Louise Michel, a French anarchist and militant revolutionary, was one of the central figures of the Paris Commune, a government which ruled Paris for two months in 1871, before being violently shut down by the French army.
Louise Michel was brought up in a very liberal environment, which led to her becoming a rather unconventional school teacher and a poet. Upon her arrival in Paris in 1856, she soon became acquainted with the city’s poor and outcast citizens; an experience which prompted her to write her most well-known lines:
In 1871, the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War led to a brief political vacuum in the city of Paris. The National Guard, an armed citizen’s militia, seized their chance and quickly assumed power over the city. They established the Paris Commune, which was governed by workers, professionals and political activists alike and adopted a number of social measures. During that time, Michel worked as an ambulance nurse who treated the injured soldiers:
She was in charge of recruiting women to serve in the ambulance corps, and welcomed all women, especially the prostitutes who were ostracized by the male officials of the Commune. “Who has more right than these women, the saddest victims of the old world, to offer their lives to the new?” she demanded.
At the same time, she also fought on the barricades herself, like many women of the movement, and gave encouraging speeches to the insurgents.
After the defeat of the autonomous Parisian government, Michel was taken prisoner and charged with attempt to overthrow the government, possession and use of weapons, and wearing a military uniform, among other things. Despite her unwillingness to defend herself, she was not sentenced to death but instead was forced to go into exile. She was sent to New Caledonia, where she resisted the harsh living conditions by learning the indigenous language and customs and became an anarchist and anti-colonialist.
After six and a half years of exile, Michel was allowed to return to France but liberty did not last long. Michel was arrested and imprisoned several times more, but she always continued to write and give speeches, supporting workers on strike and promoting anarchism.
The diligent French secret police had to find another way to terrify Louise Michel. A woman who acts in so unwomanly a fashion, they reasoned, is evidently mad. And so Michel was seized and carried to an insane asylum in 1890, a fate we now recognize as all to often being the means of silencing troublesome women.
She escaped and continued her work until her death in Marseille in 1905.
Louise Michel is remembered as a fighter for social rights and against monarchy and injustice. Many schools, historical sites and a Paris metro station are named after her. Yet she remains a contradictory personality, at once an altruistic humanist and a charismatic militant, willing to sacrifice her life and others’ for the revolution.
Here are some quotes of her:
The first thing that must change is the relationship between the sexes. Humanity has two parts, men and women, and we ought to be walking hand in hand; instead there is antagonism, and it will last as long as the ‘stronger’ half controls, or thinks it controls, the ‘weaker’ half. [The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, 1981]
Without the rule of One, there would be light, there would be truth, there would be justice. The rule of One is a crime. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Extrait d’une Plaidoirie – 22 Juin 1883]
In the convents where the woman hides away, ignorance envelopes her, the rules thrust her into their machinations, grinding her heart and her brain. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Mémoires / 1886]
I am ambitious for humanity: I should like that everyone were an artist, sufficiently poetic that all human vanity would disappear.
If whichsoever power was ever able to do something, it was indeed the Commune, composed of men of intelligence, of courage, of an incredible honesty, and who had performed incontestable feats of devotion and energy. The power annihilated them, leaving them no other implacable desire than that of sacrifice. For power is cursed, that is why I am an anarchist.
The task of teachers, those obscure soldiers of civilization, is to give to the people the intellectual means to revolt. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Mémoires / 1886]