She stood on the barricades

March 7, 2017

Robyn Karina, an organizer with the International Socialists in Canada, contributes an article on a revolutionary who fought for the rights of women in the Paris Commune.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, women have been at the forefront of class struggle. Often times, they have been the first to say "enough is enough" and take their anger out into the streets.

One such woman, often forgotten, is Elisabeth Dmitrieff. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Russian Revolution--touched off when working-class women of Petrograd struck on International Working Women's Day, leading to the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy--Dmitrieff's story is one to remember and inspire.

On November 1, 1850, Elisabeth Dmitrieff was born out of wedlock. Her father was an aristocratic Tsarist official and her mother was a German nurse 20 years his junior. As a student, Dmitrieff was inspired by Chernyshevsky's novel What Is To Be Done?, which would likewise inspire Lenin years later. As a result, she became active in the early socialist movement that was developing in the harsh conditions of Tsarist Russia.

After finishing her basic schooling, Dmitrieff was restless for more knowledge and so, at the age of 18, she entered into a "mariage blanc" (a marriage of convenience) in order to move to Switzerland, one of the few countries at the time that didn't bar women from attending university.

Elisabeth Dmitrieff
Elisabeth Dmitrieff

In Geneva, she met other Russian revolutionaries who were interested in the First International--the International Workingmen's Association, an international organization which brought together into a unified force socialists, communists, anarchists and trade unionists--really anyone that wanted to defend the working class and advance the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system. With her fellow Russians, Dmitrieff co-founded the Russian section of the First International.

This group of Russian radicals sent the 19-year-old Dmitrieff to London as a delegate in order to study the workers' movement there and meet Karl Marx, co-author of the Communist Manifesto and the intellectual leader of the International.

In London, Dmitrieff became friendly with Marx and his family, especially his daughters. Despite the 33-year age difference between the two, they had in-depth discussions, during which Dmitrieff explained to Marx the complex socioeconomic conditions in Russia at the time.

ON MARCH 18, 1871, the workers of Paris rose up, taking their lives into their own hands and establishing the Paris Commune. With red flags flying, a socialist revolution by the working masses had begun, and it fought against not just the injustices of the local bourgeoisie, but the exploitation and oppression of workers of all nations by the ruling class and the capitalist system. The world watched the Paris Commune with anticipation.

Following the declaration of the Paris Commune, Marx and the General Council of the International sent Dmitrieff, then just 20 years old, into the workers' revolution to report on what was going on and to take part in organizing it.

Diving into the revolutionary upsurge, Dmitrieff met with working-class women in Paris and contributed to the defense of the barricades by organizing ambulance stations and canteens, all while pushing for the Commune to put into practice measures to further advance the emancipation of working women.

What resulted was "l'Union des femmes pour la défense de Paris et les soins aux blesses"--the Women's Union--a militant working-class women's organization connected to the International that Dmitrieff co-founded with French anarchist Nathalie Lemel.

At the first meeting on April 11, a central committee was democratically elected. As was standard in the Commune, the elected paid organizers received no more than an average worker's wage and were recallable by the members at any moment. On this central committee were several working-class women, and Dmitrieff was the general secretary.

Branches of the Women's Union were set up in each arrondissement (district) of Paris, and within each branch, there were committees for recruiting women to work at ambulance stations, canteens and on the barricades--which the Women's Union was adamant about its members being ready to defend at a moment's notice.

The money the Women's Union got through the dues from its estimated 2,000 members and from the central governing bodies of the Commune was used to provide wages for the paid organizers, to aid any of the general members that were ill or particularly impoverished, and buy guns and ammunition to arm the women. It was this kind of commitment to socialism and women's liberation in both theory and practice that propelled the Women's Union and Dmitrieff.

The members of the Women's Union encompassed a significant portion of the advanced section, or vanguard, of working-class women of Paris. These class-conscious women saw the need to overthrow capitalism and build the socialist alternative for the liberation of themselves as both women and workers.

In early May, anonymous posters were plastered on walls across Paris that pleaded for an armistice with the reactionary bourgeois government in Versailles--which was preparing to drown the workers' revolution in blood. The Women's Union published a clear denunciation--possibly authored by Dmitrieff herself. It read, in part:

Women of Paris will prove to France and to the world that they, too, at the moment of supreme danger--at the barricades and at the ramparts of Paris, if the reactionary powers should force her gates--they too know how, like their brothers, to give their blood and their life for the defense and triumph of the Commune, that is, the People.

THE WOMEN'S Union was unflinching in pushing the Commune toward a greater embrace of women's rights.

