Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune

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Overview

This study of three important female leaders of revolutionary Paris shows how feminisms influenced the social and political events of the time. Carolyn J. Eichner vividly evokes radical women's roles within France's revolutionary civil war known as the Paris Commune. She demonstrates the breadth, depth, and impact of communard feminist socialisms far beyond the 1871 insurrection. Examining the period from the early 1860s through that century's end, Eichner investigates how radical women developed critiques of gender, class, and religious hierarchies in the immediate pre-Commune era, how these ideologies emerged as a plurality of feminist socialisms within the revolution, and how these varied politics subsequently affected fin-desiecle gender and class relations. She focuses on three distinctly dissimilar revolutionary women leaders who exemplify multiple competing and complementary feminist socialisms: Andre Leo, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, and Paule Mink. Leo theorized and educated through journalism and fiction, Dmitrieff organized institutional power for working-class women, and Mink agitated crowds to create an egalitarian socialist world. Each woman forged her own path to gender equality and social justice.
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Editorial Reviews

Helen Chenut
"Conceived as a contribution to the history of French feminism, Carolyn Eichner’s studyimplicitly links the feminists of the 1848 Revolution with those of the late nineteenthcentury by demonstrating the Paris Commune’s central importance as a catalyst for oneimportant strand of feminist activism. This strand, identified by Eichner as ‘feministsocialism’, incorporated social and gender equality within a program to establish a ‘socialrepublic’. Her study interweaves the history of socialist and feminist ideas with thebiographies of three very different women who espoused these ideas through their militantaction during the Commune: Elizabeth Dmitrieff, André Léo, and Paule Mink. Eichnerargues convincingly that these women have been little recognized by historians of theCommune, in part because of their predominant focus on the overpowering figure ofLouise Michel and on the ‘incendiaries’ who came to personify the insurrection itself. Toemphasize her own feminist approach, Eichner scatters short cameo portraits throughouther study of other remarkable women. Yet restoring the visibility of these Communardesas historical actors is not the only issue for Eichner. In her view, they must be recognizedfirst and foremost as feminists, revealing elements of continuity within feminism and alegacy for future struggles over women’s suffrage at the century’s end.Eichner identifies three distinct strands of feminist socialism among the three principalprotagonists. All were politically active in the Socialist International, several knew Marx.Elizabeth Dmitrieff was a young Russian who organized Parisian female workers into afederation of labour and defence associations. Her Union des femmes put women immediately to work through a utopian scheme of city—wide producer cooperatives. The second figure, André Léo, was a novelist and political essayist who sought to promote women’s rights to secular education and thus expand their social options. For example, she urged Commune leaders to give women combat roles and to allow them to bear arms and dress in male uniforms. Léo herself lived an unconventional intellectual and sexual life, shared in part with socialist leader Benoit Malon. Both Dmitrieff and Léo believed in a gradual socialist revolution. The third figure, Paule Mink, had a more radical political agenda. She voiced her criticism of existing gender, class, and religious hierarchies within the Commune’s radical political clubs. After the general amnesty in 1880, Mink joined herrhetorical skills with those of Louise Michel to carry the Commune’s revolutionarymessage to the labour movement and to the public at large. The book’s organization intodistinct periods of before, during, and after the Commune enhances our perception of theinsurrection’s impact on these three women’s lives and ultimate destinies. All threeescaped into exile along divergent paths, but only Paule Mink pursued her political andrevolutionary activism, turning first to Blanquism, then to Guesdism during the periodwhen the POF explicitly embraced gender equality. Eichner reminds us of Mink’s finaladventure into electoral politics in 1893 when she joined Eugénie Potonie—Pierre’s association, Solidarité des femmes, and ran for Parisian municipal office.Eichner refocuses our attention on this formative period of French socialism and itsfactional struggles, struggles occurring at much the same time within the SocialistInternational. All three women in her study were caught up in internal socialist debatesover goals and strategies, as they attempted to define their own forms of ‘feminist socialism’ that could generate a ‘gendered critique of class analysis’ (4). Eichner emphasizes the pluralism of late nineteenth—century socialism and feminism, both of which were working for social equality and a secular state. In the civil war that was the Commune all three women chose to subordinate gender questions to the overriding issue of class struggle. Perhaps for this reason these women have been excluded from the narrative of feminist history by recent historians of the period. The fact that male socialist leaders were setting the revolutionary agenda made the Communardes’ goals appear not feminist enough.As Eichner states, the history of feminism has often been interrupted by women’sattempts to ‘construct political and public selves within a historical milieu that denied such roles for women’ (7). Yet the historiography of feminism and socialism has tended tomarginalize the Communardes on the grounds that these militants demanded social andeconomic equality over and above individual women’s rights. These three complexwomen do not fit into the dominant republican strand of liberal equal rights feminism. Yettheir feminist consciousness remained active, as evidenced by André Léo’s lone voice in LaSociale on 8 May 1871: ‘Does anyone believe it possible to make a revolution withoutwomen?’ (26) How hard it would have been for these women to reverse their priorities – toplace gender above class – during the dramatic events of the short—lived insurrection.Would their actions, described as ‘feminist socialism’, then have been called ‘socialistfeminism’ as we define it later in the twentieth century? Eichner makes a strong case thatthe legacy of these women was to keep this strand of feminism and its agenda alive. —European History Quarterly 38:1 Jan. 2008" —Helen Chenut, University of California, Irvine
From the Publisher
"For 72 days following the disastrous 1871 Franco-Prussian War, working-class and socialist Parisians challenged the French government. At the end of May 1871, the French Army stormed the city, attacked the insurgents' barricades, and left over 25,000 rebels dead. Most textbooks ignore the role women played in this revolt. Eichner (women's studies, Univ. of South Florida) corrects this oversight. She uses three revolutionaries, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Andre Leo, and Paule Mink to represent the greater number of nameless female communards who challenged the strict gender and class boundaries that relegated French women to a status equal to that of minor children. Chapters explore the short-lived Commune from a refreshingly new feminist perspective. Each of the three women brought their different strengths to this revolt, representing the differing constituencies of women present on the barricades. Dmitrieff excelled at labor organizing, Leo used her writing skills to challenge the accepted roles allocated by French society to all women, and Mink specialized in grassroots activism. Despite the failure of the Commune, all of Eichner's protagonists continued their public activism, refusing to allow their dreams for an egalitarian society to die. Summing Up: Recommended. Most academic levels/libraries." —R. V. A. Gomez, Anne Arundel Community College, 2005oct CHOICE
European History Quarterly

