La Pétroleuse: Representing Revolution

by Gay L. Gullickson
La Pétroleuse: Representing Revolution
Gay L. Gullickson
Feminist Studies
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In 1989 and 1990, the Chinese students who erected a goddess of democracy in Tiananmen Square, the Romanians who cut the Ceaugescu government's seal out of their nation's flag, the Czecho- slovakians who jangled keys in demonstrations, and the Germans who cheerfully hacked away at the Berlin wall reminded the world of the power of symbolic action and the frequency with which revolutions generate such activity. Many of the images that emerge from revolutions, like those recently created, carry posi- tive messages, encapsulating or representing the desired political rights or institutions. Others, like the Berlin wall, the guillotine, the swastika, and the burning cross, represent political oppression and violence. Some actions acquire symbolic significance during the period of revolution; others, after the fact, when journalists, political observers, and historians seek ways to represent, encap- sulate, and pass moral judgments on the past. This study investi- gates the creation of one of the nineteenth century's most powerful negative political symbols- the pitroleuse of the Paris Commune. Largely forgotten today except by students of French history, this representation of the dangerous, unruly woman-the female in- cendiary-became an international symbol, not only of the Com- mune itself but also of the evils of revolution, and played a pivotal role in creating a long-lasting emotional response to what was a short-lived (ten-week) revolution in France.

Particularly intriguing is the gendered nature of some political symbols. Some of the most lasting and powerful symbols are fe- male allegories whose representative power is derived from com- plex reversals of gender assumptions and the depiction of an ideal- ized female body rather than of the "imperfect, permeable and

Feminist Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1991). a 1991 by Feminist Studies, Inc 241

changing' bodies of actual women.' Thus, political liberty as well as the French Republic and Great Britain were represented in the shape of an idealized female figure (Marianne and Britannia) when individual women had no political rights and little or no liberty.2

On the reverse side of these positive representations of nations, governments, and political ideals lies a series of negative female images that represent the violence of revolution. In part, these negative images arise from the tendency of both right-wing and left-wing authoritarian regimes, as Joan Scott has observed, to per- ceive political threats in gendered terms and to represent "ene- mies, outsiders, subversives [and] weakness" as feminine.3 In western European and North American culture, the female witch has been a particularly potent symbol of the enemy, the outsider, and the subversive. Perhaps even more intriguing than the ten- dency to portray the "enemy" as feminine has been the proclivity, as Neil Hertz has pointed out, of the opponents of political change to represent a political threat as if it were a sexual threat and to embody it in the form of a "hideous and fierce but not exactly sex- less woman.'"

Nowhere is a political threat more clearly represented as a sex- ual threat than in writings about the Paris Commune of 1871.Particularly significant in this regard are the descriptions of the pdtroleuses, the women who were accused of burning Paris during the final week of the Commune when Versailles troops and the Parisian National Guard fought in the streets of Paris. Fear of the pdtroleuse was so widespread and so strong that she quickly came to represent the crimes of the Commune in the eyes of its oppo- nents and critics. Long after it was apparent that the fires had been set by men and that they had not been as devastating as was first believed,5 defenders of the Commune found themselves trapped into defending the Commune against charges of arson and the de- struction of culture. Unable to gain the moral offensive, they large- ly failed to shift public attention from the pitroleuses to the willingness of the Versailles government to kill thousands of its own citizens, many after they had surrendered or been taken prisoner.

Because the pdtroleuse was almost entirely a figment of the gov- ernment's and the conservative press's imagination, a number of questions arise. In the fist place, why did the government im- agine that women were setting fires, and, in the second place, why did people so readily believe the rumors? Why, in short, did this particular representation of revolutionary violence attain such a powerful hold upon the Western imagination, or, to paraphrase Neil Hertz, how did the political threat posed by the Commune come to be represented by a hideous and fierce but sexually com- pelling female figure?

