Mink, Paule (1839–1901)
Mink, Paule (1839–1901)
French revolutionary socialist, feminist, orator, and journalist who was a tireless agitator and organizer. Name variations: Mink or Minck is a pseudonym of Adèle Paulina Mekarska. Pronunciation: pohl meenk. Born Adèle Paulina Mekarska in Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme), France, on November 9, 1839, to Polish exiles; died in Auteuil (Seine) on April 28, 1901; buried at Père La Chaise cemetery in Paris; daughter of Count Jean Nepomucène Mekarski and Jeanne-Blanche Cornelly de la Perrière; well educated at home or at unknown schools; married to and separated from (at unknown dates) Prince Bohdanowicz (an engineer); married Maxime Négro (a mechanic), in 1881; children: (first marriage) two daughters, Anna and Wanda (d. 1870); (with painter Jean-Baptiste Noro) two daughters, Mignon and Jeanne-Héna; (second marriage) two sons, Lucifer-Blanqui-Vercingetorix-Révolution (b. 1882, died in infancy) and Spartacus-Blanqui-Révolution (b. 1884, renamed Maxime by a civil tribunal).
Began public speaking on women's issues (1868); played a heroic role in the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune uprising (1870–71); lived in Switzerland as a political refugee (1871–80); returned to France and aroused a storm at the socialist congress (1880); jailed following a demonstration (1881); joined Guesde's French Workers' Party (1882); opposed Auclert on women's suffrage (1884); left the French Workers' Party, joined the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Blanquist) and Women's Solidarity, and ran for Parliament (1892–93); was an outspoken Dreyfusard during the Affair (1897–99); left Solidarity (1900).
Paule Mink came by her vocation of revolutionary socialist quite honestly. Her father, Count Jean Nepomucène Mekarski, a nephew of Prince Joseph Antoine Poniatowski and cousin of Stanislaus II Poniatowski, the last king of Poland, was an aide-de-camp in the Russian army who fled to France in 1831 after taking part in the Polish uprising of 1830. He eventually got a humble job as an agent in the tax office in Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) and became an adherent of the Saint-Simonian school of utopian socialism. Her mother, Jeanne-Blanche Cornelly de la Perrière , who may have married Mekarski in Warsaw, was from a minor noble French family settled in Poland, where they belonged to the untitled nobility. Adèle Paulina Mekarska, born in Clermont-Ferrand on November 9, 1839, had two younger brothers, both of whom took part in the doomed Polish revolt of 1863: Louis, who became a prominent engineer, and Jules, a surveyor, who became commissioner of police in the Paris Commune uprising of 1871. Although she never visited her ancestral land, Mink was a Polish patriot all her life and aided Polish émigrés in France.
We must suppress capitalist exploitation, there is no other way.
—Paule Mink, 1897
Virtually nothing is known of her life before she burst upon the political scene in 1868 as a feminist orator and militant socialist republican. She was well educated, but where and how is unknown. At age 16, apparently, she became a republican, opposed to Napoléon III's imperial regime, and perhaps rejected Catholicism around this time. Probably while still in her teens she moved to Paris, where she taught languages, became a skilled seamstress (an occupation which supported her through many hard times), joined Republican and feminist societies, and got into journalism. When and why she adopted the name Paule Mink (or Minck, as she also spelled it) is, again, unknown. Nor is it known when she married and separated from a Polish émigré engineer, Prince Bohdanowicz, with whom she had daughters Anna and Wanda.
Mink became known in feminist circles in the latter 1860s. She joined André Léo 's Society for the Demand of Women's Rights (1866) and also Couture (1867) and founded (c. 1868) a feminist mutual benefit association, the Fraternal Society of Women Workers. Her public notoriety began when Napoléon III's regime passed a law enlarging freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press which allowed women to speak in public meetings. Mink joined Maria Deraismes, Louise Michel , and André Léo in a lecture series on women's work given at the Tivoli-Vauxhall from July 16 to November 1, 1869. She discovered a talent and went on to become one of a mere handful of women in her time who could dominate mostly male-attended (and often rowdy) public meetings, in contrast to the more sedate lecture format used by most women. Gustave Lefrançais described her about this time:
Among the women who habitually speak in the meetings, one notices especially citizenness Paule Mink, a small woman, very dark, a bit sarcastic, and with a very energetic speaking style. The voice is a little harsh, but she expresses herself easily. She makes witty fun of her contradictors rather than debate them and does not appear to have very fixed ideas on the divers conceptions which divide the socialists. But she is tireless in spreading the word.
