Tristan, Flora (1803–1844)

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Tristan, Flora (1803–1844)

French campaigner for women's rights and the rights of working people who attempted to found a "Universal Union of Working Men and Women." Born Flore-Célestine-Thérèse-Henriette Tristan Moscoso on April 7, 1803, in Paris, France; died in Bordeaux, France, probably of typhoid, on November 14, 1844; daughter of Mariano de Tristan y Moscoso (a Peruvian noble) and Anne-Pierre Laisnay; married André-François Chazal (a lithographer), on February 3, 1821 (separated 1824); children: a son (b. ca. 1822); Ernest-Camille (b. 1824); Aline-Marie Chazal (b. 1825, the mother of artist Paul Gauguin).

Married her employer at 17 (1820); left him at 21 (1824); traveled in Europe as a ladies' maid (1825–28); traveled to Peru to unsuccessfully seek inheritance (1833–34); began to campaign for women's rights (1835); was first linked with the French socialist movement (1835); attended feminist salons (1836); petitioned for the legalization of divorce (1837); seriously injured in a murder attempt by her husband (1838); petitioned for the abolition of capital punishment (1838); traveled to England to study social conditions (1839); devised a plan for a "workers' union" (1843); toured France to promote the workers' union (1844).

Major published works:

Nécessité de faire un bon accueil aux femmes étrangères (The need to extend a warm welcome to foreign women, Delaunay, 1835); Pérégrinations d'une Paria 1833–1834 (Arthus Bertrand, 1838, English translation: Peregrinations of a Pariah 1833–1834, Virago, 1986); Méphis (Ladvocat, 1838); Promenades dans Londres (Delloye, 1840, English translation: The London Journal of Flora Tristan, Virago, 1982); L'Union ouvrière, chez tous les libraires (1843, English translation: The Workers' Union, University of Illinois Press, 1983).

At 2:30 pm on September 10, 1838, Flora Tristan was returning to her home in central Paris. Her estranged husband André Chazal had been seated in the wine bar opposite her apartment since 11:30 that morning, reading a geometry book and observing the passersby. When his wife appeared, Chazal left the bar and walked towards her along the street. She saw him approaching, the shape of two pistols clearly outlined in the pockets of his overcoat. He suddenly crossed the road and passed her, then crossed back and approached her from behind. As she turned to see what he was doing, he fired the first pistol at point-blank range, wounding her in the left side. Tristan crawled into a shop calling for help as Chazal prepared to fire the second pistol, but he hesitated in the crowd and confusion, afraid that he might wound a bystander. Finally, hoping that one bullet might suffice to kill his wife, he handed over his pistols to a wine merchant. Meanwhile, Tristan was carried back to her apartment coughing blood, and slipping in and out of consciousness. It was several weeks before she was declared out of danger, though the bullet was never extracted.

The murder attempt was to prove a turning point in Flora Tristan's life. After several years of violent conflict with her estranged husband, his imprisonment for this crime finally freed her to live her own life and pursue the social causes which increasingly preoccupied her. It also threw into stark relief one of the most important of those causes: her struggle for the rights of women in her society.

Flora Tristan was of mixed Peruvian and French parentage. Her French mother Anne-Pierre Laisnay had sought refuge in Spain from the upheaval of the French Revolution. In Bilbao, she met Mariano de Tristan, the eldest son of a wealthy and powerful Peruvian family, and an officer in the Spanish army. They married in 1802, but their religious marriage was not formalized by the required civil ceremony when they returned to France later that year, so Flora and her younger brother were technically illegitimate. When Mariano died suddenly in 1807 without having made a will, Anne-Pierre had no legal right to his estate, and she was left to raise her four-year-old daughter and baby son as best she could. The family moved to L'Isle-Adam, north of Paris, and Flora grew up a country child.

