“Man Should be More Modest and Woman More Brave”: Françoise Lafitte and Free Unions in Fin-de-Siècle England
Ginger Frost , Samford University
The socialist movement in England took on a renewed life in the fin-de-siècle, buttressed by a number of middle-class converts and new associations. Though most socialist groups were small and riven with ideological debates, they offered an alternative to Victorian liberalism.
Socialist groups also gave limited leadership opportunities to women who found the middle-class feminist movement lacking. Many of these women believed in gender equality, but they stressed the importance of economic independence rather than suffrage.
Early socialists in England, the Owenites, had coupled their call for economic equality with a strong stand against the church and marriage. After the collapse of that movement, though, the working-class movement turned away from gender equality and championed domesticity.
Irregular unions existed, but mainly in the poorest classes or because the couple could not marry legally. Indeed, even into the Edwardian period, most socialist groups were uncomfortable with any sexual irregularity.
Nor did the organized feminist movement offer an alternative take on free unions, since most women’s rights groups were also unenthusiastic about the elimination of marriage. They wanted to reform the institution, but not get rid of it.
In consequence, women and men who lived together without legal ties in the fin-de-siècle period were rare and usually did so because one or the other could not marry legally. Certainly the experience of cohabitees was often unenviable, but not all women regretted having made unconventional choices, even when they turned out badly, and they make a counterpoint to the more common stories of failure and/or compromise on the issue of free unions and marriage.
An example of a woman who achieved a freer sexual regime was Françoise Lafitte.
Lafitte came from a middle-class French family, but her father was an irresponsible speculator and lost much of the family’s money, so she had to go out to work. She came to England to teach
French; while living there, she got involved with feminist and socialist groups. Like many
Edwardian socialists, Lafitte asserted that women would never have equality without both political and economic changes. Thus, she was not much interested in suffrage, since she saw this movement as one that tried to make women into men. Instead, women should remake all of society to reflect their priorities. These were fairly common views, but on the issue of marriage,
Lafitte went further. She argued that “Love should be the sole foundation to the union of Man and Woman: love towards each other, love towards the child.” What this meant to her was that women should be free from exploitation, so she supported the endowment of motherhood and did not regard marriage as necessary. Later in her life, she explained that she objected to marriage on two main grounds. First, she thoroughly disliked the publicity involved in the union. Second, she had a horror of divorce; the fact that it existed indicated that marriage was on the decline.
Lafitte did not believe in irresponsible freedom, however. She wrote Margaret Sanger, “Yes, I believe in freedom for those sufficiently balanced to use it, but when one is not one pays heavily for it, in much misery to oneself and others.” In short, freedom was essential, but it “embodies much discipline.” 5
Lafitte’s views developed partially through her experiences with legal and illegal unions when she was young. While she was associated with the Freewoman Circle (a feminist group),
she met John Collier, introduced to her as “a representative of American syndicalism.” She fell in love with him and agreed to live with him (he was married already so could not marry her).
Françoise did not want a legal marriage anyway, “for I acknowledged no need for ceremony, civil or religious.” Her behavior was liberated, but she admitted in her memoir that she was mainly attracted to the idea because he needed her; she felt pity and maternal feelings as much as love.
Though confident before she moved in, Françoise was unhappy once living with John.
She found Collier’s lovemaking animalistic, and she was disillusioned with his character almost at once. Collier, at least according to Lafitte, talked about women’s equality, but primarily saw women as sexual outlets. When she became pregnant, she determined to leave him: “it was a certainty that I could not rear a child by the side of a man I was beginning to despise.” Despite her economic weakness, Lafitte walked out on her union after only a few months. The experience made Françoise even more of a feminist than before. She insisted that men needed to be friends with women or the relationship would fail. Lafitte lived with friends until she gave birth to her son, François, in 1913.
Lafitte’s ideas about this disastrous relationship were an interesting mix. Many things about the union were typical. For one thing, she always considered her relationship with Collier as a marriage, and she characterized it as such throughout her life. For another, Françoise revolted against John’s sexual demands more than any other aspect of their relationship, something to which many married women could relate. However, even though they were not legally married, Françoise did not refuse Collier access to her body until she left him. Like many women in her situation, too, Françoise hesitated to admit the failure, because it had been an experiment, and therefore doubly important. She did not want to tell her parents, because “they were sure to think that the failure of my marriage was due to its nature as a ‘free union’; yet had I been tied to this man by all the ceremonies every conceived I would have been just as
...determined to leave him.” 8
But some things about her experience were atypical. Most radically, Françoise left
Collier precisely because she was going to have a child, rather than staying with him because she needed support. Though Lafitte’s belief in the endowment of motherhood had its conservative side, in this instance her reverence for motherhood acted as a spur to a radical decision. Lafitte believed she had the right to raise her child in a nurturing environment rather than one with an uncongenial mate. She was rapidly moving to a belief in “free love” and a woman’s right to her own body and identity.
Thus, at least in the Edwardian period, a failed free union was not necessarily a disaster.
Still, though Lafitte found work, it was not well-paid, and she struggled. She was not healthy during the pregnancy, and she only managed to quit work and rest because friends invited her to live with them; she admitted, “it was this solidarity I met everywhere which enabled me to preserve my faith...” All the same, she considered her choice the only possible one. She did not want to be a parasite, clinging to a man no matter how unsatisfactory he was. If a man failed to be a companion, “Woman should rise to the height of a free responsible person and walk out on
Man...I felt it high time that Man should be more modest and Woman more brave.” 9
Lafitte’s next experiences did little to improve her opinion of marriage. She married
Serge Cyon, a Russian radical, before the first World War, this time legally, in order not to upset her parents further. Serge was eleven years older than she, so seemingly more dependable than
Collier, and he was a Socialist and pacifist, both beliefs she shared. She married him without
being in love with him, she claimed for comradeship and security.
