A visible political activist of her day and a figurehead for the French anarchist movement, Louise Michel (1830-1905) was born out of wedlock to a serving maid and the son of the house in Haute-Marne. Raised by her paternal grandparents, Michel received a liberal education at home and began corresponding with Victor Hugo as a young girl. Supported by her paternal grandparents until her thirties, Michel moved to Paris in 1865 and opened a school for working class children in Montmartre, where she taught and demonstrated liberal and revolutionary ideas to her pupils. It was there that she developed mutual aid programs in her community, teaching underprivileged women to read and write, connecting them with resources and representing women in legal and administrative matters.
It was also during this time that she became more closely involved in the radical political movements which developed in the tumultuous 1860s in Paris. She was actively involved with André Léo’s Société pour la Revendication des Droits Civils de la Femme where she advocated for girls’ education on a national level. Through her political activism as well as through her poetry and plays, Michel imagined a radical society where women and girls were afforded the same opportunities as men. She was an enthusiastic participant in the Commune of 1871, which she saw as an opportunity to live out her ideals of liberal education for young women. When the Commune was attacked by the Versailles government some months later, Michel was dressed in the men’s uniform on the front lines of the Commune army as well as serving as a medic and providing support for the Communards left behind. Her visible position as a woman with a following singled her out in the military trials. France at this time was particularly alarmed by the Pétroleuses External who developed a sort of mythical status. Representing herself, Michel admitted to the accusations of having instigated lower-class, uneducated women to take up arms against the government and having been complicit in the Commune’s power structure. She requested the death penalty for these actions but was instead sent to exile in New Caledonia in 1872.
Even in exile in New Caledonia, where she lived for eight years, Michel found ways to advocate for marginalized groups. Befriending the Kanak indigenous people she met, she encouraged them to revolt against the French colonial power and contributed to the first French-Kanak dictionary. On her return to France Michel was again imprisoned for three years due to her participation in a bread riot. During the 1880s and 1890s she continued to write and lecture on revolutionary themes, women’s rights and anarchist social thought from London and Paris until her death in 1905.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century.
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