#ParisCommuneAt150 | Women and the Paris Commune: The Struggle Continues

by Liza Maza


Greetings to everyone! Let me start this presentation by sharing with you Joan Hinton’s thoughts on living under socialism.  Joan Hinton was an American nuclear physicist who was involved in the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb. She  moved to China in 1948 on the eve of the founding of the People’s Republic of China  and took part in China’s  socialist construction. Describing her life in socialist China,  Joan  said:

“For 30 years in China I lived the future. Eventually socialism will certainly sweep capitalism off this earth and with it the oppression of all people including women.”

Seventy-eight years before the construction of socialism in China and 46 years before the victory of the  October Revolution  in the Soviet Union, the seed of socialism was actually first planted in Paris in 1871 by the working class,  by  the women and men who in the Paris Commune saw a glimpse of the future and for a moment , lived it :  a democratic state of the working class established through  the seizure of political power in Paris by the working class.  They defended this future with their lives. The future that involved the courageous  participation of women who took on different tasks in defense of a society they aspired for- a society where they are recognized and treated as equals, a truly democratic society governed by the working class.

I will focus my discussion on the legacy and lessons of the Paris Commune as they relate to women’s organizing and movement building and why it is important to carry forward the struggle for national and social liberation and for a  socialist future.  I will highlight the organized participation of women and the different tasks they performed in the revolution, in its defense and in the construction of a workers’ state and conclude by restating the validity of a socialist future and the need to broaden and strengthen the anti-imperialist and democatic struggles of the people where women take equal and important roles in this period of transition to the resurgence of the world proletarian revolution.

Women Organizing For the Commune

From the beginning when women rushed to the hills of Montmarte on March 18, 1871 and covered the cannons of the Parisian National Guard with their bodies to prevent their confiscation as ordered by Thiers, women were  active participants in the Paris Commune and played crucial and indispensable roles.   Even before  the Paris Commune, women from all walks of life were already organized in various clubs. Women joined the mixed clubs of men and women and the distinct women clubs where they discussed issues like women’s right to work, equal pay, right  to education and equality between men and women among others.  These clubs were rife with discussions on the situation of women at the time when women need the permission of their husbands to work and when they do work, women work 13 hours a day, six days a week; wages were lower than the standard of living and even if they add up their wages to the wages of their husbands, both their income will not be enough for everyday expenses.  This was why many women were pushed to prostitution. During the siege of Paris, food and other essentials were blocked and due to scarcity, provisions were rationed and women were the ones who had to endure the long lines to avail of food staples.

This exploitative, oppressive and difficult situation would explain why women especially women of the  working class joined the revolution and set up the Paris Commune. This would explain why women in large numbers joined the women’s organizations that served as the backbone of the Commune.

Two of the significant women’s organizations at that time were the Women’s Vigilance Committees and the Union of Women for the Defense of Paris. The Women’s  Vigilance Committee which  was founded shortly before the Commune recruited ambulance nurses, helped the wives of soldiers, held workshops, sent women speakers to the clubs and hunted those who dodged the draft.  The Women’s Union meanwhile was organized during the Commune   by Nathalie Lemel and Elizabeth Dmitrieff  a socialist and a member of the First International who was sent by Marx to Paris  

to report on the events. The Women’s Union organized the working women     of Paris to defend the Commune and to fight for socialist mesures that would liberate women from exploitation and oppression.    The Union believed in the  abolition of gender inequality and that the ruling class used sex descrimination to maintain power.     The Union represented the most politically advanced working women and was the largest and most effective organization. It was organized city-wide, had a central committee and a paid executive committee. The leadership was democratically elected with a system of recall.

The women of the Commune demanded equal right to bear arms and participate in the revolution. They nursed the wounded , stacked up sandbags in the barricades and carried arms in the battlefields.  In response to the demand of women, prostitutes were  allowed to care for the wounded, a task previously frowned upon due to the belief that prostitutes were dirty.

The women contributed significantly in shaping the policies and measures drawn

up and undertaken by the commune in the areas of work and labor organization,

education, social life and social protection.  In the area of work and organization of

labor,  the women’s organizations set up workshops and work cooperatives for women to make products and uniforms needed in the balttlefield.  They  set up a system of product exchange and were already planning to set up a federal chamber of working women. At the time of the defeat of the Paris Commune, equal pay for men and women had been declared.

Education was seen as important for the emancipation of women.  The women were active in the Education Committee of the Commune that reformed the education system by organizing secular schools and a public education system that was scientific, mass-based and accessible to both girls and boys.

