewing, commerce and such commercial arts and crafts as engraving and painting on porcelain. Lemonnier believed that if girls were as well-educated as boys, then they would be able to develop fully the "qualities specific to women" and gain the only kind of emancipation possible for women. By the time of her death on June 5, 1865, some 300 young women had benefitted from the professional education that she inspired. Her schools continued to prosper and eventually, during the Third Republic, were taken over by the city of Paris, which also named a street in the twelfth arrondissement after her.

Linda L. Clark


Cerati, Marie. "Elisa Lemonnier." In Femmes extraordinaires, by Gilette Ziegler, Marie Cerati, André Rossel, Gilbert Badia and Annie Fourcaut. Paris: Editions de la Courtille, 1979.

Coignet, Clarisse. Biographie de Madame Lemonnier, fondatrice de la Société pour l'enseignement professionnel des femmes. Paris: Société pour l'enseignement professionnel des femmes, 1866.

Lemonnier, Charles. Elisa Lemonnier, fondatrice de las Société pour l'enseignement professionnel des femmes. Saint-Germain: L. Toinon, 1866.

Maîtron, Jean, ed. Dictionnaire biographie du mouvement ouvrier français, Part One, 1789-1864 (De la Révolution française à la fondation de la première internationale). Paris:Editions ouvrières, 1964-66. S.v. "Lemonnier, Elisa".

Toussaint, Julie. "Lemonnier, Madame Elisa." In Nouveau dictionnaire de pédagogie. Ferdinand Buisson (ed.) Paris: Hachette, 1911.

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