Women in France have a long tradition of radical activism. Theirs is the country of Joan of Arc, who led an army in 1429; Marie de Gournay, who wrote about gender equality in 1622; and the 800 women who marched to the National Assembly at Versailles in 1789 to demand bread. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen” and was beheaded two years later for “having forgotten the virtues which belong to her sex.” And then, there was Louise Michel (1830-1905).
BEWARE OF THE WOMEN!
Prussian troops invaded France in 1870 and captured Emperor Napoleon III. Paris did not accept defeat easily. One of those who resisted the invasion was Louise Michel, nicknamed the “Red Virgin,” a poet, teacher, anarchist, and revolutionary.
That winter, Michel was both a participant in and witness to the Parisian uprising. In her Memoirs, she wrote about the women revolutionaries in Paris at that time.
Heroic women were found in all social positions … They would have preferred to die rather than surrender, and dispensed their efforts the best way they could, while demanding ceaselessly that Paris continue to resist the Prussian siege … Beware of the women when they are sickened by all that is around them and rise up against the old world. On that day the new world will begin.
Despite their efforts, the city was forced to surrender in January, 1871. Young soldiers of the National Guard (the Parisian popular militia) sank into mud up to their ankles and were slaughtered by Prussian forces. Even after they were allowed to elect a national government house in Versailles, the invaded population remained bitter.
The Versailles government was nervous about the continued resistance in Paris. In March, when the National Guard reclaimed its’ lost cannons in a show of bravado, the Versailles troops crept back into the sleeping city to seize the cannons.
MARCH 18, 1871: HOUSEWIVES STEP INTO HISTORY
Early in the morning of March 18, 1871, the housewives of Paris set out on their usual errands to buy bread and milk and stepped into the pages of history. They opened their doors to find that soldiers from Versailles had occupied Paris during the night. Word spread quickly, as more and more women came out of their houses. Soon, a crowd of over 1,000 stood gaping at the young soldiers.
Paris was at war again. The streets filled with French soldiers — those from Versailles fighting on behalf of the invading Prussians and those of the Parisian National Guard fighting for their beloved hilltop, Montmartre, their city, their nation.
No one knows how it happened that the women found themselves speaking with one voice that day. They approached the soldiers from Versailles asking, “Will you fire on us? Will you fire on your brother Parisians? On our husbands? Our children?”
Women surrounded the soldiers of the eighty-eighth Battalion and formed a barrier between them and the local men of the National Guard. When General Lecomte ordered his soldiers to fire, the soldiers turned around and arrested their own general. Several streets away, General Susbielle encountered similar resistance. He too ordered his cavalry to charge but, to his chagrin, the men retreated. The women cheered.
Louise Michel later wrote of March 18:
The Butte of Montmartre was bathed in the first light of day through which things were glimpsed as if they were hidden behind a thin veil of water. Gradually the crowd increased … The women of Paris covered the cannons with their bodies. When their officers ordered the soldiers to fire, the men refused … When we had won our victory, I looked around and noticed my poor mother who had followed me to the Butte of Montmartre, believing that I was going to die… On this day, the eighteenth of March, the people wakened.
All over the city, women stopped horses, cut their harnesses, and urged the soldiers from Versailles to join their brothers in the National Guard. That evening, the troops were ordered to withdraw.
FROM THE PARIS COMMUNE TO EXILE
For the next two months, the people’s revolutionary socialist government ruled the city. It was called the “Paris Commune.” But difficult days of death and defeat lay ahead for the people. Thousands were killed in the streets, executed, or sentenced to exile.
Michel was captured, tried, and found guilty. She demanded the death penalty, crying, “Since it seems that any heart which beats for liberty has the right only to a small lump of lead, I demand my share… If you are not cowards, kill me!”
The court, however, did not want to make a martyr of her, so it sentenced Michel to exile in a prison colony in New Caledonia in the South Pacific for almost ten years. There, she learned from and taught the Kanaka children.
Granted amnesty in 1880, she returned to Paris, hailed as a heroine. Although she defended the use of violence as a tool of revolution, her own primary weapons were the words she gave the people in her poems, essays, school lessons, and speeches. For her, learning and teaching were the greatest tools in creating the new world of peace and justice. She wrote:
Do men sense the rising tide of us women, famished for learning? We ask only this of the old world: the little knowledge that it has …
Your titles. Bah! We do not want rubbish. Do what you want to with them. They are too flawed and limited for women … What we do want is knowledge and education and liberty… And then men and women together will gain the rights of all humanity.
She continued to teach, speak, and fight against injustice for the rest of her life, was arrested and jailed several more times. When she died in 1905, thousands mourned throughout France and the world.
Today, schools, a Paris Metro stop, streets, and squares are named for her. There are statues and plaques bearing her legend and stamps issued with her image. Louise Michel remains a heroine of working people.
TO GO DEEPER
The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, edited by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter, (University Alabama Press, 2003)
“Walking the Streets of Paris in the Footsteps of Louise Michel” on John Meed’s blog
“Great Lives: Paul Mason and historian Carolyn Eichner discuss Louise Michel” (28 mins.)