From the middle of the 19th century on, European women settled in colonial empires in Asia and Africa in greater numbers. Some, even many, attempted to effect changes for the good of colonized women. One example of this in French Algeria was Hubertine Auclert, (1848-1914), the radical Parisian feminist writer and women’s suffrage activist. Auclert lived in Algeria from 1888 to 1892 and published an important work in 1900 on Algerian women, Les femmes arabes (Arab Women). In addition, she devoted numerous articles to the cause of Algerian women’s emancipation through modern education, access to work, and transformations in a colonial legal system that disenfranchised the colonized, reducing many to misery. Traditional female crafts—for examples, pottery, embroidery, textile weaving, and carpet production—had suffered greatly in Algeria due to competition from imported, machine-made products. Since they lost their status as artisans and producers, women also lost economic independence in their own society. In addition, Auclert critiqued the French colonial regime in Algeria for refusing to establish sufficient schools for girls and even closing some academic institutions to replace them with native handicraft workshops. On the 28th of May 1892, Auclert published an article in La petite Republique Française entitled “Women’s Work and Handicraft Production.”

In another newspaper, Le Radical, Auclert again wrote of the urgent need for girls’ education in an article entitled “Women and Algeria,” published on November 22, 1896.

Source: Clancy-Smith, Julia. “A Woman Without Her Distaff: Gender, Work, and Handicraft Production in Colonial North Africa.” In A Social History of Women and the Family in the Middle East. Edited by Margaret Meriwether and Judith Tucker. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999. Documents from the Bibliotheque de la Ville de Paris, Fonds Bougle, Manuscrits Hubertine Auclert, “La Presse et le Feminisme, 1880-1914.”


[From “Women’s Work and Handicraft Production”]

In Algiers after Madame Luce was forced to transform her school [for native girls] into a workshop [by the French colonial regime], she taught young Algerian girls how to embroider with creative motifs, some simple, others sculpted like lace, and how to achieve stitchery whose evenness makes it look as if it were machine made. . . . Winter tourists come and purchase Algerian women’s handicrafts; English and American exhibitions like to show them to their visitors. Some pieces of embroidery were bought for the Chicago Exposition [then being organized for the next year, 1893]. However, the French in Algeria, and even some Algerians themselves, appear to be unaware of the existence of this artistic embroidery whose inspiration is Arab. Clearly the French colonial administration does little to promote feminine handicrafts. For example, when in 1878, Madame Ben-Aben, the grand-daughter of Madame Luce and her administrative successor at the women’s craft school asked permission to exhibit her pupils’ best pieces, colonial authorities promised her a place in the Algerian section of the Paris Exposition. However, when she arrived in Paris with the very finest handicraft pieces produced by two young Algerian Muslim girls, she not accorded any exhibition space. . . . We would not have to denounce the colonial administration in French Algeria—which is responsible for ruining native women’s crafts because of its policies—if women, who are better able to appreciate beautiful needle work than men, had been allowed to serve as adjuncts to the male-dominated organizing committee for the Paris Exposition.

[From “Women and Algeria”]

Instead of encouraging education for Arab girls in Algeria, the French administration has closed the schools that existed prior to the [1830] conquest, allowed conservative Muslim men to shut down those schools for girls that were established after the conquest, and thus the capital of Algeria has not had a single [academic] school for native girls for thirty-five years. When the rector of the Academy of Algiers, Monsieur Jeanmarie, opened a class where young Arab girls could receive education, these girls proved so prodigiously intelligent that the French became alarmed. The French said that these young girls when they graduate from school would no longer want to stay at home in seclusion.