Caryatids!, by Madeleine Vernet

[Translated by Jesse Cohn]


Magnificent arms raised over their heads,
Half-naked, bent-backed, faces furrowed in distress,
The caryatids, bearing weight, bearing contempt,
Seem to join their grace to an athlete’s strength.

For days, for months, for years, in ranks
They have stood there, fixed in that granite façade
Where the sculptor had molded their beautiful bodies,
The shapes of their breasts, the curves of their flanks.

There have they been passed by the years and days
While they bear up the weight of the tragedy
That pins them to the rock, as in antiquity
The conqueror’s chariot trailed slaves in chains, —

Slaves! — for such they are, in spite of the hand
Of the Artist who carved them in stone to be loved;
Those arms are oppressed by the weight of the roof
That has nailed them down upon this pillory of pain!…

And are these not pictures of you, woman? Yes,
As old as the world is the yoke that you know;
You, for whom yesterday’s slavery stays new,
You, who are pinned in a shameful arrest

In the dreary, implacable rock of the past! —
— In vain to sing you have the artists and poets
Made their lyres resound at countless feasts,
In vain by their love is your body caressed;

In vain they proclaim, in their songs, their mistress;
You are nevertheless still the slave who was carved
By a Master’s self-love: woman, whom he subdued
By drowning you slowly in false tenderness.

— Long centuries of error, of ignorant night,
The vacuous preachments of hypocrites,
Draining and dwindling you, blanching your face,
Have shaped you well to suit his might.

— The beauty of life within you has grown warped:
The sparkle of jewels that fascinates your eyes
Has robbed you of the serene splendor of skies
Where an insubordinate thought goes to soar.

Heavy dresses have encumbered your steps;
Corsets, iron fists that wound and oppress,
Have muted the harmony of your suppleness —
And bracelets of gold have shackled your arms…

— And because they told you that you were not made
To act and think; because they praised
The sweetness of your heart, the beauty of your flesh;
Because they heaped roses on your head; —

Because they caught you with sentiment,
Because they set a halo on your head,
And because you have been told your part is servitude,
Obedience in duty, patience in punishment;

You then bowed to the decrees of Man
That crushed you under their authority,
O woman! — O Caryatid of Humanity! —
That made you a luxury — or a beast of burden…!

But how suddenly do we hear freedom’s name,
How, in this keener air, the fever is undone,
O Woman! — and by the light of a new sun
The edifice that crushes you shows its age.

— “No, we would be neither masters nor slaves,”
So the peasants in revolt once declared; —
Well! Woman, in your turn, make your wishes heard,
Break your shackles, proclaim your rights.

Proud sisters have pointed the way to go;
Dare to follow their road of wrath and hate,
— For love cannot be where there are chains —
Forsake love, O sisters — until tomorrow!

And dare to follow Revolt where she’s headed,
Through clouds and thunder, through ruddy skies,
To conquer your share of clear air and light,
O Woman: lay your burden down, Caryatid!

— Madeleine Vernet (1905)
Translated by Jesse Cohn

Translator’s comments:

What strikes me as interesting about this piece is the way that a didactic poem – which, trained to read by modernists, we tend to see as heavy-handed, overdone, clumsy, crude, simplistic – actually incorporates a good deal of complexity. The overall idea absolutely can’t be missed: it’s meant to condemn sexism. Beyond that, though, it’s also putting its finger on some of the terrible ironies of life for women under patriarchy: you can be both overvalued and devalued at the same time, treated as a kind of living prop “supporting” the social edifice that weighs down on you (by dutifully reproducing it), and at the same time aestheticized to the point of absurdity, so that your life is made into a kind of work of art, a decorative “luxury,” to be regarded as superfluous and ornamental, socially prized (by men) but also fundamentally worthless (without them). It does most of this work of thinking through the contradictions of patriarchy using a single image, which is really pretty economical (not in the spirit of modernist terseness, but in an effort not to waste any of the effect). There are also ideas in play here about sexuality as a field for political struggle – the suggestion not only of a grève des ventres, a “birth strike,” as was not uncommon in the anarchist and syndicalist press, but also of a kind of emotional strike, a refusal to accept the false coin of male romantic sentiment, that presages things like Adrienne Rich’s notion of waging resistance against “compulsory heterosexuality” by ceasing to draw most of one’s emotional sustenance from relationships with men. Much as Proudhon, as a real patriarch, would have hated to admit it, this is a Proudhonian strategy, too.

