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Women in revolt

September 28, 2007 | Page 11

Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries: The Inspiring Story of the Women of Paris Commune Who Took Up Arms in the Fight for Liberty and Equality. Haymarket Books, 2007, 274 pages, $16.

ELIZABETH LALASZ reviews a unique book about women's role in the Paris Commune.

HAYMARKET BOOKS' new edition of Edith Thomas' The Women Incendiaries: The Inspiring Story of the Women of Paris Commune Who Took Up Arms in the Fight for Liberty and Equality is necessary reading for anyone committed in fighting sexism today.

The role women played during the Paris Commune 1871 is one of the most heroic chapters in the history of working-class struggle. Thomas' book recounts the incredible stories, supplemented with many first-hand references, of the courageous perseverance and ingenuity of women of Paris both fighting in defense of the Commune and actively developing a new society as equal participants within it.

For 72 days in 1871, the working class took control of Paris and began to run it for themselves. In that time, the world got a glimpse of what socialism would really look like--that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

It's incredible considering what women overcame. They worked tedious low-wage jobs and frequently turning to prostitution to supplement their incomes in order to survive.

What else to read

The new edition of Edith Thomas' The Women Incendiaries is now out from Haymarket Books.

The Women Incendiaries assumes knowledge of the history of the Paris Commune. For an introduction to this history, look for The Paris Commune 1871 by Stewart Edwards--and, of course, Karl Marx's Civil War in France. Thomas has also written Louise Michel, an exceptional biography of one of the leading figures of the Commune.


Another hurdle was the sexist ideas dominant among the supporters of the Commune. The International Workingmen's Association founded in 1864 and its General Council, led by Marx, voted to admit women to membership. But the majority of the French delegation, adherents of utopian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, voted against.

The Women Incendiaries shows how sexist ideas were confronted. Some women sought education and found employment outside the home. Others even joined the International despite its backward ideas, like Louise Michel, who became the best-known female revolutionary fighter of the Commune.

Women also threw themselves into defending the Commune, with the best example being the day the Commune began--March 18, 1871, when they stopped the French Army from seizing the cannons of the National Guard (the Commune's militia).

It was the housewives who noticed the French army on top of Montmartre hill who spread the alarm. Thomas quotes Louise Michel: "I went down, my rifle under my coat, crying 'Treason.' A column was formed....The call to arms was sounded. I came back, indeed, but with others, to the attack on the fortified heights of Montmartre; we went up with the speed of charge, knowing at the top there was an army in battle formation. We expected to die for liberty. It was as if we were lifted from the earth."

Parisian women mingled among the troops and begged them not to shoot them or their children. The initially bewildered soldiers were soon won to the women's side.

Thomas writes, "Ten days later, when the Commune, elected on March 26, moved into the Hôtel de Ville, a crowd that included many women joyously welcomed the new power--the power of the people, and of hope."

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WOMEN PLAYED an active role in building the new society. In every Parisian neighborhood, there were clubs and committees where workers discussed and debated politics. Women were heavily involved in these groups.

The Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and for Aid to the Wounded was one of many clubs, which organized women, but none were so advanced in class politics. Organized by Elizabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian immigrant who knew Marx, it was the French women's section of the First International.

They recruited women to serve at ambulance stations and field kitchens, and to administer funds from voluntary collections--all to be ready at a moment's notice on the orders of Commune.

When unemployment skyrocketed, the Women's Union argued for women to produce arms and military outfitting. Thomas writes, "fifteen hundred women were sewing sandbags for the barricades...Every evening, the wages paid out, and the workers received full payment for their work, 8 centimes per bag." Dmitrieff saw this co-operative production as beginning the socialist reorganization of the economy.

They implemented progressive educational reform. Day nurseries were also established near factories to help out working women. Unfortunately, revolutionary changes taking place in Paris remained largely isolated from the rest of France. The French military marched on Paris, first shelling and then invading it on May 21, 1871.

The Communards fought back, barricade by barricade. Until the last moments, women showed exceptional courage. During the period known as "the bloody week," men, women and children were killed by the French Army lining them up and shooting. After the defeat of the Commune, 1,051 women were brought before the Councils of War.

Women's commitment to the Commune rang out clearly even in the darkest hour. Thomas quotes Louise Michel during her court appearance, "I have been told that I am an accomplice of the Commune. Certainly, yes, for the Commune wanted, above all else, the Social Revolution, and the Social Revolution is the dearest of my desires."

For the first time in history, a workers' state which wouldn't have happened without the women of the Paris Commune. The Women Incendiaries boldly retells this spectacular story and is a must have.

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