On the Male and Female Human-Being – Letter to P.J. Proudhon

Joseph Déjacque

What is man? nothing – What is woman? nothing – What is the human being? – EVERYTHING

From the depths of Louisiana, where the ebb and flow of exile deported me, I read in a United States journal, Revue de l’Ouest, a fragment of the correspondence between you, P.J. Proudhon, and a woman d’Héricourt.

The few words of Madam d’Hericourt[1] quoted in that paper made me fear the female antagonist does not have the strength – polemically speaking – to struggle with her brutal and male adversary.

I know nothing of Madam d’Hericourt, nor of her writings, if she writes, nor of her position in the world, nor of her person. But to argue well with women, as to argue well with men, spirit is not enough; one must have seen much and reflected much. He should, I believe, have felt his personal passions run into all corners of society; from the caverns of misery to the peaks of fortune; from the silvery summits from which the avalanche of happy vice is shaken in a compact mass, to the bottom of the ravines where sickly debauchery rolls. Then logic, that spark of truth, could spring forth from this human stone thus polished by impact after impact.

I should like to see the question of the emancipation of woman dealt with by a woman who has loved a lot, and loved variedly, and who, by her past life, belonged to the aristocracy and the proletariat, especially to the proletariat: for the woman of the garret is more capable of penetrating by sight and thought into the heart of the formal, or secret, luxurious life of the great lady than a lady of the lounge is able to envisage the life of deprivation, visible or hidden, of the daughter of the people.

However, in the absence of this other Magdalene spreading the fertile tears of her heart at the feet of crucified Humanity and the striving of her soul for a better world; in the absence of this voice of civilised repentance, a believer in Harmony, an anarchic daughter; in the absence of this woman loftily and openly repudiating all the prejudices of sex and race, of law and customs, that still bind us to the previous world; well! I, a human being of the male sex, I will try to discuss with and against you, Aliboron-Proudhon[2], this question of the emancipation of woman which is none other than the question of the emancipation of human beings of both sexes.

Is it really possible, famed publicist, that under your lion’s hide there is so much nonsense?[3]

You who have such powerful revolutionary heartbeats for everything in our societies concerning the labour of the arm and the stomach, you have no less fiery outbursts, but of a complete reactionary stupidity, for everything related to the labour of the heart, the labour of feeling. Your vigorous and uncompromising logic in matters of industrial production and consumption is no more than a frail reed without strength in matters of moral production and consumption. Your virile intellect, complete for everything that relates to man is as though castrated when it comes to woman. Hermaphrodite brain, your thought has the monstrousness of two sexes within the same cranium, the enlightened-sex and the benighted-sex, and twists and turns upon itself in vain without being able to bring forth social truth.

A masculine Joan of Arc who, it is said, has kept your virginity intact for forty years, the pickling of love has ulcerated your heart; rancorous jealousies seep out; you cry out “War on women!” like the Maid of Orleans cried: “War on the English!” – The English burned her alive … Women have made you a husband, O saintly man, long a virgin and still a martyr![4]

Hold on, father Proudhon, would you like me to tell you: when you speak of women, you remind me of a schoolboy who talks very loudly and very strongly, willy-nilly, and with impertinence to give himself airs of knowing them and who, like his adolescent listeners, does not have the slightest clue.

After forty years profaning your flesh in solitude, from wet-dream to wet-dream, you have arrived at publicly profaning your intelligence, elaborating its impurities and besmirching woman.

Is this then, Proudhon-Narcissus, what you call manly and honest civility?

I quote your words:

“No, Madame, you know nothing of your sex; you do not know the first thing about the issue that you and your honourable fellow league members agitate about with so much noise and so little success. And if you do not understand this question: if, in the eight pages of replies that you have made to my letter there are forty fallacies, that is as I told you, precisely because of your sexual infirmity. I mean by this term, whose exactness is perhaps not beyond reproach, the quality of your understanding which allows you to grasp the relationship between things only so far as we men place it at your fingertips. There is in you, in the brain as well as in the belly, a certain organ incapable by itself of overcoming its native inertia and which the male mind alone is capable of making function, and even then it does not always succeed. Such, madam, is the outcome of my direct and positive observations; I give it to your obstetrical sagacity and leave you to calculate its incalculable consequences for your thesis.”[5]

