Tristan, Flora

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TRISTAN, FLORA (1803–1844), French feminist and socialist.

Flore-Célestine-Thérèse-Henriette Tristan Moscoso, who called herself Flora Tristan, was born in Paris. Her French mother had met her father, a Peruvian-born nobleman of Spanish ancestry, in Bilbao (Spain) during the French Revolution. Their religious marriage was not recognized under Revolutionary law, making Flora and her younger brother Pio technically illegitimate. They did not inherit on their father's sudden death in 1807, and grew up in modest circumstances in the countryside near Paris.

Little is known of Tristan's life until she returned to Paris in 1818 and found work coloring designs in the engraving workshop of André Chazal. She married him shortly before her eighteenth birthday, but the marriage was violent and Tristan left her husband in 1825. With two sons to support and pregnant with her third child, she had difficulty finding work. Following the birth of her daughter in October 1825, she left her children in her mother's care and became a "lady's maid," traveling throughout Europe with her employers. She then made contact with her father's family and visited Peru in 1832–1833 in an unsuccessful attempt to claim her inheritance. This voyage provided the basis for her first major publication, Peregrinations of a Pariah (1838), and for a career as a writer. Her account of her unhappy marriage also sparked renewed conflict with her estranged husband, who was jailed after attempting to kill her in 1838.

Tristan's travels opened her eyes to the extent of social injustice and transformed her from a disillusioned wife pursuing her own rights into a political activist. In the 1830s she signed petitions for the legalization of divorce and against capital punishment, and published a pamphlet on the plight of single women. She became interested in the socialist theories of Charles Fourier (1772–1837), Robert Owen (1771–1858), the Saint-Simonians, and Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), but found none of them satisfactory. Tristan began to publish her own proposals in both fiction and nonfiction. The hero of her 1838 novel Méphis, a self-proclaimed "proletarian," fought oppression by aristocrats and Jesuits with his lover, the Andalusian Maréquita (a character based partly on Tristan herself). The novel ends with the birth of their daughter, Mary, a female savior destined to complete the redemption of the proletariat.

Following a fourth trip to England in 1839, Tristan published a report on the plight of workers in the nation at the forefront of industrialization

(Promenades dans Londres [Walks in London], 1840). She cited a range of investigations and reports to give her work credibility. Her preface warned French workers that they faced similar problems as industrialization spread. Her links with militant French workers from 1843 and her investigation of French workers' lives sharpened her conviction that the political mobilization of the "largest and most useful class" was the key to social transformation. She promoted this idea in her best-known book, Workers' Union (1843). It emphasized the need for workers to form a "union" with a broad membership, superseding craft-based associations, if they were to become a political force. Unskilled workers and women needed to be included. She argued that women's oppression underpinned the oppression of workers and that workers should lead the way in recognizing women's rights. While on a speaking tour to promote this book, Tristan died at Bordeaux of suspected typhoid fever on 14 November 1844.

A monument to Tristan, funded by French workers, was erected at Bordeaux in October 1848. It was inscribed: "In memory of Madame Flora Tristan, author of the Workers' Union, with the workers' gratitude. Liberty—Equality—Fraternity—Solidarity." This acknowledged her dedication to the workers' cause. Nevertheless, her relationships with workers were sometimes difficult. She remained an outsider, defining herself as one of the "enlightened bourgeoisie." Her messianic vision and her claim to be the "mother of the workers" also emphasized her own leadership, creating some resentment. Tristan's approach reflected both the religious currents within Romantic socialism, and the prominence of middle-class figures within socialist organizations at that time.

Tristan's feminist legacy is also complex. She did not form alliances with other feminists of her day, desiring to lead rather than follow. But she articulated the concerns shared by feminists in this period about discriminatory marriage laws, education, employment, and personal autonomy for women. Tristan's reputation as one of the most significant feminists and socialists of her day is well deserved, and her life illustrates that these two sets of ideas were intimately connected in the early nineteenth century.

See alsoFeminism; France; Socialism.


Primary Sources

The London Journal of Flora Tristan. Translated, annotated, and introduced by Jean Hawkes. London, 1982.

The Workers' Union. Translated with an introduction by Beverly Livingston. Champaign, Ill., 1983.

Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade. Selected, translated, and with an introduction to her life by Doris Beik and Paul Beik. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.

Flora Tristan's Diary: The Tour of France, 1843–1844. Translated, annotated, and introduced by Máire Fedelma Cross. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Bloch-Dano, Evelyne. Flora Tristan: La femme-messie. Paris, 2001. The best recent biography in French.

Cross, Máire, and Tim Gray. The Feminism of Flora Tristan. Oxford, U.K., and Providence, R.I., 1992.

Grogan, Susan K. Flora Tristan: Life Stories. London, 1998. Explores Tristan's life through the variety of self-images she created.

Puech, Jules-L. La vie et l'oeuvre de Flora Tristan, 1803–1844. Paris, 1925. This first biography remains invaluable.

Susan K. Foley