Women and the Paris Commune

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A barricade on Place Blanche during Bloody Week, whose defenders included Louise Michel and a unit of 30 women (Wikipedia)

By Gay Gullickson

Women played crucial roles in the French revolution known as the Paris Commune, during which they raised issues of women’s social and political rights. The Commune began with a day of high drama in the working-class neighborhoods of Paris on March 18, 1871. It followed another drama, the triumphal march of the Prussian army through the streets of Paris that signaled the end of a five-month Prussian siege of Paris and the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. In advance of the Prussian procession, Parisians dragged the city’s cannons to the hills of Paris for safekeeping. After the Prussians left the city, the French national government, composed primarily of political conservatives and royalists who had no love for republican, working-class Paris, passed a series of decrees that further alienated and humiliated the city. Finally, Adolph Thiers, the government’s ultraconservative head, ordered the army to disarm the city by removing the cannons.

Arriving at Montmartre and Belleville in the pre-dawn hours, the troops were in control of the cannons by 6:00 a.m., but the day had hardly begun. Delayed by the late arrival of horses to pull the heavy guns, the awakening Parisians discovered the troops and swarmed up the hills in Montmartre and Belleville to confront them. Bolder it seems than the men, the working-class women of Montmartre insinuated themselves among the guns and horses, reproached the soldiers for threatening the people and invited them to come have breakfast. Before the day was over, the French troops were in disarray and retreat; two French generals had been captured and executed, with the enthusiastic approval of a watching crowd of neighborhood women; and the national government had abandoned the city.

When the French government refused to negotiate with the city’s leaders, the Parisians organized a government (called the Commune), held elections, passed laws and defended the city against a second siege of Paris, this time by French troops quartered in Versailles. Paris ruled itself for two months, passing laws that earned it a place among the most radical of French governments. The pay for legislators was set at the daily wage for ordinary workers, and the tools, furniture and clothing that people had pawned during the Prussian siege were returned to their owners free of charge. Decisions like these, as well as the anticlerical, socialist beliefs of the city’s leaders and their working-class supporters, created considerable bourgeois opposition.

From the beginning to the end, women were actively involved in the Commune, although they were not allowed to vote or run for public office. They were major participants in the events of March 18, debated issues, created vigilance committees, demanded better education for girls and better pay for women, manufactured ammunition and uniforms for the national guards, risked their lives as nurses and cooks on the battlefields, helped construct defensive barricades throughout the city and fought alongside men in the final battle against the Versailles army in May.

Women were avid participants in the nightly debates. Speaking from the pulpits in the churches where the clubs met, they denounced “the enemies of the revolution,” who for them were the wealthy, the religious (priests and nuns) and men who shrank from defending the city in the national guard. They called for the establishment of the social republic, political rights for women, pensions for national guard widows whether legally married or not and the legalization of divorce.

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Writer Victoire Léodile Béra Champseix, whose pseudonym was André Léo

Among the major female figures in the Commune were André Léo, Elizabeth Dmietrieff and Louise Michel. All believed in the equality of women and men. Léo (the pseudonym of Léodile Béra Champseix) (August 18,1824-1900) edited La Sociale, one of the Commune’s newspapers. She used the paper to argue that women were as willing as men to sacrifice themselves for the revolution, criticized the Commune’s leaders for their failure to accept women’s armed participation and warned that women would turn against the revolution if they were not allowed to help. Léo escaped to Switzerland at the end of the Commune. She returned to France in the general amnesty of 1880.

Dmietrieff (1851-1910), a young Russian radical who was a friend of Karl Marx, founded the Union des Femmes, which functioned as the women’s section of the French branch of the International. For her, the Commune represented the extinction of all privilege and inequality, the end of corruption, and the rule of labor and justice. She was particularly concerned about the exploitation of working-class women and argued that the Commune had a “sacred duty” to end this discrimination.

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Communard Louise Michel, later known as the “Red Virgin”

Michel (1830-1905), who became the most famous female revolutionary of the nineteenth century, was everywhere during the Commune. She was present on Montmartre on March 18; participated in the nightly debates about public policy; ran a school for girls with her mother; and became the great female warrior of the Commune, alternately firing at the enemy and helping the wounded. Like other women, she found that the Commune’s leaders did not always welcome her help, but she was not deterred. When the Versailles forces invaded the city in May, she was one of the women who defended the Commune from the street barricades. When the war was lost, she surrendered voluntarily to the Versailles troops to free her mother who had been taken prisoner.  

During the semaine sanglante (bloody week) that destroyed the Commune, as many as 25,000 Parisians were killed by the army and over 40,000 were taken prisoner, including 1,051 women. The government believed far more women were guilty of defending the Commune, but it could not find them. In the end, 168 women were tried and punished.

Some of the men who were found guilty were executed, others like Louise Michel and other women were sentenced to deportation to New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Among other crimes, women were accused of burning Paris during the fighting. The existence of these women, called pétroleuses (female incendiaries), is one of the great myths of history. Considerable evidence reveals that the fires had many causes and few, if any, were set by women.

Louise Michel returned to France with the general amnesty in 1880 to continue her work for the equality of women and the social revolution. She became known as the Red Virgin.

Gay L. Gullickson is professor emerita in the Department of History, University of Maryland, and author of Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune.

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