THE PARIS COMMUNE In July 1870, Otto von Bismarck, pursuing the goal of German unification, goaded Louis Napoleon into declaring war against Prussia. France was thus catapulted into a year of warfare, civil strife, political experimentation, and tragedy. Louis Napoleon (and with him the Second Empire) was defeated less than two months after the war with Prussia began. In the political vacuum that fol- lowed, republicans in Paris announced the establishment of a gov- ernment of National Defense and prepared to defend the city against the advancing Prussian troops. Paris was quickly sur- rounded by the Prussian army and the Parisians hunkered down to endure five months of bitter cold, hunger, disease, and finally bombardment, while they waited for the provincial armies to come to their aid and the Prussians waited for them to surrender. Virtually every able-bodied Parisian man who was not already a member of the army joined the National Guard and prepared to fight the Prussians. Paris never did surrender, but the government of National De- fense did, at the end of January 1871. Following the election of a National Assembly on February 8, Adolphe Thiers, an ultracon- servative politician who was elected head of the Executive Power by the new assembly, accepted the Prussians' peace terms, which included the payment of five thousand million francs in indemni- ty, the secession of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German state, and a triumphal march of Prussian troops down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Appalled at the national government's capitula- tion to the Prussians and humiliated by the march of the Prussian troops through the city after they had tried to starve it into sur- render, the Parisians demonstrated their continued resistance to the peace treaty by dragging the city's cannons to the hills of Paris for safekeeping. When the Prussians arrived, they were greeted with angry silence and closed shops, the statues representing the

cities of France in the Place de la Concorde were hooded in black, and the buildings along the parade route flew black flags.

After the Prussians' triumphal march in Paris, the National As- sembly, composed primarily of political conservatives and roy- alists who had no love for working-class Paris or for republican politics, proceeded to pass a series of decrees that further alienated and humiliated the city. Radical newspapers were suppressed. The moratorium on rents and debts that had been established dur- ing the Prussian siege was lifted, confronting Parisian workers, shopowners, and even wealthy apartment dwellers with imminent eviction. And the National Assembly, which had been meet- ing in Bordeaux rather than Paris, because of the continued Prus- sian presence around Paris, voted to move to Versailles, not Paris, in essence "decapitalizing" the city.6

Finally, in a poorly planned and subsequently much-debated de- cision, Thiers sent French army troops in the early hours of March 18, 1871, to remove the cannons which the city had used to de- fend itself against the Prussians. Whether the military operation was simply badly handled or was designed to provoke a revolt in order to further disarm and crush the workers is unclear. In any case, the predawn raid on the cannons on the hill of Montmartre was detected when the government failed to send horses to pull the heavy guns. While the soldiers waited for the horses, they fraternized with the people. Military order was lost and, before the day was over, two French generals were killed. When the army withdrew from Paris, a separate government was established in Paris (the Paris Commune), and a second siege of Paris, this time by provincial French troops, began.

Despite the steady bombardment of the eastern section of the city by the Versdes government, Paris ruled itself for two months, electing representatives to a governing body (the Commune) and passing laws that have earned it a place among the most radical of French governments. A general moratorium was placed on rents; the interest due on debts was abolished; fines in factories were eliminated; the pay for legislators was set at the daily wage for or- dinary workers; and the tools, furniture, and clothing that people had pawned during the Prussian siege were returned to their owners free of charge.' Aware of the power of symbolic actions, the Commune (as the revolutionary city as well as its governing body was called) proudly signaled its politics by flying the red flag of revolution, burning a guillotine in front of the statue of Voltaire, and pulling down the Vend8me Column which commemorated the military exploits of Napoleon I. These decisions, as well as the anticlerical, socialist beliefs of the Commune leaders and their working-class supporters, created considerable bourgeois opposi- tion to the Commune. The international and non-Parisian French press consistently but inaccurately referred to the communards as "communists," and the bourgeoisie feared what would happen next8 Bourgeois men who had joined the National Guard during the Prussian siege abandoned their units and fled Paris to avoid being forced to serve the Commune. Horror stories of the pillaging of churches and bourgeois homes circulated freely, and families faced the difficult decision of whether to leave the women in Paris to protect their homes and run their businesses or to have them join the men who had fled the city.9

Finally, on the night of May 21, after bombarding the city for weeks and destroying the Neuilly district near the Arc de Triomphe, Versailles troops entered Paris through a temporarily unguarded gate, and five days of bloody fighting began. Quickly left without central leadership, the National Guard troops, women, and children defended their neighborhoods behind hasti- ly constructed barricades. The provincial army troops, well indoc- trinated at Versailles to hate the insurgents of Paris and following orders to take no prisoners, slaughtered twenty thousand Paris- ians.1° The communards, having little choice but to fight, as surren- der meant death, retreated from one barricade to another, killing very few Versailles soldiers but setting fires to block their retreat. In the midst of the bloodbath that the Versailles troops were creating, some of the hostages the Communard government had been holding were executed. Like the fires, the killing of the hostages, who included the archbishop of Paris, priests, and police, would be used by opponents of the Commune to brand it as evil, even though the decision had been made by a few in- dividuals and was disavowed by the surviving leaders.