Tristan and her mother returned to Paris shortly after the death of Flora's brother in 1817. Flora was nearly 15 at the time. She may have entertained hopes of making a good marriage, as befitted a daughter of the Tristan family, for although she appears to have received little formal education, she took dancing and painting lessons. However, her illegitimacy stood in the way of such an ambition, and in marrying André-François Chazal in 1821 she became the wife of a self-employed artisan. Chazal had been giving her lessons in painting, and employed her to color his engravings and lithographs. "She inspired in me a violent passion," he later declared. He persuaded her mother to support the marriage, and Tristan eventually succumbed to their combined influence. "I wish to become a perfect wife…. I want to treat my mother as I would like to be treated by my children," she wrote, but she would later insist that she had been forced into this marriage. The relationship was never happy, as financial pressures, the speedy arrival of two children, and possibly Flora's discontent, took their toll. Divorce was illegal, but after four years of marriage the couple agreed to separate, and Chazal left Paris to escape his creditors.

Tristan, barely 21 and pregnant with her third child, was left with responsibility for her sons, but she found it difficult to find satisfactory employment. "The presence of my children prevented me from passing as a single woman," she wrote, "and I almost always introduced myself as a widow; but, living in the same town as my husband and my former acquaintances, it was very difficult to sustain a role which a host of circumstances could undermine." After several jobs in Paris had proved shortlived, Tristan placed her children in the guardianship of her mother and left Paris in an effort to find more reliable income. She was absent for nearly three years, and later reported that she had traveled in Switzerland, Italy, and England as a ladies' maid for two English women during this time. Her husband preferred to believe that she was really the mistress of a wealthy man, but no evidence remains to substantiate either case.

On her return to Paris in 1828, Tristan applied successfully to the courts for a separation of property, to prevent Chazal and his creditors from seizing control of her savings or income. In 1829, she was living in a boarding house with her daughter Aline-Marie Chazal , posing again as a widow, Madame Tristan. A ship's captain named Chabrié, who was also resident there, proceeded to tell her about the Tristans of Peru whom he had encountered in his voyages to that country. This meeting inspired her to try to re-establish contact with her Peruvian family, despite her mother's earlier lack of success. She wrote to her uncle Pio, introducing herself and outlining the circumstances of her birth: "As a military man, your brother needed the king's permission to get married: not wanting to seek it … he proposed to my mother that she marry him only in a religious ceremony (a marriage which has no standing in France). My mother, who felt that she could no longer live without him, consented to this proposal." In this honest but naïve sentence admitting her illegitimate status, Tristan unwittingly destroyed any chance of establishing a legal claim on her father's estate. Nevertheless, her uncle accepted her as the illegitimate daughter of his brother and sent her a small sum of money.

In 1831, Chazal reappeared and began to seek custody of his two surviving children. French law recognized a father's rights to the exclusion of those of the mother if children were legitimate, so Tristan's legal position was weak. Following a violent confrontation with Chazal at her uncle's place in March 1832, Tristan promised to surrender Ernest to Chazal's care. In return, he signed a declaration that he would agree to a divorce as soon as it became legal. But Tristan was determined to keep custody of her daughter Aline, who had been born after the couple had separated. Unsatisfied with not knowing even his daughter's whereabouts, Chazal tried to have Tristan arrested, since French law also required a wife to live in her husband's house. The magistrate was unwilling to get involved on this occasion. However, convinced that Chazal would persist in his efforts to take Aline from her, Tristan left Paris again. After traveling in France for six months, she left Aline in boarding school in Angoulême and headed to Peru to try to pursue her inheritance claim.

Living aboard ship for four months with little privacy and 18 men for company proved a challenging experience. Tristan extended her education by reading with the officers, and practiced her Spanish with some of the passengers.

Although she had already traveled within Europe, Tristan had never before encountered people and places so unfamiliar. She experienced the beauty and terror of the open sea; visited the coast of Africa where the slave trade was in operation; and, on reaching port, traveled by mule to the town of Arequipa, high in the Cordillera Mountains, where the ancestral Tristan estates were located. During her ten-month stay in Peru, Tristan visited sites of interest to the tourist, but she also witnessed a coup d'état and resulting civil war. She kept a detailed journal of her life, and later published a book which recounted her adventures and the lessons she had learned. It included observations on the political and economic systems of this slave-based society as well as on the situation of women, whom she discovered were "slaves everywhere."

