MADAME JENNY P. d’HERICOURT
You ask me the biography of Madame Jenny P. d’Hericourt! I consent only to draw the great lines of her eventful life, those which can be interesting to those identified with the holy cause to which she has devoted a part of her existence.
She was born in Besancon, the capital of the ancient Franche-Comte, in 1819. She is therefore the compatriot of Victor Hugo, Charles Fourier, Proudhon, Bichat, Courbet, Rouget de l’Isle, the author of the Marseillaise, and the celebrated Georges Cuvier, to whom she is a relative through her grandmother.
By hereditary descent, Mme. d’Hericourt was a republican. Hatred of monarchy runs in her veins, with the blood of her fathers. She has also thanked Providence that she was born in a family perfectly honest, and of enlightened Protestant parentage. Good examples and moral education were the blessings afforded to her from her cradle.
“In the child is the full grown person,” say the French; and they are right, when instincts, passions, and faculties are in question. But with the same character, we can be good or bad, according to the objects of our passions. Happily Jenny was under a rational and moral influence. I say happily, for she could be, in consequence of her nature, very useful or extremely hurtful. Intelligent, persistent, courageous, bold, full of generosity and tenderness for the weak, and for every sensitive being-incapable of accepting a rule without endorsing and consenting to it, all these precious gifts would have proved an injury if she had been treated with violence, disdain of opinion, and indomitable rancor; for she never forgot nor forgave, and her vengeance followed promptly every offense.
Her parents nick-named her Don Quixote, because she always defended her weak companions and animals. She did not fear to struggle with those who were stronger than she was, and they were always worsted in the encounter. To the strong she was cruel, when they attacked those who could not defend themselves. She never oppressed either weak children or animals; she had no playthings. When she did not study or run and jump or climb like a cat, she taught twenty dirty paper dolls, or prescribed for them like a physician. It was of very little importance to her whether she had an elegant or worn-out dress, a beautiful or ugly hat; whether she played with well or ill-dressed children. She had so much disdain for distinction, that she never wore the medal given her almost every month, for the first place in her class. She carried this medal in her pocket, because she did not want to show it, and because, she remarked that her companions were unhappy to witness her constant success. However, she was loved by them, for she never made them feel her superiority. Not from generosity, however, did she fail to compare her career with theirs, but because she had her thoughts on the success she meant to acquire in the future.
Before she was seven years old, she knew how to write and to read; had progressed in arithmetic as far as fractions; could speak of the Greek and Roman great characters, and knew by heart the fables of Lafontaine and several chapters of the New Testament. Literally she was hungry and thirsty for knowledge. She was eight years of age when her father died; and though she shed not a tear, she was resolved to die herself in order to be buried with him. Her little sister, whom she loved with passion, alone could make her change her resolution. The following year, Jenny, with her mother and sister, went to Paris. There she received a solid education. At eighteen she received her diploma of Institutrice, after several brilliant examinations, for she knew much more than was required.
When twenty years old she was married to a young man, who, under the guise of honesty, was a libertine and a base hypocrite. After four years of sorrow, she left him and returned to her mother. Notwithstanding the prayers and promises of her husband she repulsed him for eight years. “I pity you,” said she to him, “you are by nature a bad man, and having received your education from Jesuits, you will become worse. You have attempted to murder me for your paramour’s sake, and being persuaded that you will lead me to perpetrate a crime, I will not return with you.” As Jenny had no children she took refuge in science and medical anatomy, physiology and natural history. At the same time she wrote two romances which had a great success. One was against adultery, the other capital punishment. Her serious studies led her to physics. She took lessons from physicians, for the Medical Academy had its doors then closed against women. The president of the Medical Homoeopathic Institute of Buenos Ayres, being in Paris, where he had established a large dispensary, Jenny attended this dispensary for a year; delivered a course of medical criticism in twelve lectures, and received her diploma of physician.
