Louise Michel

Week Eight of Resonating Women of the Paris Commune

Listen here to For Louise  

improvisation on piano accordion

 Louise Michel 1830 – 1905

Clémence-Louise Michel was born in Vroncourt, Haut-Marne in 1830 to a servant woman and unknown father. She trained as a teacher in the 1850s and set up progressive libertarian schools in Paris. Increasingly active in radical politics, in 1869, she was a founding member of the Société pour la Revendication du Droits Civils des Femmes, a group that focused on improving girls’ education and met at André Leo’s house.

On the declaration of the Commune, Louise took on a leading role. As Thomas comments,  ‘She was everywhere at once: soldier, ambulance nurse, orator. She was to be found on the battlefields, in the Montmartre Vigilance Committee and in the ambulance stations she helped to organise’ (Thomas, 147)

Her militancy led her to plan to assassinate Adolph Thiers, the head of the French government. Her colleagues persuaded her against it but she managed to find plenty of other ways to give selfless support to the Commune. Aside from taking an active part in the armed struggle, she often presided over the Club de la Revolution which met at the Church of Saint Bernard de la Chapelle.  At one meeting the Club’s members voted for the abolition of church worship, the abolition of licensed houses of prostitution and the setting up of ‘working women’s corporations’ (Fontoulieu cited in Thomas, 101).

With an astute intelligence and a poetic sensibility, Louise found the composure to continue her writing even under fire. She is reported to have read Baudelaire with a student and played the harmonium in a Protestant church near one of the barricades at Neuilly. In the final week of the commune, under fierce attack, she fought alongside fifty men from the 61st Batallion to defend the Montmartre cemetery. With the fall of the Commune, she was arrested and named as one of the ‘ring-leaders’. Under interrogation at her trial, Louise defended the Commune eloquently and accepted everything of which she was accused. Maintaining a resolute insolence, she declared,

‘Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance…[…]…If you are not cowards, kill me.’

Reprieved and sentenced to ‘banishment to a fortress’, along with many other women, she was sent to Chantiers prison at Versailles. Subsequently, she was one of around 4,500 communards deported to New Caledonia where she befriended the Kanak people and  supported the islanders in the Kanak revolt of 1878. At the general amnesty in 1880, over 10,000 people turned out at the St. Lazare station to welcome her back to Paris. In the 1880s, she led demonstrations of workers under the anarchist ‘black flag’ and expressed her political views in writings and speeches. For her support of the ‘bread riots’ in Paris, she was sentenced to three more years in prison (1883-6).  After recovering from an assassination attempt (in 1898), and to escape an attempt to force her into a mental asylum, she moved to London where she set up the International Socialist School based on libertarian pedagogies. This was a remarkable initiative with teachings influenced by the educational ideas of Paul Robin and Mikhail Bakunin.  Through the 1890s and up to her death in 1905, her lecture tours attracted thousands.

Notably, Louise believed that revolutionaries were ‘bullets adapted to struggle’; she wanted it known that she was unapologetic and forever wedded to revolutionary transformation (Kinna, 22). Probably the most well-known and celebrated of all the women communards, committed to anarchist principles and relentlessly internationalist, Louise was a woman of immense presence and political significance. At her funeral in Marseilles, over 50,000 people came onto the streets to honour her in a peaceful demonstration of solidarity.

[Image of three woman: Marie Ferré, Louise Michel and Paule Minck]

Some sources

Ruth Kinna & Clifford Harper, ‘Louise Michel’, No 4 in Great Anarchists series, Dog Section Press, 2018

Louise Michel, a French anarchist in London’ with Constance Bantman and Martyn Everett, talk at Housmans bookshop, November 2019

Constance Bantman (2017) ‘Louise Michel’s London years: A political reassessment (1890-1905)’, Women’s History Review, 26:6, 994-1012

Louise Michel, La Commune, 1898

Octave Larmagnac-Matheron, ‘Les philosophes et la Commune: Épisode 5 : les féministes et la Commune’, Philosophie magazine, 27 March 2021

Paul Fontoulieu, Les églises de Paris sous la Commune, Paris, 1873

Raspou team, L’union des femmes, Un journal pour le Commune, 2011

Here is Louise Michel’, extract from Chapter 7 of The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, edited & translated by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter in Kate Sharpley Library Bulletin, 2018

J Cox, ‘Genderquake: socialist women and the commune’, International Socialist Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory, Issue 69, posted 5 January 2021

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)