On International Women’s Day and ahead of the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, Jacqueline Mulhallen looks at the revolutionary life of Louise Michel
During the Paris Commune, women organised as never before. There were women caring for the wounded, women bringing food to the fighters and women fighting - some doing both. Women's organisations and meetings were set up to improve the role of women in society. But of all the many women who took part in these activities, including prominent political thinkers and organisers, such as Elizabeth Dmitrieff, Andre Leo, and Nathalie Lemel, the name which is remembered most in association with the Commune is that of Louise Michel.
This is probably because Michel, as her biographer, Edith Thomas, says, was everywhere at once: in the political clubs and on the battlefield, in the 61st Montmartre battalion (noted for fighting like devils, and for her energy in particular), on committees and in the ambulance stations she helped to organise. Soldier, ambulance nurse, orator, her courage and audacity meant she was at Clamart, Neuilly, and Issy Les Moulineaux, with a rifle in her hands. She also proposed going in person to Versailles to assassinate Thiers. When told she would not be able to get that far, she disguised herself and got within reach of Versailles.
At her trial, she took the opportunity to defend the Commune and its leaders.
‘I don't wish to defend myself, I don't wish to be defended. I belong completely to the social revolution and I declare that I accept the responsibility of all my acts’.
When asked about the execution of Lecomte, who gave the order to fire on the women and children of Montmartre on the morning of 18 March, ‘To that I reply, yes, if I had been at Montmartre when they wanted to fire on the people I would not have hesitated myself to shoot all those who gave such orders. But now they were prisoners I do not understand how anyone could have shot them, and I regard it as a cowardly deed’. She wound up by saying, ‘I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me’. But they sentenced her to transportation to a penal settlement (New Caledonia).
Michel was in the depths of despair at the defeat of the Commune, and the execution of many of her friends, in particular Théophile Ferré, to whom she was very close. He wrote his last letter to her. She had done her best to get people to campaign to save his life, and she continued to campaign for the women imprisoned with her. This was typical of the great-hearted solidarity and selflessness she was known for, even before the Commune.
Becoming a revolutionary
Michel had a very interesting upbringing. Her mother, Marianne Michel, was a maid in the service of a landowner, Etienne Charles Demahis, her father Laurent, son of the family. Far from turning the mother and baby away, her grandparents brought up Louise, with the close involvement of Marianne. Etienne, who had been involved in the 1789 revolution and shared its ideals, educated her himself. She read widely and had a lot of freedom to play outside in an adventurous way, sometimes with a cousin, Jules. But she always noticed the poverty and suffering of the peasants, and deplored their attitude of resignation.
She also hated the cruel way in which dogs and beasts of burden were treated, wishing that the horse would bite its tormentor. Her account of her days in prison after the defeat of the Commune includes a story of how her jailers tormented a dog which had become attached to her, and the great sadness its death caused her.
When her grandparents died, Michel and her mother were turned out of the house. Her grandfather had left some money for a dowry and she had suitors, but she did not wish to marry. She went to train as a teacher. She also began to write poetry, which she continued to do all her life. Thomas believes that poetry was for her an almost biological necessity but that her best poem was undoubtedly her life.
It was at this point that she met and began to correspond with Victor Hugo who remained her lifelong friend. When Michel moved to Paris to run a small school for working-class girls, she became very much part of the community, was associated with revolutionaries such as Louis Blanqui, and was also involved in activity designed to improve girls’ education.
Her own school was run on experimental and progressive lines. School teachers like herself were not well paid, but Michel was always active in trying to help others in every way she could. ’To teach the children, care for the poor, nurse the sick, read to the blind and to try to reach out to the mentally ill - enough’, as Thomas says, ‘without a doubt to fill the existence of any woman’.
Hugo, and other better off people she knew were asked for financial contributions and she kept her school going and her other activities throughout the Prussian siege with the help of the mayor, Clemenceau. When he pointed out that he had seen someone eating soup who clearly did not belong to the school, Michel's response was, ‘Well, he was hungry anyway.’