But – old boar who is merely a pig – if it is true, as you say, that woman cannot give birth from the brain as from the belly without the assistance of man – and this is true – it is equally true – the thing is reciprocal – that man cannot produce from the flesh or from the intellect without the assistance of woman. This is logic and good logic master Madelon-Proudhon, that a student, who has always also been a disobedient subject, may well snatch from your own hands and throw back in your face.[6]

The emancipation or non-emancipation of woman, the emancipation or the non-emancipation of man: what is there to say? Can there – naturally – be rights for the one that are not rights for the other? Is the human being not the human being in the plural as in the singular, the feminine as in the masculine? Is it not to change nature to sunder the sexes? And the drops of rain falling from the cloud any less raindrops whether these droplets fall through the air in smaller or larger numbers, whether they are one size or another, this male configuration or that female configuration?

To place the question of the emancipation of woman in line with the question of the emancipation of the proletarian, this man-woman, or, to put it differently, this human-slave – flesh for the harem or flesh for the factory – this is understandable, and it is revolutionary; but to put it opposite and below that of man-privilege, oh! then, from the point of view of social progress, it is meaningless, it is reactionary. To avoid all ambiguity, it is the emancipation of the human being that should be spoken of. In these terms the question is complete; to pose it thus is to solve it: the human being, in its every day rotations, gravitates from revolution to revolution towards its ideal of perfectibility, Liberty.

But man and woman thereby walking with the same step and the same heart, united and fortified by love, towards their natural destiny, the anarchic-community; but all despotism annihilated, all social inequalities levelled; but man and woman thereby entering – arm in arm and face to face – into this social garden of Harmony: but this group of human-beings, dream of happiness achieved, a lively picture of the future; but all these egalitarian murmurings and all these egalitarian radiances jar in your ears and make you blink. Your understanding tormented by petty vanities makes you see the man-statue erected upon woman-pedestal for posterity, as in previous ages the man-patriarch stood over the woman-servant.

Whipper of woman, serf of the absolute man, writer Proudhon-Haynau, who has as a knout the word, like the Croatian executioner, you seem to enjoy all the lubricious lecheries of lust in stripping your beautiful victims of torture on paper and flagellating them with your invectives.[7] Moderate [juste-milieu[8]] anarchist, a liberal and not a LIBERTARIAN, you want free trade for cotton and candles and you advocate protectionist systems for man against woman in the circulation of human passions; you cry out against the high barons of capital and you wish to rebuild the high barony of the male upon the female vassal; bespectacled logician, you see man through the lens which magnifies objects and woman through the one that diminishes them; myopic thinker, you can only perceive what is poking you in the eye in the present or in the past and can discover nothing of what is elevated and distant, what anticipates the future: you are a cripple!

Woman, know this, is the mover of man just as man is the mover of woman. There is not an idea in your deformed brain, as in the brains of other men, that has not been fertilised by woman; not an action of your arm nor of your intellect that has not had as its objective attracting the attention of a woman, of pleasing her, even those that seem the most contradictory, even your insults. Everything beautiful that man has made, everything great that man has produced, all the masterpieces of art and industry, the discoveries of science, the titanic ascents into the unknown, all the achievements and all the aspirations of the male genius are attributable to woman who imposes them on him, like the queen of the tournament on a knight in exchange for a favour or a sweet smile. All of the heroism of the male, all his physical and moral worth comes from this love. Without woman, he would still be crawling on his belly or on all fours, he would still be grazing weeds or roots; he would have the same intelligence as the ox, as the beast; he is something higher because woman told him: Be it! It is her will that created him, what he is today, and it is to satisfy the sublime demands of the feminine soul that he has attempted to accomplish the most sublime things!

This is what woman has made of man; let us now see what man has made of woman.

Alas! to please her lord and master she did not need a great expenditure of intellectual and moral strength. Provided that she mimics the monkey in her expressions and mannerisms; that she should fasten beads or trinkets to neck and ears; that she should dress in ridiculous rags and pad her hips like a mother Gigogne or a Hottentot Venus with the aid of crinoline or wicker; provided she could hold a fan or handle the sieve;[9] that she devotes herself to tinkling on a piano or boiling the pot; that is all that her sultan asked of her, all that was needed to put the male soul into jubilation, the alpha and omega of the desires and aspirations of man. That done, woman conquered the handkerchief.[10]

She who, finding such a role and such a success as shameful, wished to show good taste and grace, to join merit to beauty, to provide evidence of her heart and intelligence, was pitilessly stoned by the multitude of Proudhons past and present, pursued by the name blue-stocking[11] or some other imbecilic sneer and forced to withdraw into herself. For this mob of heartless and brainless men, she had sinned by having too much heart and too much intelligence: they stoned her; and very rarely has she met with the man-type who, taking her by the hand, said to her: woman, arise, you are worthy of love and worthy of Liberty.