While Tristan failed to persuade her uncle to recognize her full inheritance rights, he did pay her an allowance of 2,500 francs per annum, which she continued to receive until 1839. This income enabled her to establish herself as a writer, rather than needing to find more mundane employment. On her arrival back in France, Tristan was reunited with her daughter, and they returned to Paris in January 1835. An anonymous letter to Chazal in October informed him of his wife's whereabouts and said that she was rich. It suggested that he kidnap his daughter and hold her for ransom. "Once you have the little girl," his informant observed, "you will easily be able to get 15 or 20,000 francs out of her [mother] to make you agree to give her back." Chazal apparently took this advice, for shortly afterwards he abducted his daughter on her way to school. This was Aline's introduction to her father.

After discovering that Chazal had taken Aline to Versailles, Tristan went there to snatch her back on November 1. They managed to escape Chazal by paying a bonus to the coach driver, but now that he knew his wife's address he was able to take legal action against her. The court ruled that Aline should be placed in boarding school, at Tristan's expense, with both parents having access. Six months later, in July 1836, Chazal moved his daughter to a different school and restricted her contact with her mother. Aline responded by running away to her mother. Once again the court defended Chazal's paternal rights over Aline, and she was taken back to her father's place by the police in November. By this time Chazal's business had virtually failed. His apartment at Montmartre was sparsely furnished, and he and his two children slept in the one bed there. On April 1, 1837, Tristan received a letter from Aline alleging that her father was sexually abusing her and, as Flora sought advice from her lawyer about what action to take, Aline arrived at her door. She had run away again. The judicial investigation resulted in charges being laid against Chazal, though these were later dismissed for lack of evidence. In March 1838, Tristan's petition for a full legal separation was upheld on the basis of these events, but they also motivated Chazal's decision to murder his wife. He began to plot her death, purchasing pistols, practicing firing them, and designing a headstone for her grave.

Chazal believed he had been denied justice at law. He was also enraged because his wife had begun to make her mark as a writer and public figure, challenging his male prerogatives in the process. She had published a pamphlet in 1835, and subsequently produced a number of newspaper articles. But the appearance of Peregrinations of a Pariah at the end of 1837 made her a minor celebrity. Her revelations about her marriage and her admission that, despite being a married woman, she was both attractive to and attracted by men she had met on her travels, were little short of scandalous. Tristan's behavior challenged social conventions, as well as Chazal's marital authority. The obituary Chazal wrote for his wife shortly before the shooting revealed his thinking: "You are fleeing justice which will not escape you. Sleep in peace to serve as an example to those sufficiently misguided to follow your immoral precepts."

Tristan's revelations in Peregrinations of a Pariah were meant to demonstrate the misfortunes of women shackled by the bonds of unhappy but indissoluble marriages, in which they had few legal rights. "It is not to myself personally that I wish to draw attention," she wrote, "but to all those women who are in the same position and whose number increases daily." In September 1838, during recuperation from her husband's attack, Tristan completed her second major work, the novel Méphis. Together with her first book, it sought to expose the inequalities faced by women in society. Women were deprived of education and rights, so they were forced to rely on relationships with men for their survival. Yet within marriage, Tristan argued, women became dependent creatures with no control over their own lives. They were raised for love, but rarely found it. Happiness and fulfillment remained elusive, although the socialization of girls numbed their sense of injustice and thus made their condition less painful. For those who rejected their fate, however, rebellion brought isolation and social condemnation. A separated wife, in particular, was a social outcast: "She is nothing more than an unfortunate Pariah, whom people believe they are treating indulgently if they spare her injury." Like many other feminists of that period, Tristan focused her demands on the reintroduction of divorce, female education, and the reform of the legal code which discriminated against women.

Flora Tristan had attended feminist salons in Paris in 1836, and she was also friendly with a number of feminists connected with the socialist movement. In the 1830s, the connections between feminism and socialism were strong, because reformers recognized that the creation of a world of justice and social equality could not be achieved while women remained in servitude. Similarly, many feminists believed that the position of women could not be improved unless a broader social transformation was achieved. Tristan may have encountered such ideas even before her voyage to Peru, since Saint-Simonian socialism (which had a strong feminist dimension) was at its height in Paris in the 1828–32 period. However, her first documented connections with other socialists date from 1835, and they extended not only to the various schools of French socialism but also to England, for the networks of feminists and socialists in these two countries were quite extensive in the 1830s and 1840s.

