Journalist and author Paul Mason shares his fascination with the “unruly women” of the Paris Commune, and describes how digital evidence has begun to enrich the work of historians.
Almost as soon as the last petrol bomb was thrown, and even as the alleged throwers were being marched through Versailles, stripped to the waist to identify them as female, the ideological battle over the role of women in the Paris Commune of 1871 began.
Vilified as “harpies” and “viragoes”, both in news reports and press cartoons – their sexual energy as terrifying as their politics – many were summarily executed after combat. Others were jailed or deported, either to New Caledonia or the tropical hell of Cayenne.
Then their story became subsumed within the labour movement’s attempts to understand the Commune’s history as a failed, primarily political, experiment. From Prosper Olivier Lissagaray’s (1876) account to Frank Jellinek’s 1937 volume for the Left Book Club, the social history of the Commune as a whole, merited scant treatment compared to the military and political events.
It took until the 1960s for feminist historians to begin the specific study of the gender politics of the Commune, with Edith Thomas’ path-breaking (1963) study Les Petroleuses (published as The Women Incendiaries in English in 1966).
Thomas mined memoirs, court transcripts, and newspaper accounts to provide, just short of 100 years after the events, an adequate first draft of the true history: how a small, vocal, middle class feminist milieu collided with the anti-feminist Parisian workers’ movement of the 1860s; and the much looser, and more radical social movements of slum dwellers; to create a vibrant political culture among the poor women of Paris.
This, in turn creates a distinct gender politics during the Commune – a network of women activists who become involved in aggressive street actions, self-help groups, revolutionary debating clubs (in occupied churches), military support roles and – after a struggle – front line fighting.
Today, the study of these events and personalities is a well-trodden academic pathway in French: Gay L Gullickson’s The Unruly Women of Paris and Caroline J Eichner’s Surmounting the Barricades are just two of the recent, notable accounts in English.
In my 2007 narrative history of the global labour movement, Live Working or Die Fighting, I focused the chapter on the Commune on the stories of two women. Louise Michel, the iconic – and erratic – schoolteacher, eschewed the military support roles of cantiniere or nurse, dressed as a man and participated in the front-line fighting. And Victorine Rouchy, a more typical working class woman activist became the cantiniere of an elite, self-selected militia called the “Vengeurs de Flourens” and also took part in the fighting until the very end.
Michel had written not only her memoirs (translated as Red Virgin in 1981) but a specific account of the Commune (La Commune).
Each is marred by self-censorship due to fear of reprisals.
Rouchy’s memoir – Souvenirs d’une morte vivante written much later, after she had settled in London as the wife of anarchist free-thinker Gustave Brocher, has become a key primary source but remains available only in French.
Juxtaposing the actions, alliances and political justifications of the two women, I tried to explore the contrast between Michel’s radical republicanism – which was to mutate via Blanquism to black-flag anarchism – and Rouchy’s republican socialism (which was also to evolve in the direction of anarchism during her exile).
This, in turn, led to an exploration of three distinct demographics among the women of the Commune: (i) the “respectable” working class, who were generally allied to the reformist anarchists of the International Working Men’s Association; (ii) the demi-monde of sex workers and slum-dwellers known popularly as “La Canaille”, who would be drawn into the “mob” actions at the beginning of the Commune and, towards the end, anti-clerical and anti-police reprisals led by Blanquist men. Finally (iii) the pre-existing feminist movement, of which Michel was a part, but where the writers Andre Leo and Paule Minck were leading lights.
Aware that I had only scratched the surface, and with an excess of primary research over final output, I did the only logical thing for someone trapped in a day job: I began a big historical novel about the Commune, with a cast of hundreds, set in Paris. This, over time, has become a small historical play, with a cast of six, set on New Caledonia.
Freed from the rigours of peer review, indeed from rigour in general, the research has progressed, during the past six years, eclectically. I have become fascinated by the new sources of information that have emerged in the digital age, above all digital photographs but also genealogical records and other digitised municipal documents.
The Siege and Commune of Paris archive at Northwestern University, for example, puts faces to numerous names within Thomas’ and subsequent accounts.
Some, such as Marie Davier, orateur du club, make it to the historical record only through these photographs.
Many of the photographs were “cartes de visite” portraits, some taken for criminological research following the defeat of the Commune. With a knowledge of mid-19th century costume and jewellery it becomes possible to “read” these images afresh: large hoop earrings, for example, were common among descriptions of street prostitutes. It becomes possible to read class, age and – vital for the social historian – attitude in a way that was not possible for those reliant simply on the written archives.
