Reformer and feminist
Difficult Beginnings. Flora Tristan (the pen name of FloreCelestine-Therèse-Henriette TristanMoscoso) was born in France to a French mother and a Spanish Peruvian father. As a child she knew the young Simón Bolivar, who became a leader of the Peruvian independence movement. When Tristan’s father died in 1807, France was at war with Spain. He left no will; the marriage documents had been left in Spain and were never found; and his family refused to recognize the marriage and inheritance rights of Tristan and her mother. Now impoverished, Madame Tristan, Flora, and Flora’s brother lived a life far removed from the one Flora had known. Her attempt to escape poverty by marriage failed, and she set out to try to recover her inheritance by traveling to Peru to meet her father’s family. She failed to win her inheritance, but she recorded her travels in a two-volume autobiography called Peregrinations of a Pariah (1838). Tristan’s social attitudes and activities reflected her sense of personal loss (her secure childhood) and her immersion in the social critiques of capitalism that were occurring during her era. Part of her quest was personal—she believed women as well as men should have personal freedom—and part was political. She observed the workers’ daily struggles to survive and honed an individual critique of the class struggle and capitalism.
Reformer. Pursuing a career as a writer, Tristan proposed prison reform and equal treatment of women and men, analyzed the origins of prostitution, criticized the lives of bourgeois married women, and proposed an inter-national organization of workers that would improve working and living conditions and ward off more violent revolution. She also became interested in the Utopian socialists for their social critique and their feminism.
Remarkable Life. Tristan lived a short but remarkable life. She traveled extensively, alone, including a trip across the Atlantic Ocean on a ship on which she was the only woman, a rather remarkable feat. She was a feminist, an advocate of the poor, and an early labor organizer. She married disastrously, had three children, and then left her husband (divorce was not allowed in France at this time). He stalked and pursued her, attempted to win cusgtody of the children, and finally shot her in 1838. She survived, despite a bullet lodged in her chest, and continued her traveling and writing. Tristan referred to herself as a pariah. One might be more likely to call her a rebel. She was a woman who tried to earn her own living; who acted independently despite the legal and social barriers to female independence; who abandoned her husband; and who thought intelligently about social and political affairs. On a tour of France to promote her ideas about the ideal society, she fell ill (probably with typhoid fever) and died. She was only forty-one years old. The hearse that took her to her grave was followed by a procession of literary figures and workers.
Doris Beik and Paul Beik, eds. and trans., Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist:Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
Maire Cross and Tim Gray, The Feminism of Flora Tristan (Oxford & Providence, R.L: Berg, 1992).
Dominique Desanti, A Woman in Revolt: A Biography of Flora Tristan, translated by Elizabeth Zelvin (New York: Crown, 1976).