When the revolution of February broke out Madame d’Hericourt was too much of a Republican to remain indifferent. She organized, immediately, a society of thirty women to claim the civil enfranchisement of women, help the women to socialize labor, establish in every arrondissement an evening school for workers of the two sexes, and influence the elections. Other groups of women opened public assemblies to the same end, and issued very good journals. Every group managed according to their peculiar ideas, of course, but were friendly with one another. While Jeanne Deroin, so sweet and courageous, went into several masculine clubs to induce them to vote the equality of the sexes, Jenny d’Hericourt compelled Cuber [Cabet] to submit the question to his numerous disciples, and, standing on the stage, counted the hundreds of hands raised, voting “yes.” The disinterested work of woman was crowned with success for the Work-women’s societies, and the triumph of the Republican representatives. But the Revolution, stopped by reaction, had no time for Woman’s Rights. Mme. d’Hericourt had a great influence with the laborers. They felt that she loved them. Poor work-women said to her, “We will follow you everywhere, even to the barricades, you have only to command. “ And when she said to the workmen, “Friends, don’t call me citizen, for I am nothing but a serf without a country,” those brave men taking her white little hand in their strong and callous hands, answered: “In three years you will be a citizen and representative, for we know that our interests and those of justice cannot have a stronger advocate than you!”
Mme. d’Hericourt having a natural repulsion to putting herself before the public without there was a great necessity for it, never appeared in the numerous banquets given at that time. She consequently declined going to an immense assembly patronized by Republican ladies, but she was obliged to accept, because the working people would have imagined, if she did not go, that it was because the other ladies disdained the laboring class. Certainly they were mistaken; but this impression would have prevailed, and it would have been childish for Mme. d’Hericourt to sacrifice her taste to good harmony. She therefore sent messengers to the workshops of her friends to say that she should pronounce the first toast. When she appeared on the stage, it seemed as if the immense hall would fall under the applause of the multitude. She was obliged to calm this enthusiasm, and had much difficulty in finishing her speech. She was often interrupted with frantic shouts of approval. She said to me, in relating this fact, “0, it was a sweet and great day for me, to see how much I was loved by those worthy soldiers of labor, those oppressed by capital, by ignorance, by misery! For you know in me the woman is always the child. I love only the victims and slaves, I have great difficulty not to hate the others.” Mme. d’Hericourt never spoke before the public without awakening passionate applause, for she always spoke with simplicity and to do good. It was easy to perceive that she forgot herself in her subject. She never writes a speech, and, according to the disposition of her audience, she decides the form in which her ideas shall be presented. She is excited by opposition, and then becomes sarcastic and severe. She said to me that being a vice president in a club of men, when some men, paid by the opposition, cried: “Death to the Communists! Death to Cuber!” she rose, and prayed the members of the club to pass a vote of censure against such savage cries. Murmurs rang through the hall. “Why,” said she, “have we Republican Jesuits among us? Do they think that this assembly is blind enough not to understand that to attack the free opinion of a sect is to attack the free opinion of all? Those who oppose me are hypocrites or imbecile, and hypocrisy and imbecility can have no hope among intelligent men. Citizens, I insist! Pass the vote!” And she developed her reasons and obtained the vote with acclamation. She knew that she ran the risk of being stabbed in going home, but she despises those who prefer life to duty. Her friends had the same fear, and they surrounded her for protection, when she went out.
I asked her if, being restored to calm and solitude, she felt no fear. “Fear?” said she, “there are two words that I never understood, fear and impossible!” She told me that having taken the charge of concealing Auguste Blanqui, who was searched for that he might be sent to the Haute cour de justice, as she took his arm to conduct him to her house, they had to pass through the midst of a troup of national guards. It appeared to her so funny to be among those who would have taken him to prison had they recognized him, and so good a joke to see those soldiers move gallantly for the lady and her poor outlaw to pass—they not knowing who he was—that she laughed aloud heartily in the very face of those astonished citizens. She saved another outlaw with the same sang froid, taking him in full daylight under the eagle eyes of soldiers and detectives.
