The Women Incendiaries: The Inspiring Story of the Women of the Paris Commune

The inspiring story of the women of the Paris Commune who took up arms in the fight for liberty and equality.

The workers of Paris took control of their city for two months during the spring of 1871. In their first manifesto, as Eleanor Marx described, “they declared they ‘understood it was their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies by seizing upon governmental power.’” After electing a municipal council of workers and soldiers to govern in the interests of all workers, declaring that “the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic,” the Commune quickly issued a series of decrees, including limiting the highest salary for any employee of the Commune to a typical workers’ wage and establishing the separation of church and state.

Women played a courageous role in defending the Commune, while at the same time challenging the limitations placed on women in French society. Louise Michel was one of them. Facing trial after her arrest, Michel told the court, “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.” Michel was sentenced to exile for her role in the Commune. But she was not forgotten. When she finally returned in November 1880 to Paris, ten thousand workers greeted her at the train station.

The history of any period and of any country tends to be written by men about men, and when women figure in the story at all, they appear as wives, mistresses, or courtesans. This brilliant and impassioned study provides a welcome exception to the rule.

About the author

Edith Thomas, writing at the middle of the 20th century, is a French historian and thinker who has recently recaptured the attention of critical historians, but has yet to reach the acclaim she deserves. All told, Thomas’ work includes seven novels, a collection of short stories about the French Resistance, eight historical and critical studies, and a significant body of journalism. Her outstanding account of the women of the Paris Commune makes one of the most important and insightful contributions to political history to date.