Women’s role in the Paris Commune was not limited to the morning of March 18 when a crowd of working class women put themselves between the cannons in possession of the National Guard (the citizen’s militia) and the troops of the National Assembly, led by Adolphe Thiers; the action which sparked the revolution. Throughout the 72-day reign of the Commune, women organised, argued, theorised and fought alongside men to defend and develop the revolution.
Women discussed ideas, argued about demands and expressed their hatred of the church and the state and the role these institutions played in their oppression.
Much of this discussion took place in the various political clubs, many of which were established during the siege (from September 1870 to February 1871) and following the tradition of 1789 and 1848.
During the Commune more clubs sprang up, often in churches that had been taken over by communards.
Paule Mink organised in the clubs. She took an action-over-organisation approach to things and was a “rhetorically violent and anti-clerical communard”. Mink took part in at least four clubs and shared platforms with working class women.
Working-class women’s anti-clericalism was a result of their poverty and position in society. The church was immensely wealthy, it controlled education, particularly girls’ education. It influenced wages and played a considerable role in driving down the wages of women in the needle trades by undercutting women workers’ rates of pay through the charitable labour of needlewomen in the convents.
Around 60,000 women and girls were employed in this trade out of 112,000 working women in Paris.
During the Commune Mink helped organise the Club de la Victoire, in St Sulpice. She spoke regularly at the other clubs. She established a free school for girls, helped organise an ambulance corps, met and strategised with other women, and travelled around the provinces to make propaganda for the revolution.
Mink was not seen (and did not see herself) as a Jacobin during the Commune, but in later years she described herself as a Jacobin-Blanquist.
An example of the anti-clerical rhetoric in the clubs is summed up by the speech of a 16-year-old communarde named Garbrielle who announced at the Club Saint-Sulpice:
“We must shoot the priests; they prevent us from doing what we want. Women are harmed by going to confession… I therefore urge all women to take hold of all the priests and to burn their ugly mugs off (brûler la gueule)! When they are gone, we will be happy. Never fear… go with a good heart… I will be the example. To death, to death! That is the cry of my soul. The same for the nuns. Attack these breeders of hell. To death, to death!” (Few priests were actually shot and no nuns were murdered during the Commune.)
Marriage fared no better than the priests in club discussions.
A communarde known as La Matelessière (“the mattress maker”) declared at a Club des prolétaires meeting, “I have a 16-year-old daughter, and never as long as I live will she marry… She now lives with someone, and she is very happy without sacraments of the church.”
Mink had a class analysis beyond anti-clericalism:
“Another evil of the present society is the rich, who only drink and amuse themselves, without ever troubling themselves. We must get rid of them, along with the priests and the nuns. We will only be happy when we have no more bosses, no more rich and no more priests.”
After the defeat of the Commune Mink was exiled and did not return to France for 10 years. But on her return she resumed political agitation.
The Union des Femmes
On 11 April 1871, the Journal Officiel (the official newspaper of the Commune) carried on its front page an appeal by “un groupe des cityonnes” (women citizens) calling for the setting up of “a women’s movement for the defence of Paris”. The appeal went on to say it welcomed “the advent of the reign of Labour and of Equality…”
At the inaugural meeting there was discussion about women’s oppression and how equality should be fought for; practical decisions were taken as to how things should proceed. The meeting agreed to set up local committees in the arrondissements (districts). These committees would recruit volunteers for nursing, canteen work, construction of barricades and staffing barricades.
At the same meeting procedural statutes and memberships rules were agreed on and a provisional central committee was elected to be replaced by a committee made up of delegates from the arrondissements eventually. At this meeting they also agreed to send a proposal to the Executive Commission of the Commune requesting material aid in setting facilities in each arrondissement town hall.
The entire text of the Union des Femmes central committee was printed on 14 April in the Journal Officiel alongside a summary of the decisions taken at this first meeting.
Working-class women are central to all of the ideas discussed and voted on at this first meeting. Six of the seven signers of the central committee’s address signed “worker” after their name.
The address sees the ultimate objective of the Commune to end discrimination and inequality, including discrimination against women. And it argues that sex discrimination is employed by the powerful, and recognises that sex discrimination divides men and women of the working class.
A well-distributed poster printed by the Commune for the Union des Femmes replies to publication of a truce appeal put out by an anonymous group of women. The Union poster insists that “conciliation… would be a denial of all working-class hopes for total social revolution, for the abolition of all existing social and legal structures, for the elemination of all privileges and forms of exploitation for the replacement of the rule of Capital by the rule of Labour….in short for the emancipation of the working class by the working class…
“Once victorious, men and women workers in complete solidarity will be able to defend their common interests and with one final effort they will extinguish all trace of exploitation and exploiters.”