From the beginning to the end, women were actively involved in the Commune, although they were not allowed to run for pub- lic office. They were major participants in the March 18 battle over the cannons and the execution of the two generals that pre- cipitated the split between Paris and the National Assembly. Louise Michel, who would become the most famous of the communard women, alerted the citizens of Montmartre that the army was trying secretly to remove the cannons.ll Women debated issues in political meetings, served on committees, established schools for children and workshops for women, risked their lives as nurses and aides to the National Guards who engaged in end- less skirmishes with the Versailles troops, and defended the bar- ricades in the final battle against the Versailles army. Several bar- ricades were defended entirely by women.12

These activities have been little heralded by historians, how- ever, and the communard women are best remembered for having set the fires that consumed much of Paris during the final battle. Hundreds of women were arrested for this and other "crimes." Some were shot on the spot, others while being marched to Ver- sailles. Some were tried, and those who were found guilty were exiled to French penal colonies in New Caledonia.13 For months after the fighting, Parisians continued to fear that women were sneaking around the city, lobbing bottles of petroleum into open cellar windows.

Rumors and exaggerated fear are understandable in a city that had been living on the edge of disaster for nine months and was now the scene of street fighting, assassination, and fire. So too is a lingering bourgeois paranoia and vengefulness about the destruc- tion of property. What is not so readily understandable is why women were accused of setting the fires, why the fear did not sub- side once the fighting was over and the fires were out, and why the pktroleuse rather than some other figure came to stand for the "horrors" of the Commune.14

THE FIRES Versailles troops entered Paris late on Sunday night, May 21. On Tuesday, May 23, communard troops set the first fire to protect their battle position. By that evening other fires had been set, some for strategic reasons, some as revenge against the monarchy and upper-class "justice." Still others were ignited by the incendiary shells used by the Versailles troops.15 By Wednesday, rows of houses, the Tuileries Palace, the Ministry of Finance, and the H8tel de Vie were on fie. Charred paper from the library of the Louvre floated on the wind and people feared that the museum it- self was on fie. The city glowed red by night; smoke, sparks, and ashes rained down on the city; and observers who watched from the hills outside Paris were convinced that the entire city was burning to the ground. The disaster was not as great as was imagined by those who were watching the blaze from a distance, but the number of buildings and houses destroyed or damaged was considerable.16

How women came to be held responsible for the fires is an in- triguing question, because there is clear evidence that, although women may have participated in the burning of the Tuileries Palace, the vast majority of the fires were set by men." Nor were women the first to be accused of lighting the fires. On Wednesday, May 24, Adolphe Thiers excoriated the setting of the fires in a speech to the National Assembly at Versailles, but he identified it as a desperate military tactic and made no references to women as the responsible party:

The odious act -one unparalleled in history-of which some villains have just been guilty, is the crowning act of their despair. . . . No one could have pre- vented the crime of these wicked wretches. They have made use of petroleum for their incendiary purposes, and have sent petroleum bombs against our soldiers.lg

By Thursday, May 25, however, the opponents of the Commune regarded vengeance rather than strategy as the motivation for the fires. The Times reported that the fires were "wrought without a shadow of provocation; . . .it is an act of deliberate and demonia- cal malice . . . a mere act of revenge. . . ."I9 Rumors escalated and suspicion began to fall on noncombatants, including male fire- fighters (pompiers), women, and children. The Times on May 26 and Le Gaulois (a pro-Versailles newspaper) on May 29 reported that pompiers had been shot when it was discovered that they were pumping petroleum rather than water into the flames and an- nounced that windows were being barricaded to prevent the fire- bombing of houses by women and children. Walking through the city, the Times correspondent had discovered that

the fears of petroleum and explosions are universal. The inhabitants had either stopped up, or were engaged in stopping up, every chink through which petroleum might be thrown into their houses. . . . The precaution was taken because women and children, partisans of the Commune, have in numerous in- stances been detected throwing petroleum into houses.20

Rumors about the number of women working as incendiaries grew rapidly. From the isolated woman, reports soon claimed that "many" of the arrested women were p&troleuses.21 On May 28 and 29, Le Gaulois reported that women, men, and children had been hired and paid ten francs per building to start fires. Elihu B. Washburne, the U.S. minister to France, repeated this story in his memoirs, embellishing it with the "information" that immense numbers of women, men, and children (he claimed eight thou- sand) had been employed to distribute incendiary devices.22 It quickly became commonplace for newspaper stories and the titles of illustrations to refer to all the arrested communardes as p&troleuses, regardless of whether they were charged with the specific crime of incendiarism.