Woman must work, by Madeleine Pelletier

Woman must Work
Dr. Madeleine Pelletier
Le Libertaire

The Woman’s Voice published the summary of an article from the Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) from Vienna on women’s labour.

It offers the old Socialist idea of the situation of women; an idea which is primarily antifeminist since, by advocating to keep women at home, it perpetuates their slavery. However, we can see some progress. The Austrian Socialist understands that by closing the factory gates to women, he turns her into an enemy of socialism, and he concludes in favour of women’s labour.

It is annoying to see that, in matters of women’s rights, it is the working class who proves most reactionary. Workers might want to free themselves from the bourgeoisie, but they intend to remain masters of their wives, maintain her in her economic dependency, in such a way that she is forced to submit to sexual slavery in order not to starve. It is in progressive groups that we can most often hear the old clichés on women’s intellectual inferiority, her “special nature” which would ban her from work, etc.

Women are weaker than men but this is of no concern for society. Far from protecting women’s weakness, as it hypocritically pretends, society only increases this hypocrisy, by taking away from the female sex the means to live.

Weak or strong, women are individuals who have the right to live as they wish.

During the massacre which just ended, we saw that only age-old prejudice banned women from some professions. By opening these jobs to them, we saw that they are able to do them. Their average ability did not equal those of men, but it does not matter. It was still far from null, since capitalists kept working women and even paid them wages as they had never had before.

We always remain focused on the issue of equality or inequality which, actually, does not have to be raised. Equality does not exist among men in intelligence or strength; there are strong people, weak people and average people in either domain.

Women will do what they can, and as long as the current society exists, working women must fight to make bosses pay her labour as dearly as possible.

Financial emancipation of women is not only justice, it is the real interest of men. If most men do not think so, it is because they are traditionalists. They want to live like their fathers and grandfathers. Revolutionary as far as society is concerned, they do not want revolution to enter their homes, but it must.

Housewives are the worst enemies of the revolution. Limited to their kitchens, they do not know anything about the outside world, and she has an instinctive fear of everything which threatens its peace and quiet. To have a man who brings back good weekly and monthly pays, but who doesn’t drink too much, who doesn’t hit her when the soup is not good, that is her ideal.

In politics, she is reactionary because she is attached to her “home”, just like the bourgeoisie is attached to their capitals. She hates strikes and hates the unions who prepare them; she hates the groups which incite her husband to forge what she considers wild dreams. To her, an “honest man” is a quiet man, who doesn’t go out, who likes to stay at home.

Superficial minds concluded from this very real psychology of the housewife that women are incorrigible reactionaries. Housewives only have the mentality of their state. She is like the artisan of the old days who, confined at home where they worked on their own, had no idea about social change.

It is the factory which made Socialists and Anarchists. Factories and workshops will do to women what they did to men. And we will then see that women don’t lag behind. The evolution which we indicate has already started actually. The industrialisation of women will bring about the revolution.

Feminism and the Working Class, by Madeleine Pelletier

Feminism and the working class
Madeleine Pelletier
July 1912
La Suffragiste

The working-class will be last to come round to feminism. It is natural: ignorant people only respect brute force and it is a waste of time to try to interest them by showing them female genius crushes by man’s rule.

If I am a Socialist, it is because I passionately love justice. I cannot stand that, as soon as they are born, we draw distinctions between individuals, raising one to lead, and the other to obey. I am in favour of everything: enlightenment, power, well-being being accessible to everyone and of the most worthy being given the highest rank.

