Click for papers on:
Aisha Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844
Nancy Hewitt, Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds
Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching
Carolyn J. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades: Women in theParis Commune
Carolyn Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary
Louise Michel, Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel
Kym Winchell on Aisha Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844
Resistance Both Quiet and Loud
Aisha Finch's Rethinking Slave Rebellion
in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844 is primarily concerned
with the reclamation of a rich history of resistance in the face of Cuban slavery,
especially around the stories and lives of Afro-Cuban women and non-elite men.
Aside from the documents arranged by white creole slaveholders, little record
is left behind of La Escalera, a putative conspiracy to promote a slave revolt
on the island's sugar plantations. Finch uses a method of "reading the
silence" within this colonial document, a method which allows her to move
beyond the record of the oppressor. In this paper I reflect on Finch's understanding
of the importance of the unrecorded historical subject, and the ramifications
this has for women within a revolutionary context.
The historical case of La Escalera is a particularly complex one. It is not known whether the many acts of resistance across Cuba were indeed united, or whether the illusion of a centralized resistance was crafted by the colonial power as justification for a brutal display of force, meant to evidence the absolute authority of Spanish control. For this reason, the term La Escalera is used to refer to the trials of alleged revolutionaries by the Spanish colonial force. The turn of the century had seen the Haitian revolution prove the precarious position of islands dominated in population by enslaved men and women. White creole resentment of Spanish authority (1) combined with this threat to lead the Spanish colonial government to reassert its dominance by increasing the presence of the Spanish military on the island and attempting to establish a slave system closer to that of the United States. (2)
Interpreting the Colonial Document
Historians who wish to depict the experience of an oppressed people inevitably come into conflict with the record of power. In a colonial context the colonizer holds sweeping power to falsify testimony through torture and threat, and to falsify records indefinitely. Finch meets this challenge directly, acknowledging the difficulty of her task and conscientiously developing a methodology that she applies towards understanding the role of the silenced party. Her method is particularly useful for any historian whose task is to give dimensionality to the role of women in resistance. Finch asserts the importance of the role of women in sustaining and fomenting rebellion in ways that do not draw the colonizer's gaze. In performing the reproductive work of the family women are not necessarily passive. Finch allows herself to acknowledge the importance of a role that has become passé in contemporary feminist discourse; that to be revolutionaries women do not necessarily need to engage the same performance of power as their male counterparts; and that in a gendered context the revolutionary roles of men and women can have complementary characteristics.
Finch takes account of the gendered conditions that existed in nineteenth-century Cuban life under slavery, and yet does not ignore the importance of those women who do make an impression on the colonial record by abandoning expectations of femininity (3) and leading their people into battle. Her goal is not to reduce these stories or underestimate the bravery of the individual women who died in resistance; rather, Finch seeks to remind us of the bravery within daily life, and the tactical necessity of quiet subversion. The great battles are founded upon the survival of the colonized and enslaved people, and upon the organization of solidarity, exchange of information, and sheltering of refugees; all tasks that are not explicitly included in the colonial record but which emerge nonetheless, implied by its gaps.
These daily acts of resistance expose themselves
to Finch's compassionate detective work. She discusses the importance of Afro-Cuban
enslaved women as Brujas, who engaged in a form of witchcraft that married regional
practices of Africa into a contemporary dialogue across cultural boundaries.
Brujas were active and powerful within their practice, going beyond the role
of passive oracle that is often conjured in the contemporary western imagination.
(4) In the context of Cuban slavery in the 1850s, Brujas were a driving force
behind the plans for revolt. These priestesses would foretell events and conditions
of the resistance, distribute protective blessings, and forge amulets which
bound men to their role as fighters. In the brutal interrogations that slaveholders
used to extract information about La Escalera, some men maintained their silence
for fear of death upon breaking the pact of the amulets. Here it becomes clear
that the authority and power of the Bruja is comparable to that of a general
in war, although a general who took a shape unrecognizable to the colonizer.
Not all women were engaged in the exceptional
work of brujería, but this did not limit their importance to colonial
resistance. Meetings of enslaved men and women took place on plantations grounds
at night, at which revolutionaries of all genders laid plans and communicated
messages to be carried to other plantations. Women spent evenings caring for
children, cooking, and creating the illusion that all was in its place so that
men could travel, carrying information to distant plantations against the will
of the slaver. The unique conditions of Cuban slavery made it so that some women
had freed themselves from slavery, and become landholders in the city or, occasionally,
acquired plantations of their own. Finch highlights the particular cases of
Desideria Pimienta and Altagracia Villa. These esteemed individuals were often
at the crux of plans for rebellion, providing a safe meeting place and overnight
quarters for revolutionaries.
Returning to the case of women in battle, Finch gives careful attention to the Afro-Cuban women who do appear in documents about the inquisition of La Escalera, particularly Carlota and Fermina Lucumí. (5) Carlota died in battle, distinguished by her maiming of the daughter of a plantation overseer during an uprising; she became a symbol of white creole anxiety. Fermina was a significant leader in revolutionary planning, executed in the trials of La Escalera. Both women became acute points of tension within creole and colonizer conceptions of those who they held in bondage. Carlota and Fermina were also evidence against the assumption of a natural domination of man over woman. No longer could the white creole slaver sleep soundly next to the Afro-Cuban woman coerced into his bed.
The Silent Party
Expanding on Finch's analysis of the Afro-Cuban women of La Escalera to establish its broader relevance is absolutely necessary. Her subtle handling of the limitations of evidence in the colonial record shows that history is not a sealed tomb, but a living dialogue which the historian is responsible for translating. By contextualizing the events of La Escalera in the conditions of Cuban slavery in 1850, she constructs a variegated understanding of power, resistance, and gender. She is careful to treat forms of survival and resistance which rely on a gender binary with respect and understanding, while also honoring the individuals who became symbolic as women warriors. Finch understands that the task of the intersectional historian is not to cast off or diminish any single way of being, but to allow the diversity of tactics to emerge from the record, complicating our notions of womanhood and femininity, violence and power, and even success and failure.
1. Many of the islands' plantation owners came from the Americas and did not identify with Spanish authority. This led to some white creole landowners' organizing for the independence of Cuba. These white creoles did not imagine that independence would lead to any greater freedom for enslaved Cubans; rather they sought greater profits and less oversight for themselves.
2. The possibility of purchasing one's freedom, the shared quarters which remained unlocked after working hours, the lax attitude towards hunting and taking wage work in one's "free" time were all elements of Cuban slavery that the Spanish authority came to view as central to the problem of insubordination.