In a second address the Union goes on to argue for equal pay for equal work, which is the first time this demand had been raised by a large group of French women.
Of the seven women who set in motion the Union des Femmes on 11 April, Elisabeth Dmitrieff and Nathalie Lemel were both active members of the International Working Men’s Association (later known as the International or First International); and together they appear to have been the Executive Commission’s driving force during the Union’s six-week life.
Of the other five little is known, other than Aline Jarry, who had been associated with André Léo in the late 1860s, and Blanche Lefèvre, who was a frequent speaker in the discussion clubs and was to die a few weeks later at the barricades.
Nathalie Lemel was a member of the French section of the International Working Men’s Association, a seasoned organiser by the time of the Commune.
She was a driving force behind the Union des Femmes along with Elisabeth Dmitrieff. She was active in the bookbinders union in the 1860s and was elected to the bookbinders strike committee in 1864-65. She also worked in the union’s mutual aid society and frequently contributed to the discussion club of the 6th arrondissement during the siege.
Along with Eugene Varlin, Lemel set up and ran “La Marmite” cooperative restaurant and meeting place. Later, during the siege of Paris, other branches of La Marmite were created.
Lemel had extensive organisational skills. After the Commune she was deported to New Caledonia. Henri Rochefort, founder of the L’intransigeant newspaper, recalled a discussion with her on the prison ship on the way to New Caledonia. He said of her: “One of the most intelligent women I have ever known. Eloquence and common sense equalled her courage: her thinking was marked by astonishing clarity and rigour.”
The other main driving force behind the Union des Femmes was a young Russian émigré and member of the International, Elisabeth Dmitrieff.
Around 20 years old, she was delegated by Russian revolutionaries to visit Marx in London. There is conflicting evidence as to when she arrived in Paris, some claiming she was in Paris before the Commune began and other evidence saying she arrived around 28-29 March after the inauguration of the Commune. Regardless of when she arrived, Dmitrieff wasted no time in getting involved and organised. Just three weeks into the revolution she published a call to women:
“Citoyennes, the decisive hour has arrived. It is time that the old world come to an end! We want to be free! And France is not rising alone, all the civilised people have their eyes on Paris… Citoyennes, all resolved, all united… to the gates of Paris, on the barricades, in the neighbourhoods, everywhere! We will seize the moment… And if the arms and bayonets are all being used by our brothers, we will use paving stones to crush the traitors!”
Dmitrieff escapes Paris after the Semaine Sanglante (the bloody week of 21-28 May) and flees to Russia where she ends her days in Siberia with her husband, who is exiled there.
André Léo was a journalist and novelist. In the late 1860s through to the siege she devoted her time to making propaganda for socialist and feminist ideas and using the discussion clubs as a forum.
During the Commune, Léo advocated aggressive broad-based military effort against the Commune’s enemy, Thiers and his Versailles troops. She argued that the Commune’s National Guard must incorporate women. In her memoirs she argued that civil war, unlike International war, “made for the profits of kings in the interest of thievery and pride” is “the only legitimate war from the perspective of the oppressed”.
The Commune, for Léo, meant the destruction of class and gender barriers. Léo established the newspaper La Sociale at the beginning of April 1871. She used the paper to influence rank and file communards about socialist feminist ideas.
On April 12 she wrote an editorial “Toutes avec tous”, “All Women with All Men”, arguing for men and women to fight together on the battlefield. She pleads: “Women’s help is now necessary… Let them fully participate in the struggle to which they have already given their hearts. Many desire it, and many are able.”
She did not, however, call for the participation of women on the Commune’s executive.
Like Dmitrieff, Lemel, Mink and Louise Michel, Léo did not argue for women’s political rights during the Commune, largely on the basis that they saw these structures as temporary and believed things would change rapidly. They also regarded social changes to be of far greater immediate value.
Alongside arguing for women’s right to participate in the battlefields as fighters and in a supportive role as nurses, etc, Léo also dared to argue that the Commune’s military strategy was wrong.
She argued that they had missed a unique offensive opportunity to attack the city of Versailles in the early days of the revolution.
Léo had argued for women’s participation in the National Guard during the siege of Paris from September 1870. She concerned herself with challenging gender stereotypes and breaking down the restrictive practices placed on women. Léo spent her whole political life challenging the dominant ideology of what a woman’s role is and she saw education as being the liberating force for women and men.