Etta Palm D’Aelders

Research paper for West Civilzation II

The Enlightenment of the 18th Century inspired activism across much of Western Europe. Popular causes included the rights of political opportunity, rights of religious freedom and rights of liberty. The rights of women were addressed as an afterthought, it seems, but this topic of debate soon became rather vogue in salons and clubs. One of the more influential feminists of the revolutionary era was Etta Palm d’Aelders.
Born in 1743 at Groningen, The Netherlands, Etta Lubina (Johanna or Derista) Aelders was raised by her mother since age six, following her father’s death. Etta’s mother ran the family’s paper mill and pawn shop, a matter of much dispute to the family. Her mother also provided her with a good education. Perhaps, this early example of an independent female role model had a significant impact on Etta’s future endeavors.
In 1762, Etta married Christian Ferdinand Lodewijk Palm, a Frenchman, but they were soon divorced; some sources say that her husband disappeared while on a trip. Etta Palm moved to Paris in 1773 and, as the Baroness d’Aelders, circulated within the intellectual salon held by Madame Condorcet. Opening her own salon in 1778, she patronized philosophes in France for the next 14 years. As revolutionary movements swelled, causes began to solidify and intellectual thought gave way to political and social action. Etta, along with other supporters, joined the Cercle Social and campaigned for women’s rights.
While a salon provided a venue for various subjects of debate, clubs acted as interest groups for particular causesi, and the Confédération des Amis de la Vérité considered itself a federation of all existing clubsii. Etta joined the Confédération, which was the first club to admit women, and in 1791, she founded the female branch of the club called the Amies de la Vérité. Having achieved prominence as a fervent speaker and feminist activist, she also translated into Dutch the works of Mirabeau and Condorcet.
Etta moved within circles that provided opportunities to gather diplomatic and political information pertinent to France, Prussia and the Netherlands. She was arrested for espionage in 1791 but was soon released. In 1792, Etta traveled to the Netherlands to establish a revolutionary embassy, and later that year, she settled in The Hague. In response to the Batavian Revolution, she was imprisoned from 1795 to 1798 and is thought to have died in 1799, shortly after her release.
In an environment propelled by the ambition of liberty, the tentative nature of feminism was an anomaly, and the tendency for revolutionaries not to endorse, or to go as far as to oppose, women’s rights is shocking by today’s standards. Like most of the feminist activists of the time, Etta Palm d’Aelders fought for a change in morals and customs that would foster a more egalitarian atmosphereiii rather than establishing definite political rights equal to men, and yet she still met resistance, even from many members of the Confédération and Cercle Social.
The Confédération des Amies de la Vérité announced its platform of women’s issues and welfare efforts, stressing primogeniture as a key issue. Until this point, a mother had no rights or protection upon the death of her husband, but soon the National Assembly passed a law against primogeniture, which allowed both sons and daughters to inherit the estates of their parents equally. The Amies proposed a comprehensive divorce bill that allowed for wife-initiated divorce; this bill is related to another concern of Etta’s, that of protection from wife beating. Her first speech to the Confédération broached this very subject, arguing that the inherent physical weakness of women required laws that protected them against their stronger fathers and husbands.iv
Last, and often times least, the Amies lobbied for political equality for women, to make them citoyennes. The Declaration of the Rights of Woman states, “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rightsv.” Condorcet emphasizes these rights by asking of enlightened philosophers and administrators, “Have they not all violated the principle of equality of rights by quietly depriving half of mankind of the right to participate in the formation of laws, by excluding women from the rights of citizenshipvi?” Though matrimonial and inheritance reforms were achieved during the revolution, political equality was a long way in coming.
Women’s welfare remained an important cause to Etta Palm. She worked to establish free clinics to aid pregnant or destitute women, help them find work and provide education to their children. She maintained in a speech to the Confédération that aid should not be limited to “physical and momentary needs” but that education and honest jobs are the remedy to indiginityvii. Her speeches ruffled many feathers, and Etta was considered quite radical in her political views. One example of her radical ideas, mentioned only briefly in some sources, was her concept of a female militia- “representatives…have just applauded the intrepid courage of the Amazons…and have permitted them to raise a corps for the defense of the nationviii.”
Etta Palm d’Aelders was a radical feminist and active member of organizations determined to bring women’s issues into the public eye. She inspired both women and men alike into action with her speeches and letters, which include the Discourse on the Injustice of the Laws in Favor of Men, at the Expense of Women and a Discourse to the Friends of Truth. Her efforts influenced legislation concerning marital and inheritance rights and paved the way for social welfare.
i Kates, pp. 92
ii Kates, pp. 93
iii Hunt, pp. 27
iv Kates, pp. 122
v Hunt, pp.125
vi Hunt, pp. 119
viii Hunt, pp. 122

“FRIENDS Of the VERITA of Etta Palm d’ Aelders.” Uno secolo rivoluzionario. (22 Sept, 2005, translated by Google).

Hunt, Lynn, ed. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston: Bedford, 1996.

Kates, Gary. The Cercle Social, the Girondins, and the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

McMillan, James F. Biographies: Women’s Suffrage. (22 Sept, 2005).

“Palm, Etta (Lubina Johanna), née Aelders.” (22 Sept, 2005).

Vega, Judith. “On Justice, Virtue and Men.” History OF European Ideas, Vol.10, Nr.3, 1989, 333-351.
Marc de Villiers, Histoire club of the Femmes et the Légions of d’Amazones (Paris 1910), 14 41. (22 Sept, 2005, translated by Google).

Women Writers. The Reception of their Works. (22 Sept, 2005).

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