3. Expectations of the roles of men and women (and of any traditional non-binary roles) are complicated by the exercise of colonial power and the bringing together of people from a vast continent with varying traditions and social practices.
4. In the western contemplation of the Occult since the Witch Trials the role of active witchcraft has generally been abandoned for a passive image of the oracle, a woman who acts as a conduit for messages from some greater "other". The favorability of a version of tarot card reader, crystal ball, and palm-reading plays into this preference. This subject deserves more attention than I can give here, but interestingly the tide seems to be shifting again with the creation and popularity of the new "Sabrina", in which witchcraft is portrayed as an empowering force in the hands of the individual witch.
5. Both Carlota and Fermina were surnamed
Lucumi. In Cuban slave society those kidnapped from Africa were given their
places of origin as surnames. Significantly, the Lucumi people came from a warrior
society that was often at the forefront of armed resistance to slavery.
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Hannah Rodums on Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds, by Nancy Hewitt
One of the first lessons I learned in my First
Year Studies course was that of the individual's relationship to the larger
world around them. While not a complete dismissal of free will, the historicized
individual's actions were to be understood within the framework of their contemporary
moment. We are always interacting with and shaping the world around us; and
in return are shaped by the contemporary events in ways unique to us only.
Tonight I am here to talk about Amy Kirby
Post, an individual from the specific historical moment of the American nineteenth
century. As the title of Nancy Hewitt's Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and
Her Activist Worlds suggests, Amy was affiliated with multiple activist
movements throughout her life. Amy's intentionality - or sense of purpose -
in relating her various worlds was that of advocating for the equality of women
and men in all spheres of life, the emancipation of the individual from all
forms of repressive institutions. In light of what I learned from my First Year
Studies, I attempt to tease out the complicated relationship between Amy's fundamentalist
approach to activism and the challenge individual female agency presented to
her historical moment. I am also cognizant however that individual intent is
but one part of making history - and that through a collaboration of intentionalites
does change begin to precipitate, and then crystalize itself in the historical
We all come to our contemporary moment with our own particular pasts and experiences; they are what relate us to it. In the case of Amy, her worldview was heavily informed by the Quaker religion, of which she had been born into. As Hewitt notes, Quakerism of the early nineteenth century presented a unique perspective on the relationship of the individual to other individuals, faith, and purpose. The Spirit of God resided in each individual; and it, rather than a religious authority, was the primary means of religious truth and personal conviction. In light of the United State's inherited history of slavery, Quaker principle decreed that all persons be free of bondage. Wives were regarded as spiritual equals to their husbands, and sometimes considered the chief religious and moral authority of the Quaker household - a position that throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century was held by the male. Men and women together met monthly in meeting houses with other Friends, and when only compelled by their inner light spoke. Hewitt suggests that the individual emphasis of both men and women's spiritually in particular impacted the young Amy tremendously in how she understood her relationship to the men, freed slaves, and other women she daily came into contact with.
Quakerism's fiercely individualist understanding
of spirituality however was in conflict with the institution of Quaker religion
as a whole, which imposed on its members strict disciplinary codes and forbade
the involvement of Quakers with the affairs of the Non-Quaker world. In the
context of Amy's historical moment, this meant that while she personally could
condemn slavery as an immoral and unchristian practice (as her religion taught),
she could not participate in the nascent abolitionist organizations forming
in the Northeast. Societal understanding of the woman's place within the private
sphere doubly condemned any notion of public speaking, never mind outright activism
in a world of men. A budding radical herself, Amy had a choice to make: sacrifice
her individual religious and moral convictions and conform to the institutions
of religion and womanhood, or risk separating herself from her Quaker family,
of whom she was very close to. The decision, Hewitt notes, wasn't an easy one,
in the end Amy and her husband/equal, Isaac, switched from orthodox Quakerism
to Hicksite Quakerism, the more radical of the two in its sympathizing with
the abolitionist cause. Ultimately Amy and Isaac would stop attending Monthlies
with Friends from either sect of Quakerism altogether, instead vouching form
their own Waterloo Friends of Human Progress meeting with other disenchanted
Quakers like themselves.
To recognize one's individual purpose is one
thing: but that individual purpose is squandered by the larger authorities which
haunt our lives if it cannot find an outlet to express itself. As her radical
worlds broadened to encompass the blooming abolitionist and women's rights scenes
in Rochester, New York, she (as well as other women radicals within her circles,
including the likes of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), exposed the
connections between the larger institutions of marriage, law, and slavery that
inhibited individual - and especially individual women's - emancipation. Hence
followed a flurry of activist activity as Amy erected and engaged with a myriad
of organizations: The American Anti-Slavery Society, the Western New York Anti-Slavery
Society, The Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends, the National Woman Suffrage
Assocation, to name but a few. In these organizations women asserted their agency
by electing members to held positions, openly discussing issues of women's oppression
via American culture and slavery, and forming communities of women that operated
outside the institutions men had excluded them from. In this light, recognition
of the female as individual agent of her own destiny challenged the male-dominated
institutional structures of the law, religion, and the family that otherwise
dictated the intentionalities of the nineteenth-century woman.
Complimentary to the many activist groups
Amy was in, the Post house on Sophia Street was a destination on the Underground
Railroad, opened to all slaves escaping to Canada; it was a meeting place for
women's groups and meetings, and a resting place for extended family members
(and friends that were considered family, such as Frederick Douglass and his
wife Rosa) who too were a part of the activist network. It was also home to
the flash-in-the-pan Spiritualist movement of the Antebellum era; in fact Amy
and Isaac held séances and contacted many of their deceased relatives
via mediums, a practice their Quaker relatives looked upon with skepticism.
Ann Braude notes in Radical Spirits that the fundamental basis of Quakerism
and Spiritual shared a similarity in their belief that "individuals should
look within themselves and act according to the convictions placed there by
the creator" (Braude, 62), rather than accept a higher authority. In the
context of spiritualism, the harsh reality of death, paired with the Puritan/Calvinist
beliefs of the predestination of the soul, constituted the overarching religious
view. Via contacting the dead through a medium, spiritualism "usurped the
authority of God by interfering with the authority of a moral agent" (Braude
88); and through usurping God usurped His representatives, other known as the
Bible, nineteenth-century values of womanhood, and the United States' institutions
created by men and oppressed all women. Here could the agency of the female
individual be recognized in all of its power; and through contacting the spirits
of former slaveowners who had in the afterlife renounced slavery, Spiritualism
became another vehicle through which Amy and her activist friends could utilize
individual female agency to push forward contemporary issues of social justice,
in the context of a world dominated by nineteenth-century middle-class social
values, law, and taboos.
