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Eugénie Niboyet

Eugénie Niboyet Woman of letters, born on September 24, 1799, the granddaughter of the physicist Lesage, general secretary of the charitable group of the Society of Christian Morals which awarded a prize to two of her works, whose humanism harmonized with the moralism of the times, responsible in 1831 for "propagandizing" Saint Simonianism among workers of the IVe and Ve arrondissements of Paris, collaborator on several journals favorable to women's rights and emancipation, editor in 1834 and 1835 of the Conseiller des Femmes, then the Mosaique Lyonnaise, founder in Lyon of the Athénée des femmes; a respected and a respectable woman, all converged to designate Eugénie Niboyet as spokesperson for the women of 1848 in the bosom of the revolution, at the heart of the young republic. "Women must be centralized, be educated. An upright heart, a real courage could do that," she thought then. "I had an upright heart, I had the courage; that was my misfortune," she wrote in 1862, "the task was greater than my strength." Despite the jeers, the invectives, the misrepresentations that she was the object, Eugénie Niboyet assumed her tasks as editor of the Voix des Femmes and president of the women's club, without ever weakening in defending to the end the her ideas. Since the 1830s, a constant preoccupation was woman's education, since they did not enjoy equal access to public education, because she knew that access to education was the necessary precondition to obtain the status of citizen. In the Rue de Turenne she organized her teaching in April and May 1848, for, "Women must be taught by women, the most pressing matter therefore is to restore instruction to them; to stimulate by examinations, teachers, and pupils, to make both sexes march together on different rails but in an analogous locomotion. If it is important to teach a young boy what freedom is, it is perhaps even more important to teach a girl."

Moderate, but sure of her rights, Eugénie Niboyet, editor of the Paix des Deux Mondes, knew how to use a mother's nuanced voice of reason; in the name of the duties of mothers, on March 2 she urged the provisional government to guarantee women's rights in the new republic: "The glorious promoters of this ringing victory have had all parties as historians, all newspapers as a sounding board! And why in turn does woman not mix her voice in this general Te Deum, she who gives citizens to the state, the heads of families. LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY call the human species for the same prerogatives; honor this holy trinity which will bestow on women the rights of citizenship and raise them intellectually and morally to equality with men." Very quickly her paper was a success; it echoed the initiatives taken by the women: petitions favoring women's political rights, delegations of working women to the provisional government, calls for opening national workshops for unemployed women whose numbers augmented constantly during the months of revolutionary crises as capital was hoarded while workshops closed, appeals to the generosity of wealthy women to find work for the poorest, without stigmatizing them with humiliating charity.

Contributions poured in, so in April 1848, she founded the Société de la Voix des Femmes which made her its president. The society sought to promote "equality of rights" between the "two halves of humanity": to understand their duties, women demanded new legislation giving them their political rights: the right to vote and to be elected. They wanted to be able to sell, to buy, to negotiate like their husbands. Realists, the committee leaders did not think that all their demands would be attained immediately, but they would "set a landmark in the course of history"; optimism however was called for, on April 26, after mature reflection, contributors to La Voix des Femmes drafted a petition to the Provisional Government; the tone was nuanced, the demands moderate, Eugénie Niboyet's point of view prevailed; convinced "that the measure of freedom given to woman is the thermometer of the freedom and happiness of men," they "entreat the Provisional Government of the Republic to adopt immediately a decree dedicated in principle to the absolute recognition of civil rights for women and allowing widows and adult unmarried women to enjoy the exercise of electoral rights."

Men voiced their fears when a woman's club opened. Some of Eugénie Niboyet's collaborators judged the instruction in Rue de Turenne insufficient to meet the increasing demands of women who could not express themselves freely in men's clubs; the opening of their club they thought would allow more women to participate in the political debates of the day, to elaborate among themselves their rights as republican citizens. Eugénie Niboyet accepted the club's presidency in 1848. Despite the moderate purpose, the numerous professions of faith in the family, the repeated assurances of the participants' morals, the caricaturists let loose. The women's club was on the cover of Charivari in May and June 1848, Eugénie Niboyet ridiculed in pseudo-play, the "Volcanienne" or "The Socialist Woman" which misrepresented her opinions and her name, calling her E. Giboyer [a play on words: gibier means wild game]. Republican journalists who had been silent up to then on the question of the equal rights of the sexes, now attacked the club; all of women's public initiatives, such as divorce, were ascribed to her. On June 7, Eugénie Niboyet imputed male anxieties: "You don't want to hear us because you are beginning to fear us," she wrote. "It seems easier for you to oppress rather than to do justice. Your jeers cannot hide your despotism; your interruptions betray your malice. Are we asking for more than is due to us? What is our aim if not the interests of those who suffer? To working women we speak of association, for partnership will ensure the well-being of all. Have we spoken a single word which might frighten the family? Our aim is harmony; we never breach what God has united; let us sanctify the principle of fraternity; let us be free; let us be equal. Equality is justice."

Several thousand people came to jeer the women of the club at the beginning of June; a polemic erupted between La Voix des Femmes and men's journals, including La Liberté which exclaimed on June 12: "Club women,great God! Our mothers, our virgins, our sisters! It is absurd, it is monstrous, it is unheard of." In the face of such unleashed passion, Eugénie Niboyet decided to close the club even before it was officially banned; most men could not accept this expression of women's freedom. Then her tone changed.

The bearer of a message of peace, Eugénie Niboyet, now accused and denounced the hoax of men's democracy; she castigated republican policy, whose principles were ridicule by those professing them: "Only the name has changed: the tyrant calls himself democracy. Men have ruled through their absolute power; it is to their own logic that they appeal in times of crisis, and always the evil perpetuates itself in a new shape, because humanity has kept one half of itself under the yoke, women, the last to be set free by progress, but without whose participation nothing stable or complete can exist. It seems that in poltics, the purpose is not precisely the triumph of the higher idea, but simply of the opinion which is in one's interest to prevail. Consequently politics is no more than the means which can prepare and maintain this ascendancy; it is a strategy in which conscience plays no part. This view of what we will call the science of power is, in our own eyes, a great misfortune."

That lucidity cost Eugénie Niboyet, who, with no money of her own, lived by her pen; a literary allowance which she obtained in 1839 was withdrawn, and, despite numerous petitions that she addressed to successive governments of the Second Empire and Third Republic, that pension was never reinstated. Her letters were marked with the infamous words: "President of the 1848 women's club." In one of her many letters, she wrote: "For eleven years now I have borne my cross without complaining. Today my strength fails me." She paid dearly for having written women "into history" of liberty and for having defended the cause of equality in 1848 in conformity with universal rights proclaimed by the forty-eighters.
Michèle Riot-Sarcey


Riot-Sarcey, Michèle "le Parcours de femmes dans l'apprentissage de la démocratie : Désirée Gay, Jeanne Deroin, Eugénie Niboyet, 1830 - 1870" Paris, Univ., Diss., 1990.

_______. La démocratie à l'épreuve des femmes : trois figures critiques du pouvoir, 1830-1848 Paris : A. Michel, 1994. Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal (Paris) Rapports d'Eugénie Niboyet and the Fonds Enfantin

Archives Nationaux (Paris) Eugénie Niboyet Correspondance


Le Conseiller des Femmes

La Mosaique Lyonnaise

La Voix des Femmes

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