Enhancing the credibility of the "reports" of the female incen- diaries was their specificity. Le Gaulois was especially inclined toward detail. On May 28, it reported that the incendiaries were "armed with tin boxes, about the size of a large sardine can and containing a mixture of pdtrole, tallow and sulfer" which they lit with a match. (Most people actually believed that the women car- ried bottles, not boxes.) On the 29th, it reported that during the month of April, the Commune had infiltrated "its most fanatical partisans whose mission was to stir up the fires when they were beginniig to die out" into the ranks of the pompiers.23

Although men as well as women were thought to be employed in setting fires, women were widely regarded as being more active than men and as the greater villains. M. Chastel, a librarian, reported in a letter of May 24, that it was "especially the women who are setting fires to the houses. Many have been taken in the act and shot at 0nce."2~ Ambassador Washburne reported in his memoirs that "of all this army of burners, the women were the

It was common for children to be regarded as women's ac- complices. Washburne, for instance, announced that "whenever it was possible, the p&troleuse, who was to receive ten francs for every ten houses burnt, would find some little boy or girl whom she would take by the hand and to whom she would give a bottle of the incendiary liquid, with instructions to scatter it in certain places.'Q6 Children who were deemed suspicious-looking, like women, were arrested and executed. Residents and journalists re- ported seeing the bodies of dead children as well as chid pris- oners. Washburne and Colonel Wickham Hoffman reported the deaths of six or eight children (their accounts vary), the eldest "ap- parently not over fourteen," who were "caught" carrying petroleum in the Avenue d'Autin.27 Georges Renard remembered seeing a row of bodies of women and children lined up along the wall of the Collsge de France.28 Edmund de Goncourt recorded in his diary on May 26, that he had seen "a band of frightful street ur- chins and incendiary hooligans" who were being held in the train station at Passy.29 And on May 28, Chaste1 reported that he had seen a large number of prisoners among whom were "women and children, who sometimes were obliged to run to keep up with the rest, or they would have been trampled on by the horses."30

Women were also accused of poisoning the Versailles troops. The number of women assumed to be involved in this crime, as well as the number of their victims, also escalated rapidly. On May 27, the Times reported that ten soldiers had been poisoned by a cantini8re; the next day, Edwin Child, a young Englishman in Paris, wrote to his father that forty men had been poisoned.31 Eventually the story of the poisoners appeared in all the news- papers covering the fighting. These accusations did not have the staying power of the accusations of incendiarism in a city that had seen huge fires, however, and the press and public devoted far more attention to the pdtroleuses. Indeed, on June 2, Le Figaro carried an article on the last group of prisoners to be marched from Paris to Versailles which reported that the crowds gathered along the route had the greatest interest in the women: "People devoured them with their eyes, they tried to discern the leaders who had in- spired this terrible battle in the sinister heads of these witches, they stared at the hands that had poured the incendiary petroleum on the monuments of Paris."32

Editorial writers, far from the scene, wrote floridly about the "loose women of Paris, those debased and debauched creatures, the very outcasts of society, . . . knowing no shame, dead to all feeling, without homes, without friends, no little ones to claim their attention" who had set the fires. So convinced were bourgeois men that the women of the Commune had been prostitutes that they continued to assert the claim, long after the pretrial investiga- tions of the arrested women had disproven it. General Appert even maintained, in his official government report written in 1875, that although a majority of the 850 women who were tried were married, "they did not have, in general, the appearance of a regular life, and, like the others [the unmarried defendants], they had for the most part forgotten a long time ago all the sentiments of family and morality."34

The male "eyewitness" descriptions of the women prisoners, many but not all of whom were accused of being incendiaries, reveal both fear of and considerable fascination with the women who had fought for the Commune. Virtually every account likened these women to the furies of Greek mythology, wild animals, or mad women. Edwin Child, in a letter dated Sunday, May 28, 1871, reported to his father that

the women behaved like tigresses, throwing petroleum everywhere & distinguishing themselves by the fury with which they fought, a convoi of nearly four thousand passed the Boulevards this afternoon, such figures you never saw, blackened with powder, all in tatters and filthy dirty, a few with chests exposed to show their sex, the women with their hair dishevelled & of a most ferocious appearance. . . .35