Amy, however, is not a storybook character
who marches from one conflict to the next, completely unconnected from her contemporaries
like many protagonists tend to be. Perhaps it is a hold-over from the way nineteenth-century
historians rendered history as a linear progression form the "backward"
past to the "forward" present, and the inevitable "modern"
future: we fail to see the connections between individuals, their actions, and
the other historical actors walking alongside them, as if every moment is a
separate chapter in the story of history. One individual's purpose alone cannot
account for everything the American abolitionist movement as a whole accomplished
within the nineteenth century.
As I've hinted at, Amy had a plethora of activist
friends that called Rochester their home; and like each one of us those activists
had their own individual purposes which influenced the way they interacted with
their world, and with each other. One of Amy's closest radical friends, Frederick
Douglass, joined the abolitionist movement in the Garrisonian belief that slavery
was a moral sin against the nation; as he matured however he refined his intentionality
to focus more on abolition as a political cause, vouching for the emancipation
and legal enfranchisement of enslaved black men. The specific purpose he had
written for abolitionism clashed with Amy's conviction of slavery as moral flaw,
and extending well beyond slaves that were daily exploited and discriminated
against; that however did not stop Amy from supporting Douglass's North Star
publication, nor did it prevent Douglass from attending women's rights conventions
that Amy organized. Should one have offended the other with their particular
sense of what the proper course of action was (as Amy once did in relation to
Douglass's North Star becoming too politically oriented), the two forgave each
other; and set their minds on the collective effort of the abolition of slavery,
and all forms of bondage.
The same can be said for Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose relationship to Amy Hewitt characterizes as
ambivalent. By the dawn of the Civil War the two women's rights advocates had
abandoned religious and moral convictions of woman's freedom in favor of legally
enfranchising and granting the rights of women. After the war it evolved into
an elitist and racist stance on granting only white women suffrage, ignoring
the prominent - and critical - voices black women's activists such as Sojourner
Truth and Ellen Frances Watkins Harper. Indeed their intentionality staunchly
differed from Post's inclusive view of emancipating all individuals,
one which recognized the complex nuances of race and gender that made them all
but inseparable in the cause for individual female emancipation. Amy however
collaborated with Stanton and Anthony's specific intentionalities by attending
specific women's rights conventions held by them, and attempting to have herself
registered to vote in Rochester elections. Done alone, and perhaps neither Amy
nor Douglass, Stanton, or Anthony would have gotten anywhere; but through the
collaboration of their individual intentionalities could they together forge
a path ultimately changing the unique historical moment they had in common.
Hewitt stresses Post's "fundamentalist
approach" (Hewitt, 179) as the defining motive behind her activism - never
whittled down to one faction of oppressed individuals, but deeply aware of the
ways abolition, women's rights, and peace were intertwined with one another.
Her reputation was of someone who crossed the boundaries of race, class, and
gender the nineteenth century had identified as "rigid" - a jack of
all trades, if you will, and approachable to many people that hailed from diverse
groups and interests. That her goal of emancipation for all individuals affected
the historical narrative, I agree; but where I see the individual purpose in
Post's life I also see a woman intimately connected the members of her activist
worlds, pushing together rather than separately against the stubborn institutions
and social values inhibiting them. Like the throwing of a stone into a pond
the individual act is a singular event dropped into the narrative; its ripples
however interact in their own with other historical actors and phenomena, and
through their collaboration influence the larger superstructure of their own
historical moment, and echo well into the moments occurring well after it.
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Kathryn Brantley on Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching by Crystal N. Feimster
In Crystal Feimster's work, Southern Horrors, the reality of the United States during Reconstruction is exposed by comparing the activist journeys of two southern women from very different backgrounds. Feimster works to shed light on the assaults performed against black citizens that have been sanitized, covered up, and left unpunished and unatoned for. The acts that she describes are, indeed, horrors. However, even difficult histories need to be learned from; victims need to be honored and perpetrators held accountable, even if only through text. Beyond the atrocities described in the pages of Southern Horrors, Feimster discusses the lynchings of the Reconstructed South through the pens of two women of startlingly different views. Ida B. Wells, the esteemed teacher, journalist, and activist who spoke against lynchings in the south in no uncertain terms, is compared and contrasted with Rebecca Felton, a white writer from Georgia who advocated for lynchings of black men to continue under the argument that they were necessary for the protection of white women. In the pages of her text, Feimster describes (and shows her readers through pictures) horrors that are nearly unimaginable.
Feimster opens her text by discussing the incredible differences that existed between Wells and Felton. Although they were contemporaries, existing in the same generation and in similar areas of the United States, the experiences that Wells and Felton had, experiences that would shape them into the women and activists that they became, were disparate in the extreme. Wells, born the daughter of slaves in Mississippi, and Felton, born the daughter of a slaveholding family in Georgia, both would end up as activists, Wells fighting against lynchings and Felton fighting for what she perceived as the continued protection of white women. In order to better explain how Wells and Felton would end up with such diametrically opposing views, Feimster dedicates the first portion of her book to describing the differences in how both Felton and Wells were raised, and the journey each took to their respective careers as activists. From the perspective of modernity, it's hard to understand how Feimster can write, "From different sides of the color line, Felton and Wells were women's rights pioneers who negotiated and challenged the racial and sexual politics of the New South" (1), when the position that Felton took was so utterly repulsive. However, Feimster, not only by describing in such stark terms how Wells and Felton ended up activists and pioneers for such radically different movements and positions, but also by holding a mirror up to her readers, forces us to meditate upon the ideals and perspectives that each of us was steeped in growing up.
From the beginning of her text, Feimster urges her readers to acknowledge the common ground that surprisingly existed between Wells and Felton. On the surface it would seem that a daughter of slaves and a daughter of slaveowners would hold little in common in terms of morals and ideals, Felton points out that Wells and Felton shared ideologies in regards to the unreigned sexuality of southern white men, they both took to the public sphere to voice their opinions on both race and sex when it was still uncommon for women to exist in the public sphere in this manner, and they each, "albeit in very different ways, laid the groundwork that would eventually allow southern black and white women to come together in the fight against lynching." (6) Feimster does not ignore, however, the incredibly different ways that Wells and Felton grew up. Feimster works diligently, giving background to both Felton and Wells' childhoods, the places they inhabited, and the way they learned to interact with the world around them. Felton's childhood as the daughter of slaveowners, groomed to manage a household of slaves, raised by a "Mammy" and bound to the social order of the elite slave-owning south, is disparate from Wells childhood as the daughter of slaves, later freed, who grew into a fiercely independent and vibrant author and activist.