At the Tivoli-Vauxhall, she defended women's right to work outside the home, which most men, many influenced by the socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, feared as a threat to their jobs and wages. "All women are not wives and mothers," said Mink; "some could not be or did not want to be, some are not yet, others are no longer. … Equal pay for equal work, this is the only true justice."
Paule Mink wanted women to have the rights in politics, work, and marriage enjoyed by men in France since 1789 and urged women to use force if necessary. From 1868 on, she distinguished herself from most feminists by saying that "the people and women should liberate each other." She thought women to be more down-to-earth revolutionaries than men, "who make beautiful theories that are good for nothing." As a paper described her, she was "practical" and "concrete" in her approach. From the outset, the watchword of her life, writes Alain Dalotel, was "independence." Her socialism was always much influenced by the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin (1814–1876)—independent, anti-authoritarian, anti-statist. Government of, by, and for the people would bring true liberty and with it the end of most police functions.
From 1868 through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870–71), Mink was intensely active. She began to tour the provinces to spread her gospel. In 1869, she launched a fiery paper, Les Mouches et l'Araignée (the people being the "flies" and Napoléon III the "spider"), which, predictably, was suppressed after two issues. She also joined the International Workingmen's Association (the "First International" or IWA). In 1870, she collaborated on or at least lent her name to La Réforme sociale, the organ of Rouen's IWA group, and joined Léon Richer and Maria Deraismes' Association for the Rights of Women, a split-off from Léo's society.
Like her idol, the republican revolutionary Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881), Mink was a fierce patriot. During the war, she and her brother Louis went to Auxerre (Yonne), where she fought the invaders and tried to arouse the citizens to throw out the "capitulard" government and form a commune allied with besieged Paris. While crossing Prussian lines with documents, she and her daughter Wanda were fired upon, and Wanda was killed. (Thereafter, Anna assumed Wanda's name.) The government offered Mink the Legion of Honor, but she refused it. After the armistice in January 1871, she went to Paris and took part in the March 18 insurrection establishing the Commune; it opposed the government, now at Versailles and negotiating a final peace with the new German Empire. During the Commune (March 18–May 28), she wrote for Vesnier's La Paris libre, preaching "allout" war and railing against the quarrels in the Commune's leadership; was, with André Léo and Louise Michel, a member of the Montmartre Vigilance Committee; was active in predominately female political clubs meeting at the churches of Saint-Sulpice, Notre-Dame de la Croix, and Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs; opened a school for children of soldiers and working women at Saint-Pierre de Montmartre; and with her brother Jules slipped out of Paris several times to try to rally provincial support. She was in the provinces when the Commune was crushed during "Bloody Week." To escape arrest, she fled to Switzerland, allegedly in the tender of a locomotive. There she was joined by her lover and late commander of the Commune's 22nd battalion, Jean-Baptiste Noro (b. 1842), described by Lucien Descaves as "a fine swordsman and crosseyed painter." A court sentenced her in absentia (and fellow émigrés Anna Jaclard , Elizabeth Dmitrieff , André Léo, and Marguerite Tinayre ) to deportation for life to the prison colony in New Caledonia.
In September 1871 at Lausanne, Mink and André Léo defended the Commune before the Fifth Congress of Peace and Liberty. During the 1870s, she lived in poverty mostly in Geneva with her daughter Anna ("Wanda") and Noro, with whom she had daughters Mignon and Jeanne Héna. Mink sewed straw hats, gave language lessons, lectured, wrote for small papers, and by 1879 was spoken of as the "director" of the French émigrés. It was in Switzerland that she came under the influence of Bakunin and met the French Marxist leader Jules Guesde (1845–1922). With the amnesty of 1880, she returned to France and plunged into revolutionary socialist speaking, writing, and organizing.