But liking the working class as it currently is, no! A thousand times no!

I declare these principles to the readers of “La Suffragiste” because I have just read an article by Pouget1 which I am sure will they won’t like any more than I did. Comrade Pouget, one of the leaders of the CGT, writes about the milliners’ union which was just created. Naturally, he happy about this union victory, but he fears for the future. Female unions, he observes, do not last, they are a short-lived flash in the pan. They are formed around some industrial event or other: a strike, some obviously unfair treatment which managed at some point to raise some indignation. Then, straightaway, they fall. At first, it is the main part of the troops which stops showing up, then it is the militants themselves, discouraged by the absence of members.

Why is that? Pouget observes: it is because of housework. Once the working day over, the male worker is free, while the female worker is not: she must on top of everything do her housewqork, and therefore she has no time to attend union meetings. However, Mr. Pouget would like her to attend union meetings. It is through unions that male workers have gained wages which, although low, allow them to live. If female workers do not earn enough to live independently, it is because they are not organised. So what can we do?

I assure you I would have found the answer straightaway. I would have told male workers: my dear comrades, when you are alone to work to fund your household, it is fair that your wife who does not work takes care of the housework. But when she works all day just like you do, it is your strict duty to help her. She is not your servant, but your equal, just like you, she needs to inform herself, get to know the causes of her poverty, learn to organise to defend herself against the ruling class. She must therefore have time to do so, and therefore you need to do your share of household chores.

That is how I would have solved the problem, and I assure you I take no glory in such a discovery: to reach it, no need for a transcendental intellect, a simple sense of justice is enough.

However, such a simple solution is not mentioned by Mr. Pouget. You don’t say, tell male workers to help their wives with housework, but that would be a crime of lèse-masculinité! And for women to be able to attend union meetings, he demands, guess what… the five-and-a-half-day week. I am not against this reform, mind you. And day and a half of rest a week, Saturday afternoons and Sundays off, is not too much for people who work 10 or even 12 hours a day. But waiting for this fair reform to be granted, Mr. Pouget should have given male workers the advice I indirectly give them.

On top of this, a reduced working week would not be enough to get the result for which Mr. Pouget wishes that is, female union attendance. In half a day, you can wash your floor, do the dishes, clean, you still have the mending of socks, cooking which needs to be done every day; female workers would benefit from the extra half a day, but it won’t give them enough free time to become militants.

My advice, if it was put into effect, would allow them to become militants, since on top of the material reduction of work, women would understand that they are also human beings and social individuals. If they saw their husbands do their share of housework, they would see him no longer as a master, but as an equal. They would then, understanding that they are sincerely invited, do the work of militants of their class. Then, female unions would bloom and we would see, among the mass of female workers, energetic militants appear who would be able to rouse their comrades.

The male worker who denounces injustice within society wants to keep acting unjustly within his own family. Slave to his boss, he wishes to be a master to his wife. Fortunately, the fairness of things punishes him. Women, in their ignorance, soon desert the union which they joined with enthusiasm the day before. And, workers or housewives, they remain, although their hostility is unvoiced, the worst adversaries of the workers’ movement. They are the real strike-breakers. They do more with discouraging words to their husband on strike than socially reactionary ministers can do with the guns of their regiments.

It is only fair, the proletariat only gets the women it deserves.

War and Feminism, Madeleine Pelletier

War and Feminism
Madeleine pelletier
La Suffragiste

Our small “Suffragist” was not published during the war.

A wind of madness blew over Europe; men believed they had nothing left better to do than to kill each other.
Cheap authors used, in order to feed hatred, their talents which did not increase for it; scientists worked to discover the product which would kill most assuredly and quickly the largest number of people possible. We achieved to be able to kill you from a three hour train journey away.

What chances did the cry for justice of the individual oppressed by society in the name of a stupid sex prejudice have to be heard?