As a result of the  strong demand of women, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was removed as well as that between wives and concubines of

national guards who both received pension when their husbands or partners die.

It was said that in the Paris Commune, women organized as never before. From women’s organizing experience during the revolution we can say that:

  1.  The women of the Paris Commune demonstrated their capability in organizing distinct organizations of women that gathered and consolidated women’s participation in the seizure of political power during the revolution and the construction of the workers’ state.
  2. The women’s organizations especially the Women’s Union were effective in recruiting women in large numbers and in responding to the demands and needs of the women because these organizations were based among the women of the working class and worked for their interests.
  3. The women saw themselves as equal partners with men  during  the revolution

and in the construction and defense of the Paris Commune. Their organizations were not separate but were an integral part of the people’s revolution. Women saw their issues and demands as part of the issues and demands of the people.

4.   Women’s participation in the revolution transformed the relationship between sexes in the home, the workplace and society where women were treated more equally; where women participated in public life and had the opportunity to be in position of authority  and where women  had  more control over their own lives.

5.  Women’s participation and actual  experience in the revolution debunked the myths and traditional views on women.  In France at that time, women were considered legally minors by the French Civil Code of 1804. The prevailing view was that women were inferior and should be confined to the home. Even within the left, derogatory and misogynst views were held  for example by the anarchist Proudhon who believed that the proper place for women was either as housewife or as prostitute and not part of the workforce. He believed that women are inferior to men physically morally and intelectually.  Women communards were also perceived as evil and violent.  They were

called incindiary women or arsonists to justify repression but this was not proven at all. As a matter of fact of the 1051 women arrested after the defeat of the Commune, only 5 were convicted of arson.

  •   Lastly, the socialist women played a crucial and leading role in organizing women, and with men, in organzing the whole of the commune . The socialists that comprise 1/3 of the central committee of the Paris Commune articulated the socialist principles and aspirations of the new order that replaced the old. They led in reorganizing society in a new way – a society  which was more democratic and of real  service to the working class.

The Socialist Future and Our Continuing Struggle

Despite the defeat of the Paris Commune, its legacy, lessons and spirit live on.  In the Paris Commune, women saw a new order. It was not just an uprising but a struggle to build an alternative to the old. It was where the basis of socialism was laid. Seventy eight years after , the first socialist state was founded in the Soviet Union, and as in China during the socialist construction, women  were fully involved in social production. Under socialism, all have the right to guaranteed work and guaranteed payment for their work.  Women were able to work because they were freed from domestic work since the state strated to provide socially those services that were done by women individually as household chores. Nurseries, day-care centers, community kitchens and laundry services became  public good necessary to  socialize housework.

Under socialism, the state provided the conditions for  women to gain  financial independence and achieve  substantial equality before the law. But the gains of socialism for women were fast eroded by revisionism and the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union, in other socialist states  in Europe and in China.

In this period of grave economic crisis of the world capitalist system, even made worse by the Covid 19 pandemic, the imperialist countries and their local lackeys inflict much burden and suffering to the world’s poor including the women who do not only bear the burden of unemployment, lack of jobs and poverty but also had to bear the burden of the responsibility for housework and the care

economy, much needed in  this time of the pandemic. Coupled with neo-liberalism, we saw the emergence of neo-conservatism and the rise of authoritarian and repressive regimes led by macho-fascist leaders who hold sexist and mysogynist views on women like Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines.  In response, we also saw in recent years the resurgence of the mass movements against imperialism, fascism, racism, sexism and all reaction. We witnessed the active participation of women in these mass movements as well as in the all-women actions to protest against women’s exploitation and oppression and violence against women.  Women are engaged in all forms of struggles including armed revolutions that drew inspiration from the Paris Commune and the other  successful revolutions after that.  Now, in the period of transition to the resurgence of the world proletarian revolution, we are all called upon to organize women in large numbers especially  the working women who should be at the front and center of our  movement. We should link up and support each other locally and internationally.

Lastly, let me say that I take pride in being a part of the Gabriela Women’s Alliance in the Philippines that is at the forefront of the militant democratic and anti-imperialist women’s movement in the country and the International Women’s Alliance and the ILPS, the two international formations that work independently and together to organize and mobilize women in large numbers, advance the democratic and anti-imperialist struggles of women and link these up with the peoples’ movements in the struggle to achieve national and social liberation and the full emancipation of women. 

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