At the socialist congress in Le Havre in 1880, she caused an uproar by refusing to yield the floor when the "cooperatists" (moderates) passed a resolution against the "collectivists" (revolutionaries). She spoke in favor of women's rights and for "complete" and "identical" education for children of both sexes. When the collectivists organized their own congress the next day, she joined them. At the congress in 1882 in Saint-Étienne, she sided with Guesde against Paul Brousse, who favored reformist municipal socialism. When the Guesdists walked out, Mink stayed behind to try to convert the Broussists. Guesde then founded the Workers' Party of France (POF), which conformed to his Marxist views, and Mink joined it despite her sympathy for the insurrectionary views of Blanqui's disciples. Probably she appreciated the POF's willingness to allow her to raise feminist concerns; also, she wanted much more attention paid to the provinces, which the Paris-oriented Blanquists tended to ignore. In 1884, she was a delegate to the POF's congress in Roubaix.
Meanwhile, in 1880 she, Louise Michel, and Blanqui organized a noisy agitation in favor of a "social" republic. With Michel, Mink contributed to the first anarchist paper, La Révolution sociale, and she began writing for La Socialiste. As the result of a demonstration in Marseille protesting the condemnation of Gesia Gelfman , the Russian "mother of revolution," Mink was sentenced on May 10, 1881, to a month in jail. The authorities threatened to expel her as a Pole, but a fellow revolutionary, a mechanic named Maxime Négro, offered to marry her to prevent this. She agreed, he recognized and legitimized Mignon and Jeanne Héna, and she had two children with him, provocatively named Lucifer-Blanqui-Vercingetorix-Révolution (b. 1882 but died within two months) and Spartacus-Blanqui-Révolution (b. 1884), whose name the authorities refused to register, choosing Maxime instead. The family lived mostly in Montpellier and "in the most frightful misery," it was reported. Mink's health declined, not helped by her failed attempt with Négro to found a paper, Qui Vive, and by her continual trips around France—especially in the center and southeast and sometimes with Guesde—preaching the gospel, organizing groups and labor unions, and spreading brochures and pamphlets.
Although Mink supported women's rights, she caused consternation in 1884 by standing up after a lecture by the suffragist Hubertine Auclert and opposing votes for women, saying (as did much of the French left up until 1944) that women were still too much influenced by the Catholic clergy. Not surprisingly, in 1885 she declined an invitation from the Women's Socialist Federation to run for Parliament as a protest candidate. She replied from Algeria that illness had forced her to leave public life but that she would decline in any event because "I do not believe that women will have their situation ameliorated by the conquest of their political rights, but only the social transformation of our old world."
Mink began to drift away from the POF by the late 1880s. She objected to its failure to take a strong stand against General Georges Boulanger's populist movement and to its shift away from revolution and toward parliamentary politics. She began to advocate a general strike by all workers as the way to bring on the Revolution: "The general strike is here, it is just around the corner." But the party congress at Marseille in 1892 would not endorse it. With that, she left Négro in Montpellier and moved with two daughters to Paris, where she now came into close contact with the feminist movement. She began to believe that economic equality for women might be substantially furthered through the granting of civil and political rights. The president of Women's Solidarity, Eugénie Potonié-Pierre (1844–1898), persuaded her to run (symbolically) for Parliament in 1893. Though no socialist party endorsed Mink, she resigned from the POF and ran anyway, to no effect. Despite the party's lack of interest in women's issues, she then joined (1893) the Blanquist party, the Central Revolutionary Committee (after 1898 the Revolutionary Socialist Party, or PSR), led by Édouard Vaillant (1840–1915), because its interest in action and the general strike and its relative lack of dogmatism gave her more leeway. Also in that crowded year she was active in the Workers' House, a cooperative, where she gave lessons and led the women's group; participated in the agitation sparked by the government's crackdown on political activity at the Paris labor exchange (bourse de travail); and on October 29 was sentenced to six days in jail for insulting authorities during a bitter coal strike in which she led a demonstration by 2,000 women at Liéven (Pas-de-Calais).
Mink meanwhile contributed to the weekly Revue socialiste, the 1892 edition of L'Almanach de la question sociale et du centenaire de la République, La Petite République (1894), and Maurice Barrès' La Cocarde (before resigning in 1895), and she participated with Michel in a revival of the anarchists' La Libre Pensée. From 1891, she regularly wrote for G. Argyriadès' La Question sociale—often penning touching vignettes of the tribulations of the poor in the mode of Séverine —and from September 1894 to April 1897 (when it closed) she was its editorial secretary. In 1894, she also wrote two plays—Qui l'emportera? (Who Will Prevail?) and Le Pain de la honte (The Bread of Shame)—for the théâtre social she promoted with the bourse leader Fernand Pelloutier.