No, what man, that is to say he which usurps that name, needs is not a woman in all her physical and moral beauty, a woman of elegant and artistic form, with a haloed face of grace and love, with an active and tender heart, keen thought, with the soul of a poetic and perfect humanitarian; no, what this simpleton gawker at funfairs needs is a waxwork in rouge and feathers; what this bestial gastronome, in ecstasy before the stalls of the butchers, needs, I tell you, is a haunch of veal decorated with lace! So much so that, satisfied by the man whom she found so moronic, indifferent to the one in whom she searched in vain for the organ of sentiment, woman – it is history that tells us this, I want to believe it is a fable, a tale, a Bible – woman – oh! cover yourselves, chaste eyes and chaste thoughts – woman have gone from biped to quadruped... An ass for an ass, it was natural, after all, that she let herself be seduced by the bigger animal. Then finally, as nature had endowed her with moral faculties too robust to be broken by fasting, she turned away from Humanity and sought in the temples of superstition, in religious aberrations of the mind and the heart, nourishment for the passionate aspirations of her soul. In the absence of the man she has dreamt of, she has given her feelings of love to an imaginary god and, for feelings, the priest has replaced the ass![12]

Ah! If there are so many abject female creatures in the world and so few women, men whom should we blame? Dandin-Proudhon, what are you complaining about?[13] You wanted it…

And yet you, you personally, I acknowledge, have delivered formidable blows in the service of the Revolution. You have cut deeply to the core of the age-old trunk of property and sent splinters flying into the distance; you have stripped the thing of its bark and you have exposed it in its nakedness to the eyes of the proletarians; on your way, you have snapped and toppled, like so many dried branches or dead leaves, the powerless authoritarian rebuttals, the revamped Greek theories of the constitutional socialists, your own included; you have brought with you, in a breakneck race through the twists and turns of the future, the whole pack of moral and physical appetites. You have blazed a trail, you have made others do likewise; you are weary, you want to rest; but the voice of logic is there to oblige you to pursue your revolutionary deductions, to march forward, always onwards, disdainful of the fateful warning, for fear of feeling the fangs of those who have legs rip into you.

Be frankly, fully anarchist and not one quarter anarchist, one eighth anarchist, one sixteenth anarchist, as one is a quarter, an eighth, one sixteenth partner in trade. Press on to the abolition of contract, the abolition not only of the sword and of capital, but of property and authority in every form. Arrive at the anarchic-community, that is to say, the social state where everyone would be free to produce and to consume at will and according to his fancy, without controlling anybody or being controlled by anyone else; where the balance between production and consumption would naturally be established, not by preventive and arbitrary constraint by the hands of others but through the free circulation of energies and needs of each. The human tide has no use for your dykes; let the free waves be: do they not find their level every day? Do I need, for example, to have a sun for myself, an atmosphere for myself, a river for myself, a forest for myself, all the houses and all the streets in a town for myself? Do I have the right to make myself the exclusive owner, the proprietor, and to deprive others of them, when I do not need them? And if I do not have this right, do I have any more right to wish, as in the system of contracts, to measure for each one – according to his accidental forces of production – what ought to belong to him from all these things? How many rays of sunlight, cubic metres of air or water, or square metres of forest path he can consume? How many houses or parts of houses he shall have the right to occupy; the number of streets or paving stones in the street where he will be allowed to set foot and the number of streets or paving stones where he will be forbidden to walk? – Will I, with or without contract, consume more of things than my nature or temperament requires? Can I individually absorb all the rays of the sun, all the air in the atmosphere, all the water in the river? Can I then take over and burden my person with all the shade of the forest, all the streets of the town, all the paving stones in the street, all the houses in the town and all the rooms of the house? And is it not the same for all that is for human consumption, whether it be a raw material like air or sunshine, or a finished product, like the street or the house? What then is the good of a contract which can add nothing to my freedom and which may infringe and which would certainly infringe upon it?