The conservative Paris-Journal reported on May 31 that in the midst of the atrocious scenes which shock Paris, the women are par- ticularly distinguished by their cruelty and rage; most of them are widows of Com- munards. Madness seems to possess them; one sees them, their hair down like furies, throwing boiling oil, furniture, paving stones, on the soldiers, and when they are taken, they throw themselves desperately on the bayonets and die still trying to fighte36

The Reverend William Gibson, who was not in Paris during the week of fighting and did not see the prisoners himself, neverthe- less recorded in a letter on May 27 that "we learn that women, more like furies than human beings, have taken a fiendish part in the work of destruction."37 D.A. Bingham, an English correspondent for the Pall Mall Gazette who was highly critical of the Commune, recorded in a diary which he later published that the female prisoners whom he saw were "hideous viragoes, . . . furies intoxicated with the fumes of wine and blood."38 The Reverend Mr. Ussher of Westbury, who was more sympathetic to the Parisians who had endured both the Prussian siege and the French bombard- ment, nevertheless reported that he was 'particularly struck by the awful expression which [I] he noticed on the [women's] faces. . . .

It was, indeed, for the most part something unnatural, a compound of savagery, revengehlness, despair and ecstatic fervour. . . . Many of them were now sheer furies."39

Fascinated rather than repelled by the women who passed through the streets of Paris as prisoners, the men who observed them frequently contrasted their behavior with that of their male comrades. Edmund de Goncourt reported that none of the ar- rested women whom he saw had the same "apathetic resignation" as the men. "There is," he wrote, "anger and irony on their faces. Many of them have the eyes of mad women.'@O Le Figaro reported on June 1 that the women and children in the convoys of prisoners "marched with a hardier step than the men. . . .The men are more solemn and seem to be asking themselves if it would not have been better to think before serving against their brothers in the ar- my. . . ."4l The Times correspondent, reflecting back on the fighting, reported that "more courageous than the men, the women show fight to the last moment, and meet their death, according to the accounts of those who have witnessed their executions, with an undaunted courage."42

Ussher and Goncourt quickly began to find it painful to watch the columns of prisoners marching through the city, often to be shot without trial. But even in his distress at the government's treatment of the prisoners, Goncourt remained fascinated by the defiant demeanor of the women, to which he gave a sexual twist.

The rain increases in force. Some of the women pull up their skirts to cover their heads. A line of horsemen in white coats has reinforced the line of foot soldiers. The colonel . . . shouts: "Attention!" and the African riflemen load their guns. At this moment the women think they are going to be shot and one of them collapses with an attack of nerves. But the terror only lasts a moment; at once they renew their irony, and some their coquetry with the soldiers.43

Female and male prisoners alike were treated in an appallingly in- humane and humiliating manner. Forced to march bareheaded and without food and water both through the hot summer sun and through drenching rain, some who could not keep up with the pace of the march, others for no discernable reason, were ex- ecuted along the roadside; and all were subjected to the taunts and abuse of Parisians and Versaillais who had opposed the Com- mune. Chaste1 reported, for instance, that ''the crowd hooted" the prisoners as they passed along.44 Bingham, the Pall Mall Gazette correspondent, recounted that

for many a long day after the insurrection was quelled long caravans of prisoners were to be seen wending their way to Versailles, innocent and guilty alike, to the great delight of substantial citizens . . . [who] revenged [themlselves indi~criminately.~S

The Times reported that "escorts with prisoners are continually passing through the streets followed by a jeering mob. . . ." Even Le Gaulois reported that "the crowd, exasperated by the preceding days, accosted them [the prisoners] with invectives and cries of 'Kill them!"' and "even some stones were thrown at the


The punishment meted out to the women had a sexual dimen- sion that was absent in the treatment of the men, however. Several correspondents reported that the women were stripped (to what extent is not clear in the reports) before they were executed. On Friday, May 26, the Times's correspondent reported that thirteen women, "caught in the act of spreading petroleum," had been ex- ecuted "after being publicly disgraced in the Place Vendbme." Although it is not possible to tell what form this humiliation took, quite likely it involved at least the ripping of the women's bodices to reveal their breasts, as indicated by Child's earlier quotation. Goncourt reported that some of the women he saw were concealed behind veils until a "noncommissioned officer touched one of the veils with a cruel and brutal flick of his whip" and demanded, "'Come on, off with your veils. Let's see your hussy faces (vos visages de coquines)!""7 For male prisoners, punishment included the turning of their uniform jackets (if they wore one) inside out, a form of humiliation that lacked the sexual denigration imposed upon the women.