In the chapter titled "The Horrors
of War," Feimster uses descriptions of Felton's early years as a way to
frame the atmosphere that women of her class were raised in. Reflecting upon
later chapters, when Felton's activism is explored, her terror at the idea of
sexual assault on white women, and her willingness to sacrifice as many innocent
black men as necessary to "protect" white women, it is clear to see
where these seeds were planted. Feimster writes on how, in the Civil War era
south, white women and their accompanying virtues were treated with the utmost
care, and the loss of any virtue, especially at the hands of either a Yankee
soldier or a black man, was feared incredibly. One quote stands out in particular,
ascribed to a young woman named Cordelia Lewis Scales from Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Writing to a friend, Cordelia said: "I
wish you could see me now with my hair parted on the side with my black velvet
zouave on & pistol by my side & riding with my fine colt, Beula. I know
you would take me on for a Guerilla. Quite warlike, you see." (19) This
attitude of defiance, the willingness to fight to the death if necessary to
protect one's virtue, of course would bleed over into the activism of Felton
in her later years.
After discussing the origins of Rebecca Felton, Feimster outlines the way that Wells was raised, comparing her upbringing with that of Felton's and using it to create context in the way that women of Wells' background and Felton's background experienced the world around them. She describes the way that Wells was raised, how her parents, both of whom were raised as slaves, focused so intently on raising their daughter to be exposed to politics and to pursue her education. The world that Wells was raised in was quite different that the world that Felton grew up in and inhabited. While both were raised in the south during the time of slavery (although Wells was a generation younger than Felton), the experience that Wells had was diametrically opposed to Felton's. While both Felton and Wells were taught of the violence, sexual and otherwise, that existed in their overlapping southern worlds, Feimster writes of how Wells' parents taught her about the world she inhabited. "Ida's childhood also included powerful lessons about the racial and sexual politics of the antebellum South." (39) Feimster goes on to write of how Wells was taught about the "hard times" that her mother encountered as a slave (taken as meaning violence, sexual and otherwise), and how she was told of other hardships, encounters with brutalities sexual and otherwise that her extended family, friends, and community at large experienced. However, instead of the narrative of sexual abuse and hardship in the south that Felton was taught, the views that Wells would have heard and seen did not center white women as the sole victims of abuse and hardship in the south, but as perpetrators of violence against black men and women.
The point that Feimster makes in writing of the childhoods and upbringings of both Wells and Felton is to illustrate how the respective upbringings of both Felton and Wells would shape the way that they interacted with the world as activists later on in their lifetimes. Immediately after showing how Wells and Felton experienced their formative years, Feimster goes on to write about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed, and how the anti-rape movement, helmed by white southern women, began. Feimster is careful to note that, although they had greatly differing views expressed in similar manners, both Wells and Felton were women who stepped outside of the bounds typically prescribed to women of their time and place. "Instead, armed with painful lessons from their past and motivated by hopes for the future, they seized upon women's postwar concern with protection of body and property and forcefully entered into the violent racial and sexual politics of the 'New South.'" (62) It must be discussed that, as a modern spectator of the New South, one can be loath to acknowledge Felton's accomplishments, seeing as they came on the backs and through the blood of innocent black men. One must give credit to Feimster for removing her lens of modernity with such dedication in acknowledging Felton for the work that she did.
However, despite the similarities that Felton and Wells had in their activism and breaking outside of the roles that the south, even the New South, would steadily prescribe to them, the way that their activism was expressed and the accomplishments that they hoped to achieve differed greatly. In the first few chapters of Southern Horrors, Feimster writes of how both Wells and Felton worked to make the changes that they sought in the south. Felton, Feimster explains, did work to help reduce sexual assault in the south, and this surprisingly expressed itself in bucking the traditional view of the time that black women should be sexually available to white men, and seeking instead to acknowledge their sexual availability and protect them from assault at the hands of white men. "Felton used her husband's political position and the influence of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to broaden her concern with protection to include black women and poor white women." (63) Including black women in her goals for protection, however, did not keep her from playing up the hysteria that led to the torture and destruction of so many black men.
In contrast, Wells would, in the course of her career, become an outspoken activist against the lynchings of black men, and would specifically decry the excuses and accusations of rape as a cover-up for the more commonly economically motivated lynchings of black men. Feimster writes about this, stating that at first, even the black community had difficulty decrying lynchings when rape was given as the reason why. Rape was seen as morally reprehensible within their communities, and lynching was seen, Feimster implies, as a justifiable punishment for such an offense. However, when faced with the surge of lynchings and racially based violence in the early 1890s, it became clear that other reasons, such as "preventing black political and economic mobility," (87) was more of a driving factor behind lynchings than punishment for sexual violence was. Feimster gives multiple examples, each horrific, of lynchings that were described as punishments for rape, when really economic factors could have been behind them. This political landscape was the one in which Ida Wells would come into her own as an author and activist in, and would shape the way she acted as an activist and journalist for the rest of her career.
Feimster also writes of Wells's work, Southern Horrors, and how it came to define the movement against the rash of racially motivated violence in New South. This work, Feimster discusses, would win Wells many enemies and allies, and would alienate her from both the white and black presses because she was a woman delivering this message. Beyond her own activism, Wells would go on to inspire the next generation of female black activists. The reach of her activism was far and impactful. This was due to the power of her arguments against racially based violence and lynchings, the way that she used her words to decry and topple the reasoning given for such unspeakable acts. "Wells argued that the rape/lynch narrative depended on a variety of racialized gender constructions: the chaste and dependent white woman; the sexually violent black man; the immoral and unredeemable black woman; and the honorable and civilized white man." (103) Wells's work in breaking down these beliefs, although so many of the walls wouldn't fall until after her time (and many of these stereotypes sadly persist into today), was crucial. Wells inspired a generation of black women activists who came behind her.
