-by Meera Eragoda

Men are often considered by historians of the Paris Commune as its only true revolutionaries.1 Even Edith Thomas, one of the first authors to write extensively on women’s involvement in the Paris Commune disclaimed, “It would without a doubt be an exaggeration to say that this day of revolution was the work of women. But they contributed a great deal, at least to the first part: the neutralization of the troops.”2

But the women who participated in the Commune didn’t just happen to be there. They were socialist, Marxist, anarchist women who were just as revolutionary as the men, and the story of the Commune cannot be told without them. It may not even have been possible without them.

On March 18, 1871, the troops Adolphe Thiers sent into Montmartre to capture the cannons, were confronted in the early morning by women setting out on their daily tasks. These women convinced the troops to lay down arms by both appealing to their humanity and berating them.3 This was the spark that allowed Communards to seize the city.

While histories of the Paris Commune have rendered the women who stood up to the troops on the 18th largely anonymous, one woman, Louise Michel, not only made it into the historical record, but is considered the most famous female Communard. Michel challenged contemporary ideas of gender, choosing to fight alongside her Communard male counterparts, giving rousing speeches at political clubs, and speaking out about her political beliefs.4

Other prominent female Communards included journalist André Léo, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, and labour organizer and activist Nathalie Lemel. Dmitrieff was a 20-year-old Russian whose politics were informed by Karl Marx and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a Russian social critic.5 Her belief in cooperatives and Marxist centralization of authority led to her helping found Union des Femmes (The Union of Women) to fight for the rights of workers and women.6

The Union des Femmes espoused values of equality for men and women. They fought for equal pay, to end the exploitative hold of employers, and to properly value women’s labour, especially in areas such as garment-making.7 They understood that conditions in France were such that working women had to labour in long hours for little pay, barely making enough to get by. The church also provided them fierce competition, selling goods for 25% less than what working women were charging.8 Many women turned to sex work to supplement their income or entered into relationships unsanctioned by the Church — leading to the anticlericalism evident in the movement.9

The Union des Femmes was separate from the rest of the Commune because, though the Commune fought for ideals of equality, that equality had one major omission: women.

Women helped build and maintain barricades, fought alongside men, organized worker cooperatives, spoke at co-ed political clubs on things such as divorce laws, and were invested in the survival of the Commune.10 Still, they were limited to forming separate committees, kept away from much of the decision-making, and were not allowed to partake in Commune elections.11

For their part, this exclusion was a position that socialist feminists did not challenge. They saw the Commune’s power as “transitionary,” believing that real equality would be achieved beyond institutional structures.12

Still, in the last week of the fighting, as in the beginning, women were on the frontlines. The image of the pétroleuse stemmed from the burning of buildings in Paris in this week and became the lasting image of the Commune.13 Communards were slaughtered by Thiers’ troops. Many were placed on trial and either exiled or hung.14

The Versailles government made no distinction between the men and women of the Commune, choosing to see women’s involvement on equal terms as men. This is evident from their indiscriminatory targeting of women during Bloody Week. Arguably, women were considered an even greater threat to the established social order – a threat represented by the image of the pétroleuse.15

Women Communards were not perfect as the movement was not perfect, but they deserve to be considered an integral part of the Commune’s “establishment, maintenance, and defence.”16

from the archives

Figure 1: Artist or printers mark looks like “Bernard,” Uploaded by User: Nickpo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CommunePostcardMarch-May1871.jpg.

One of the most iconic images of women in the Commune is that of the pétroleuse or female incendiary.17 This is a woman who, through her ragged, unkempt appearance and frenzied eyes, was meant to symbolize the heartless destruction of Paris by the Commune. This type of image was released by Versailles conservatives as propaganda meant to scapegoat the female participants of the Commune, painting them as responsible for the destruction of the city in the last week of the Commune, despite much of it resulting from Versailles cannons.18 These images also give us insight into how women’s involvement in the Commune was perceived and used to advance a specific narrative.

On both sides, women were often reduced to one-dimensional archetypes with the goal of either glorifying or demonizing the Commune, largely erasing their importance in the Commune, as well as their nuanced and varied experiences.19

For those who wished to paint the Commune as dangerous, they needed to tie their characterization not only to women but to their class position and sexuality.20 The threat to men came from the belief that these working-class women would entice men to join the Commune’s cause with their wiles.21 Therefore, the only recourse was to paint them as sexually horrifying and subhuman. The image of the pétroleuse was often one such as above with her breasts hanging out to tie women’s sexuality to the danger of the Commune. Women fighting on the barricades was viewed as subverting societal norms and challenging the gender binary.22

By taking up space in public and stepping into traditionally male roles, women were condemned.  Women were essentially fighting on two fronts: one to further working-class rights and the other against misogyny.

  1. Judy Cox, “Genderquake: Socialist Women and the Paris Commune,” International Socialism 169, (January 5, 2021). http://isj.org.uk/genderquake-paris-commune/. Cox notes only three full length books have been published on the women of the Paris Commune (1964, 1996, and 2004).
  2. Edith Thomas, “Women in the Commune,” The Massachusetts Review 12, no. 3 (1971):  412.
  3. Gay Gullickson, “La Pétroleuse: Representing Revolution,” Feminist Studies 17, no. 2 (1991): 242.
  4. Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune, (Cornell University Press, 2018): 110.
  5. Carolyn Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune, (Indiana University Press, 2004): 71.
  6. Eichner, 71; Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 125; The full name of the organization was Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés (The Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded).
  7. Eichner, 69-70.
  8. Thomas, 409-10.
  9. Thomas, 410.
  10. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 109.
  11. Kristin Ross, “Beyond the ‘Cellular Regime of Nationality,” in Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso Books, 2015): 28.
  12. Eichner, 99-100.
  13. Gullickson, 159.
  14. Cox.
  15. Lynn Clement, “The Commune’s Marianne: An Art History of La Pétroleuse,” Age of Revolutions, June 12, 2017, https://ageofrevolutions.com/2017/06/12/the-communes-marianne-an-art-history-of-la-petroleuse/.
  16. Pourochista Rahmati’s peer review suggestion of this language.
  17. Clement.
  18. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 159.
  19. Clement.
  20. Eliza Guinn, “‘A Spectacle of Vice’: Sex Work and Moralism in the Paris Commune of 1871,” (Honors Papers, Oberlin, 2018) Digital Commons at Oberlin, 34, https://digitalcommons.oberlin.edu/honors/155.
  21. Gullickson, Unruly Women in Paris, 58
  22. Cox.

further reading

Coghlan, J. Michelle. “Framing the Pétroleuse: Postbellum Poetry and the Visual Culture of Gender Panic.” In Sensational Internationalism: The Paris Commune and the Remapping of American Memory in the Long Nineteenth Century, 23–51. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

This chapter examines how the women of the Commune were represented in America and how they were resisted, defended, and analogized to the female “firebrand.” Coghlan gives us insight into how these women were viewed outside of Europe.

6 thoughts on “women

  1. It’s interesting that so many women participated in the Commune, but that so few men on the left were willing to support genuine equality. Even the most radical women — like Andre Leo — still found their lives partly constrained by motherhood!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderfully thought out post! I learned so much reading this. I always enjoy learning about female specters like the pétroleuses who haunt the imaginations of men…


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