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Workers Vanguard No. 987

30 September 2011

Revolutionary Women in the Paris Commune

(Young Spartacus pages)

Both historians who defend the Commune and those who despise it have written much about the women who participated at every conjuncture in the Commune. In fact, depictions of women became metaphors for attitudes toward the Commune as a whole. To the bourgeoisie, Parisian women who supported the Commune were crazed viragoes who were “drunk with hate.” Depictions of bloodthirsty whores culminate in the bourgeoisie’s favorite image of the pétroleuses. Supposedly, these were the fanatical Communard women who in the last days, with their innocent children in tow, torched the great buildings of Paris. In reality, the bourgeoisie masks with these fabrications what really happened—the bourgeoisie drowned tens of thousands of proletarian men, women and children in a river of blood.

The most well-known female figure, the heroic Louise Michel, embodied the fervent determination of the Commune. Politically she was an anarchist, a follower of Bakunin. She was there on the morning of March 18, rousing Paris upon seeing Thiers’ troops in Montmartre. She volunteered to assassinate Thiers at Versailles, where the reactionary bourgeois government resided. She even snuck there and brought back newspapers to prove to her comrades that she could pull it off. She was a nurse with the ambulance companies and a fighter at the Fort of Issy and on the barricades. Defiant at her trial after the crushing of the Commune, she remained politically active for the rest of her life. The French bourgeoisie has since sanitized her image to turn her into a harmless feminist.

However, Michel was not central to the formation of the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. The Women’s Union was one of the most politically advanced expressions of revolutionary working-class consciousness in the Commune. It was able to lead and organize the widespread popular ferment among women because its precepts reflected the revolutionary proletarian perspective of the Marxist wing of the First International. The Women’s Union became the recognized intermediary between women in the city and the Commune government. No other group had such sustained citywide influence, from its founding in April to the end of the Commune on the barricades.

Elisabeth Dmitrieff along with Nathalie Le Mel were the leading forces behind the Women’s Union. Twenty years old, the Russian Dmitrieff was sent to Paris by Marx shortly before the Commune arose. She stepped forward to become a main advocate for women and to propagandize for a socialist perspective. Nathalie Le Mel, an active member of the First International and a former militant strike leader in the bookbinders union, worked alongside her.

On 11 April 1871, the Journal Officiel of the Commune devoted much of its front page to an appeal by “a group of citizens” to the democratic-minded women of Paris. The appeal called for the women to attend a meeting that evening with the purpose of forming “a women’s movement for the defence of Paris.” It also expressed the need for “the active collaboration of all the women of Paris who realize...that the present social order bears in itself the seeds of poverty and the death of Freedom and of Justice; who therefore welcome the advent of the reign of Labour and of Equality.” The appeal further stated that it was not just the Versailles government that was guilty of betraying Paris, it was equally “the privileged...who have always lived on [the people’s] sweat and grown fat on [the people’s] misery.” The civil war was “the final act of the eternal antagonism between right and might, between work and exploitation, between the people and its executioners!”

At its first meeting, the Women’s Union sent a proposal to the Executive Commission of the Commune soliciting material aid to set up facilities in each arrondissement (city district) town hall and to subsidize the printing of circulars, posters and notices for distribution. The Executive Commission immediately began to implement the meeting’s proposal by printing the entire text of the Address of the Union in the Journal Officiel on April 14, with a summary of the decisions taken at the meeting.

The Address illustrates the view of the Women’s Union on the source of women’s oppression. The designation ouvrière (worker) was placed under the name of six of the seven signatories to indicate their working-class origins. It referred to the Commune as a government whose ultimate objective was the abolition of all forms of social inequality, including discrimination against women. Most significantly, it described discrimination against women as a means by which the ruling classes maintain their power:

“That the Commune, representing the principle of the extinction of all privileges and of all inequality, should therefore consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes.

“That success of the present conflict whose aim is...ultimately to regenerate Society by ensuring the rule of Labour and Justice, is of equal significance to the women as it is to the men of Paris.”

—quoted in Eugene Schulkind, “Socialist Women During the 1871 Paris Commune,” Past & Present (February 1985)

Every member of the Women’s Union had to contribute ten centimes and to acknowledge the authority of the Union’s Central Committee. The arrondissement committees set up by the Women’s Union had rotating presidents aided by a board, which was subject to recall by members. The arrondissement committees’ functions included providing non-religious personnel for welfare institutions, such as orphanages and hostels for the elderly.