When Napoleon was made President, Mme. d’Hericourt entered a hospital in order to finish her medical studies with practical obstetrics. She remained there one year, and, after a brilliant examination received her diploma of maitresse sage femme. She opened an office for the treatment of the diseases of women and children, and had great success. Her experience of pupil in a great hospital, and as physician, discovered to her all the bitter fruits of woman’s serfdom. Her heart is not one to be broken, but it can be put on fire by indignation, and she swore that she would shake laws and society, avenge and awake women. She understood that to attract attention, she should place herself on the ground which men preserve for themselves, saying that women have not such and such faculties. The Revue Philosophique of Paris under the direction of Verngigoud and liberal and enlightened men, accepted her as a contributor, and she gave a first article of philosophical criticism on the Philosophy of August Comte. There was no feeling in this article, it was only dialectical and sarcastic. “0, what a shame! A woman without feeling! A woman dialectician!” It occasioned great noise and great scandal, and Mme. d’Hericourt was put in the Index of the Positivistes. She laughed and rubbed her hands—the wicked and hard-hearted woman—for she had succeeded. There was another man, her compatriot, M. Proudhon, whom men did not dare attack, because he was a strong reasoner and cruelly sarcastic. Mme. d’Hericourt began resolutely to criticize his opinion of woman and her rights. She proved the equal of her adversary in sarcasm and dialectics. 0, what a monster! A woman reasoning! A woman so bold as to fight against a demigod! She was already in the Index of the Comtetists now she was in that of the Proudhonians. Was it not awful?
This article gave her a distinguished place among philosophers and reasoners, many enemies, but also a great number of friends. Now she proceeded to arouse and stir the churches. She wrote successively Le Christianisme et la Question des Femmes, and La Bible et la Question des Femmes. Then there was a disturbance. She was denounced to the Tribunal and received the charming name of female devil. There was no suit, but La Revue was suppressed. However Mme. d’Hericourt was happy. She had started the question anew—had startled men and awakened the public conscience. Now they would not get to sleep again.
In the same time when she thus labored in Paris, she had fourteen articles on woman’s rights, marriage and divorce successively, published in the Ragione of Turin. These articles analyzed in the Donna of Geneva, awakened the women of northern Italy. “You have put our country on fire,” wrote the editor of the Ragione. “Young men and women are for you. Thank you for your courage and talent!” And Mme. d’Hericourt received enthusiastic letters from Italy and France, and had her letters to Proudhon translated in the Reasoner of London. Then she thought that it was time to strike her last great blow, and she wrote La Femme Affranchie. In this book she was harsh and bitterly disdainful. She called ignorance, imbecility and bad faith and inconsistency by their proper names, and threw these names in the face of those who deserved them. You may think such passionate logic was not enjoyed by everybody, and she was not surprised to be called a devil, a monstruous woman to whom talent and high intellect had been given and warmed by the fires of hell, to overthrow all that is pure and just on the earth; while others called her a second Joanne d’Arc, a Garibaldi among women, a saint inspired to give the gospel of women. The book was startling. One would say it was inspired by genius coming from God, and others by a genius coming from hell. Mme. d’Hericourt laughed in secret. It little mattered to her to be called angel or devil. She knew humanity too well not to be certain that when this hate and anger were vented she would be forgotten, but the germ which she had sown would take root. She had not worked for her theory, but for the triumph of eternal justice.
It was in this feeling that she read all the letters coming from all parts of Europe, and from men having a name in science and philosophy. Her autograph was sought after which she sent without pride. Such demands were proof that she had faithfully fulfilled her duty. She thanked Proudhon that she had been able to prove herself not an unfaithful servant of justice and truth. Since “La Femme Affranchie,” Madame d’Hericourt has not published anything on the woman question. The cause is so well served everywhere now that she thinks she is no more needed. She would not shrink, certainly, before any new duty in that direction, but she waits for it to seek her-she will not seek it. She has been in America among us for five years, and will remain among us some years longer probably, unless she is wanted in France, where is her true field of usefulness. That is the opinion of Mme. d’Hericourt—but we much mistake if she does not find a place for her great talents in the woman movement of to-day in this country, which is yet destined to form a league with that in the various parts of Europe—making of it a World’s Woman’s League.
Chicago, May 1, 1869 La Femme
Source: The Agitator, 1, 8 (May 1, 1869) 1.