Madeleine Pelletier ( 1874-1939) was an unloved child of a poor family. 1 Her mother was a greengrocer; her father, who was paralyzed when she was four, died when she was sixteen. Pelletier left school at age twelve but continued to read. As a teenager, she discovered politics through the doctrine of nihilism, and she was soon attending anarchist meetings. Pelletier then decided that she wanted to be a doctor in order to be socially useful. Studying alone, she learned enough to pass the baccalauréat and enter medical school. After her mother's death, Pelletier was left destitute, but she obtained a grant from the city of Paris to continue her studies.
The medical profession had slowly opened to women in the years after 1875, when Madeleine Brès became the first French woman admitted to medical school. By 1900 there were 82 women physicians in France (69 of them in Paris) and 154 women enrolled in medical school. The legal profession, by contrast, had only one woman graduate ( Jeanne Chauvin), only four women enrolled in law at Paris, and had not yet admitted women to the bar. 2 Pelletier thus graduated as a member of the trailblazing generation. She became the first woman physician to work for the welfare office ( Bureau de bienfaisance). She was refused admission to the entrance examination for an internship in the psychiatric hospitals until Marguerite Durand took up her cause in La Fronde. Pelletier then succeeded in becoming the first woman physician to work in a French mental hospital.
In the early twentieth century, Madeleine Pelletier became active in a wide range of political organizations. She became one of the first women to join the Freemasons, one of the highest ranking women in the socialist