On top of the portraits, there is a large and growing archive of digital street photographs. On the first day of the Commune (18 March 1871), having built the barricades, the insurgent National Guard units gathered their friends and families for group photographs.
These “barricade photographs” were known to social historians even in the 20th century but of course completely unavailable as a unified archive even to the immediate survivors of the Commune who tried to write contemporary accounts. For example, the barricade on Av de Flandre which led through the meat-packing district of La Villette, and was posed just outside an established Republican political club, shows a very wide cross section of urban society, including women in aprons and children.
Compare this to the account by lawyer and revolutionary, Gaston da Costa, of events just 2km away in the slum (and at the time partially shanty) district of Montmartre:
“Prostitutes, registered or not, came from the quarter of Les Martyrs, or out of hotels, cafes and the brothels… on the arms of line soldiers, accompanied by a legion of pimps, they had surged out, the pathetic spume of prostitution, upon the revolutionary wave.” (quoted in Thomas p.59)
Both Thomas and Gullickson have used this passage to illustrate – and dispute – the moralism of the Blanquist male leadership of the Commune. But it also illustrates the complex social reality you are up against in telling the social history of an event seen by its participants through a primarily political and ideological lens.
During the Commune, it is now clear, there were overlapping social networks of activists and fighters, including women. About 260 insurgent battalions of the National Guard were involved in the Commune, as well as self-selected private militias such as the one Victorine Rouchy joined. Contemporary research shows that, although in theory the battalions were geographically recruited, there was much voluntary cross-over between the arrondissements, suggesting that personal, family and maybe workplace networks of loyalty overrode locality, with militants joining the battalion of their choice, transferring etc.
Likewise the revolutionary clubs. In The Paradise of Association Martin Philip Johnson provides a social history of the clubs. In contrast to the elected Commune itself, which was all male and met in closed session, the clubs were heavily invested with female activists: these were the venues at which political militants like Louise Michel encountered the women of the backstreets and of the labour movement .
Given face recognition technologies, and the sheer volume of portraiture – collective and individual – it should be possible soon to map individuals communards to these dates and places. I am not aware of any project to do so.
But for example – if we look at yet another visual source, the sketches by artist Daniel Urrabieta Vierge, taken on the first day of the Commune at the Hotel De Ville, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, by comparison to her photographs, one of the women soldiers is Michel:
Central to the account of socialist feminism during the Commune is the Union des Femmes. Upon arrival from London, Karl Marx’s 19 year old female emissary, the Russian revolutionary Elizabeth Dmitreff, persuaded a group of activists to form the Union on 11 April 1871. It quickly became a delegate structure based in each arrondissement. Though formally committed to mobilising women for “the defence of Paris and the succour of the wounded”, the Union des Femmes’ central focus – as Eichner points out from a reading of its archive – “was to reconceptualise and reorder female labor”. (p.72):
“During the Commune feminist socialists worked for the reorganisation of labor, equal pay for equal hours of work, mandatory secular education and the legalisation of divorce.” (p.74)
But military events overtook the social experiment. On 21 May government troops broke into Paris and there ensued a “bloody week” of barricade fighting and reprisals, during which an estimated 30,000 Parisians were extra-judicially killed by the regular army and returning gendarmerie.
The role of women during the fighting is indisputable: Michel’s and Rouchy’s account give detailed accounts, cross-checkable with those of others. However the existence of a “women’s battalion”, and its specific defence of a barricade at the Place Blanche (ironically now the site of the Moulin Rouge) has been disputed, notably by historian Robert Tombs (1999).
Johnson’s account, however, finds documentary evidence to support the iconic contemporary illustration, “Barricade de la Place Blanche defendu par les femmes”.
Thomas, from four separate sources, had captured the essence of the event in her 1963 study. A meeting called by Dmitrieff of the Union des Femmes, for 21 May in the 4th Arrondissement town hall, turned into a muster for an ad-hoc women’s battalion, estimated at around 120 combatants. This marched across the city towards Batignolles and thence to the Place Blanche. The survivors fell back to what is now Place de la Republique where, according to one eyewitness:
“Just as the National Guards began to retreat, a women’s battalion turned up; they came forward on the double and began to fire, crying ‘Long live the Commune’. They were armed with Snider carbines and shot admirably.” (quoted in Thomas p.159).
After the events the women combatants were vilified as “petroleuses” – blamed for setting fire to the numerous government buildings gutted by arson and fighting in the last days. Though classic labour movement accounts have tended to see this as pure demonology, the later, feminist scholarship supports some systematic involvement and intent among the women.
