Victor Hugo was a feminist in that he believed in and fought for equal rights for women and men. For him, everyone has the same natural rights. In addition, he recognized how hard it was for women to succeed without having the same privileges as men.
Especially after he fell in love with actress and model Juliette Drouet in his early thirties, Hugo grew ever more aware of how the society of his time limited women. Orphans, such as Juliette—and Fantine in Les Misérables—had no family help and very few opportunities for work to support themselves. Marriage wasn’t always a great solution. In a journal note, Hugo summed up such a woman’s choice as a social issue: “Dowry or poverty / women forced to choose between buying a man, which is called marriage, or selling themselves to men, which is called prostitution.”(1)
Hugo also supported women who worked for equal rights. He was friends with George Sand (1804-76), the woman author who wore pants, smoked cigars, and demanded to be treated just as male writers and artists. In several Châtiments poems against President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état, Hugo admired the courage, strength, and tenacity of the “glorious” women who had opposed the coup. His poem “Pauline Roland,” for instance, tells the story of the peasant woman (1805-52) who, as a socialist, helped women and children in need. Roland also fought for women’s rights until the government imprisoned and exiled her. Hugo made manifest his support of such politically engaged women as writer Louise Julien, who died as a result of bad prison and exile transport conditions. In his eulogy at her funeral, Hugo famously declared, “The eighteenth century proclaimed men’s rights; the nineteenth will proclaim women’s rights . . . ,” even as he praised by name over a dozen other women activists. (2)
Ahead of his time on many social issues, Hugo as a legislator argued for equal education for women, a principle that would become French law only 30 years later (in 1880-81). He steadfastly supported revolutionary writer and teacher Louise Michel (1830/33?-1905)—even after she joined the 1871 Communard revolt, a movement whose violent actions appalled Hugo. His poem “Viro major” (a Latin title that means “greater than a hero”) honors Michel, who sometimes signed herself “Enjolras,” after the Les Misérables barricade hero.
Perhaps Victor Hugo best summed up his position when he was seventy: “Half the human race is excluded from equality; we must bring them back in . . . . That will be one of the great glories of our great century: making women’s rights a counterweight to men’s rights.” (3)