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​Ladies in the Press: 'The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris'

petroleuse 1871

It was 144 years ago today that women such as such as André Léo (the pen name of the revolutionary feminist, Victoire Léodile Béra also a member of the International), Natalie Lemel, Louise Michel, Paule Mink and Elizabeth Dmitrieff fought for worker's rights and women's rights against the oppression of the patriarchal ruling class. Always interested in radical press, we were not surprised to discover that the Paris Commune of Spring 1971 was anticipated in print in the summer of 1870, when engravings and articles circulated the country and it was women (once again!) who featured prominently in the revolutionary movement, through the press. Natalie Lemel participated in the bookbinders’ strikes of 1864 and 1865 and was involved creation of workers’ credit unions, cooperatives and other mutual aid societies. Antoîne-Marie Bourdon, an engraver from Paris, advocated equal rights for women. This and other radical ideas of social liberation appeared in pamphlets such as 'Anarchism' declaring:

"the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves”

(Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 19).

The women participated in the the fighting too. The pétroleuse, or female arsonist, was an almost mythical figure before women actually took to the streets and set fire to governmental buildings. In a sense, they are the radical antecedents of the Suffragettes. In 1912, Suffragette Mary Richardson attempted to burn down the houses of members of the government opposed to the women's right to vote here in London. Others, like the imprisoned Suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, subscribed to the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword and spread the revolutionary word through the radical press. She was sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen's Hall in the House of Commons. The Suffragettes also had supporters in the print trade such as Emily Arber, the wife of the owner of Britain's oldest printing press in east London W. F. Arber & Co.. Emily was a supporter of the Suffragettes and knew the Pankhursts so would get their propaganda pamphlets printed for free. Sadly, the legendary print shop in the Roman Road was forced to close in 2010 due to soaring rent prices, Tower Hamlets policy and we think, a lack of imagination and revolutionary spirit by some! The very 1900 Golding Press on which W. F. Arber & Co. printed leaflets for the Suffragettes and London's only surviving printing press of the period is being held at The Bishopsgate Institute with the idea that it will go on display sometime in the near future. Long story short, after churning out pamphlets for six years and with a little help from their friends, women were granted the parliamentary vote in 1918.

So onwards and upwards! The Paris Commune's call to establish a libertarian socialism “based upon equality and justice,” the “mutualist organisation” could not be more relevant for us today.

Ladies, it is up to us!

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