Although very supportive of feminist initiatives and a strong believer in the equality of women, it was Michel’s allegiance to the Commune and the ideals of revolution which would ensure equality was the most important thing to her. She remarks that during the Commune there were two vigilance committees in Montmartre, the men’s and the women’s, and she took part in both because although she presided over the women’s, the men’s committee included some Russian revolutionaries.
There was no actual commitment to women's rights in the Commune’s Declaration to the French People, but many measures benefited women, such as an allowance for poor children, free education, allowances for widows of the National Guard (without needing to prove a ‘legal’ marriage but with evidence of a relationship). She was not the only woman fighter during the Commune, but she has recorded her love of battle (‘barbarian as I am’). Nevertheless, she found that when the fighting was most fierce, they refused to use her even as a nurse. “You would never believe how many obstacles…there have been’. She and other women fought against these prejudices and they were often admired, though there was much prejudice and many caricatures because of their dress - trousers of all kinds!
Michel was among the last fighters for the Commune in the Père Lachaise cemetery, and was left for dead. She escaped, but later, hearing that her mother had been arrested in lieu of herself, she gave herself up and Marianne was freed. Michel was devoted to her mother. Marianne was no less diligent in campaigning for her daughter’s release than Michel herself was for the release of others.
When Marianne came to say goodbye before Michel’s deportation to New Caledonia, Michel saw her in daylight rather than the dim interior in which their previous interviews had taken place, and realised that Marianne’s hair had turned white. Marianne wept to think she would never see Louise again, but Michel had regained her habitual optimism and said that they would meet again as there would be an amnesty and she would not serve her full sentence. And she was right!
Anti-imperialism in New Caledonia
The voyage to New Caledonia was a new lease of life for Michel. She arranged to send observations about the region and climate to the Geographic Society, and they sent her grains which they thought would thrive in the colony. Despite being a prisoner, she enjoyed the voyage and seeing the Canary Islands, although only from the sea, and the people who brought them fruit. She responded to the seabirds, sailors dancing, the thrill of sea storms, and even to snow falling on the decks, and wrote poetry about it all.
Separate accommodation had been prepared for the women when they arrived at the island. When they objected, the governor said if they wanted to go to join their male comrades, who were kept on the peninsula, they might but there was nothing prepared for them. However, they were reunited with former comrades, though conditions were so bad that some had already died. Michel was delighted with the beauty of New Caledonia: the rain forest with its flowers and fruit, beautiful snakes, grasshoppers and other insects. She also responded with delight to the cyclones which she described as the ‘orchestra of wild nature’. She was given some work teaching the children of the settlers and the deportees.
Michel saw the struggle of the Algerians against the French as the same as that of the Commune. She supported them, making friends with Algerians who were deported to New Caledonia after the 1871 uprising. She also made common cause with the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia, known as the Kanaks. She went to meet them and began to learn their language and legends, which she later published on her return to Paris.
The Kanaks had been told by the authorities not to trust the convicts and they were initially afraid that she was a murderer, but when she explained about the Communards they became allies and helped prisoners to escape. Michel gave them lessons in mathematics and French and studied their anthropology and music with another prisoner, Charles Malato. She supported their revolt in 1878. This was an unusual attitude at that time since the settlers and even some Communards had racist attitudes. When she was released, the Kanaks crowded, weeping, to see her leave.
Malato and also Nathalie Lemel, with whom Michel was imprisoned, were both anarchists and because of their influence, Michel became more and more anarchist in her thinking. She became convinced that honest people were not capable of taking power versus the dishonest, that power corrupted and that the power of the Commune was only an illusion.
The agitator returns
In 1880, there was an amnesty and Michel returned home to be greeted by massive cheering crowds. She began speaking at various workers’ institutes and meetings, touring France, and she visited London for the International Congress of Workers and Syndicalists and was warmly welcomed. She wrote for many magazines and began writing plays. She was kept under surveillance.