The activism that Wells and those like her inspired was not, however, without its qualms. Other activists, especially those within the National Federation of Afro-American Women (which became the National Association of Colored Women, or NACW) were less radical and more in favor of less radical activism than Wells (now Wells-Barnett) desired. Wells was an advocate of armed resistance and agitation against the racialized violence that the black community was experiencing. The aforementioned organizations, however, were more apt to advocate for participating in what we would now call respectability politics. "Emphasizing domesticity, club-women sought to improve family life, health, and morality in the black community." (114) This approach mirrored the beliefs that white society placed upon black communities when they painted them as less moral, advanced, or dignified than white communities.
Despite the activism of groups like NACW and individuals like Ida B. Wells, the New South was full of white women like Felton who used race as a way to make progress on their own issues, using the black community as leverage to secure their own advancement. Feimster writes of how white women in the New South sketched out their platforms, campaigning for prison reform, calling for returns to chivalry on the part of white men, advocating for temperance prohibition. An interesting note that Feimster makes here is that despite the image that women activists in the New South painted for themselves, many of them participated in mob violence "in the name of 'home protection' and white supremacy." (125) As Feimster writes, "They laid claim to their rights to legal and/or extralegal protection and expressed their desire to move freely without fear of sexual violence. In so doing, they transformed the 'problem'of black rape into a discussion about white women's rights." (125) This attitude and approach would continue to shape the way that women in the New South would face the legitimate problems they had as women. By placing blame on black men (and black individuals in general) instead of simply fighting for their own rights, they would, though, play a crucial role in the devastating violence put upon the black community in the New South and beyond in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras.
The issues that Wells fought against, discrimination and lynchings and the violence that the black community suffered through, would continue to plague the south for years and years to come. While black men were primarily targeted, black women suffered as well. Feimster writes, "Between 1880 and 1930 lynch mobs murdered at least 130 black women. Many more were tortured, mutilated, tarred and feathered, shot, burned, stabbed, dragged, whipped, or raped by angry mobs all over the South." (159) The atmosphere of fear that so many black southerners lived in was one intentionally stoked by activists like Felton, where the safety of innocent citizens was put in jeopardy in order to move forward the progress of white southern women. Feimster dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the horrors that faced black southerners during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era, detailing horrific stories of abuse, murder, and gut-churning violence. One point that Feimster does make, is that while racial violence made up the majority of lynchings, white women, almost always women of lower social classes, women who were sex workers, or otherwise "undesirable citizens," were lynched as well. (183-184)
In the final chapter of her book, titled "The Gender and Racial Politics of the Anti-Lynching Movement," Feimster brings together the parallel themes of Wells and Felton, the way their lives in some ways mirrored, and in other ways repelled each other, to discuss the culmination of both their life works. In 1922, both Felton and Wells (with Wells accompanied by a "delegation of black clubwomen" (212) traveled to Washington, D.C. The Dyer Bill, the first anti-lynching law to reach the U.S. Senate, was being voted on, and Wells had traveled with her fellow clubwomen to try and convince President Warren Harding of the bill's importance. Felton, however, spoke out against the bill in no uncertain terms. Using her connections and social standing, Felton continued to speak in favor of lynching, deeming it necessary for the protection of white women in the New South. Felton was active politically, even going as far as to serve as the first female senator in the history of the U.S., albeit for only one day. Along with others who shared her views, Felton fought to have the Dyer Bill fail, and surely enough, it failed to advance in the 67th Congress.
This, however, was not the end for the anti-lynching movement that Ida B. Wells-Barnett put into motion. Despite Felton and others like her fighting against their calls for justice and ceasing of violence against the black community, many women in the south, black and white alike, would continue to fight against lynchings in the New South. The foundation of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930 signaled the beginnings of a shift in the social structure of the south. Women of all races came together to continue the legacy that Wells had put into motion, and they rejected the notion that protection of white women was the reason to carry on lynchings. The Association declared, "Public opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they were acting solely in defense of womanhood. In the light of facts, we dare no longer permit this claim to pass unchallenged We solemnly pledge ourselves to create a new public opinion in the South, which will not condone, for any reason whatever, acts of mobs or lynchers." (231-232) This legacy of working towards justice would carry on, and finally, in June 2005, decades after the lives and deaths of both Rebecca Felton and Ida B. Wells, the 199th Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for lynching, the lack of failure on their part, and the treatment of black men and women in the New South. They also apologized for not passing legislation to protect black communities sooner.
In conclusion, although the lives of Ida B. Wells and Rebecca Felton resulted in differing values, opinions, and manners of thought, Feimster weaves these two disparate lives together in a way that makes it possible to see how they worked together, even in ways unseen at the time, to build a future in which lynchings would be decried and punished instead of supported. One cannot, however, study this history without meditating on the present.
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Marian Phillips on Surmounting the Barricades: Women in theParis Commune by Carolyn J. Eichner
Throughout history women have played
integral roles in the development and establishing of revolutions and insurrections
against long-standing patriarchal structures of government. Notably, on March
18, 1871, revolutionary women of Paris assisted in inciting the Paris Commune
when they laid their lives on the line as French troops sent by Thiers attempted
to remove artillery from Montmartre. Historians have conducted extensive research
on the Paris Commune but have noticeably minimized the efforts and participation
of women in the revolution. Carolyn Eichner provides a social history that seeks
to represent these revolutionaries that have been excluded. Utilizing print
materials and correspondence of specific women, she discusses the presence and
development of feminist socialism before, during, and after the Commune. In
this historical account of the 72-day revolution, Eichner complicates the history
of the Paris Commune by adding feminist socialism to the discourse.
Detailing the lives of André Léo, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, and Paule Mink, Eichner argues that each of these women exemplifies "a particular strand of communarde feminist socialism" (2) and explains the plurality of feminist socialisms that were part of the revolution. I find it important to note that Eichner focuses on women that have a background in the bourgeoisie and have or have not experienced a shift in their status or a complete loss of it. As these women were and have been cited as bourgeois, they had access to opportunities to leave a paper trail, whereas working-class women would not, or rather could not, have a similar benefit. Despite their ascriptive status as bourgeois, Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink advocated equality for working-class women, bourgeois women, and communardes, as well as anti-clericalism, and women's right to political involvement and education. These women spoke for themselves and women as a whole in their activist efforts. Eichner finds that these women were successful in their revolutionary activism through their ability to publish literature, receive an education, and form organizations; to put it simply, their success was possible thanks to benefits available to them as members of the bourgeoisie.