"Conceived as a contribution to the history of French feminism, Carolyn Eichner’s study implicitly links the feminists of the 1848 Revolution with those of the late nineteenth century by demonstrating the Paris Commune’s central importance as a catalyst for one important strand of feminist activism.... Eichner argues convincingly that these women have been little recognized by historians of the Commune, in part because of their predominant focus on the overpowering figure of Louise Michel and on the ‘incendiaries’ who came to personify the insurrection itself.... In her view, they must be recognized first and foremost as feminists, revealing elements of continuity within feminism and a legacy for future struggles over women’s suffrage at the century’s end.... [Her three principal protagonists] were caught up in internal socialist debatesover goals and strategies, as they attempted to define their own forms of ‘feminist socialism’ that could generate a ‘gendered critique of class analysis.’... In the civil war that was the Commune all three women chose to subordinate gender questions to the overriding issue of class struggle... [The] historiography of feminism and socialism has tended tomarginalize the Communardes on the grounds that these militants demanded social and economic equality over and above individual women’s rights.... Eichner makes a strong case that the legacy of these women was to keep this strand of feminism and its agenda alive. —European History Quarterly 38:1 Jan. 2008" —European History Quarterly

R. V. A. Gomez

"For 72 days following the disastrous 1871 Franco-Prussian War, working-class and socialist Parisians challenged the French government. At the end of May 1871, the French Army stormed the city, attacked the insurgents' barricades, and left over 25,000 rebels dead. Most textbooks ignore the role women played in this revolt. Eichner (women's studies, Univ. of South Florida) corrects this oversight. She uses three revolutionaries, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Andre Leo, and Paule Mink to represent the greater number of nameless female communards who challenged the strict gender and class boundaries that relegated French women to a status equal to that of minor children. Chapters explore the short-lived Commune from a refreshingly new feminist perspective. Each of the three women brought their different strengths to this revolt, representing the differing constituencies of women present on the barricades. Dmitrieff excelled at labor organizing, Leo used her writing skills to challenge the accepted roles allocated by French society to all women, and Mink specialized in grassroots activism. Despite the failure of the Commune, all of Eichner's protagonists continued their public activism, refusing to allow their dreams for an egalitarian society to die. Summing Up: Recommended. Most academic levels/libraries." —R. V. A. Gomez, Anne Arundel Community College, 2005oct CHOICE

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253344427
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Carolyn J. Eichner is a historian and Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of South Florida.

Indiana University Press

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Table of Contents

1 The actors and the action 17
2 Politics and ideas : staging the struggle 36
3 Elisabeth Dmitrieff and the Union des femmes 69
4 Andre Leo and the subversion of gender 97
5 Paule Mink and the Clubistes 129
6 Dmitrieff and Leo in the aftermath 153
7 Mink in the aftermath 179
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