When Michel led an unemployed workers rally in which the demonstrators went to bakeries and took bread, she was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail. She was imprisoned in Clermont de l’Oise, some distance from Paris and her elderly mother, who was now ill. After several appeals, and the support of the prison governor who found her a model prisoner, she was allowed out on parole to attend her mother’s bedside.
Marianne Michel had a huge and colourful anarcho-socialist funeral, but Louise did not attend, as she was so ill with grief that the prison authorities were wondering whether she might need medical help. But, despite her great depression, Michel recovered. She began to write her memoirs, and she started studying languages and writing children's stories and novels and she began to feel free despite her imprisonment. She was pardoned on 7 January 1886.
On her release she once again began her political involvement, and since she was claimed both by the anarchists and the socialists she was continually in demand as a speaker, and crowds attended her meetings. She opposed France’s colonial involvement in Tunisia and South East Asia.
In January 1888, she was shot in the head while speaking at a rally in Le Havre. After recovering from her injuries, she ensured that her would-be assassin’s wife was supported financially and appeared at his trial speaking on his behalf.
After giving a speech in the town of Vienne for May Day, 1890, when protesters clashed with the police at a demonstration, she was arrested. When the order came from her release, she refused to leave while others were still jailed, and smashed up her cell in a furious protest. She was taken to a mental asylum, but the government saw she was quickly released as they feared an outcry. Nevertheless, Michel feared that this might happen again and she left for London within a month.
In London, Michel opened a school for the children of political refugees, whose philosophy was to teach in small groups and encourage the students to think for themselves, with no compulsory subjects. Her plays were performed. She spoke alongside William Morris, Annie Besant, Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst and the anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Enrico Malatesta, later with Emma Goldman. Sylvia Pankhurst described her as being very wrinkled, which was probably a result of lack of protection from the sun in New Caledonia, but she is also described as having ‘velvet’ eyes. Goldman described her as ‘angular, gaunt, aged before her years, but there was a spirit and youth in her eyes, and a smile so tender that it immediately won my heart’.
Michel decided to return to France in 1895, and was given a huge and enthusiastic welcome on her arrival, crowds crying “Vive Louise Michel!’ ‘Vive la Commune!’ The journal which she wrote for, The Intransigent, gave her a huge reception. There were 4,000 people at the first political meeting which she spoke at, and she continued her speaking and writing in support of anarchism and workers’ struggles, not only in Paris but elsewhere in France and also in London, Holland, Belgium, Scotland, Germany and Spain. She wished to go to the United States but the Immigration Department would not let her enter.
During this part of her life, Michel’s views were not the same as they were during the Commune, although she believed in the ideal of an equal future society and was still very much a supporter of progressive education. She was against violence and she no longer believed in a mass uprising, but in small groups of anarchists acting alone to overthrow society. On the other hand, she remarked that she would be happy if people were to derail trains to help the revolution! She did not like her anarchist comrade François Girault attacking the socialists as this alienated workers, and she tried to reconcile the ideas.
She was still committed to anti-colonial and international struggle, however, and in late 1904
she made a speaking tour of Algeria, admiring its beauty. This followed several exhausting speaking tours in France itself, and she was now ill. She died at Marseilles on 9 January 1905. Two thousand people, including the socialist mayor of Marseilles, followed her coffin which was laden with flowers and flags. By the time the corpse arrived at Paris, there were said to be 100,000 people following. All socialist and anarchist parties were there, not just from France but from London, Poland and Italy. They were singing the Internationale, the Carmagnole, and many other revolutionary songs. She was buried in the Lavallois-Perret cemetery next to her mother, and the mayor headed the cortege, accompanied by a municipal band.
It was said that she would survive wherever the revolution survived.
 Thomas, Edith, The Women Incendiaries, Secker and Warburg 1967, p. 125
 Thomas, Louise Michel ou La Velleda de l’anarchie Gallimard 1971, p. 135 (my translation)
 Thomas, Louise Michel, p. 50
 as above, p. 71
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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