It is also likely – according to the account given in Communard Jules Valles’ fictionalised history of the events, L’Insurge – that women were involved in the high-profile massacre of police informers and priests at the Rue Haxo in Belleville, two days before the end.
This became the subject of one of the photographic montages produced as propaganda for the victorious authorities (making the Commune not just the first social conflict to be photographed, but the first to see doctored photography used as political propaganda).
The woman seen leading the massacre, on a white horse in the photo-montage, was never identified or tried. Valles recounts a conversation with one female participant in the massacre just afterwards:
“This one had no opinions of the Social Revolution but her sister had been the mistress of a priest, got pregnant, and left her family after stealing their savings. ‘That’s why I came down when I saw the cassocks passing under my window; that’s why I pulled the beard of one of them that looked like Celine’s lover; that’s why I shouted ‘Kill them!” and that’s why my wrists are red.” (p.216)
The past 50 years of scholarship have altered the image of the Commune: no longer is it seen through the lens survivors like Lissagaray saw it through – a political battle over strategy between authoritarian Jacobinism, moderate anarchism and Marxism.
Studying the first-hand accounts, contemporary novels, memoirs and the new digital evidence allows us to see it as a granular social revolution as well: a revolution whose “social” aspect took place in people’s personal lives, communities, workplaces and clubs.
Both Michel’s and Rouchy’s autobiographies are laden with emotion, sentiment, nostalgia (and in Michel’s case imagination) – which we can understand better given the experiences of modern survivors of mass murder. By the time they were each written, the political world that had produced the Commune had disappeared, to be replaced by a labour movement so incorporated into capitalism that neither woman felt able to take part in it.
The experience of deportation, exile, and political marginalisation is what unites the stories of the two women after the Commune, and of other surviving women such as Dmitrieff (see Sylvie Braibant’s, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Aristocrate et Petroleuse, Paris 1983). I remain fascinated by what is untold in this story of defeat and aftermath.
Eight women were condemned to death, 29 to hard labour, twenty – including Michel as “Prisoner Number One” – deported for life to a fortress; and a further 16 to ordinary transportation. (Jellinek, p.379) They formed a small fraction compared to the 7,000-plus male communards sentenced to deportation.
Alice Bullard’s Exile to Paradise is a brilliantly original study of the experience of those deported to New Caledonia. Michel’s memoirs and her 1875 book Kanak Legends and Folksongs are also valuable accounts of this experience. Michel’s time on New Caledonia, during which she interacted with the eventually rebellious indigenous people of the island, forms the subject of the Sólveig Anspach’s (2009) acclaimed feature film The Rebel and Francoise D’Eaubonne’s Louise Michel la Canaque (1985).
Michel survived New Caledonia and returned, serving three years in prison for her involvement in a Parisian bread riot in 1883. Dmitrieff escaped Paris but ended her days in self-imposed exile in Siberia.
Rouchy can be found in the 1891 British census, at 82 Akerman Road, Brixton. She is listed together with her husband, an adopted daughter and numerous young women, including a German wool stapler, who seem to have no good reason for being there other than the most likely one: that they were sofa-surfing fellow anarchists.
Paul Mason’s latest book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was published by Verso in 2012. His play about the women of the Paris Commune, “Defeat”, is currently in development.
Lissagaray, P.O. History of the Paris Commune of 1871 trans Marx E, London, 1886
Jellinek, F. The Paris Commune of 1871 London, 1937
Thomas, E. The Women Incediaries New York, 1966
Gullickson, G.L. Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune New York, 1996
Eichner, C.J. Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune Bloomington, 2004
Mason, P. Live Working Or Die Fighting: How the working class went global London, 2007
Michel, L. (ed and trans Lowry, B., and Gunter, E.E.) Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel University, Alabama, 1981
Brocher, V. Souvenirs d’une Morte Vivante (ed Descaves, L.) Paris, 1909
Johnson, M.P. The Paradise of Association: Political Culture and Popular Organizations in the Paris Commune of 1871 Ann Arbor, 1996
Valles, J., trans Petrey, S. The Insurrectionist New Jersey, 1971
D’Eaubonne, F. Louise Michel la Canaque: Recit Paris, 1985
Tombs R, “Warriors and Killers: Women and Violence During the Paris Commune, 1871” in Aldrich, R., and Lyons, M. eds, The Sphinx in the Tuileries and Other Essays in Modern French History: Papers Presented at the Eleventh George Rudé Seminar, Sydney, 1999
Braibant, S. Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Aristocrate et Petroleuse , Paris, 1983