Week Seven of Resonating Women of The Paris Commune
Listen here to For André Improvisation on Roland digital keyboard
André Léo 1824-1900
Victoire Léodile Béra was born in Lusignan, Vienne into a bourgeois family. Her father was a retired naval officer and a judge. In 1851 she went to Lausanne where she met Gregoire Champseix who had fled to Switzerland after being involved in political activities in the 1848 revolution. In 1853, Victoire adopted the names of her twin sons André and Léo and continued to use this, and other pseudonyms, in her published writings. The couple returned to Paris in 1860 where André established a career as a novelist and journalist. As a dedicated feminist, her novels centred around the fictional lives of non-conventional and non-conformist women who chose not to marry, often working as teachers instead. In the 1860s, André’s house became a centre for radicals and women movement figures from Europe and the USA. In 1866, a feminist group called the Société pour la Revendication du Droit des Femmes was established there. Members included Paule Minck, Louise Michel, Eliska Vincent, Élie Reclus and his wife Noémie – a key issue they discussed was ways to improve girls’ education.
In the uprisings in Paris, André quickly became a regular public speaker and active defender of the Commune. Deploying her literary skills and experience, she founded La Sociale, a major forum for her ideas about the social and political condition of women. André argued that women were enslaved in marriage and work and the only way to end that was through the granting of equal rights in all areas of life. Eichner highlights three key aspects of her literary and philosophical approach to revolutionary activism during the Commune:
‘theorizing and defending women’s battlefield roles as nurses, cooks and fighters: contesting the era’s dominant ideologies and images of gender; and advocating the reconceptualization and reconstruction of girls’ education’ (Eichner, 98)
In particular, André demanded that women should be allowed not only to take up arms but also should take part in the military leadership of the Commune alongside men. She was especially vocal in highlighting the opposition that women encountered from even the most politically radical men in the Commune.
‘When the daughters, wives, and mothers fight with their sons, husbands and fathers, Paris will no longer have a passion for liberty, it will have a delirium. And the enemy soldiers…will be forced to recognize that what they are facing is not a discordant opponent, but an entire people.’(Léo, ‘Toutes avec tous’ in La Sociale, 12 April 1871)
After the crushing of the Commune, André was one of a couple of hundred or so Communards who managed to escape to Switzerland. She continued her political work and was invited to the Peace Congress in Lausanne in September 1871. In a controversial speech at the event, she argued for communal liberties, the organization of a citizens army and a free democratic and universal education for all.
‘As long as a child is poor…as long as he grows up with no ideal but the tavern, no future but the day-to-day work of a beast of burden, most members of humanity will be deprived of their rights…equality will be only a decoy, and war – the most horrible, the most desparate of all wars, be it unleashed or latent – will desolate the world and dishonor humanity’ (Léo’s words reported in Thomas, 207)
Her analysis of the failure of the Commune – which included harsh criticisms of the leadership and charges of complicity – were not well received and her speech was halted before she finished. Subsequently, she supported the Bakunin bloc as she felt that the International was being turned into a hierarchical organisation, accusing him of ‘consecrating’ himself as ‘pontiff’. Subsequently, she returned to France in 1880 and continued writings in support of socialism alongside her work as a novelist.
André Léo (birth given as 1932 here) in online encyclopedia
J Cox, ‘Genderquake: socialist women and the commune’, International Socialist Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory, Issue 69, posted 5 January 2021
F. Ferretti, Anarchist geographers and feminism in late 19thc France: the contributions of Elisée and Elie Reclus, Historical Geography, Vol 44, 2016
C. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, Women in the Paris Commune, 2004
G. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 1996
E. Thomas, The Women Incendiaries, 1966
My letterpress prints are made on paper salvaged from a discarded series of 19thc technical manuals sourced in Tarnac, a small rural community in Corrèze, one of the ‘reddest cantons in France as a whole’ (Ad Knotter, ‘Little Moscows in Western Europe: the Ecology of Small-place Communism’, International Review of Social History, 2011)