But wars have proved many calculations wrong, and, at this game, the ruling classes have not won. The proletariat was becoming unruly; throughout Europe, its organisations were growing and the bourgeoisie, worried by nature, had even greater fear than there was danger for them. During a couple of years, war was prepared, and a futile pretence, when compared to its consequences, triggered the cataclysm. The proletariats which had sworn to stand united let themselves be led once more to carnage by their masters. French people shouted “A Berlin!” Germans shouted “Nach Paris!” Guillaume invoked his old God; our priests held mass on the front line and international capitalism salivated, sure that the good old days would come back, with its cheap labour, and workers back on the deserted pews of the Church.

Workers’ demands are now more demanding than ever. The people was shouting, but it was afraid of battle; the bourgeoisie taught it to kill. War overthrew kings, it unleashes social revolution everywhere and obtains for women both fundamental demands of our “Suffragist”: the right to vote and the right to work.

War needed women. In days of old, wars only took from the nation a tiny part of its producers; the need for a labour fore was hardly felt, therefore, wives could use their time tearing sheets to make bandages. This time, whole nations had to be enrolled, and since, even to kill, people must live, eat, be dressed, etc., production demanded from women the contingents it no longer had.

It is certainly with a heavy heart that rulers agreed to it; on this issue, our self-proclaimed avant-garde nation was very inferior to the hated Germany. About driving tramways, people have recycled the old objections of my youth to female medicine students: women have no self-control, they will have accidents, and so on.
Women gave the tempo: the long “Montrouge-Gare de l’Est”, the huge “Malkoff-Les Halles” obeyed the moves of the frail female tramway drivers, graceful hands seized the heavy hands of the signal box and the freeing hook of the famous breakdown.

Those who were believed to be only good to mend rags have forged iron; the turned the heavy bombshells; fearless, they combined picric acid to turn it into the terrible melinite, and passers-by could see them walk the street all in yellow.

Less demanding jobs which men had kept to themselves, not wanting to share the money given by independence, had to be offered to women because of the circumstances. We saw some graceful post-women with their red-brim caps, female gas controllers, delivery girls in the right uniform in department stores. In a hostile society, women conquered their place bit by bit; the female worker succeeded to the housewife and the courtesan.

There are however a couple of dark spots on this encouraging picture. The courtesan is too old not to reappear from time to time under the worker, some hospitals had the appearance of brothels; civil servants spent their work time flirting and powdering themselves, to the great joy of anti-feminists. The female workers, suddenly astonished by fantastic wages, not really knowing what to do with this money which was suddenly available to them, like in fairy tales, spent it any old way: expensive shoes, perfume, silk tights, the old feminine vanity; men would have spent it on gambling or cheap wine. Only the elites are worthy of freedom; the mass, who only knows its instincts, always starts with excesses; in the long run, however, it all balances out. Therefore, we must not focus on these details, as bad as they can seem: only the larger picture matters.

The feminist conclusion of this war, is that women can accomplish in a satisfactory manner any intellectual or manual work. She only has to be freed: she will be, because people will be forced to free her.

The Female Ego, Eugénie Casteu

The Female Ego

Eugénie Casteu

La Revue Anarchiste


For a while now I have been meaning, comrade who signs “A Rebel Woman”, to point out the tendency of your articles to exalt the sacrifice of women in favour of men. If such is your revolt, I think it is a pretty dangerous one for our female comrades.

I quote, from n°13 of the Revue:

“The role of the woman, a difficult and magnificent role, is not only to share, through understanding, the intellectual life of man; but, through her constant and discreet love, to give him courage, to rekindle, if necessary, his self-confidence and fertile enthusiasm. When we truly love, everything becomes easy, the greatest sacrifices are accepted with joy.”

Thank you very much, we just had some: a Catholic, or Protestant, or “secular” preacher does not speak differently. In short, women must be the intellectual servants, the reflections of their men. You tell us about the “role of the woman”. I don’t know of any other than to be herself. A “role”, exterior to her individual longings, can only bring her, like for men, disappointment.

What! You then set as an example “Carlyle’s wife who, still young and admired, went to bury herself with him in a harsh and hostile retreat, accepting the hardest work, so that he, in necessary solitude, could accomplish his writer’s work.”

