MICHEL, LOUISE (1830–1905), French anarchist and revolutionary.
Louise Michel was the daughter of Marianne Michel, chambermaid to the mayor of Vroncourt in Haute-Marne. Her father was most likely the mayor's son, Laurent Demahis. Her paternal grandparents gave her a good education and she became a schoolteacher. In 1855 she moved to Paris, opening her own school there in 1865.
In Paris, Michel helped found the Association for the Rights of Women in 1870. She also had links with free-thought groups, the banned International Working Men's Association, and followers of the revolutionary Auguste Blanqui. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, Michel joined both the women's and men's Vigilance Committees of the Eighteenth Arrondissement of Paris, which espoused Blanqui's revolutionary socialism.
Michel welcomed the Paris Commune (18 March–28 May 1871), supporting its democratic and anticlerical agendas. She participated in political clubs, drove ambulances, and fought as a combatant with the Sixty-first Montmartre Battalion where she gained a reputation for fearlessness. After the defeat of the Commune she was arrested and deported to the Pacific island of New Caledonia. There she befriended the indigenous Kanaks, supporting them in their 1878 uprising and becoming an enduring critic of French colonialism. After the amnesty of 1880, Michel returned to France a popular hero in leftist circles.
The Commune and its repression by Republicans confirmed Michel's conversion to anarchism. She envisaged a society without government and regarded suffrage as irrelevant. Grassroots resistance was the key to change, and the general strike would produce a social revolution. For this reason Michel rejected Marxism, which accepted parliamentary politics, although she shared speaking platforms with Marxist leaders on occasion. Women's rights were also defended within an anarchist framework. Michel supported "free marriage," equal education, and women's right to work but declined to support female suffrage.
The political scandals of the 1880s and 1890s strengthened Michel's criticism of the Third Republic. She refused to take the Republican side in the Boulanger affair (1887–1889) and the Dreyfus affair (1898–1900), regarding the Republicans as no better than other bourgeois governments. Her attacks on the Republic's failings resembled those of the extreme Right, although she did not support their monarchism. She was not enthusiastic about the anarchist bombings in Paris in 1892 but regarded "propaganda by the deed" as a justifiable revolutionary tactic.
Michel's key contribution to the revolutionary movement was as an inspiring speaker. She was the subject of constant surveillance in France and London, where she spent considerable time from 1890. Michel's uncompromising views brought several terms of imprisonment. She was jailed briefly in 1882 and served two years of a six-year sentence in 1884–1886 for defending striking miners. Later in 1886 she was jailed for a further four months, and she spent two months in prison in 1890 before being released without charge. Michel's radicalism also brought an attack on her life (1888), even her political enemies praised her compassion and generosity.
Who am I, Louise Michel? Don't make me out to be better than I am—or than you are. I am capable of anything, love or hate, as you are. When the Revolution comes, you and I and all humanity will be transformed. Everything will be changed and better times will have joys that the people of today aren't able to understand. … Beyond this cursed time will come a day when humanity, free and conscious of its powers, will no longer torture either man or beast. That hope is worth all the suffering we undergo as we move through the horrors of life.
Source: The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, edited and translated by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter (University, Ala., 1981), p. 197.
Louise Michel died in Marseilles on 9 January 1905. She left a large literary legacy, including novels, poetry, and children's stories, as well as her memoirs (1886) and a valuable history of the Paris Commune (La Commune, 1898). Her historical significance derives principally from her political role, especially during the Commune. She has been seen as an archetypal revolutionary woman, one of the few women generally included in studies of anarchism. Her status as a feminist, however, is debated. While Michel condemned women's oppression and mixed with feminists of
every stripe, her hostility to parliamentary politics and reformism meant that she rejected both republican feminism and the socialist women's movement. Instead Michel envisaged a social revolution that would end both women's and men's oppression.
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——. Souvenirs et aventures de ma vie. Edited by Daniel Armogathe. Paris, 1983.
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Johnson, Martin Phillip. The Paradise of Association: Political Culture and Popular Organizations during the Paris Commune of 1871. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.
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Offen, Karen. European Feminisms, 1700–1950: A Political History. Stanford, Calif., 2000.
Schulkind, Eugene W. "Le rôle des femmes dans la Commune de 1871." 1848: Revue des révolutions contemporaines 42, no. 185 (1950): 15–29.
——. "Socialist Women during the 1871 Paris Commune." Past and Present 106 (1985): 124–163.
Sonn, Richard. Anarchism in Cultural Politics in Finde-siècle France. Lincoln, Neb., 1989.
Thomas, Edith. The Women Incendiaries. Translated by James and Starr Atkinson. New York, 1966.
——. Louise Michel. Translated by Penelope Williams. Montreal, 1980.
Susan K. Foley