Claire Démar and the Saint-Simonian Feminist Movement

The first time I came across Claire Démar was in my second year of undergrad. I was researching feminism during the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries. There were three factors that motivated that research. First of all, I have always been attracted to the history of the French Revolution. Secondly, I feel the need to learn about the women nobody has ever told me about. I would like to say there are strong moral and political reasons behind that, and that is true, and I will never miss a chance to make a point on the struggle of female visibility. However, a deeper truth is that my own ignorance frustrates me and drives me to try to learn about them, to remember their names. It is a question of pride, and of self-assumed duty. The third reason is that in those months I began a passionate, formal romantic relationship with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that would -will- last a lifetime.

Appel-d-une-Femme-Demar

That font is dope.

Who is she, then? Well, although there is little reliable data on her biography, I’ve tried to assemble what French and English GoogleBooks had to offer. The following is an account of the life and works of Claire Démar, French feminist martyr, Saint-Simonian, journalist and writer.

 

Claire Démar was born (probably) in 1799 in (possibly) Orléans, south of Paris. Not even her name is free from question: although she signed her best known works as Claire Démar and any contemporary reference to her was in that name, her earliest letters are signed as Émilie d’Eymard. There are those who believe Claire was the elder sister of the musician Thérèse Démar, and attribute the biographical data of the latter to the former. If we were to believe that theory -which I do not, because there is no evidence to support it-, Claire would be the daughter of German musicians who emigrated first to Paris (1770s) and, during the Terror, moved to Orléans.

What we do know is that Démar was a member -and a very critic, active and radical one- of the Saint-Simonians. The Saint-Simonians were the followers of Claude Henri Saint-Simon. They were utopian socialists who proposed a peaceful new social order based in social and economic equality. The Saint-Simonians believed in the inclusion of women in equal terms to those of men in this new social order. Their feminism was a logical consequence of the notion that there should be no difference of class or sex. Pacifism, an essential point of their ideological agenda, was inseparable from female contribution. However, their belief in the equality of the sexes was based on the idea that women embodied emotion and men reason.

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Combat davant l’hôtel de ville. Jean Victor Schnetz. 1830. Painting illustrating the July Revolution of 1830, also known as the Trois Gloriouses.

The Saint-Simonian women, a very active part of the group, disengage themselves from this limiting conceptualization and participate eagerly in the movement. As Claire Moses claims: “Saint-Simonian women struggle to surpass the masculine perspective and thereby link feminist vision  to the reality of women’s experience” (Moses 1982:241). This struggle was translated into action. By 1830, around 200 women regularly attended Saint-Simonian public lectures, amounting for half of the audience. But their participation was not limited to that. Indeed, the Saint-Simonian women produced a considerable body of text (journalist, personal correspondence and life writings). This is not a trait exclusively related to this movement; women in general -and feminists in particular- in nineteenth-century France were very literary. In 1832, a group of working class followers founded the Tribunne des Femmes, which is thought to have been the first female collaboration with a feminist purpose in history. It is relevant that they were members of the proletariat,  because most of the male Saint-Simonians were renegade aristocrats. Saint-Simonian women, then, were one of the earliest examples of the feminist movement being linked to the working-class struggle (McMillan 2000:82). The Tribune welcomed articles exclusively from women, not necessarily Saint-Simonians. Each contributor signed with their first name, in a symbolic gesture to dissociate themselves from masculine control.

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From the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

 

Of the literary production of Claire Démar, only a few letters and two essays have survived. These essays are Appel d’une femme au peuple sur l’affranchissement de la femme (1833) and Ma Loi d’Avenir (posthume 1834). Scholars have pointed out the modernity of her theories and claims, as well as her radical atheism. In l’Appel, reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, Démar demands the inclusion of women in la  Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789), or what is the same, for France to recognise women as citizens in their own rights. In Ma Loi d’Avenir, Démar demands liberty without bounds, the abolition of marriage, which she regards as (sexual) slavery, of property, of paternal law and of gender-specific division of labour. Furthermore, she proposes the “abolition of maternity”: understanding motherhood as a patriarchal tool of oppression that restricts female emancipation, she urges mothers to “bring the newborn from the bosom of the blood mother to the arms of the social mother, the professional nurse, and the child will be better raised. Then and only then will man, woman, and child all be liberated from the law of blood and from exploitation of humanity by humanity!” (Démar in Nagl-Docekal 2010). All in all, Démar’s utopian ideal is a “fully rationalized society in which the value of the individual is determined exclusively by his or her function in the whole — where the contours of this ‘whole’ themselves become ever more blurred and the individuals become ever more empty” (Démar in Nagl-Docekal 2010). That is, a society based on social equality and the individual contribution to the social body, where individuality is disregarded.

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A great number of Saint-Simonians were republicans. I guess they’d have mixed feelings about their writings being kept in the Bibliotheque Royale.

Démar was found dead in August 3rd 1833, at the age of 33, with her lover Perret Desessarts. They had shot each other on the head. Next to their corpses there were two letters, addressed to Charles Lambert, in which they attested for the double-suicide. These letters are now kept in l’Arsenal. On her death, Suzanne Voilquin, a prominent Saint-Simonien, dedicated her the following words as means of goodbye:

« Lorsque la malheureuse Claire disparut du milieu de nous, elle n’avait que 32 à 34 ans, elle était brune, petite, mais bien faite, le pied et la main jolis, […] l’expression de ses yeux et de sa physionomie était fière, même un peu dure, en parlant, elle s’animait de suite, alors son langage était abondant, facile, mais rude et heurté. On sentait une organisation inflammable, peu tendre, mais excessivement passionnée… »

“When the unlucky Claire left us, she  was 32-34 years old. She was brunette, small, but well-shaped, with beautiful hands and feet. […] The expression of her eyes and her physiognomy was fierce, although a bit tough. While talking, she suddenly came alive. Her way of speaking was abundant, easy, although harsh and abrupt. One felt an inflammable combination, scarcely tender but very passionate.”

Vivent les peuples.

Sources

  • Moses, Claire G. “Saint-Simonian Men/Saint-Simonian Women: The Transformation of Feminist Thought in 1830s’ France” in The Journal of Modern History, 54.2. 1982:240-267.
  • MacMillan, James F. France and Women 189-1914: Gender, society and Politics. London: Routledge. 2010.
  • Nagl-Docekal, Herta (and Cornelia Klinger). Continental Philosophy in Feminist Perspective: Re-Reading the Canon in German. Penn State Press, 2010.