2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune; the moment that the working class seized political power for the first time, and held it for 72 days. Thousands of women took part in the events of the Commune and, against a backdrop of deep-rooted sexism, championed a revolutionary vision for the transformation of working class women’s lives.
Paris under siege
Life was hard for women in Paris in the mid-19th century. They worked long hours in back-breaking jobs and, with onerous domestic chores and squalid, overcrowded housing, homelife was little better. The majority of Parisian women were illiterate, having received little or no formal education other than catechism lessons.
After the Second Empire was toppled on 4 September 1870, Paris was placed under siege by the Prussian army; the seige would last until the provisional government surrendered at the end of January. Severe hardship saw people come together to organise community welfare and mutual aid initiatives and co-operative workshops. A new sense of solidarity and political militancy was forged.
Revolutionary clubs across every arrondissement in Paris would host nightly meetings, at which radical men and women, veterans of the 1848 revolutions, young workers from the Paris section of the First International and political refugees would debate political and economic issues, including women’s labour and ways of winning higher pay for women workers. Meetings were exciting and passionate. Some topics were censored under the siege - criticism of the Emperor, for instance - and considerable suspense was created by speakers who might, at any moment cross into forbidden territory, causing the meetings to be shut down, amidst roars of opposition. Many of the women at the forefront of the Commune can be found in the speakers records of these meetings.
Women played a critical role in the events of the Commune, right from the first moment of resistance. On the morning of 18 March, when the Versailles troops arrived in Montmartre to take control of Paris, it was women who moved first. According to the account of prominent Communard, Louise Michel, “All the women were there. The general gave the order to fire. We said to soldiers: Will you shoot at us? You will not shoot at the people.” Thereafter, women were at the heart of the struggle: women ambulancieres helping the wounded, sewing uniforms, writing for the Commune press, educating the children in newly secularised schools, and defending the city of Paris on the barricades and on gunboats along the Seine.
Despite the great efforts and sacrifices of women Communards, the political culture of the time was, of course, deeply sexist. Disappointingly, even under the Commune’s revolutionary government, women were not granted the right to vote in elections or stand as candidates. The Commune did, however, give women some positions of responsibility, appointing them to administer welfare institutions, sending them on liaison missions to provincial cities and including them on commissions to reform education.
The Union des Femmes (Women's Union)
On 11 April 1871, two weeks after the inauguration of the Commune, the Journal officiel published a front-page appeal by “un groupe des citoyennes” for the women of Paris to attend a meeting that evening, with the aim of forming “a women’s movement for the defence of Paris”. This founding meeting set up committees in most of the arrondissements of Paris to recruit volunteers for nursing and canteen work and for the construction and defence of barricades. It elected a provisional central committee (to be replaced by a committee composed of delegates from arrondissement committees). Members agreed to recognise the “moral authority” of the Union’s central committee and follow the instructions of their arrondissement committees, making the Union uncharacteristically democratic centralist for an organisation of the period. Committee members could be easily recalled. The Union grew rapidly and quickly became the Commune’s largest and most effective organisation, as well as functioning, in effect, as the first women’s section of the International.
Its provisional council was composed of seven women, six of them workers. Elisabeth Dmitrieff, twenty-year-old socialist and co-founder of the Russian section of the International, had spent the three months immediately preceding the Commune in London, in near daily discussions with Marx in his study, on the topic of the traditional Russian rural organisations. In March, she was dispatched to Paris as Russian envoy to the Paris Commune.
Nathalie Lemel earned her living as a stitcher in the bookbinding trade. She was elected to the bookbinders’ union’s strike committee during the 1864 and 1865 strikes and as a union militant she fought for equal pay between men and women. By the time the Commune came to power she was already a seasoned organiser, although best known for running La Marmite , a co-operative restaurant and meeting place set up a few years earlier by the Paris International. (There would later be another La Marmite restaurant off Tottenham Court Road in London, established by exiled Communards, which would serve as a hub for revolutionaries in London in the late 19th century.)
Sadly, little is known about the other five co-founders of the Women’s Union.
Whilst devoting much of its energy to aiding immediate combat requirements, the Women’s Union had an ambitious political vision: seeking a full reorganisation of women’s labour and an end to gender-based economic inequality and sex discrimination. In its founding address, the Union described sex discrimination as a tool, used by the ruling class to maintain power and divide the working class. The address goes on the say that women have not just a “duty” to defend the Commune, but a “right” - it demanded a place in the revolutionary movement for the “citoyennes” of Paris.
The Union Executive sought to form women-led worker co-operatives. It was hoped that these would emerge from initiatives by women workers themselves, once the Union had organised them into associations. The Union issued wall posters and notices in newspapers inviting women to meetings where “it is hoped that the various women’s occupations, such as needle trades, feather processing, artificial flowers, laundry, etc., will form unions.”
In May, the Union submitted two plans to the Commune’s Executive Commission: the first proposed these women’s co-operatives. The second called for the “abolition of all competition between men and women workers, their interests being absolutely identical and their solidarity essential for the success of the definitive universal strike of Labour against Capital…”, or, in other words, equal pay for equal work.
In the end, due to the pressures of a precarious military situation, the workshops that had been established were devoted to making munitions, sandbags and uniforms, and before any further plans could be rolled out, the Commune was defeated.
The Women’s Union, along with other women in Commune, had little interest in the right to vote, which had been a popular issue for women in 1848. Debates about the vote for women are strikingly absent from records of pre-Commune club meetings, meetings held during the Commune and speeches, declarations and memoirs of Communard women.
Aggravated hardship and unemployment undoubtedly shaped the focus of the Union towards economic demands rather than the civic objectives that had had the support of several leaders of the Union before the Commune. But this disinterest also reflected a broader political perspective held by socialists in Paris at the time: that voting rights were a bourgeois distraction. Paule Minck, socialist and militant in the Women’s Union, wrote in 1880 that “Universal suffrage is a double-edged weapon, and it is always the people who are wounded by it”.
The Commune lasted for only 72 days, from 18 March to 21 May 1871, before it was brought to a brutal end in la Semaine Sanglante - the Bloody Week. 20,000 Communards and suspected sympathisers were executed, 8,000 were jailed or deported, thousands of others fled into exile.
Elisabeth Dmitrieff was able to escape, and fled back to Russia. Nathalie Lemel was deported with Louise Michel to a penal colony in New Caledonia, where she stayed until she was granted amnesty in 1880. One of the other original founders of the Unions des Femmes, Blanche Lefevre died on a barricade.
The Paris Commune had significant limitations, perhaps most of all when it comes to women’s equality. Andrè Leo, official propagandist of the Commune and active member of the Women’s Union, wrote on 8 May 1871,
"If a history of France since 1789 were to be written dealing only with the inconsistencies of revolutionary moments, the question of women would be the largest chapter, and it would show how these movements have always found the way to drive half their troops over to the enemy; troops who had asked for nothing more than to fight at their side…”
Nevertheless, Leo remained a loyal and active participant in the Commune to the end. It's easy to see why. Despite its failings, the Commune brought thousands of working class women into a world-historic struggle. These women, despite being denied positions of power in the Commune's Executive, would be some of the best organised militants of the revolution. They were indispensable from beginning to end in the day-to-day running of the Commune but, more than this, organised to transform the lives of working class women. They weren't satisifed with piece-meal reforms; they were demanding a wholesale revolution, with gender equality at its heart.