And now, as far as production is concerned, is the active principle that is inside me more developed because it has been oppressed, that it has had shackles imposed upon it? It would be absurd to maintain such an assertion. The man called free in current societies, the proletarian, produces far better and much more than the man called negro, the slave. How would it be if he were really and universally free: production would be multiplied a hundredfold. – And the lazy, you will say? The lazy are an expression of our abnormal societies, that is to say that idleness being honoured and labour despised, it is not surprising that men tire of toil that brings them only bitter fruits. But in the state of an anarchic-community with the sciences as they have been developed in our day there could be nothing similar. There would be, as today, beings who are slower to produce than others but as a consequence beings slower to consume, beings quicker than others to produce therefore quicker to consume: the equation is natural. Do you need proof? Take any hundred workers at random and you will see that the greatest consumers amongst them are also the greatest producers. – How can we imagine that the human being, whose organism is composed of so many precious tools and the use of which produces in him a multitude of pleasures, tools of the arms, tools of the heart, tools of the intellect, how can we imagine that he would voluntarily let them be consumed by rust? What! In the state of free nature and of industrial and scientific marvels, in the state of anarchic exuberance in which everything would remind him of activity and every activity of life. What! The human-being can only seek happiness in an imbecilic inactivity? Come on! The contrary is the only possibility.

On this ground of true anarchy, of absolute freedom, there would undoubtedly be as much diversity between beings as there would be people in society, diversity of age, sex, aptitudes: equality is not uniformity. And this diversity in all beings and at all times is precisely what renders all government, constitutional or contractual, impossible. How can we commit ourselves for a year, for a day, for an hour when in an hour, a day, a year we might think differently than when we committed ourselves? – With radical anarchy, there would therefore be women as there would be men of greater or lesser relative worth; there would be children as there would be old people; but all would be indiscriminately none the less human beings and would also be equally and absolutely free to move in the circle of their natural attractions, free to consume and to produce as they see fit, without any paternal, marital or governmental authority, without any legal or contractive[14] regulations to hinder them.

Society thus understood – and you must understand it so, you, anarchist, who boasts of being logical – what do you have to say now about the sexual infirmity of either the female or male human being?

Listen, master Proudhon, do not speak about woman, or, before speaking, study her: go to school. Do not call yourself an anarchist or be an anarchist all the way. Speak to us, if you wish, of the unknown and the known, of God who is evil, of Property which is theft. But when you speak to us about man, do not make him an autocratic divinity, for I will answer you: man is evil! – Do not attribute to him an intellectual capital which only belongs to him by right of conquest, by commerce in love, an usurious wealth which comes to him entirely from woman and which is the product of her own soul, and do not dress in clothes stripped from others, for then I will answer you: property is theft!

On the contrary, raise your voice against this exploitation of woman by man. Tell the world, with that vigour of argument that has made you an athletic agitator, tell it that man can only pull the Revolution out of the mud, drag it from its muddy and bloody rut, with the assistance of woman; that alone he is powerless; that he needs the support of woman’s heart and head; that on the path of social Progress they must both walk together, side by side and hand in hand; that man can only reach the goal, overcoming the exertions of the journey, only if he has for support and for strength the glances and caresses of women. Tell man and tell woman that their destinies are to bond and to better understand each other; that they have one and the same name, as they are one and the same being, the human being; that they are, by turns and at the same time, one the right arm and the other the left arm, and that, in human identity, their hearts could form only one heart and their thoughts a single bundle of thoughts. Tell them again that on this condition alone will they be able to shine upon each other, pierce in their luminous march the shadows that separate the present from the future, the civilised society from the harmonic society. Finally tell them that the human being – in its relative proportions and manifestations – the human being is like the glow-worm: it shines only by love and for love!

Say it – Be stronger than your weaknesses, more generous than your resentments: proclaim liberty, equality, fraternity, the indivisibility of the human being. Say it: it is public salvation. Declare Humanity in danger: summon in mass men and women to throw invading prejudices outside of social boundaries: awaken a Second and Third of September against this masculine high nobility, this aristocracy of sex that would rivet us to the old regime, Say it: you must! Say it with passion, with genius, cast it in bronze, make it thunder… and you will be worthy of others and of yourself.

