‘We have to fight against capital and the rich’ 

Today, April 11, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded during the Paris Commune, one of the most important working-class organisations that sprang out of the Commune. In this extract from forthcoming book Turbulent women rs21 member Mark Winter gives a short account of their spirit and activities. Illustrations by the writer.

On 18 March 1871, the workers of Paris rose up and established the Paris Commune. They held power for 72 days, and carved out a new form of democracy. For Marx and Engels, the workers took charge of their own history, not so much on the level of governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday lives. 

Women were excluded from the democratic process under the Republic, and they held no voting rights. Even under the Commune, they couldn’t vote for delegates, nor stand for positions on its committees.

The women in Turbulent Women took an active part in politics.  For them, the founding of the Commune opened the door to progress for women. The Commune had replaced the Republic and the Empire, and they felt the need to act despite not having the vote. Excluded from government, they ‘stormed heaven’ over 150 years ago. 

The women of Paris are quite turbulent. In the evening, in almost every working-class household, the wife states her political opinion right out loud and often imposes it upon her husband. They read the newspaper together, and generally they are very hard on people in power. This rebellious spirit really makes Paris into a city of opposition, a revolutionary city par excellence. In no other city have I heard the weaker sex so imperiously settle government questions.’ 

Émile Zola, letter of 1871. (quoted in Christine Fauré (ed), Political and Historical Encyclopaedia of Women

The Commune aimed to provide mutual aid for all, rather than charity. As the author Édith Thomas argued in her book The Women Incendiaries:

‘Women’s politics begins with the distribution of essential goods, the just administration of things.’ 

The Union of Women

We want work, but in order to keep the product. No more exploiters, no more masters. Work and well-being for all.’ Womens Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded.

On April 11 1871, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, a member of Marx’s First International, launched the Women’s Union (WU). Members were mainly garment workers: dressmakers, linen drapers, shoe stitchers, seamstresses, some using rare sewing machines. The laundress Alice Bontemps was a delegate for the 18th arrondissement, Blanche Lefebvre, a milliner, of the 10th.

Founded at the height of the Commune, the WU grew to become its largest and most effective organisation. It mobilised women to staff orphanages and care for old people, provide free school materials, free clothing and food, recruit nurses and canteen workers, provide speakers for public meetings, print leaflets and posters, treat the wounded and defend the Commune.

The Central Committee was made up of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, anarchist activist Nathalie Lemel and seven women workers. The first priority for working class women was survival, and Dmitrieff warned that ‘the women of Paris may as a result of continual privations relapse into the…reactionary and passive position that the past marked out for them.’ It was critical to organise work for women; the goal was ‘social renovation’ – to reshape the lives of women. 

Its committees met daily, moving in turn from arrondissement to arrondissement. The Union set up sewing collectives in each arrondissement, and organised independent workshops of many thousands. Early in May, it set up headquarters in the town hall of the 10th arrondissement. It then began organising a carefully planned network of independent co-operatives, working within the framework of the Communes general reorganisation of labour. The Union drew delegates from the trades unions, and planned to take over abandoned workshops to receive and distribute goods.

Each arrondissement was set up with a committee of 11 women, later to be replaced by union delegates. The clothing industry was the first to be organised, beginning with the sewing of uniforms for the National Guard.

The WU began organising free work’ at the Palace of Industry in central Paris. The Commission was to buy raw materials, set prices, divide the profits and distribute the work among the 20 town halls.  On May 21, the Union opened a central warehouse organised by Mathilde Picot, paid two francs a day as an expert in the fabrics and supplies arrived there.’

The WU planned a broader reorganisation for the future — to take over the work being done in convents and prisons so that the producer ‘is guaranteed the product of his own work, by freeing him from the yoke of exploitative capital’; entrusting to workers the management of their own affairs, a reduction in working hours, and ‘an end to the competition between male and female workers, their interests being absolutely identical.’

The network was to have a central cutting room and a general sales store. Two women would be delegated to choose the styles, and a commission of cashiers would set the cost price and the earnings of the women, after first reaching agreement with the administration and the union. 

‘Prices should be decided by a comparison with the best-known department stores in Paris, so that competition cannot harm the trade unions.’ Work would be divided among the arrondissements, with warehouses to receive and distribute goods.

There was to be ’equal pay for equal hours of work.’  Each arrondissement would have its own producers association freely elected by its members.’ Each would keep its own autonomy over internal regulations. Members would belong to the International. 

Through the Central Committee, each autonomous organisation would connect with sister organisations within and beyond France, managed by female agents and travelling salespeople.

After the fall of the Commune, hundreds of suspected communards were arrested. French army Captain Briot, charged with interrogating the suspects, recorded the following witness statement on the WU’s approach to recruitment.

‘It was enough to put up posters promising work to all the people who lacked it. Then, when the workers introduced themselves, we spoke to them more or less in this language:

We have indeed promised you work, and we will give you some, but we have to fight, at this moment, against capital and the rich who seek to suffocate the Commune. We will certainly be victorious, but for that we need the help of all intelligences, of all arms.

Our fathers, our husbands and our brothers fight for the glorious goal which we pursue, that is to say the emancipation of the workers. We owe them our care; it is up to us to think about their wounds. We need paramedics. Finally, we women have rights to claim; why shouldn’t we offer our blood and our life for the holy cause? We also need soldiers and workers for the barricades, in the event that the Royalists of Versailles manage to enter Paris.’

Some registered as ambulance workers, others as barricaders. ‘They were seized with real enthusiasm and swore to defend the Commune if necessary, arms in hand.’

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