Louise Michel and the Paris Commune

 Jasmine Ali begins a Solidarity series on the lives and struggle of revolutionary women

The Australian newspaper has welcomed the first female prime minister as the fulfilment of the “feminist dream”. Some feminists do consider her election to be the expression of increasing gender equality and a step forward for all women. But the notion that elite and working class women have a common interest is as far from truth as it is hegemonic.

The Paris Commune of 1871, one of the most inspiring episodes in working class history, reveals how social revolution and women’s liberation are linked together. Louise Michel, a school teacher and leader of the Commune, played a pivotal role in women’s groups and community associations, becoming the chairperson of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee.

Women initiated, lead and defended the social revolution of the Parisian working people against the French state. The “Commune” was the name adopted by the Parisian workers who for 72 days ran society themselves—a new form of state emerged, with directly elected and recallable delegates.

On the very first day of the Commune, Louise Michel and other Parisian women made history as they swarmed out to meet the French troops sent to crush the Parisian workers. “Will you fire upon us? On your brothers? Our Children?” they appealed. Their fraternisation politically disarmed this first attack on the Commune.

The French newspapers’ response to these women was scathing. One reactionary writer wrote, “The weaker sex behaved scandalously during these deplorable days…Those who gave themselves to the Commune—and there were many—had but a single ambition: to raise themselves above the level of man by exaggerating his vices…They were all there agitating, squawking…the gentlemen’s seamstresses, the shirtmakers, the teachers of grown-up schoolboys, the maids.”

The most developed women’s organisation was the “Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded” (Union des Femmes). The Union was responsible for mobilising women, aiding the revolution by running the ambulances, organising kitchens, helping the poor. But women also produced ammunition and arms and fought courageously on the barricades. Michel organised day nurseries for 200 children during the Commune so that women were free to fight.

The Union was predominantly composed of working class women. Its manifesto called for immediate changes including divorce, gender and wage equality, alongside the call for “total social revolution, for the abolition of all existing social and legal structures…in short, for the emancipation of the Working Class by the Working Class”. Its posters encouraged women to form the women’s trade union. It implemented progressive educational reforms, with an emphasis on the education of girls, as this was the most neglected area.

Changing ideasAttitudes regarding morality, sexual relations and prostitution were contested in the Commune. The Commune decreed a pension for the women and children of all citizens killed “defending the rights of the people”, thereby abolishing the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children and between marriage and free unions.

Despite this shift in consciousness, however, many remained hostile to prostitutes. There was unanimous support for the arrest of prostitutes and drunkards in some neighbourhoods. However revolutionaries like Louise Michel opposed such moral condemnation. “Who had more right than they, the saddest victims of the old world, to give their life for the new one?” Michel directed them to the Vigilance Committee, and many of them stayed to the very end of the bloody standoff. The Communards heroically defended themselves against the bloody violence of the French troops that first shelled and then invaded Paris on May 21.

Following the defeat of the Commune, 1051 women, including Louise Michel, were brought before the Councils of War. At her trial, Michel defiantly proclaimed, “I have been told that I am an accomplice of the Commune. Certainly yes; for the Commune wanted, above all else, the Social Revolution and the Social Revolution is the dearest of my desires. Even more, I am honoured in being one of the promoters of the Commune…If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance”.

The struggle by the working women and men of the Commune sharply exposed the different interests of ruling class and working class women. In exacting revenge for the defiance of the Commune, historians recorded that it was bourgeois women who were “the most violent, especially against their own sex.” As Louise Michel and other prisoners were brought before the courts, the “elegant women” of Versailles violently abused them, striking them with their sun shades.

The story of Michel and the Paris Commune is the beginning of a tradition in which the struggle for women’s liberation is inextricably linked to class struggle and the solidarity of working women and working men fighting together for a new society of freedom.


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