Born in the Allier département in the Auvergne area of France into a middle-class family, Hubertine Auclert's father died when she was thirteen years old and her mother sent her to live and study in a Roman Catholic convent. As a young girl she planned to become a nun but left the convent at age 16. Estranged from her mother, she lived with her uncle for a time but had to return to the convent a few years later, She left the convent for good in 1869 and moved to Paris. There, the ousting of Emperor Napoleon III and the establishment of the Third Republic opened the door to activism on the part of women who began demanding changes to the Napoleonic Code that would provide education and economic independence for women and the legalization of divorce.
Inspired by the high-profile activities of Maria Deraismes and Léon Richer, Hubertine Auclert became involved with feminist work and eventually took a job as Richer's secretary. Influenced by her life in a Catholic convent, and like many of the leading republican feminists at the time, Hubertine Auclert was a militant anticlerical. While the main focus of the French feminist movement was directed towards changes to the laws, Auclert pushed further, demanding that women be given the right to run for public office, claiming that the unfair laws would never have been passed had the views of female legislators been heard. In 1876 she founded the Société le droit des femmes (The Rights of Women) that supported women's suffrage and in 1883, the organization formally changed its name to the Société le suffrage des femmes (Women's Suffrage Society).
In 1878, the "International Congress on Women’s Rights" was held in Paris but to the chagrin of Hubertine Auclert, it did not support women’s suffrage. Resolute, beginning in 1880, Auclert launched a tax revolt, arguing that without representation women should not be subjected to taxation. One of her legal advisors was attorney Antonin Lévrier whom she later married. On February 13, 1881 she launched La Citoyenne, a monthly(page 899) that argued vociferously for women's enfranchisement. The paper received vocal support from even the elite in the feminist movement such as Séverine and socialite Marie Bashkirtseff wrote several articles for the newspaper. In her writings, she also brought the term feminism, a term first coined by Charles Fourier, into the English language in the 1890s.
In 1884, the French government finally legalized divorce but Auclert denounced it because of the law's blatant bias against women that still did not allow a woman to keep her wages. Auclert proposed the then radical idea that there should be a marriage contract between spouses with separation of property.
Auclert and her husband moved to Algeria in 1888 where they would remain for four years until he died and she returned to Paris. While in Algeria, Auclert extensively studied and recorded the daily lives of Arab women. Auclert paralleled the male prejudice against women in France with the racial prejudice against the colonized in Algeria as the “French Algerians… do everything possible to keep the Arabs in a state of ignorance so conductive to exploitation and domination.” Her activism for the rights of Algerian women paralleled the "familial" or "maternalist" feminism that she advocated for in France. Such prejudice took form as French collusion with Arab males to suppress Arab female education and to respect Islamic practices of child marriages, polygamy, and bride trade which restricted the rights of the Arab female. Auclert acted out of a moral duty to elevate the status of Arab women, as to make it possible for them to obtain the same dignity of a Frenchwomen. While in Algeria, and continued on her return to France, Auclert pursued legal action to acknowledge the rights of Arab women, such as petitions for improved education, and the abolition of polygamy. While her thoughts on Islamic culture were entrenched in imperial thinking, she made clear the negative influence of French colonialism on the society’s in which they settled. She claimed that the oppression from Islamic law was made worse by collusion between the French administrators and Arab men. Arab males, in her eyes, appeared backwards in part because of the effects of racism from the French settlers. Because of the males' oppression, she saw the colonized women as the most significant suffers. She claimed because of the patriarchy of both the Arabs and the French, the Algerian women were the least advanced socially, morally, and culturally.
She wrote about the consequences Arab females suffered because of Islam in the Algerian press, Le Radical Algérien, and in La Citoyenne. Unintentionally, her work in Algeria served as further justification for French colonialism as it highlighted the perceived degraded condition of Arab women under Algerian rule. No longer able to financially support La Citoyenne, the newspaper closed but she continued her activism. In 1900, she witnessed the establishment of the "National Council of French Women" as an umbrella organisation for feminist groups in France all of which soon came to support suffrage.
Julia Clancy-Smith, author of Islam, Gender, and Identities in the Making of French Algeria, writes that, though Auclert criticizes the negative influence of French colonialism, she is similar to contemporary British feminists in using a discourse of a "universal sisterhood" that was oxymoronically imperial and hierarchical to protect the colonized populations. While Auclert blamed French men for worsening the "barbarism" of Arab men and, thus, worsening the condition of Arab women, much of her rhetoric to advocate for Arab women painted them as victims of their religion. Clancy quotes that Auclert claimed Arab men rendered the women "little victims of Muslim debauchery," and must be "freed from their cages, walled homes, and cloisters" to assimilate into Frenchwomen. Auclert's writing about Algerian women focused on, in Clancy's words, "the morally perverse sexual customs of the natives." For example, the most provocative section of Auclert's work detailed her argument that "Arab marriage is child rape."
Clancy also critiques Auclert's success as an activist: all of the petitions that Auclert submitted on behalf of Algerian women were met with indifference, according to Auclert. There are no records of Muslim women's awareness or response to her advocacy. Clancy argues that Auclert returned to Paris in 1892 without "any concrete results," other than ironically convincing many that the Algerians were too barbaric and unsuitable for political rights.
In July 1907 married women in France were finally given control over their own salaries due to the lobbying of the Avant-Courrière (Forerunner) association led by Jeanne Schmahl. The Act was incomplete. If a woman bought something with her earnings that she did not consume herself, such as a piece of furniture, it became her husband's property unless there was a marriage contract that specified otherwise, normally only the case with prosperous couples. The 60-year-old Auclert continued her push for total equality. In 1908 she symbolically smashed a ballot box during municipal elections in Paris and in 1910 she and Marguerite Durand defied authorities and presented themselves as candidates in the elections for members of the legislative assembly.
Considered one of the central figures in the history of the French women's rights movement, Hubertine Auclert continued her activism until her death in 1914 at age 65. She is interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; the sculpture on her tomb commemorates the "Suffrage des Femmes."