By detailing the feminist socialism articulated by these women before, during, and after the Commune, Eichner paints the picture of the continuing desires women felt for a revolution in Paris. For instance, Léo wrote various novels during the 1860s that questioned the gendered divisions of labor and the inequalities of marriage, while asserting the importance of women's education; in short, expressing her commitment to women's equality prior to the rise of the Commune. During the revolution, she utilized "traditional concepts of womanhood to promote female access" (104), acknowledging the appeal it would have for those that wouldn't have listened otherwise. While relationship problems dominated her life in the aftermath of the Commune, she returned to writing novels to that advocated social change, such as La Commune de Malenpis: conte, written in exile. Utilizing André Léo's specific social history, Eichner frames the desire for social change as unwavering, despite the obstacles that her subjects faced after the Commune.
The reader is confronted with outliers. These book's subjects were astute in their knowledge of politics and how to navigate patriarchal society--Eichner makes this clear--but the book does not discuss the masses of women who had no choice but to return to an unchanged working-class environment when the Commune fell. Historian Gay Gullickson takes definitive note of working-class women's contributions in the revolution, whereas Carolyn Eichner focuses on bourgeois women as foundational in the development and the deployment of female activism and organizations. The result is diminishment of the roles and presence of working-class women. Surely this is not her intent, as she recognizes that Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink did not have "typical" bourgeois opinions on the Commune based on their personal experiences of gender biases, inequalities in seeking education, and their recognition of the impact of poverty. Eichner discusses their experiences in order to generate a conversation on the presence of feminist socialism and socialists, which her subjects presumably represent. She states that many historians have steered away from the recognizing feminist socialism in the Paris Commune, yet she evades recognizing the women she studies as having more means than others in developing their political beliefs.
This is not to say that Eichner's work is in vain. She provides information that hints at the impact the Commune had on all women. For instance, she provides lengthy accounts of Dmitrieff and Mink, two women who are mentioned very little by Gullickson. If not for Eichner's highlighting these two women, their histories might have remained in the margins. We learn from the social history she reconstructs that Dmitrieff was sent by Karl Marx to Paris, and upon arrival, combined her knowledge of Marxism and feminist socialism to form the Union des femmes. Eichner informs the reader of the diverse backgrounds of the women her research focuses on, taking note of the anti-clerical activism Mink participated in which resulted in her week-long imprisonment, and her continued radicalism that led to her serving eight-months in jail. She complicates the revolutionaries of the Commune by recognizing their diverse backgrounds that resulted in multiple strains of radicalism.
Each of the three women Eichner studies defined her own set of objectives for the revolution based on her prior experience and knowledge, and used her position of privilege to assist the revolution's growth. These women, most notably in the case of Mink, did not fear placing their lives on the line for the Commune. They spoke out on the political and societal injustices placed on women and the Communardes, while provoking others to join in the revolution, whether as allies or participants. Eichner navigates this history in a different way from other historians. While most would use Louise Michel as the focal point of a social history women in the Commune, she chooses to historicize three interconnected feminist socialists that are not as famous Michel, not only to strengthen not only her argument about feminist socialism's presence, but also to establish the presence of these three women. While providing an in-depth analysis on the Paris Commune, Eichner firmly establishes feminist socialism as an important part of the revolution, her focus on Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink allow us to see the complex diversity of Commune participants and their forms of activism.
In focusing on the histories of these revolutionaries before, during, and after the Commune, Eichner demonstrates that the desire for social, political, and cultural change was omnipresent. Her three subjects exemplify a never-ending desire for revolution. In Mink's case, she notably traces this desire to her subject's childhood, when she witnessed her father's separation from wealth that led to his involvement in socialist groups that advocated women's emancipation. Mink recognized herself as the "daughter of a rebel" (23), her father deeply impacting her future involvement in the Commune. Once the revolution came to a halt, she ran for political office, and became a notable advocate for women's suffrage. The heart of the revolution never stopped beating for Mink. She continued to promote a form of revolution as a public speaker to groups of women. In short, Eichner asserts that, to understand the Commune, we must consider the full histories of individuals that participated in it, and whose efforts did not cease even when the revolution seemingly did.
Eichner ultimately provides the reader with an immense breadth of knowledge on Léo, Dmitrieff, and Mink, establishing the revolutionary commitments of these women throughout their lives. These women started fires, and continued to fan the flames of revolution before, during, and after the Commune. What these histories provide, while illuminating, still leave something to be desired. Bourgeois backgrounds benefitted these women, as they were educated and knew how to navigate the Paris political terrain. Eichner's neglect of working-class women does a disservice to the social history she offers, as it inadvertently perpetuates bourgeois perspectives on events in which working-class women played an integral part. While there is some mention of working-class womanhood, Eichner's research relies heavily on women whose privilege enabled them to leave paper trails; what emerges from these sources is a revolution created by bourgeois women for the working-class woman, and bourgeois women speaking for the working-class woman.
Social histories such as Eichner's study of the Paris Commune are necessary in order to unpack social, political, and cultural revolutions as they provide information on specific impacts made by individuals, as well as the larger ripples they create. Eichner's focus on bourgeois women produces a specific social history told by the bourgeoisie and may perpetuate the overabundance and dominance of bourgeois individuals in histories that seek to encompass diversity in womanhood. One should not base social history solely on the paper trail of the bourgeoisie, but instead question the structures that permitted some women to leave a trail while others did not. To conduct a full-fledged social history on women, it is imperative to include the working-class women and recognize their absence from most of the written record that has found its way into libraries and archives. Keeping this in mind, I will end with this question; if the voices of working-class women are absent, are these social histories of revolutionary bourgeois women able to speak for all women in the revolution, and how do we challenge history that composed of dominant voices such as these? As historians and scholars, we must answer this question as we, like Eichner, participate in constructing historical analyses based on sources in which some voices are much louder than others.
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O'Brien on Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, by Carolyn Ashbaugh
Carolyn Ashbaugh opens her book, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, with the prefatory statement: "Lucy Parsons was black, a woman, and working class-three reasons people are often excluded from history" (6). These words hint at a book very different from the one Ashbaugh has written. Despite censuring the editors of Notable American Women for excluding Parsons from their three volume publication on the grounds that she was "largely propelled by her husband's fate" (6), Ashbaugh spends the first half of her text dealing only nominally with the life of Lucy Parsons. Instead, she focuses on Parsons's husband, Albert. With Albert's death two thirds of the way through the book, Ashbaugh is forced to take up the subject of Parsons's life more directly, but even so, she manages to betray her stated aims and largely avoid discussing, in any nuanced or at all comprehensive way, the roles race, sex, and class played in Parsons's personal and political lives. This book stands in contrast to Nell Painter's portrait of Sojourner Truth, for example, which painstakingly establishes the full subjectivity of a woman to whom this was denied in both her own time and in the historical record.