The Women’s Union also intervened in the political clubs that had taken over churches and had become mass “speakouts” and organizing centers for Parisian women and men. With women mounting the church pulpits, these gatherings gave voice to widespread hatred of the church. At one meeting a woman suggested that the bodies of 60,000 Parisian priests (her count) should be used instead of sandbags for constructing barricades.

On April 16, the Commune authorized conversion of abandoned workshops into worker-owned cooperatives. Immediately after the enactment of this decree, all types of labor associations in Paris were invited by the Commission of Labor and Exchange to assist in planning its implementation. The Commune invitation was addressed to unions and associations “of both sexes” and explicitly called on “women citizens, whose devotion to the Social Revolution is so invaluable, not to disregard the all-important question of the organization of production.”

Léo Frankel, a Hungarian Marxist and member of the First International, led the Commune’s Commission of Labor and Exchange. He was the main link between the Commune leadership and the Women’s Union, providing it with money and assistance. The Commission of Labor and Exchange let the Women’s Union substitute its own plan for women’s cooperatives for the one the Commission had already drafted, prior to the creation of the Union. A committee of nine representatives from labor organizations, including Nathalie Le Mel from the Executive Commission of the Women’s Union, met in mid May to coordinate their efforts.

The Women’s Union advertised for women to meet and form associations to run workshops in all the traditional women’s trades, such as the needle trades, feather processing, artificial flowers and laundry. In a plan submitted to the Commission of Labor and Exchange, the Women’s Union elaborated on what it envisioned as the goals of the Commune. It stated that the “Revolution of 18th March represents the point in history at which the proletariat will have...brought to fruition the age-old struggle for social equality,” and continued, “to establish firmly the foundations for the new political organization that is its necessary prerequisite, the Commune must complete the partial victory of the People, not by limiting itself to the urgent needs of military defence, but by embarking unequivocally on the path of social reform” (quoted in Schulkind, “Socialist Women During the 1871 Paris Commune”). There is evidence that workshops were formed to produce munitions, sandbags and uniforms.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s reactionary views toward women dominated the French section of the First International. Proudhon had preached the triple inferiority of women for supposed physical, intellectual and moral reasons. He used pseudoscientific claptrap to “prove” that the subordination of women was inevitable. So it is all the more remarkable that the Commune threw off this backward philosophy in favor of the fight for the complete equality of men and women. This is not to say that there still wasn’t much backward thinking among the Parisians as a whole. But in spite of the influence of anti-women bigotry, the Commune gave women positions of responsibility, appointed them to administer welfare institutions, sent them on liaison missions to provincial cities and included them on commissions to reform education and open new schools for girls, such as a school for industrial design.

In May, placards appeared calling for peace with Versailles, signed by an anonymous group of women citizens. Two days later, the Women’s Union responded with its own posters, denouncing the “anonymous group of reactionary women” who had written such a “shocking proclamation.” It wrote in the name of “social revolution, the right to work, and equality and justice” and excoriated these women for calling for conciliation with the “cowardly assassins” of Versailles. The wall posters also affirmed the view of the Women’s Union that the civil war was a class conflict.

A final tragic note is that on the day before the Versailles troops entered the city to crush the Commune, the Women’s Union was launching the Federal Chamber of Working Women to reorganize women’s work based on federated laborers’ associations. Instead, the Women’s Union organized women for the barricades, where many soon faced their final hour.

A few months after the massacre of the Commune, Léo Frankel wrote in a republican newspaper a passionate denunciation of those who opposed women’s equality:

“Women are deprived of their rights by the claim that their mental and physical faculties are inferior to those of men because nature designed women to be mother, wife and housekeeper. Thus, in all our laws and in all our institutions, women are considered as inferior to men, as being servants of men.

“All the objections produced against equality of men and women are of the same sort as those which are produced against the emancipation of the Negro race…. Firstly people are blindfolded and then they are told that they have been blind since birth.”

—quoted in Schulkind, “Socialist Women During the 1871 Paris Commune”

In a letter to Dr. Ludwig Kugelmann dated 17 April 1871, Marx argued against the defeatist position that one should only take up arms when victory is certain. He strongly made the point that political leadership is key. The Marxists Léo Frankel and Elisabeth Dmitrieff intervened into the short-lived Commune with a revolutionary proletarian program. Conscious of their goal of an egalitarian classless society, they helped lay the basis for future working-class struggles. Marx wrote:

“World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances. It would, on the other hand, be of a very mystical nature, if ‘accidents’ played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent on such ‘accidents,’ which included the ‘accident’ of the character of those who at first stand at the head of the movement....

“Whatever the immediate results [of the Commune] may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained.”


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