Marie Wolff

Week Ten of Resonating Women of the Paris Commune

Listen here to For Marie     

improvisation on Castagnari melodeon

Marie Guyard (aka Guyord) Wolff (1849-?)

Marie Wolff was born into a poor family in 1849 in Bar-le-Duc (Meuse). Later, she lived in Paris where she worked as a laundress and chiffonier, a rag-picker. Before the uprising, Marie had served time in prison for theft and vagrancy. In the Paris Commune, she served in the ambulance brigades. It has been reported that during the insurrection she carried various weapons, including a revolver, and wore a red cockade. Although, historical narratives about the incident are contradictory, on May 27, 1871, she is reputed to have walked at the head of a procession of hostages with the drapeau rouge. In the aftermath of the Commune, the Council of War condemned her to death for building barricades and for taking up arms, citing the allegation that she had been involved in the execution of three clerics (Monsignor Surrat, the Abbé Bécourt and Father Houillon) and a policeman named Chaulieu at place de la Roquette. Apparently, a washerwoman in her neighbourhood, denounced her, giving this description at her trial,

‘She was carrying a red banner and wore a belt with weapons stuck into it. She was dressed in a grey skirt and jacket and a very faded blue apron. She wore her hair braided on her head with a band around it; and wore hobnailed boots which she later threw away at Saint-Lazare, when she saw I had recognized her.; for I had done her laundry three or four times during the Siege. I said that what she was doing was no good, and that she would get into trouble because of it. She replied, as she went back down the street, by threatening to do me in.’(reported in Thomas, 195)

In the aftermath of such strife, many witness testimonies were colourful but unreliable. As Eichner comments,

‘Although Guyard faced a death sentence, the testimony that she ‘fired her revolver at the victims’ did not clarify whether she actually shot anyone. Military dress, militarism and revolutionary leadership formed her fundamental crimes; she symbolised not only a political or class-related threat but a specific threat to the gendered order.’ (Eichner, 115)

The sentence was commuted to forced labour ‘in perpetuity’. In 1872, she was transported to the harsh penal colony of Cayenne (known as ‘Devil’s Island’) on the Salvation Islands, just off the coast of French Guyana. With little evidence of what happened to her in the following years, Marie remains as one of the many working-class women communards whose lives were barely documented.

A few sources

Pamela Joan Stewart, Invisible Revolutions: Women’s participation in the 1871 Paris Commune, 2006, Phd thesis, University of Arizona (with extensive bibliography/lists of primary sources)

Images of women communards

Marie Wolff Guyard, Le Maitron, Dictionnaire Biographique, Mouvement Ouvrier, Mouvement Social

C. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, Women in the Paris Commune, 2004

E. Thomas,The Women Incendiaries, 1966

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

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)