However, this relationship was no more successful than her irregular union. Cyon had married her to be a stepmother to his ten-year-old son and to get a housekeeper, not to have an equal partner. He also began to dominate her and lay down the law like a traditional patriarch. When she found this behavior unbearable, Françoise walked away again, even though she had a second child to consider. She paid a price for this decision; she was desperately poor for several years, and Cyon harassed her for some time. But she did not give in to him and instead built a life for herself.
As with her free union, Lafitte based her choice on both feminist and socialist beliefs. Her concern about being an effective mother was the main reason she gave for deserting her mate.
She insisted, “The one thing of which I am sure is that I cannot rear children by the side of a man
I do not love.” Marriage was not marriage without mutual affection and respect, whatever the law might say. In addition, like many Edwardian feminists, Françoise was adamant that men had to change as well as women. When a well-meaning friend told her that she should return to Serge, and teach him to be a better father, Lafitte replied, “‘Do you suggest that having already three children...I must make my husband into a fourth? That is not my idea of what a husband should be.” 12
Françoise had two bad relationships–one married, one not–which certainly demonstrated that a radical union could be just as unsuccessful as a traditional one and vice versa. The experience also showed that in some ways, a legal marriage was a much bigger problem for a woman. Because of her marriage, Françoise was classified as Russian, her husband’s nationality, and she was never able to change this. Her classification caused her difficulties during both world wars and even into the Cold War. These experiences made her even less impressed with the “advantages” of marriage for women and more convinced than ever of the need for women to be equal in the law, married or not.
What does this admittedly idiosyncratic example tell us about free unions and socialism at the turn of the century in England? First, her story indicates that by skirting issues of sexuality, socialism gained respectability, but ignored a major concern for women who wanted equality.
Women like Françoise needed economic help, but they also needed mates who treated them as equals. Of course, Lafitte herself saw women as primarily mothers, which left her susceptible to appeals to her maternity. All the same, this belief in the centrality of motherhood eventually pushed her into rejecting both men.
Second, Françoise’s difficulties pointed up why so few women made the choices she did, but also why women perhaps needed to believe in both socialism and feminism to avoid pitfalls.
Lafitte struggled to support two children as a teacher and translator; she had first-hand experience in the difficulties of capitalism. Yet she also valued her independence; better to be poor and a single mother than to be the captive of a bad husband. She wanted men to change as well as women–only by mutual accommodation would relationships succeed. She thus combined her belief systems in a way that granted her a degree of personal autonomy despite being relatively poor.
Yet her belief in individualism did not preclude being part of a community. Indeed, the third lesson was the importance of solidarity. The main reason she was able to survive was the support of other socialists. Though mainstream socialists avoided association with “fallen” women, the movement was wide enough that less censorious groups survived, and these groups were crucial to her.
14 Without help, she would have been another cautionary story about “fallen”
women. One can, then, overstate the social conservatism of both socialism and feminism at the turn of the century.
Fourth, Lafitte was unusual in that she was willing to admit failure of a free union. Many pioneers, male and female, regarded free unions as examples to everyone that therefore must succeed.
Françoise, perhaps because she was less prominent, did not feel bound to stay with either of her husbands. She thus exercised a freedom and an individuality that mitigated the limitations of the socialist position on marriage. She hesitated to leave Collier in the beginning, but she overcame this reluctance, preferring to admit defeat rather than becoming a martyr.
Certainly the majority of women who tried experiments in marriage in the fin-de-siècle period had great difficulties, and Lafitte’s life was hardly typical. Still, one can overstate both the pioneering aspects of free unions and the misery and failure that sometimes followed them by focusing on the most prominent examples. Instead, many men and women’s unions were more prosaic, both in success and failure. The real advance in the Edwardian period may have been in finding more flexibility for varying temperaments, even ones as mercurial as Françoise Lafitte.
1.Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the English Working Class
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 197-232.
2.See Karen Hunt, Equivocal Feminists: The Social Democratic Federation and the Woman Question,
1884-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 93-117; Christine Collette, “Socialism and
Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the Early Labour Movement,” History Workshop Journal 23 (1987), 102-
111; Jane Lewis, “Intimate Relations Between Men and Women: The Case of H.G. Wells and Amber
History Workshop Journal 37 (1994), 76-98; Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx 2 vols.
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), I:253-72; II:15-18; Ruth Brandon, the New Woman and the Old Men
(London: Secker & Warburg, 1990), 14-22.
3.Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: Sexuality and the Early Feminists (New York: The Free Press,
1995), 124-85; Barbara Caine, English Feminism, 1780-1980 (Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press, 1997),
134-47; Phillippa Levine, Feminist Lives in Victorian England: Private Roles and Public Commitment
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1900), 79-102.
4.Françoise Delisle, Françoise: In Love with Love (London: Delisle, 1962), 212-213; Françoise Delisle,
Friendship’s Odyssey: In Love with Life (London: Delisle, 1964), 278-79; British Library, Havelock Ellis
Papers ADD 70577 (hereafter HEP), ff. 43-47.
5.HEP, ff. 118-126, Françoise Lafitte to Margaret Sanger, 29 October 1946.
Françoise: In Love with Love
210-19, quotes from 210, 217.
9.Ibid., 227, 233.
11.Ibid., 6-9; 36-50.
12.Ibid., 42, 38.
13.Françoise Delisle, The Pacifist Pilgrimage of Françoise and Havelock
(London: The Mitre Press,
1974), 80-83; 121-27.
, 224, 227-34;
15.See, e.g., HEP, ADD 70525, ff. 161; Kapp, Eleanor Marx , II; 16, 18, 27-28, 677-80.