The First International Congress of Womens Rights
The first International congress of womens rights was held in Paris to coincide with the World Exposition. Attended by a sizable number of representatives from abroad, it was an historic event in the long push for womens rights.
While there were many discussions on the place of women in all phases of society, the resolutions agreed upon by the assemblage focused on issues of morality and marriage. Suffrage, to the dismay of some, was purposely left out of the document. But, after this Congress, the issue of the necessity of achieving the right of women to vote could not be ignored.
Series of Resolutions
Adopted by the International Congress
Resolution I. Considering that woman is a civil personality; Whereas, according to natural law, the adult woman is the equal of the adult man,
The Congress resolves that, in every country where woman is made inferior, the entire body of civil legislation is revised in the direction of the most absolute and complete equality between the two sexes....
Resolution III. The Congress considers the absolute freedom to divorce as the best remedy against the inequality of the man and the woman with regard to the laws on adultery.
Resolution IV. Whereas there is only one morality;
Whereas the degree of guilt for the same crime or misdemeanor cannot vary according to sex. With regard to the misdemeanor of adultery:
Considering that adultery by the man is as sinful as that of the woman, since the man, like the woman, can introduce into someone elses family a bastard of his authorship.
Considering that...the adultery of man, no less than that of woman, carried in its wake social disorder whose seriousness, whether from the perspective of family bonds or of public morality, is not contested by anyone....
The Congress resolves that the penal laws should not acknowledge any difference between the adultery of the wife and the adultery of the husband, wherever the act is committed.
Resolution V. The Congress expresses its ardent desire to see enacted as soon as possible, in those nations currently deprived of it, a law establishing as a misdemeanor the act of seduction of an underage girl, accomplished with the help of lies and a false promise of marriage.
Resolution VI. The Congress, considering that both morality and social order require equally that the parentage of every human being should be a matter of record:
Resolves that the search for paternity by judicial process be allowed and pursued...on behalf of any child who has not been legally recognized...
The Congress adds that it would be useful to have the laws on the right of inheritance of the fathers estate be equalized for all his children, with no distinctions being made between them.
Resolution VII. Considering that the first and most sacred right of the human being is his right to absolute sovereignty over his own person:
Considering that citizens and citizenesses are equal in common law; Considering that the arbitrary powers accorded to the morals police are in flagrant violation of the juridical guarantees assured by the law to each individual, even to the worst criminal;
The Congress demands the suppression of the morals police.
Source: Susan Groag Bell & Karen Offen, editors, Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, vol. One, 1750-1880, 1983.
Speech at Closing of the Congress
by Emily Venturi
Last evening a gentleman who seemed a bit skeptical about the advantages of our congress asked me, Well Madame, what great truth have you proclaimed to the world? I replied to him, Monsieur, we have proclaimed a woman is a human being. He laughed. But, Madame, that is a platitude. So it is; but when this platitude...is recognized by human laws, the face of the world will be transformed. Certainly, then, there would be not need for us to assembly in congress to demand the rights of woman.
Source: Karen Offen, European Feminisms: A Political History, 1700-1950, 2000.
- Based on their resolutions, what areas of public life seemed of greatest concern to the delegates to this International Congress?
- What language and concepts did the representatives use as a legal basis for their arguments?
- What might have been the functions of the morals police? Does such an entity exist in any countries in the world today? Where?
- Compare words used in the U.S. Declaration of Sentiments of Seneca Fall (1848) with The Emancipation of Women and Resolutions of the International Congress of Women. Which do you think was the more forceful womens rights document?
Pretend you are a delegate from one of the countries listed below (found in the readings in this unit). Select ideas from any of the readings to use either: a) as a slogan b) use in a speech you create expressing ideas for the need for womens emancipation.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton from USA
Caroline Norton from England
Raden Kartini from Indonesia
Malik Hefni Nassef from Egypt.
Maria Eugenia Echenique from Argentina
Abigail Dodge from USA
Emily Venturi from France
1) Other international meetings regarding womens rights followed after 1878. Breaking into groups, each researches one of the following International Conferences. Each group then reports back to the class on the key aims or resolutions of the Congress selected. Class discusses some of the differences or similarities between them.
- 1888 Congress held in Washington D.C. - 1888
- First International Socialist Womens Conference - 1907
- International Congress of Women at The Hague - 1915
- First UN Conference on Women, Mexico - 1975
- Second UN Conference on Women, Copenhagen - 1980
- Third UN Conference on Women, Nairobi - 1985
- Fourth UN Conference on Women, Beijing - 1995
2) Other solutions to the woman question were mounted by international workers movements. For Socialists and Communists, female suffrage and the full equality of rights were less important than eliminating women and children from the labor force, and providing state support for them. Womens rights, portrayed as bourgeois or liberal, were demeaned unless they also addressed the issue of capitalist domination and exploitation. Look up and report on either:
- the International Socialist Womens Movement.
- the work and words of Clara Zetkin, a German socialist.
- the First International Congress of Socialist Women, 1907.
Questions to consider: Why was there such a distrust of feminists? What difficulties did women on the left have with their male peers?
International Council of Women, Berlin, 1904