Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Elisabeth Dmitrieff

One female comrade chided some fellow members of the Socialist Party for holding only male personalities from history as heroes. Of course, there are many women in the socialist echelons such as Rosa Luxemburg but she did make her point. Many other deserving women have been forgotten or not offered their proper dues.

One such activist is Elisabeth Dmitrieff. 

Élisabeth Dmitrieff, had helped organise cooperatives in Geneva and then arrived in Paris Commune in late March 1871 as a representative of the International, stated, "The work of women was the most exploited of all in the social order of the past….It's immediate reorganisation is urgent."

Dmitrieff, born Elisavieta Koucheleva in the northwestern Russian province of Pskov in 1850, was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat and a German nurse twenty years his junior. Élisabeth entered into a mariage blanc (a marriage of convenience) to get out of Russia, after having been active in a student group in Saint Petersburg. She carried funds from her sizable dowry into exile in Geneva in 1868. Dmitrieff went to London, where she met Karl Marx and his family. Immediately following the proclamation of the Commune, Marx sent her to Paris, and she sent reports on the situation back to him.

Dmitrieff cut quite a figure. She wore a black riding costume, a felt hat with feathers, and a red silk shawl trimmed in gold. A police description put her at about five feet, three inches tall, with chestnut hair and gray-blue eyes. Léo Frankel was one of the Communards who fell in love with her. Dmitrieff combined a precocious feminism with a socialism influenced by Marx and a firm expectation that revolution would some day come to Russia.

On April 8, Dmitrieff sought to rally citoyennes in defense of Paris in the tradition of the women who had marched to Versailles in October 1789. Three days later, mothers, wives, and sisters, including Dmitrieff and Nathalie Le Mel, published an "Appeal to the Women Citizens of Paris": 
"We must prepare to defend and avenge our brothers."

That evening, the Union des Femmes was constituted, led by a council of five women, with Dmitrieff as general secretary. The union called on women to form branches in each arrondissement. Saluting the Commune as representing "the regeneration of society," the organisation asked women to build barricades and to "fight to the end" for the Commune. The Commune gave women in the Union des Femmes, which included perhaps as many as 2,000 women, unprecedented public responsibilities. It set up committees in most arrondissements as recruiting centers for volunteers for nursing and canteen work and barricade construction. The Union des Femmes also took the fight for equal rights to Paris's factories. The manufacture of National Guard uniforms, the vast majority of which women produced, was one Parisian industry that kept going full steam. The Commune had first signed contracts with traditional manufacturers for the production of uniforms, but a report determined that under this arrangement female workers were earning less than under the Government of National Defence. The Union des Femmes demanded the award of all future contracts to workers' producers' cooperatives and that the Tailors' Union and delegates from the Commission of Labour and Exchange negotiate piece rates. 

After having fought on the barricades during the Bloody Week, she fled to Russia. Once arrived in her native country, she married a political prisoner in order to help him avoid death penalty, and decided to follow him in deportation in Siberia, where she ended her days.

A small square in Paris, between the rue du Temple and the rue de Turbigo (close-by to the Place de la République) has been named in her honour.

Details from Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, by John Merriman.

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