Socialism had been an important sub-theme in Tristan's earliest writings. The title of her novel Méphis, for instance, was also the name of its male hero, who described himself as "a man of the people…, one who is called today by the name of proletarian." The novel offered a vision of an ideal world transformed along both feminist and socialist lines. Tristan's growing consciousness of the plight of the "proletarian" stemmed not merely from reading socialist theory but from observation, for the world was changing significantly at that time. Urbanization was increasing, the workplace was being transformed by new methods of production, and the instabilities of early industrial capitalism saw repeated cycles of "boom and bust," the "busts" throwing enormous numbers out of work with nothing to fall back on but charity. Women workers, unable to support themselves at the best of times, were among the most vulnerable, and resorted to prostitution as a form of seasonal work. Philosophers and doctors decried the degeneration of the urban poor, whom they saw as a dangerous and insidious element in the midst of civilized society. For socialists, however, the poor were not so much dangerous as wronged, and their objective was to right that wrong.

Tristan's commitment to a broad vision of social transformation became particularly evident from the time of her trip to England in 1839. This was her fourth visit to that country, and she was struck by the growth of poverty and social unrest in what was then the world's most advanced industrial nation. Industrialization and poverty seemed to go together. While Tristan observed the lifestyle of the well-to-do, therefore, her focus was on the misery which pervaded "the monstrous city" of London. She visited its red-light district, its prisons, its squalid Irish quarter, and Bedlam insane asylum, as well as the industrial towns of Manchester and Sheffield. The account of this investigation, which Tristan published in 1840, was understandably bleak. It was relieved only by her admiration for the Chartists, fighting for a more democratic political system, and for the infant school system, which she believed would eventually imbue all children with cooperative values.

I call for woman's rights because I am convinced that all the misfortunes of the world stem from the neglect and scorn shown until now for the natural and inalienable rights of woman.

—Flora Tristan

Tristan believed that the publication of starkly realistic accounts like hers would alert people to the need for social reform. The fourth edition was dedicated "to the working classes": "Workers, it is to you, men and women, that I dedicate my book; I have written it to inform you about your position." She advised workers to educate themselves by reading the works of social reformers, and encouraged them to pursue their political rights. However, that was not enough: "You should consider political rights only as the means to put yourselves in a position to attack the evil at its source," she wrote. "You should concern yourselves with the social order, the base of the edifice."

At that time Tristan apparently had no mechanism in mind by which workers might tackle "the social order" and shape it in their interests. From 1840, however, she began to make contact with workers' organizations in France. The trade associations in which skilled workers were organized had given her an idea for a more general "union" of workers. Rather than being exclusive to a particular trade and strictly male-defined, her union would be a "universal union of working men and women." In 1843, she published The Workers' Union, in which she outlined her plan. If each worker contributed two francs per year, she argued, this union would raise sufficient capital to create communal establishments where children could be educated and the elderly retire in dignity. In addition, given the limited suffrage which prevailed in France, the workers could hire an official representative to lobby the government on their behalf, in order to pass legislation guaranteeing "the right to work" and the right to organize. This scheme was envisaged as a transitional one, offering a practical mechanism for moving from the oppressive present to the liberated future. With the newfound power which workers would exercise in society, they could begin to experiment with more farreaching schemes for social reorganization.

Tristan's commitment to socialist politics from 1842 did not imply that her interest in feminist questions had disappeared. However, she believed that the questions of workers' rights and women's rights were inseparable, since the oppression of both was necessary to maintain the social privilege of wealthy men. Later generations of feminists would emphasize that women do not always have interests in common with each other. However, in the early 19th century this perspective was not widely held. Like many of her contemporaries, Tristan emphasized that all women were oppressed by men. However, while bourgeois women were oppressed by the men of their own class, working women suffered at the hands of both working men, imbued with notions of male superiority, and bourgeois men who exploited them as employers and seducers.

Tristan's aim in The Workers' Union, then, was to persuade working men that their own liberation depended upon the liberation of all women. She appealed to the principles of the French Revolution of 1789, on which those men based their own case for social justice:

Are you beginning to understand, you men … why I demand rights for woman? Why I would like her placed in society on a footing of absolute equality with man, to enjoy the legal rights all human beings possess from birth? I call for woman's rights because I am convinced that all the misfortunes of the world stem from the neglect and scorn shown until now for the natural and inalienable rights of woman…. I call for woman's rights because it is the only way to obtain her rehabilitation before the church, the law, and society, and this rehabilitation is necessary before working men themselves can be rehabilitated.

