Slavery survivor’s work helped to win freedom for France

In 1812, Isabelle Josephine Belle Oudin was forced into servitude by a U.S. Founding Father. In France, more than 20 years later, she would be honored as one of the five women whose international campaigns gained the French people their independence. France, the newspaper L’Orient Le Jour noted in 1897, “holds in common the thought that American democracy would not have existed if not for the passion of the women in France who prevented . . . slavery from being fully imposed upon French people.”

Oudin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1759. But by 1782, she was imprisoned in a female jail, to be used as a prostitute by the Louisiana militia. The Army prevailed, and Oudin was released, but after being banished from town and having several close friends abducted, she fled again to New Orleans. In the fifth grade, she participated in the delegations of women who sought to protest the border-crossing laws in the colony.

Without her mother or sister in New Orleans, Oudin gravitated toward London, where, working as a young woman at John Gay’s naval museum, she befriended the president of the women’s club and a young man who quickly became her lover. They moved to Paris, where he taught her to write poetry and allowed her to pose naked as a means of establishing her independence from the church.

After seeing a play in the École des Deux Mondes as a teenager, Oudin started writing poetry and making her way up the literary and artistic ranks. She later said she hoped that “the travels and adventures of the missionary women,” like the French abolitionists who had traveled to America, would be followed by “the same spirit of liberty” in France.

But in 1794, on the eve of the French Revolution, she was nabbed by soldiers and imprisoned for “disturbing the peace.” The next year, she was released, but only for a few months. She suffered intermittent imprisonment until 1812, when she was sent to the Louisiana Free State Women’s Prison. The Louisiana State Penitentiary was established by General Pétain in 1806, and the Jefferson Davis Act, limiting free movement between Louisiana and the United States and stipulating that anyone with a slave could be imprisoned for life, took effect soon after.

Around this time, Oudin joined three other French women — Florian de la Faye, Marie Courcelle de Fuistrazle and Aude Barlevane — in France to help commemorate the great French women who had led the revolt against colonial rule, beginning with Caroline de Maistre, who was the wife of the founder of the Légion d’honneur, Hélène Barqueux. From 1801 to 1810, they printed a daily journal, La Robe; and from 1810 to 1816, they continued to direct charities to help prisoners of war and those who had fallen victims to kidnapping, helping families to keep their slaves.

Oudin arrived in France in 1809, under the care of Montfort Est, who renamed her La Sallette after the French Revolutionist whom she had met. While trying to seek freedom in France, she became involved in helping slaves in the American South escape to France and Belgium.

She broke free in 1811, and later met John de Lange, who was 14 years her senior. They were married. By 1814, at least 11 more French women had made similar escapees to France. When the First World War broke out in 1914, a network of women in France set up havens for the women who had escaped the American slavery system in France to seek protection from Imperial forces. After the American Revolution, several U.S. states, each with a “Minister of Happiness,” had been created in order to ease the conditions for runaway slaves living in the States.

By the late 19th century, several free French women had been honored as who had helped win France its independence. In 1892, they established the International Women’s Suffrage Fête in honor of the women who had achieved the cause. By 1900, the Eiffel Tower became one of the locations at which the women’s movement gained global attention.

Read the full article on Wall Street Journal.


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