Teacher, Laundress, Seamstress: Women of the Paris Commune

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Teacher, Laundress, Seamstress: Women of the Paris Commune
Outside a school in the 20th arrondissement the wall is covered with 19th-century photographs of women. The photos are faded, the women unsmiling. What they share is their participation in the Commune. This worker-led government controlled Paris in the spring of 1871 in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. After two months, the Commune was brutally suppressed by the French government, culminating in the Semaine Sanglante or Bloody Week. The Mur des Fédérés at the back of Père-Lachaise cemetery marks the spot where 147 Communards where shot, marking the end of this experiment in working class local government. Although men figure prominently in histories of the insurgence, the role played by women was key to the Commune’s shortlived success. They provided food and drink to the men and set up soup kitchens in local neighborhoods, and they also built barricades and took up arms to defend Paris when the troops arrived. Cementery Père Lachaise (C) Peter Poradisch, CC BY 2.5 The women came from all walks of life but are rarely mentioned in histories of the uprising. By far the best known is Louise Michel. Louise’s beginnings were typically humble: born illegitimate in 1830, she was raised by her grandparents. Yet, unusually, Louise received an education and became a teacher. She opened a school in Paris, became acquainted with Victor Hugo and promoted the rights of women. She served as an ambulance worker during the Siege of Paris (when the Prussians encircled the city for four months) but really revealed herself as a militant anarchist and feminist during the Commune. She was president of the Comité de Vigilance des Citoyennes in Montmartre where she organized local women to run a soup kitchen for starving children. At the same time, she offered to assassinate the President of the Republic, Adolphe Thiers, who was reviled for his opposition to the Commune. Perhaps fortunately for history, Louise’s offer was refused even by the anarchists and the fledgling Third Republic survived its first potential leadership crisis. Louise was deported to New Caledonia. She was allowed to return to France in 1880 – a move which the government may have regretted as Louise’s radicalism had only intensified during her Pacific exile. She continued to write and militate for anarchist and feminist causes and was under constant police surveillance for the rest of her life. At the age of 60 she was imprisoned for taking part in insurrections. If Louise Michel has become the public face of women of the Commune, behind her is a small army of teachers, seamstresses, laundresses, shopworkers and domestic servants who took up the cause, and arms, to protect Paris from government control. Most have remained anonymous but the stories of a handful have survived, often because of their reputation as petroleuses and the high-profile trial that followed their arrests.

Lead photo credit : Barricade 18 March 1871 (C) Unknown, Public Domain

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Helen Anderson
    2021-10-02 07:53:21
    Helen Anderson
    The untold stories of brave women Theo risked everything for women’s rights. Least we forget their sacrifices!


    •  Pat Hallam
      2021-10-11 10:00:35
      Pat Hallam
      Exactly! So many women forgotten by history even while nondescript men are remembered. Thanks for commenting.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2021-09-29 12:06:39
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Fascinating article Pat. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these extraordinary, mostly forgotten women.