The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Paris Commune:
Revolutionary Power and Women’s Liberation

May 24, 2021

Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.

Women in France 150 years ago had no rights or legal recognition. Poorly paid, with some forced into prostitution or oppressed in the factory and inside their family, women from working-class backgrounds took their place in the seat of working class power known as the Commune.

Women were not allowed to vote, nor did they, so none were elected. But they did help to establish this workers’ state. They were very much present in demonstrations on September 4 and March 18 in Montmartre, where they succeeded in convincing soldiers, ordered by Thiers to seize the rebels’ cannons, to shoulder their rifles.

From the Commune’s start, women revived political clubs and appropriated churches to hold their meetings. The Ambroise club in the city’s 11th district brought together 3,000 women. The Boule Noire in the 17th district was founded and chaired by Sophie Poirier, seamstress. Louise Michel, a teacher who followed Auguste Blanqui and then became an anarchist, often chaired the Revolution club in Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle. Blanche Lefebvre, a milliner, spoke almost every evening at the Social Revolution club wearing a red scarf and with a revolver at her hip. Articles, political leaflets, and declarations were often written by women like André Léo, who created the newspaper La Sociale.

The women of the Commune served as ambulance and cafeteria workers but also as combatants. Women were on duty 24 hours a day in each district’s town hall, where volunteers were recruited to organize defense, supplies, and education. Women stood armed guard at the gates of Paris. In the 12th district, a squadron of women was formed under the command of Colonel Adelaïde Valentin, worker, and Captain Louise Neckbecker.

They took part alongside men in guard committees, for example in Montmartre where there were two committees, one of men and one of women. Louise Michel went to both. “We didn’t really care what gender we were to do our duty. This stupid question was over,” she wrote in her memoirs. In her newspaper The Social Revolution she wrote: “Women must not separate their cause from that of humanity, but must be a militant part of the great revolutionary army.”

In the field of education, women set up free elementary education courses and vocational schools. They organized public readings for full-time moms and classes for young people who worked during the day and had never gone to school. Marguerite Tynaire was the first woman to hold the post of school inspector in Paris. Paule Mink opened a free school for girls in a former church.

In April, Karl Marx asked a woman militant of the International Workers’ Association, a woman of Russian origin, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, to be his correspondent in Paris. On April 11 and 12, she and others launched an appeal to the citizens of Paris to participate in the uprising by joining a newly formed revolutionary association of working women, the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded. Its first objective was the defense of Paris, but the appeal affirmed: “Moreover considering that in the social order of the past, the work of women was the most exploited, therefore the immediate reorganization of work is of the highest urgency ... we want to work, but to own the products.… No more exploiters, no more masters!… Live free while working, or die fighting!”

The Women’s Union, mainly made up of female workers, turned to Léo Frankel, head of the Labor and Exchange Committee. They proposed to operate workshops abandoned by their owners, in order to fight against unemployment, especially that of women, and to give orders for military equipment to workshops taken over by the workers themselves. The leaders of the Commune were obviously in favor of this idea, which was immediately carried out.

Women workers also made their own demands. The Commune instituted the rights to legal separation and to alimony. It prohibited prostitution as a form of “commercial exploitation of human creatures.” It decreed equal pay for teachers, considering that “in education, a woman’s work is equal to that of a man.” As apparently an unmarried companion of a National Guardsman did not have the same rights as a wife, who received a supplement to her husband’s pay, the women demanded the same treatment for all. In practice the Commune recognized civil unions, then very common in the working class, and it recognized all children born out of wedlock.

In May during the Versailles offensive, women defended the new government that had been a liberation for them. They helped erect the barricades. The Women’s Union drew up a manifesto: “No, it is not peace but rather all-out war that the working women of Paris demand.… The women of Paris will also know how to give their blood for the defense and the triumph of the Commune.” And most women involved militarily were workers.

During the Bloody Week, the repressive armies of the republican government led by Thiers made the combatants pay dearly for the place they had dared to take in the Commune, by means of summary executions, convictions, and deportations. To discredit them, Versailles propaganda even invented the image of the firebomb-throwing woman.

Whether on the barricades during Bloody Week, in prisons, or in exile, these combatants always held true to the role they had played during the Commune. Thus Louise Michel during her trial declared to the judges in the pay of Versailles her pride in having been a member of the revolutionary power: “It seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no other right than a bit of lead, so I claim mine! If you let me live, I will not stop crying out for revenge.… If you are not cowards, kill me.”