Etta Palm D’Aelders, "Discourse on the Injustice of the Laws in Favor of Men, at the Expense of Women" (30 December 1790)

Like many female activists, the Dutch woman Etta Palm D’Aelders did not explicitly articulate a program for equal political rights for women, though that would no doubt have been her ultimate aim. Instead she worked to bring about a change in morals and customs that would in turn foster a more egalitarian atmosphere for women. She gave this address at a meeting of the Confederation of the Friends of Truth, the first political club to admit women as full members.


Gentlemen, you have admitted my sex to this patriotic club The Friends of Truth [the club associated with the Cercle social]; this is a first step toward justice. The august representatives of this happy nation have just applauded the intrepid courage of the Amazons [armed women who hoped to join the army] in one of your departments and have permitted them to raise a corps for the defense of the nation. This is a first shock to the prejudices in which our existence has been enveloped; it is a violent stroke against the despotism that has proved the most difficult to uproot.

Do not be just by halves, Gentlemen; . . . justice must be the first virtue of free men, and justice demands that the laws be the same for all beings, like the air and the sun. And yet everywhere, the laws favor men at the expense of women, because everywhere power is in your hands. What! Will free men, an enlightened people living in a century of enlightenment and philosophy, will they consecrate what has been the abuse of power in a century of ignorance? . . .

The prejudices with which our sex has been surrounded—supported by unjust laws which only accord us a secondary existence in society and which often force us into the humiliating necessity of winning over the cantankerous and ferocious character of a man, who, by the greed of those close to us has become our master—those prejudices have changed what was for us the sweetest and the most saintly of duties, those of wife and mother, into a painful and terrible slavery. . . .

Well! What could be more unjust! Our life, our liberty, our fortune are no longer ours; leaving childhood, turned over to a despot whom often the heart finds repulsive, the most beautiful days of our life slip away in moans and tears, while our fortune becomes prey to fraud and debauchery. . . .

Oh! Gentlemen, if you wish us to be enthusiastic about the happy constitution that gives back men their rights, then begin by being just toward us. From now on we should be your voluntary companions and not your slaves. Let us merit your attachment! Do you believe that the desire for success is less becoming to us, that a good name is less dear to us than to you? And if devotion to study, if patriotic zeal, if virtue itself, which rests so often on love of glory, is as natural to us as to you, why do we not receive the same education and the same means to acquire them?

I will not speak, Gentlemen, of those iniquitous men who pretend that nothing can exempt us from an eternal subordination. Is this not an absurdity just like those told to the French on 15 July 1789: "Leave there your just demands; you are born for slavery; nothing can exempt you from eternally obeying an arbitrary will."

Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston/New York), 1996, 122–23.