The tearing of a woman's clothing accomplished several objec- tives. In the first place, it determined her sex. Because some of the women were dressed in National Guard uniforms, revealing their breasts confirmed that they were women. But more than a simple identification was going on here. For men, simply being captured and thus rendered powerless was humiliating, as their reportedly passive behavoir demonstrated to the observers. Because women were supposed to be powerless, their humiliation had to take another form. Indeed, the reported defiance and coquetry of some of the female prisoners indicated to the observers that merely im- prisoning them was not sufficient punishment. Stripping a woman was intended to accomplish the desired humiliation. It would reveal to the world (or at least to the spectators and firing squads) that she was only a weak woman after all, not a fury with the power to bum houses and kill men.

Revealing a woman's body did not always remove her power, however, even when that was the intent. Men were, after all, fascinated with the beautiful naked woman, and any pdtroleuse who resembled one of the prisoners described by Goncourt might have retained a great deal of power even when naked: "Among these women there is one who is especially beautiful, beautiful with the implacable fury of a young Fate. She is a brunette with wild curly hair, with eyes of steel, with cheeks reddened by dried tears. She is planted in an attitude of defiance. . . ."4* In the eyes of the British and French observers, the pktroleuse was, in short, a frightening but compelling figure -a fury with unbound, flying hair; a defiant madwoman; captured but wild; sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful; often seductive; and always more powerful and more fascinating than her cowed male counterpart who, once arrested, became serious and unnaturally passive, while she re- mained unnaturally aggressive.

Several observers were as fascinated by and as critical of the behavior of the bourgeoises who taunted and tortured the prisoners as they were of the behavior of the communardes. The Times reported on May 27 that the jeering mob following the prisoners contained "more women than men among its ranks- women who hoot and clap their hands and insult their victims to their hearts' content. Verily, it was with truth that Voltaire declared that a Parisian woman was half tiger and half monkey!"49 The misogynist nature of this critique indicates that the Times's correspondent was as alarmed by the behavior of the bourgeoises, as he was by that of the pktroleuses.

Whether the behavior of women in these crowds was substan- tially different from that of men is unclear. What is clear is that the women's behavior was perceived and remembered differently by male observers. Maxime DuCamp, one of Versailles's strongest proponents, was distressed by the spectators' lack of charity, in general, and the women's behavior, in particular:

When a band of prisoners appeared, people rushed toward them and tried to break through the cordon of soldiers who escorted them and protected them; the women were, as always, the most agitated; they broke through the military ranks and beat the prisoners with umbrellas; crying: Kill the assassins! Burn the incendiaries!sO

Archibald Forbes, correspondent for the London Daily News, witnessed the lynching of a communard by a mob and some Versailles soldiers on May 24, and reported both in the paper on May 26 and in his memoir:

Very eager in their patriotic duty were the dear creatures of women. They knew the rat-holes into which the poor devils had squeezed themselves, and they guided the Versaillist soldiers to the spot with a fiendish glee. . . . They [the crowd] yell, . . . "Shoot him! Shoot him!"-the demon-women most clamorous of course.51

Even Gaston Cerfbeer, who was only twelve years old in 1871, long remembered the columns of prisoners and their treatment by the spectators. As the prisoners made their weary way through the city, he recalled in 1903, "one heard no cry of pity; put] horrible epithets, insults, injuries, rained down upon them along with pieces of charred wood and stones. . . .Above all, the women were without pity, screaming 'Kill-them! To death!"'52

Given the different expectations that bourgeois men had for the behavior of middle-class and working-class women, for some, the vengeful, unladylike behavior of the bourgeoises was even more surprising and appalling than that of the pe'troleuses. Unlike the pe'troleuses, the bourgeoises could not be dismissed as loose women, living in disorder and prostitution. Indeed, it was precisely be- cause they were perceived as having middle-class homes, hus- bands, and children that their vengeful public behavior was so troubling. Their actions violated the assumptions about the nature and proper behavior of women, and they violated the code of middle-clas behavior toward defeated enemies. The New Yorh Wbune reported on Wednesday, May 3 1, that "the women of Ver- sailles display a cowardly violence against the helpless prisoner^."^^ The journalists expected bourgeois women, like their men, to be brave in times of duress and gracious in times of victory, not cowardly and vengeful. Violating gender and class codes at the same time, and coming on top of the unexpected and frightening behavior of the communardes, the behavior of the bourgeoises seemed to provide further proof that French society was in a state of collapse and that every woman was a potential fury.

