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The Group

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 factories to earn the modest sum of two francs a day, or even less, and nothing on Sundays or holidays. Saturday night, having finished their daily work, they spend half the night mending the family clothing; they also go to the wash house to soak the clothing so that they can wash it on Sunday morning.

Their lives were consumed with physical toil and the struggle to feed their children and this made possible only by credit from grocer and baker and by pawning the family’s rags at the mont de piété. Inadequate pay pushed many into prostitution when the day’s work was done; this was known as the fifth quarter of the day. Their husbands could escape some of the realities of poverty by spending their pitiful wages on cheap alcohol; thus artificially reinforced, they could return to their families and the squalor of home. Many unions were irregular, perhaps out of negligence or perhaps out of anti-clericalism; certainly the virtues of the Christian faith, chastity, honesty, and good works could only be hollow phrases to the slum dwellers of Paris.

The second sort of woman belonged not to the economically but to the socially depressed. They were an early kind of emancipationist, keenly intelligent women aware of the restrictions imposed upon them by the mere fact of their sex. Some like Louise Michel, a school teacher, had no political affiliations and no program beyond an improvement of the lot of women; a minority, of whom Elizabeth Dmitrieff was the most extreme, had come under the influence of Marxism, and the club, founded by Dmitrieff, Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blessés was the women’s section of the French International. They were united in their contempt for a society which regarded them as second-class citizens and saw in the Commune a chance to effect changes. They were ardent protagonists of female education, professional training, and equal pay; they denounced social attitudes that condemned the prostitute but not the man who used her. Many of them did not marry but undertook instead a union libre, as binding as marriage but unsanctioned by a ceremony which made them profess obedience to a man. At the same time, let it be said, they had all the moral rectitude of the practising atheist. The orthodox religion of the day had very little to offer them: the catholicism of the Fifties and Sixties, Maria Immaculata Concepta, Bernadette of Lourdes, an obsession with mysticism, and the sancity of motherhood was obviously repellent to women out to change, not reinforce, traditional attitudes.

THE COMMON PLATFORM of these two groups of women, from the earliest days of the Commune, was the living wage. This was the theme of Louise Michel’s La société démocratique de moralisation, whose aim was to help women live by the proceeds of a decent day’s work, and of Elizabeth Dmitrieff’s more militant Union des femmes. The latter was aware that the club members had only the vaguest ideas of socialism and that what bound them together was a visceral appreciation that they had worked all their lives for ridiculously low wages and that, without action, their children would be like them, poverty-stricken and exploited. She feared that unless a comprehensive work program of specific tasks and pay was formulated for women, they would in a short time drift away in disillusionment and return “to the passive and more or less reactionary state to which [they] belonged in the past.” Other topics were discussed in the clubs: the call for measures to be taken against married men who remained in bars after eleven, practical education for girls and a general denunciation of women of suspect morality—full-time prostitutes playing their shameful trade on public thoroughfares, for example—but these were secondary to the central theme of adequate remuneration for female labor.

How much hope for the realization of their ideas did the Commune offer? The question is difficult to answer given its short existence. Miss Thomas perhaps puts her finger close to the truth when she writes:

The men of the Commune did not foresee for a single instant that women might have civic rights…but certain measures, like the remission of rent payments or the discontinuation of the sale of articles deposited at the mont de piété, affected women directly. A 600-franc pension was to be granted the wife, legal or not, or any member of the National Guard who had been killed defending the people’s rights, after an inquiry that would establish her rights and needs. Each of her children, legitimate or not, could collect a 365 franc pension until he was eighteen. At the expense of the Commune, orphans would receive the education necessary “to make their own way in society”… This was an implicit recognition of the structure of the working-class family, as it really existed, outside the context of religious and bourgeois laws: the recognition of Unions libres, the right of children, legitimate or natural, to subsistence, and the disappearance of the old macula bastardiae of Roman Law, Church and Civil Code.

These concessions may seem slender, but when hope such as this was thrown out, thousands of women in Paris were prepared to give their support.

The positive role of women in the continued existence of the Commune was largely that of ambulance nurses and canteen workers helping their menfolk in the stand against the rest of France. In spite of the more militant aspirations of the Union des femmes to form an army of Amazons, or Louise Michel’s offer to play Charlotte Corday to their’s Marat (both projects met with an outright refusal from the Paris government), their activities were confined to food and medical care until the last hours when the Versailles troops entered Paris and the Commune, in its last bid for survival, could not pass over its woman power in its call to every citizen to take up arms:

Let even the women join their brothers, their fathers, their husbands! Those who have no weapons can tend the wounded, and can haul paving stones up to their rooms to crush the invader. Sound the tocsin; set the bells ringing; fire all the canons.

MEN AND WOMEN RESPONDED: A female wine merchant organized the construction of a barricade in the rue St. Jacques; a stocking maker in the rue St. Antoine; a waitress helped build the barricades at the rue des Charbonnières; a woman led the ransacking of a bookshop for construction material; a feather dealer urged her lover to build a barricade in the rue Ténier; a professional nurse carried paving stones for the barricade on the rue de Meaux; and so on. They fought, unorganized, with husband or lover or on the barricades near their homes until overwhelmed or until their ammunition ran out. They fought against professional soldiers in streets that Haussmann had opened out expressly for artillery fire; young and old, part-time tarts like Arsène Houssays and school teachers like Marguerite Tinayre. They may, or may not, have been responsible for the burning of some buildings in order to deprive the Versailles troops of any shelter behind which to attack the barricades. There is little justification for the fact, made much of at the trials, that they were deliberate incendiaries, viragos armed with gasoline bombs, burning at will.

How many died fighting or were shot in the reprisals will never be known, for even the total number of dead is uncertain—perhaps greater than the official figure of 30,000, perhaps less than the 100,000 estimated by the Commune’s eulogists—but of the bestial nature of the treatment of the women fighters there is no doubt.

As for the women who were executed, they were treated somewhat like unfortunate arabs belonging to insurgent tribes. After they were shot, while they were still in their death throes, they were stripped of their clothing, and sometimes the insult went further as in the Faubourg Montmartre, or the Place Vendôme where women were left naked and sullied upon the sidewalks.

Eight hundred women imprisoned in the Gare de l’Ouest were casually shot at by their warders and many were physically maltreated. At their trials, they were considered not only traitors but freaks:

unworthy creatures who seem to have taken on the task of becoming an opprobrium to their sex and of repudiating the magnificent role of women in society. [Jules Allix]

Some magnificence: some role. That the women of the Commune suffered in vain there can be little question, and that their struggle was in part a premature expression of the awakening of women to a fuller social role seems equally irrefutable. When female “emancipation” came, its protagonists were tweedy and wholesome, the product of high-powered women’s colleges; there was no question of murder or of barricades; no hint of dubious morals and no real economic suffering. Louise Michel with her desire to obliterate Thiers personally was as spiritually remote from Emily Pankhurst as Karl Marx from Winston Churchill. But the social environment in which they were thrown up was different too and it is that environment which Miss Thomas manages so well to present. The women of the Commune were never romantic figures and the poets who have placed them on a pedestal and accentuated their youth and beauty have diminished them as much as did Maxine du Camp, who made them all hags and viragos, and Le Figaro, who dismissed them as prostitutes. Miss Thomas has laid all specters low; in her book the women of the Commune emerge individually and as striving human beings, worthy of pity and of sympathy and indeed, pétroleuses or not, of admiration.

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