But such a woman is a monster, in my opinion; a person who abolishes herself, who renounces to herself, who mutilates herself for someone else, who is already stronger than she is!

You will object that Carlyle was a brain who… a brain whom… well, a bloke, socially more useful than his boring and overly devoted partner maybe. And then what?

Let’s suppose that it happened, happens, the other way round, that a woman is a fascinating, superior as they say, guy, superior especially to her man… That is where I wonder: in your opinion, should the man erase himself like Carlyle’s wife did, devote himself body and soul to the work of his partner?

If you tell me “no”, the matter is settled: you therefore admit the sacrifice of ordinary women to superior men, but not that of ordinary men to superior women; that you are among the supporters of men, the masculinists.

Or you tell me: “yes, I accept that an ordinary man sacrifices himself to ensure the cerebral production of his superior partner”, and then, your case is even worse, my lovely comrade, who call yourself a rebel and an anarchist… It means you accept that the weaker and poorer person sacrifices themselves to the person whom nature gave more! That you find fair the voluntary sacrifice of the weak towards the strong.

And I know nothing as pernicious as such an idea, not in the brain of the strong (where it doesn’t matter), but in the brains of the weak who want to give themselves to be eaten alive by the strong they love!
When I find on my way – and I found too many of them – some “Carlyle’s wife”, I hate them and I denounce them, I tell my younger female comrades: “look at this goose admiring her swan: do you know anything more sickening?”
It saddens me and outrages me to see a woman – who was not, obviously, from the start, a very strong personality – voluntarily resorb herself, fade away with pleasure in the overbearing, monopolising personality of so-called genius she “loves”.

This “loved one”, as great as they might seem to you, o dear comrade, appears to me like a murderer, of the same kind as the car-driver who runs over, at night or in speed, a pedestrian: he crushed a personality; maybe she was tiny, but he reduced her to mush.

And you would give those poor women the pride of sacrifice, the pride of nothingness, the pride of death?
No, no, and no! I shout at them: “Are you not ashamed of kneeling in front of this great man and his works? Instead of striving to understand him, try to protect yourself from his rays, to remain yourself; and if your ambition is to be his living reflection, let me tell you, o you superior caste of slaves, that I despise you!”

If we favour the absorption of the weak by the strong, by the regeneration of the old Salomon by his young girls (be it for blood or intellect), then we are aristocratic, but not anarchists. We do not want the tyranny of the weak either, of course: we want for each their share of the sun, without oppressors nor oppressed.

I know it, a strong personality has a tendency to suck energy from the meek, annex them, and it might be the most poisonous, the best hidden, the hardest to detect source of authority! But to glorify in words this sadly natural phenomenon, dangerous to the lives of both individuals and peoples, no! No deification of individual imperialism!

You tell us that poetry sang of the voluntary sacrifice of women?

Of course, poetry also sang kings, gods, wars… It often sang gestures accepted as custom, this old cow true to her stable, to the fenced off pastures, to the common watering hole!

Maybe one day it will sing the beauty of the novel gesture, the gesture which breaks the chains, which breaks ancestral habits of resignation and more or less enthusiastic servitude?…

As for me, I prefer, rather than the distinguished “Carlyle’s wives”, the plebeian women full of instinct, who tell their dear great man to go to hell and break away from his orbit. “Maybe to go to the cinema?” you’ll say bitterly.

Maybe; and if this agrees on that night with their nature, in reaction against the ethereal splendours of the great loved one? Isn’t that a sweet misery!

I know full well that not every revolt is an ascension; but I prefer a donkey who rebels than a dog who follows. How smart and how devoted is the dog, isn’t he? Well, I don’t love the slaves of love, even the very refined ones.

My dear young comrades, I beg you, be yourselves, don’t immolate yourselves on the altars of male genius, do not be trusting dogs, or “Carlyle’s wives”! Let him be free, and remain free yourself!