The bourgeoises could not be punished by arrest and imprison- ment, as the pdtroleuses could. They had broken only the laws of propriety, not the laws of the state. But their unladylike behavior could be thoroughly condemned in the press and it would not be soon forgotten by bourgeois men who feared their political, economic, and social control was slipping on all fronts in this land of revolution.


Artists and caricaturists produced visual representations of the pdtroleuses, sometimes to accompany the descriptions of the reporters and sometimes to stand alone. These images, perhaps more than the written descriptions, gave power to the myth of the pdtroleuse. In the artists' hands, however, the variety of traits at- tributed to the pdtroleuses by reporters and other eyewitnesses-the implacable fury, her hair disheveled and unrestrained, her eyes wild with insanity; the stunning beauty; the madwoman, her face distorted by rage; the coquetish and seduc- tive young woman-was lost. Replacing them were two major images-the hag and the victim.

In unsympathetic representations, artists emphasized the hid- eous- stripping the women of the compelling fury and sexuality of the journalists' pdtroleuses. They became banshees racing around Paris with their cans of petrol (see fig. 1);hags pouring petrol through windows, sometimes assisted by their corrupted children (fig.2);or, in one of the most vicious of the anti-communarde car- toons of the period, a pig (fig. 31, a reversal of the myth of Circe who seduced the companions of Ulysses with her beautiful voice and hair and turned them into swine.

The horror and rage that conservatives felt toward the pdtroleuse is obvious in the caricatures, as is their sense that she was an un- natural woman. Natural women do not have pigs' snouts or crouch around cellar windows like Macbeth's witches around a cauldron or race through the streets with burning faggots and cans of petrol. By emphasizing the hideous in their drawings of the pktroleuse, the anti-Commune cartoonists went one step further than the verbal descriptions in their hatred of women. But they also missed one of the things that made the journalists' pktroleuse so horrifying, and

hence so hated- her sexuality.

For the conservative artist, the pdtroleuse was to be the embodi- ment of evil, not a sexually attractive woman, who could com- mand the attention of men, or a victim for whom the viewer might feel sympathy. To draw Goncourt's beautiful young fury with wild curly hair, eyes of steel, and cheeks reddened by dried tears would have been counterproductive. Attraction or sympathy on the part of the viewer would interfere with the message of the caricatur- ists. Moreover, baring the breasts of the pdtroleuses, as the written accounts indicate occurred, might have confused the message by reminding viewers of the powerful and virtuous naked, semi- clothed, and bare-breasted goddesses of contemporary and classical art and caricat~re.~~

In sympathetic representations, artists stripped the pdtroleuses of their sexuality and fearfulness and hence of their power. Their pdtroleuses were young, attractive women (see fig. 4),captured and afraid, who shrank back in fear against the walls where they were about to be executed. Powerless and helpless, these pdtroleuses were not the furies of the bourgeois imagination but, rather, inno- cent victims of the Versailles soldiers. They could not be sexually seductive or coquettish or strong, or they might appear to be in some way responsible for their fate.

Although the artists eliminated sexuality from their drawings, the pktroleuse had to be immediately recognizable as female. For sympathetic artists, her femininity (as distinct from her sexuality) was integral to her victimhood. For unsympathetic artists, female- ness rather than femininity was the issue. If the figure could be misconstrued as male, the power of the message would be lost. Some caricaturists did draw an occasional pdtroleur, but this figure soon disappeared from the histories and memoirs of the Com- mune. The horror of the fires could only be represented adequate- ly in the figure of the unnatural woman-the female incendiary. As a result, the drawings always depicted the pdtroleuse in a dress, even though the written accounts indicate that communardes often wore male clothing. Indeed, one reason given for the tearing of the women's bodices was to reveal that they were women in men's clothing.55

Why was the political threat of the Commune represented as a fury, a hideous, powerful, avenging, mad, sexually compelling woman? The answer lies partially in the fact that the Commune was defeated. It could not be satisfactorily represented by a god- dess of liberty as the successful Revolution of 1830 had been by Delacroix. It also could not be represented by a barricade fighter, either female or male, because that figure evoked sympathy not criticism from many French women and men and, again, was too closely allied with the avenging, virtuous Liberte' of Delacroix.