For example, just as before the Commune, women predominantly manufactured the uniforms of the National Guard. Once the workers rose to power, many business owners fled the city. This resulted in less work, so the Women's Union called on the Commission for Labor and Exchange to bring more women into uniform making.

The contracts, however, were assigned to traditional manufacturers that hadn't fled the city, and so the women workers actually ended up getting paid even less than they did under the old bourgeois regime they had just gotten rid of. When the Women's Union learnt of this, it demanded the Tailors' Union and delegates from the Commission of Labor and Exchange negotiate for higher payment, and that all contracts in the future go to cooperatives run by the workers themselves.

The values that moved the Women's Union and Dmitrieff to struggle for such advancements of women's rights can be summed up in the manifesto of the Women's Union, signed by Dmitrieff:

In the old social order women's work was the most exploited...In the current situation of terrible and rising poverty due to the collapse of employment opportunities it is to be feared that the women of Paris, who have been revolutionized for a time, will return to the passive or more or less reactionary state of the old order created for them, due to continual privation.

What was proposed then were "immediate and essential reforms." These included:

-- A. A variety of work in each trade--a continually repeated manual movement damages both mind and body;

B. A reduction in working hours--physical exhaustion inevitably destroys man's spiritual qualities;

C. An end to all competition between male and female workers--their interests are identical and their solidarity is essential to the success of the final worldwide strike of labor against capital.

The association therefore wants:

1. Equal pay for equal hours of work;

2. A local and international federation of the various trade sections in order to ease the movement and exchange of goods by centralizing the interests of the producers.

The general development of these producer associations requires:

1. Informing and organizing the working masses...The consequence of this will be that every association member will be expected to belong to the International Working Men's Association.

Outside of workplace struggles, the Women's Union fought for women's right to divorce; an end to the distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children; education for girls and orphans that was free from the influence of the Catholic Church and at the expense of the Commune; pensions for wives--whether officially married or not--and children of National Guardsmen who had died defending the Commune; and more.

The Women's Union put forward measures that directly helped the working women of Paris take their lives into their own hands.

WHILE THE workers of the Paris Commune were smashing the old capitalist order and building a socialist one, the leaders of the overthrown government were plotting the demise of this direct democracy of working people.

By the middle of March, the counterrevolutionary forces in Versailles had their army ready to attack the newly blossoming world of peace and labor that was dawning in Paris. What would follow was the Bloody Week, which resulted in an estimated 20,000 men, women and children of the Commune being slaughtered.

In a cruel irony, the day before the final weeklong assault by the Versailles forces to crush the Commune, the women of Paris achieved a great feat: The Commune, after existing for only two months, decreed equal pay for women and men workers. This and many other achievements would be lost in the spilt blood of the communards, not to be attempted again for many decades to come.

Armed with two pistols that she kept in a red sash wrapped around the waist of her dress, Dmitrieff charged into battle to defend the workers' revolution--firing bullets at the encroaching enemy and applying bandages to her wounded comrades. Her last order to the Women's Union committee of the 11th arrondissement demanded: "Muster all the women, and the committee itself, and come here immediately to go to the barricades."

At just 20 years old, Elisabeth Dmitrieff saw the Paris Commune as bearing "the banner of the future" and "representing the international and revolutionary principles of the people" which, when victorious, the "working men and working women, in full solidarity, with an ultimate effort, will annihilate forever every vestige of exploitation and exploiters." This was the future she was willing to die for.

Unlike many, Dmitrieff was able to escape the vengeful destruction that the bourgeoisie unleashed on the Communards. Dmitrieff fled to Switzerland, where she gave shelter to fellow exiles for a time, before returning to Russia.

Shortly after escaping Paris, the husband from her "marriage blanc" died. Soon after, she married a political prisoner in order to save him from the death penalty. When he was deported to Siberia, she went along with him. She spent the rest of her life quietly in remote Siberia until her death at the age of 67 in 1918 (some speculate 1910).

Despite her importance as a revolutionary figure during the Paris Commune and her work in the First International, much remains a mystery about Dmitrieff's later life: Did she continue her revolutionary work in Siberia? Did she continue to keep in touch with her fellow Russian comrades or Marx? Did she know about and support the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which the experiences of the Paris Commune had an immense influence on? We simply do not know.

What can be said with certainty is that Elisabeth Dmitrieff was committed to organizing masses of working women to collectively bring an end to all exploitation and oppression, while attempting to bring about the birth of a new world of freedom and equality. She was an extraordinary woman whose courageous story and inspiring example, deserves to be known.

Further Reading

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