This month marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune.
The Commune was created during a bloody inter-capitalist conflict called the Franco-Prussian War. In 1871, the Parisian workers revolt against the French government of National Defense, sitting in Versailles, which plans to return part of France and pay a fine to the invading Prussian troops.
On March 18, 1871, women seized cannons belonging to the popular militia known as the National Guard. The Guard refused to shoot the women and repelled attempts by Versailles troops to wrest their cannons.
With the National Guard in control of Paris, plans were made to elect a new workers’ government – the first of its kind. But the population was concerned about the city’s military defense.
From day one, women took on a series of tasks, some traditional like babysitting, and others anything but. They sewed sandbags – and some women helped stack them on the barricades. Women looked after the wounded as ambulance nurses. Many nurses carried rifles or revolvers and fired at the troops of the government of Versailles.
There were multiple women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Vigilance Committees and the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris. The latter was affiliated with the First International, led by Karl Marx in London. There were many social clubs where political discussion took place. Many were held in churches that had been taken care of. Some clubs were specifically reserved for women.
Public education has been restructured, independent of the Catholic Church, with schools for girls and boys. Workshops have been set up by women’s organizations, creating jobs for women making items needed on the battlefield, including cartridges and sandbags. Women attendants animated the military canteens and fed the soldiers of the Commune.
The women helped enforce the Commune’s requirement that all men between the ages of 19 and 40 enlist in the National Guard – they hunted down and exposed the “rebellious”. They publicly denounce the police officers and their wives as agents of Versailles.
In many ways, women championed and advanced the vision of a whole new society. Their dream was shattered in a campaign of terror that ended on May 28 with some 20,000 Communards killed, their bodies piled into mass graves and more than 43,000 arrested. Passers-by and children were among those massacred.
The French word “petroleum” was invented by the bourgeoisie to defame Communard women. Not only were they attacked for having abandoned their “feminine duties” as wives and mothers, but they were accused of having started the fires which raged in Paris in the last days of the Commune. While the arson accusations were by and large false, the women leaders who emerged during this 72-day struggle had an incendiary passion for equality and justice.
The most famous of many prominent figures was Louise Michel, who was also good at rifle shooting and political oratory. She has played many roles as chair of the Women’s Vigilance Committee, including mobilizing women to care for the wounded. She defended the right of sex workers – who did not have a regular job or needed to supplement a meager salary – to serve as nurses. Some men objected to their presence.
With those arrested in the thousands, Michel escaped capture, but surrendered when she learned that her mother had been arrested in her place.
Other women leaders of the Commune included Beatrix Excoffon, André Leo, Elisabeth Dmitrieff (the 20-year-old leader of the Women’s Union), Nathalie Lemel, Anna Jaclard and Sophie Poirier. Many of them, along with Michel, were tried and received severe sentences, including banishment to a fortress, a life sentence of hard labor, years of imprisonment or exile in various French penal colonies, including French Guiana in South America. and Kanakry, which the French called New Caledonia, in the Pacific.
Many of these exceptional women did not repent at the trial. Michel told the court: “I am yours. Take my life if you want to. She was banished to a fortress in Kanakry. Lemel shamelessly testified that “I wrote a manifesto with four other women. I cooperated in the construction of the barricades. His sentence was the same as Michel’s. (Edith Thomas, “The incendiary women”)
Among the many lesser-known women tried and convicted were bookbinders, garment workers, cardboard makers, bootlacers, sex workers and housewives. The workers had formed the basis of the Women’s Union and vigilance committees.
Louise Michel supported an 1871 revolt of 200,000 Algerians against French rule. She befriended the rebels who, along with 4,200 Communards, were exiled in Kanakry.
Michel embraced the cause of Indigenous Kanaks, learning their languages and using his teaching skills to provide education to children and adults. She supported the 1878 uprising against land theft as part of the French policy of “cantonment”. Its leader, Chief Atai, was among 1,200 killed when France quelled the rebellion.
“The Kanaks were looking for the same freedom that we had sought in the Commune,” writes Michel. His solidarity is still remembered in Kanakry, where a primary school bears his name. (Nic Maclellen, “Louise Michel”)
In 1880, a universal pardon was pronounced for all those condemned in connection with the Paris Commune. Back in Paris, Michel co-chaired a conference calling for amnesty for the Algerian rebels. She condemned the French imperialist aggression in Madagascar and Vietnam.
“I could never have stopped myself from giving my life to the revolution,” writes Michel in his memoirs.
The spirit of 1871 continues!