New Orleans,

May 1857

End Notes

[1] Jeanne-Maries Poinsard (1809-1875), known as Jenny d'Hericourt, was a feminist activist, writer, and a physician-midwife. An enthusiastic supporter of Étienne Cabet, the French utopian socialist, she – like Proudhon and Déjacque – took part in the Revolution of 1848. (Translator)

[2] Aliboron is the nickname of the donkey from La Fontaine’s Les Voleurs et l’âne [The Thieves and the Ass] (see book I, fable 13, where it talks about the “ass Aliboron”). More generally, being pretentious and stupid. (Translator)

[3] Déjacque once again echoes La Fontaine (L’Âne vêtu de la peau du lion [The Ass dressed in the skin of the lion], book V, fable 21). (Translator)

[4] Proudhon was nearly 41 years old when he married Euphrasie Piégard (1822-1900) in December 1849. He had made no secret of his unattractiveness to things of the flesh, which he considered both physically and morally disgusting. This did not stop him fathering four daughters, two of whom did not survive childhood. (Translator)

[5] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “Lettre à Madame J. d’Héricourt”, La Revue philosophique et religieuse (Paris: Bureaux de le Revue, 1856), vol. VI (January 1857), 164–5. (Translator)

[6] A reference to Proudhon’s original letter in reply to d’Héricourt: “When I was three years and a half old, my mother, to get rid of me, sent me to a school-mistress of the neighbourhood, an excellent woman, called Madelon. One day Madelon threatened to whip me for some piece of mischief. It made me furious. I snatched her switch from her hand, and flung it in her face. I was always a disobedient subject.” (“Lettre à Madame J. d’Héricourt”, 168)

[7] Julius Jacob von Heynau (1786-1853) was an Austrian general infamous for his extreme violence against the Italian and Hungarian minorities of the Empire in 1848 and 1849, which earned him the nickname “the hyena of Brescia.” (Translator)

[8] The July monarchy regime was, in theory, based on the idea of the “middle ground” (juste-milieu), which was meant to distance it from political extremes (whether popular or royal). Opposition journalists and cartoonists liked to mock this slogan. Proudhon had previously said this about the juste-milieu: “The golden mean [juste-milieu], known to philosophers under the name eclecticism, comes from this selfish and lazy mindset, which prefers to frank solutions impossible compromises; which accepts religion, but made at its convenience; which wants philosophy, but on condition; which supports monarchy, but accommodating, democracy, but submissive; which proclaims freedom of commerce, but covering itself in protections; which would arrange for the gratuity of circulation and credit, but stipulating interest for its capital; which, finally, makes wisdom consist of striking the right balance, as far as possible, between authority and liberty, the status quo and progress, the private interest and the general interest; without ever understanding that authority inevitably engenders liberty, that philosophy is the inevitable product of religion, that monarchy is continually transformed into democracy, and, consequently, that the last term of progress is that in which, by the succession of reforms, the individual interest is identical to the general interest, and freedom synonymous with order.” (Les Confessions d'un révolutionnaire [Paris: Garnier, 1851], 25-6). (Translator)

[9] Crinoline refers to large and bulky skirt, comprising of rigid frames often made of wicker; mother Gigogne is a puppet-theater character, a strong woman from out of whose her skirts many children appear; The Hottentot Venus refers to Sawtche (c.1770s-1815), renamed Saartjie Baartman by her masters, a black slave woman from southern Africa who became a fairground attraction in freak shows in Europe due to the large size of her hips and buttocks. (Translator)

[10] Conquer the handkerchief refers to obtaining the favours of master (referencing an Ottoman custom according to which the Sultan threw a handkerchief to the women of the harem whom he desires). (Translator)

[11] Blue-stocking (bas-bleu) was a derogatory term used against women considered to be pedantic and ridiculous, especially in the domain of literature. (Translator)

[12] Déjacque here refers again to two stereotypes which were common in anti-clerical writings of the time, namely that they were animal-lovers and controlled by priests. (Translator)

[13] George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (Georges Dandin or the Confounded Husband) is a comedy by Molière (1668) which depicts a rich peasant, eager to join the nobility, who is constantly ridiculed by his acquaintances and especially by his upper class wife who makes him cuckold. (Translator)

[14] A neologism created by Déjacque from the word “contract.” (Translator)