Sadly, all these labors earned her precious little money. A report in 1894 said Mink had "two bad beds, three chairs," and had moved five times because she could not pay her rent. She placed notices in newspapers seeking work teaching, proofreading, or lecturing, and sometimes she had to wear wooden shoes.
Mink's last years saw little easing of her activity. She sympathized with the anarchists during their heyday in the 1890s, corresponding with Enrico Malatesta, associating with Sébastien Faure, and defending Louise Michel. (A grandson of Mink's said she sheltered Italian anarchist Santo Cesario before he assassinated French President Sadi Carnot in 1894.) In 1895, she toured with Michel, proclaiming that women should demand "not emancipation but complete justice" and end their "slavery" at work and at home, with revolution the means. The Dreyfus Affair (1897–99), however, sowed division on the left. Mink broke with Michel when the latter refused to repudiate her friend (and patron) Henri Rochefort despite the journalist's anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism. Mink contributed to Marguerite Durand 's all-female newspaper La Fronde and to L'Aurore, which published Émile Zola's "J'accuse." She grew stridently antimilitarist and antipatriotic, mocking the "honor" of the army and the "cult" of patriotism, therewith becoming an inspirer of the antimilitarism which took hold in the labor movement after 1901. Likewise, she denounced the socialist Alexandre Millerand for accepting a post in the Waldeck-Rousseau ministry (1899–1901), which included General Galliffet, "the Butcher of the Commune."
Mink's organizational work continued unabated. From 1896 until her death in 1901, she was in effect the leader of the socialist women's movement. She was repeatedly a delegate from Women's Solidarity to congresses, including one in 1896 sponsored by Solidarity and the French League for the Rights of Women, the POF congress of 1896, and the international feminist congress in Brussels in 1897, where she insisted that it is capitalism, not feminist radicalism, that tears women from hearth and home: "we must suppress capitalist exploitation, there is no other way." In 1899, she attended (from Solidarity) the congress of socialist organizations, the beginning of the movement for unity which was to come to fruition in 1905. In 1900, however, she left Solidarity because of its slide to the right following Petonié-Pierre's death and founded the short-lived Revolutionary Socialist Group of the Citizenesses of Paris (likely an affiliate of the PSR), which she represented at the second socialist congress that year—her last such appearance.
Paule Mink died on April 28, 1901, worn out and bitter. Her funeral coincided with the annual leftist demonstration on May Day. An immense crowd, watched by throngs of police and 1,300 soldiers, followed her remains to Père La Chaise, where the Communards had made their last stand. Representatives of every leftist organization orated, the crowds sang the "International" and the "Carmagnol," the red flags flew, and a respectable number of brawls with the police broke out—all to honor one of the last surviving female icons of the Commune. She would have enjoyed it immensely.
Despite the often chaotic and always poverty-ridden life Mink led, she was a good and gentle mother to her children. She always regarded the family as society's basic unit, although she did want roles within it redistributed. She gave her children an excellent education, instilling in them, of course, her political views. She had little truck with theories as such and was never much of a Marxist. Her socialism was independent, writes Dalotel, "a mélange of anarchism and humanitarianism directly linked to the social question." Her dream was of a unified socialism composed of both sexes and willing to use force to bring about the Revolution. She was both a feminist and a revolutionary. On the whole she subordinated her feminism to her revolutionary faith, but in the early 1890s she came to believe that worthwhile civil and political rights for women could be pried from the capitalist system—pending the arrival of the Revolution, which would end the oppression of men and women alike.
All her life she flirted with the anarchists. She was never willing to go quite as far as they in theory or practice. But she would never condemn them or their methods, and in her heart she was, with her faith in the imminent Revolution, a member of that band of dreamers who, in Barbara Tuchman 's words, embodied "the last movement among the masses on behalf of individual liberty, the last hope of living unregulated, the last fist shaken against the encroaching State, before the State, the party, the union, the organization, closed in."
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David S. Newhall , Professor Emeritus of History, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (Edwin Mellen Press, 1991)