I'll start by discussing the inadequacy of Ashbaugh's initial sketch of Parsons. We meet Parsons, then Lucy Gathings, only after she has met Albert in Waco, Texas at age nineteen. We never conceive of a Lucy separate from Albert. "Little is known of Lucy's origins" (14), Ashbaugh explains, yet she fails to acknowledge the gaping holes this creates in her text. For example, Parsons's radical agenda focused on overthrowing capitalism. She believed this was the only way to establish racial and gender equality, and up to the end of her life she stood with the most oppressed members of society: foreigners, sex workers, and child laborers. Hercommitment is admirable. That a person would feel drawn to end hunger and injustice is not inconceivable. But the question still looms, why?
One prominent element of the excerpts from the writings of revolutionary Russian women Barbara Alpern Engels collects in Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar is the connection between class and education. Only two of the five women whose writing she includes in the collection, Vera Figner and Olga Liubatovich are born into unambiguously bourgeois families. Yet all five women are far more educated than virtually all members of the rural and urban working classes whom they attempt to radicalize. Even Elizaveta Kovalskaia, born a serf, ultimately fails to productively radicalize the urban workers of Kiev owing to an unbridgeable difference in worldviews. She recounts with disbelief that the workers were certain the assassination of the Tsar, carried out by her revolutionary cohort, was actually committed by fellow members of the ruling class. The gulf between the revolutionaries in this particular context and the working class seemed to exist due to class difference, partially, but also differing levels of education. In Russia the term for radicals like Kovalskaia and others was revolutionary intelligentsia-these people renounced whatever material wealth they were born with and chose instead to study and spread revolutionary ideas.
Was Parsons a member of the American
intelligentsia? Ashbaugh argues she was not. She stood on the practical side
of revolutionary lines, prizing action above theory. Yet it is notable that
the Russian women in Engel's collection strive to locate the origin of their
identification with the working class either in witnessing the mistreatment
of serfs, being on the receiving end of such mistreatment, or desiring a more
adventurous life than that afforded to women at this time. The women disentangle
their relationship to class structures through an analysis of their own interactions
with class. Since we don't know who Parsons's parents were, it is difficult
to situate her within the American class structure. We know she was highly educated;
dark-skinned, yes, but not automatically a member of society's lowest strata.
Consider, for instance, the differing public receptions of Ida B. Wells, and
Sojourner Truth in their respective historical contexts.
Lucy Parsons was, however, married
to a white son of the bourgeoisie. Like most of the women in Engel's collection,
Albert was born to a wealthy and politically prominent family. Also like them,
he renounced his wealth and took up a working-class job as a union typographer.
When Albert devoted himself entirely to spreading revolution, Parsons opened
shop as a dressmaker to support the family. Though the couple always lived in
working-class neighborhoods, the nature of Lucy Parsons's work, conducted from
home and for wealthier clients, stands in contrast to the work of sewing girls
in sweatshops. Parsons could charge $20 for the same cloak that factory workers
would make for $0.75 tobe sold in stores for $12. Parsons never did "go
to the people" in the Russian sense of this term, but this might be because
while her level of education set her apart from the workers she hoped to radicalize,
the color of her skin sometimes placed her in a separate category from educated
Ashbaugh seldom touches on this.
She points out that Emma Goldman, also a woman and anarchist, "could study
in Europe and travel in educated circles, opportunities which Parsons' dark
skin precluded for her" (200), and that Parsons was forced to work alongside
openly racist radicals at newspapers, and to deal with unions seeking to exclude
Black people and immigrants. Parsons denied being Black herself, but stood up
for the rights of Black Americans on principle throughout her life. Ashbaugh
attributes this to the racism of her time. However, so many questions remain
about the possible ways in which race and class informed Parsons's revolutionary
It is worth noting that Parsons does
not belong in the same category as the revolutionary women we have studied this
semester. Those women fought bitterly against intense opposition for ideas that
were ahead of their time, gender and racial equality. Their right to speak at
all was questioned, they were ridiculed and critiqued, but aside from Louise
Michel, they never feared death or unlawful imprisonment as the result of their
activities. Parsons did not just call for revolution; she called for violent
revolution. "Dynamite," she said, "was the only voice the oppressors
of the people could understand" (66). Parsons's husband was sentenced to
hang for a crime there was no proof he committed. His radical belief in propaganda
of the deed is what landed him on the scaffold. If the court weren't convinced
of women's inherent inferiority, Parsons likely would have hung, too. The stakes
were incredibly high.
And something more was at play, something that continues to disproportionately affect Black Americans to this day: police corruption and brutality. In her memoir, Russian revolutionary Vera Figner recalls dreaming of a Russia with a democratic government and freedom of speech, as in the United States or Switzerland. The extent to which revolutionary activity needed to be hidden using well orchestrated conspiratorial practices was astriking feature of all of the recollections in Engel's collection. Yet placing Engel's book alongside Ashbaugh's there's some irony in Figner's idealization of American democracy. Parsons fought first and foremost to overthrow capitalism, but much of her leg work was done on the battlefield of free speech.
It is true, her husband went to his death a man who was not proved guilty. But this was not the worst or most pernicious result of police corruption in Chicago. In the decades following the Haymarket massacre, Parsons was arrested dozens of times before speaking engagements. She was also arrested twice for selling anarchist pamphlets. Capitalists were paying the Chicago police to oppose labor organizing violently-unions and anarchists bore the brunt of this. Police, acting independently of the government, squashed peaceful demonstrations routinely. This was not the America Vera Figner dreamed of. But at this point the repression of the anarchists was not state sponsored. That came later. The 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act made opposition of all governments a federal offense.
Perhaps the brutality of the Chicago
police alone was enough to spur Parsons to violent action. It is clear from
Ashbaugh's narrative that the oppressive hand of the state was more aggressively
present in Parsons's life than it was in the lives of many of her counterparts.
Even upon her death in 1942, her 5,000 volume library was seized by an FBI that
refuses to admit it did this. We are left with little information about Parsons's
life. This might have been her own doing. Parsons felt that "the life of
the reformer was totally insignificant" (30). And, indeed, a lifetime of
revolutionary actions speaks for her. Yet she spent a good portion of her life
peddling a volume of her husband's collected writing. Were someone to rigorously
examine Lucy Parsons's life in the context of the race, gender, and class constructions
that stood in her way and shaped her world, we might learn a lot about how to
find intersections and cross boundaries building the revolutionary organizations
of the future.
