Women in the Paris Commune

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square: Night Shades, 1956


Presentation of the recently republished book “Les pétroleuses”

Les petroleuses, the first work entirely dedicated to the history of women in the Paris Commune and, until today, one of the most complete studies on the subject, was recently republished – about sixty years after its first publication (1963).

Such a reading constitutes a beautiful opportunity, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of that historic event, to recall the massive presence and the different – ​​and outstanding – roles of women in the Paris Commune. This, in turn, points to the belonging of the Commune itself to the narrative of the history of feminisms, as well as, on the other hand, to the historical interpenetration between feminist struggle and socialist struggle.

Its author, Édith Thomas (1909-1970), whose name has fallen into oblivion, was a pioneer in the elaboration of the so-called “women's history” that was consolidated later, in the 1980s, in various parts of the world. Writer, archivist, communist activist, Édith Thomas pointed, since the 1940s, to the need for a historical work on the fundamental role of women in social and political history. Her interest in the subject was born out of her experience in the Resistance during World War II, in which she played an important role in organizing anti-fascist women. After the end of the war, she sought to retrace the lives and actions of these women from the perspective of a duty of memory.

Using her training as an archivist, she developed a history of revolutionary women after this work, writing, for example, about women in the 1848 revolution, the fate of Louise Michel, and the women of the Paris Commune. In relation to this theme, it is necessary to remember that the challenge was, and in a certain way continues to be, of great scope.

If the role of women was widely reported in the various stories of the actors of the Paris Commune, the harsh repression of this event was accompanied by a long work of destroying its memory, making its reconstruction difficult. In fact, it is worth remembering that the dominant political, social and media treatment at the time considered the Communards and communards as true outcasts of French society, fueling a silence that lasted for decades. To this day, many files about that period have not been found and research to identify the disappeared men and women remains open.

Furthermore, most of the women who joined the Paris Commune met a fate as cruel as that of men, but with an aggravating factor: they had disrespected the working mother-wife model of bourgeois society, which assigned their social tasks to the social sector. private, either at the factory or at home.

It should also be remembered that, by taking an active part in the Paris Commune, these women became political subjects, in a period during which their civil status, under the law in force, was equivalent to the status of a child. It was from this taking over of public space by working women that the figure of the incendiary revolutionary woman was born, on the part of repression and conservatives, destroying society and morality (the petroleuse of the title of the book, which, in free translation, means incendiary).

The author highlights, among other elements, the fact that the measures taken in a few weeks by the Commune contributed to the realization of the principle of equality between the sexes. It can be added that many of these achievements were buried for a long time, and only materialized again in French society after the 1970s. Others have not materialized until today…

Both are still heavily silenced by the dominant press and by a large part of the French intelligentsia, including that admittedly more progressive portion involved in struggles for the expansion of rights. This is the case, among others, of measures such as: the right to divorce by mutual consent, the recognition of unions outside of Christian marriage, the immediate recognition of any child born out of wedlock, the establishment of public day care centers, the merger between education for for boys and for girls – which in France only fully materialized in the 1970s –, the affirmation of women as free and autonomous beings, as well as the perennial demand for equal pay between men and women.

Édith Thomas' work presents, in this sense, many names, life paths, different political tendencies among these women, which are found around collective initiatives. Such restitution by the author highlights the dedication of the Paris Commune to working towards the realization of equality, which includes (and this should be obvious…) that between the sexes.

The author also points out the presence of groups composed only of women, but also of mixed groups led by women. She also identifies changes in behavior on the part of the men involved in the Commune and hitherto influenced by the figure of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose notorious misogyny contaminated his revolutionary practice – which contributed to the loss of his influence with the French labor movement. She also reports moments of tension between men and women, especially with regard to the presence of the latter in the military forces, but shows how most issues of sexism were openly discussed and problematized in the public square or through the press organized by the Commune.

Finally, Édith Thomas problematizes a point, perhaps the most current for today's generations. Can it be said that there was a feminist movement during the Paris Commune?

Indeed, by not resorting to the term feminism, the women of the Paris Commune were and are often considered to be outside the history of feminisms. Their history is interpreted, on many occasions, as belonging to the history of the labor movement more than to the history of feminisms, since they did not appropriate this term. The non-use of the term feminism was seen as a lack, a limitation, and pointed out as proof of a supposed misogyny and lack of concern, on the part of this revolution, with the specific condition of women in society.

Édith Thomas invalidates this hypothesis forever with her study – which, we remember, was originally published in 1963! She seeks to rescue initiatives and care in relation to the specific condition of women in the capitalist mode of production, and reminds us that it is always necessary to historicize and contextualize the use of the word feminism, which, until the Paris Commune in France, still defined only one fight for the expansion of the rights of individuals within the framework of liberal society.

The Paris Commune and its women worked for another life project, making this revolution one of the first great internationalist women's movements organized around class struggle, human and female emancipation.

In view of the above, we enthusiastically welcome the republication of the Les Petroleuses in 2021, but we can't help but finish this text with a question. Why, almost sixty years after the first publication of this important work, is it still so common to affirm, against the Commune, banalities such as those that the author had already refuted before they were even affirmed?

*Annabelle Bonnet, PhD in sociology from EHESS/Paris, she is a postdoctoral researcher at the Graduate Program in Social Policy at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).

*Victor Neves He is a professor at the Department of Theory of Art and Music (DTAM) and at the Graduate Program in Social Policy at UFES.


Edith Thomas. Les petroleuses. Paris, Gallimard, 2021.

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