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The Women Incendiaries

By: Edith Thomas (433/35837)
Publisher: Secker & Warburg
(From the John Laffin Library)

Seldom in history has a group of women attracted so much attention, and such wildly different responses, as the women who participated in the Paris Commune of 1871. To the author of Da Kapital they were ‘the real Parisian women . . . heroic, noble and devoted’. To the author of The Lady with the Camelias they were unspeakable: ‘We shall say nothing about their females, out of respect for women – whom these resemble one they are dead.’ To friend and foe alike they have been ‘les petroleuses’, the women incendiaries who set fire to Paris in the last, desperate fighting between the Communards and the forces of the Versailles government. In this book Edith Thomas has made an exhaustive study of contemporary newspapers and official records in order to disentangle truth from legend; and the truth that emerges needs no embellishing. The achievements, during the Commune and the preceding Siege, both of individual women and of such organised groups as the Union des Femmes are all the more remarkable for the background against which they are set: a world in which even a socialist like Proudhon regarded women as physically, intellectually and morally inferior to men, and in which a society woman’s gown could cost twenty times the annual earnings of a working woman in full employment – or a hundred times those of a schoolmistress.. In a central chapter the author asks ‘Were there any Petroleuses?’, and concludes that no substantial evidence or organised incendiarism has ever been produced. Instead, there emerges a host of women organising the distribution of bread and the making of uniforms, and serving with the fighting men as canteen workers, as ambulance nurses, and in many cases as actual soldiers. Many of their leaders – including several of foreign origin – were women of great individuality; above all Louise Michel, who used her years of exile in New Caledonia to study local flora and fauna and collected the legends and music of a cannibal tribe, and whose splendid defiance of her judges inspired poems by Victor Hugo, Verlaine and Rimbaud.

The author of The Women Incendiaries has used the insights acquired through her own experience as a Resistance leader to shed new light on a lurid but heroic chapter of history.

June 2008


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