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Maydha Kapur on Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel
Louise Michel was an anarchist involved
in the Paris Commune. Her biography details her life, starting with her childhood
in the secluded Haute-Marne. Michel does not make explicit what originally influenced
her ideas towards republicanism and eventually anarchism, but comments at great
length about how she always found the plight of animals under humans to be despicable.
She also throughout her book refers to herself as a school teacher, and her
earlier experiences teaching clearly influenced her humanistic impulse. The
origins of her nickname started early when she acquired her first teaching job
in Chaumont, and was called a 'red' for her republicanism. Michel's biography
is shot through with exclamations of "Long live the revolution!" but
her revolution is never explicitly defined, other than in the vaguest terms
of liberation for the people. Though Michel did not explicitly come to anarchism
till her deportation to New Caledonia, these exclamations, as well as her beliefs,
as are backfilled into her memories making tracing the origins of her anarchist
thought hard to detect. The introduction notes Marx "dismayed" her,
but Michel also did frequent work with striking workers throughout the second
half of her life in France. These contradictions and re-rememberings of her
memoir make the explicit tenets of Michel's ideology hard to pin down, but her
actions illuminate her beliefs. In her memoir, Michel uses a contemporary anarchist
manifesto, authored in part by Kropotkin, to enumerate her objectives as a revolutionary,
but rather than defining her through her contemporaries words, it is best to
see her actions through their own clear legacy. Michel defined anarchism through
the commune, her marches and lectures as democratic rule of the people, the
end of poverty, gender equality, anti-imperialism, and the end of the tyranny
Michel's ideology, so vague around
the parameters and mostly defined by actions comes at contradiction to her Russian
nihilist contemporaries. They explicitly embraced both feminism and socialism
in women's groups. Usually they were explicitly influenced by Kropotkin, Bakunin,
and other notable contemporaries. Michel too embraced a kind of proto-feminism
throughout her life, proclaiming women ought to take their equality and despairing
at men who pathologized her success as singular for her sex. Michel declares
in her memoirs "As the proletarian suffers, so double does his wife."
Michel urges men to "calm down," stating women are too smart to want
to run things, showing Michel's clear egalitarian impulse in her work for sexual
equality. The Russian nihilists described in Five Sisters would come
to abandon feminism as they had practiced, seeing it has too highly individualistic
a pursuit for the communality of the revolution.
Michel had a pragmatist's view towards
political violence in the first half of her life. She declares in her memoir
she would not shed a tear to see any of the oppressors of the people assassinated,
and indeed at one of her first trials after the end of the Commune, her applauding
the death of the state's generals is recounted. She was involved in violent
struggle against the monarchy directly through her attempts to protect and perpetuate
the Commune. In her later years, after her return from New Caledonia, in one
of her welcoming speeches in Paris she declared violence had seemingly failed
and that "No longer do we wish vengeance through blood. To shame those
me is enough." This comes perhaps in stark contrast the nihilist revolutionaries
whose explicit goal was the targeting of specific government officials to assassinate
in order to bring upon destabilization of the government. The nihilists indulge
in violence that could sometimes lead to the killing of soldiers or bystanders,
but Michel took the view of excess violence as being personally saddening if
justifiable. They both did not believe in reformism in the slightest, with Michel
at one point stating how integrating women into the society as it was would
not end society's fundamental unfairness. As anarchists, they were united in
their feelings on the tyranny of the government over the people. They also shared
common goals in their detestation of the bourgeoisie--Michel at one point relates,
dressed as a man, who she chases a respectable French gentlemen down the street,
terrifying him, much to her own amusement. Both Michel and the Russian anarchists
dedicated their acts of violence to the people, believing that these acts were
necessary to bring a better future for the common man.
While the Russian anarchists made
dedicating one's life to being both a worker and in being physical service of
the people, so too Michel supported the working class through different acts.
She led a march through Paris for a march against the states tyranny, and when
questioned by the court on the stated purpose of the march, she proclaimed her
desire for jobs for the people and bread for all. As was her custom in trials,
she was totally honest about her actions and did not lie about any acts she
did commit, as she felt this was part of her responsibility to the people. Michel
worked to support those had been impoverished by their fight for the end of
the monarchy upon her return from New Caledonia and supported women's strikes
with speeches. Michel's life was too a testament to the worker, but structured
around different acts.
Michel is notable for her strong
sense of solidarity with oppressed people even when abroad from France. During
her time of deportation in New Caledonia, she worked as a teacher with the Kanak
people, and supported them in their desire to remove the white man from their
land. Michel delights in the attempted rebellion of the Kanak people, and compares
it to her own lost revolution of the Commune. Michel's contemporaries in advocating
socialism, from Marx to Bakunin can be noted for their vitriolic language around
race. Michel works to teach the Kanaks about the outside world, not without
some condescension about how the people were "like a blank slate"
but ultimately viewing her teaching practice as a communal exchange of ideas,
between a society she saw as corrupted but with large amounts of knowledge and
one with little knowledge but that was uncorrupted. Michel extended her ideals
about anarchism out to those in the periphery of the French state-the colony.
Thus Michel's ideology included the important element of internationalist solidarity,
anti-imperialism, which she recognized as another inherent oppression of the
Michel perhaps would have sympathized
most with Elizaveta Kovalskaia, a serf who organized factory workers. Michel
too organized with various groups depending on the time an where she was located,
and like Kovalskaia, she resisted the sectarianism of picking specific factions
or groups to split off with. Michel's work for the commune and her marches was
less directly engaged with workers than Kovalskaia, but desire to better the
material conditions of the worker through direct action was at the heart of
Michel's work as well. The other Russian anarchists, wedded to the propaganda
of the deed, were perhaps more at contradiction with Michel, who felt the workers
would themselves rise up against the bonds of the government at any moment,
though she does not suggest a catalyst or how it would come about.
Louise Michel and the Russian anarchists arrived at their anarchism through very different paths, but ultimately were united in their vision for a post class world that ended the tyranny of the monarchy over the people. Both groups saw real equality would only be realized not when every citizen was given rights through the state, but rather when the coercive mechanism of the state itself, which makes the people beg for rights, was stripped away. Ultimately, the views of Louise Michel and the Russian nihilists were very similar, and they worked towards similar visions of the future.
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