Having developed her "saving idea," as she called it, Tristan threw her energies into promoting it among working people. Most of the 4,000 copies of the first edition of her book were given away free to workers. Three thousand brochures outlining the contents of the book were also distributed to workshops in Paris. Having organized a second edition of 10,000 copies, Tristan set out on a tour of France in April 1844 to promote her plan. She kept a detailed account of this trip, which was designed to provide the material for a later book on the "actual condition of the working class from the moral, intellectual and material perspectives." Tristan recorded her meetings with workers from Auxerre to Bordeaux, noting their wages and living conditions, their levels of literacy and politicalconsciousness. She took particular interest in the situation of working women, endeavoring to convince them that "politics reaches right to the hearth." Tristan observed the particularly outrageous working conditions endured by laundrywomen at Nîmes, and female porters at Marseille, recording in her diary at one point: "My sisters, I swear that I will deliver you." At Lyons, the stronghold of worker militancy in this period, Tristan began to groom a woman as her successor. Eléonore Blanc had the necessary qualification of passionate commitment to the cause, and Tristan became deeply attached to her.

Tristan's diary during this journey around France also recorded her deteriorating health. She had been suffering from stomach complaints and dysentery for several months before she reached Bordeaux on September 24, 1844. She was taken ill the following day, and treated for "cerebral congestion." However, after a brief improvement early in October, the typhoid-like symptoms grew steadily worse, perhaps aided by the constant doses of opium administered by her well-meaning nurses. She died at 10:00 pm on November 14, 1844, aged 41 years.

News of Tristan's death was circulated widely in the press, workers' newspapers paying tribute to her devotion to their cause, conservative papers understandably showing less regret. About 80 workers attended her funeral, along with a few radical members of the local bourgeoisie, and almost immediately they began raising funds to construct a monument. The project took four years to complete, and the monument was finally inaugurated in October 1848. Several thousand workers attended the ceremony, reading speeches and poems in Tristan's honor. A marble column surmounted by a sculptured book was inscribed: "In memory of Madame Flora Tristan, author of The Workers' Union, with the workers' gratitude. Liberty-Equality-Fraternity-Solidarity." Today that monument, in the Chartreuse Cemetery at Bordeaux, remains a place of commemoration for socialists and feminists alike.


Caperon, Paulin. Inauguration du Monument Elevé à Bordeaux à la Mémoire de Flora Tristan par les Travailleurs. Bordeaux: Imprimerie de Causserouge, 1848.

Chazal jeune. Mémoire à Consulter pour M. Chazal Contre Madame Chazal. Montmartre: Imprimerie de Cosson, 1838.

——. "Pater Natae Suae Deflorationis Accusatus. Mémoire ayant pour but d'éclairer la Chambre de Conseil, adressé à Mes Juges pour être joint au dossier de l'affaire Chazal." Paris: manuscript, 1837.

Le Droit. February 1 and 2, 1839.

Tristan, Flora. Méphis. Paris: Ladvocat, 1838.

——. Pérégrinations d'une Paria 1833–1834. Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1838.

——. Promenades dans Londres. Edition établie et commentée par François Bédarida. Paris: François Maspéro, 1978.

——. Le Tour de France. Texte et notes établis par Jules-L. Puech. Paris: François Maspéro, 1980.

——. L'Union ouvrière. 3e édition. Paris: chez tous les libraires, 1844.

suggested reading:

Cross, Máire and Tim Gray. The Feminism of Flora Tristan. Oxford: Berg, 1992.

Grogan, Susan K. French Socialism and Sexual Difference: Women and the New Society 1803–1844. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Moses, Claire Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany, NY: State University Press of New York, 1984.


Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located in the Archives Nationales, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand , the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, all in Paris; in a number of provincial archives throughout France; and in the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Susan Grogan , Senior Lecturer in History, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and author of French Socialism and Sexual Difference: Women and the New Society 1803–1844

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Tristan, Flora (1803–1844)

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