The Women Incendiaries
by Edith Thomas
Braziller, 274 pp., $7.95
Of the succession of revolutions which mark French history from 1789 that of the Commune was one of the least enduring—a brief, bloodstained interlude between an aristocratic Second Empire and an exaggeratedly noble République des ducs. But the intensity of its short life, the vindictiveness with which it was crushed, and the passions it aroused have made it one of the most controversial events in French history. It was not merely in its initial impetus but throughout a movement of the Paris masses, of the “have nots” against the “haves,” of those who had never been enfranchised against those, who had tasted power; in short, an unambiguous class struggle. The rising commanded not only the participation of the male working class but, for the first time in French history, that of the working women of the city, who were drawn from the shadow of domestic obscurity into political clubs and ultimately into the defense of Paris on the barricades.
A variety of legends has grown up around the women of 1871. Condemned by the Right as gutter trash, prostitutes, and gasoline-throwing Messalinas, summarily treated by the Left as playing a minor role in the great class struggle, deified by Hugo, Verlaine, and Rimbaud as latter-day Joan of Arcs—the history of the women of the Commune has remained obscure, formless, and without reality. Miss Thomas has raised questions about these women. Who were they? Why did they get involved in the rising? What was their positive role in the Revolution? To answer them she has examined over a thousand life histories mostly drawn from the reprieve dossiers of the Commune lying in the Archives Nationales—a method reminiscent of Professor Rudé’s The Crowd in the French Revolution—and the writings of the women themselves, works such as Victorine Brochon’s Souvenirs d’une morte vivante, Julie Daubié’s La femme pauvre an XIXe siècle, and André Leo’s La femme et les moeurs: Liberté ou Monarchie. The result is a simple and moving book. Those who approach it hoping to learn more of the politics of the Commune and its overthrow will be disappointed; but it has much to offer those who want to know what life was like in Haussmann’s Paris for a working woman and what women hoped to get from the revolution.
FROM THE STUDY, two sorts of women emerge, joined together in revolt by a common aim—the transformation of the condition of women in society. The more numerous group were those at the bottom of the wage scale, the seamstresses, laundresses, milliners, artificial-flower makers, lace workers, embroideres, shoestitchers, and linen drapers whom Victorine Brochon described:
I have seen some poor women who work twelve to fourteen hours a day for ludicrous wages, forced to leave aged parents and children and to shut themselves up for long hours in unhealthy workrooms, beyond the reach of either air or light or sunshine—for they are lit by gas. Droves of women are crammed into …