The answer also lies partially in the punishment meted out to one of the female "poisoners." Wiam Gibson reported that a woman who had poisoned forty soldiers was "taken to her home to be shot at the door of her house as an example."56 Gibson did not elaborate on what example the soldiers had in mind, assuming, no doubt, that no elaboration was necessary. Combined with other evidence of the general reaction to the "news" that women were ac- tively involved in burning the city, the execution of this woman on her doorstep appears clearly to have been intended to demonstrate to all women the punishment that the unruly woman who tried to usurp male power could expect. Had she stayed in her home, the woman would have been safe. Having left it to challenge male dominance, she was no longer truly a "woman," no longer deserv- ing of a "man's" protection, and she would be killed as an example to other women of what they could expect if they stepped out of the proper female role.

The pe'troleusefs imagined crime was even more threatening than that of the poisoner who threatened the lives of only a few men. The pe'troleuse threatened to overturn the entire social order. She not only challenged male authority by leaving her home and act- ing in the public sphere, but she also attacked property, the source of the bourgeois male's sense of importance, burned down the home in which she was supposed to take care of her children, and corrupted her children by encouraging them to aid her in this deed. She was the evil mother, capable of killing her children, con- trolling men, and destroying their power base. This was what any man could expect to happen if women escaped the bonds of civili- zation and the home and were allowed to "give rein to their very worst instincts." They would "desed' themselves and destroy

It is no accident that the caption for figure 1 identifies the pitroleuse as "the emancipated woman." Feminists, who were called emancipated women in the nineteenth century, were quintessen- tially women who had left the domestic sphere for the political arena. Their actions challenged bourgeois men's sense of order, power, and well-being. The conflation of the image of the feminist with that of the pdtroleuse, thus, is hardly surprising. In a sense, the pdtroleuse was simply a representation of what men feared about feminism.

In contrast to the editorial writers in London and New York who viewed the pdtroleuse as a desexed woman, the men who watched the female prisoners march through the city and feared the unruly woman's presence in dark alleys described the pdtroleuse in sexual terms. Not because she acted like a man, but precisely because she was a woman, she might be able to lure men to their destruction and to the destruction of their civilization. She had to be tamed, turned into the hideous, nonalluring pdtroleuse of the anti-Commune cartoonists or into the helpless female victim of the pro-Commune artists. Otherwise, her sexual power might turn the world upside down, and she might come to dominate men.

Revolution was like the unruly woman: It threatened to turn the social order on its head, a social order that was assumed by its beneficiaries (bourgeois men and, to a certain extent, bourgeois women, although men also saw their public behavior as threaten- ing social order) to be natural. In the political arena, revolution was the ultimate threat, just as in the personal arena, women's sex- uality was the ultimate threat. These were the two forces which, if they got out of control, would give power to the powerless. It is not surprising that the search for an image with which to represent the political threat of revolution results so often in the unruly woman. One fear represents the other.

Unfortunately for women, the way men have demonstrated their mastery of the revolution has often been by mastering the representation, that is, by repressing women. In the case of the Paris Commune, such repression was particularly easy, because women had participated in the revolt and had defended the city at the barricades. Whether they had burned the city or not, they were fully implicated by their other unladylike or "feminist" ac- tivities, and they would be severely punished for their "unnatural" acts. Given the roles women had played during the Commune and men's fear of the powerful woman, it is easy to see how the pktroleuse emerged in the bourgeois imagination as the symbol of the horrors of the Paris Commune and difficult to imagine any other representation of the Paris Commune having so much power.


I would like to thank the people who have listened to me talk about the pktroleuses for the last few years, including Rachel Fuchs, Lynn Hunt, Elaine Kruse, Leslie Page Moch, and Joan Scott for their patience, ideas, and advice.

Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (New York: Atheneum, 19851, xxi. Also, see Anne Hollander, Seeing through Clothes (New York: Vik- ing, 1978), 88-89.

For more information on the creation of gendered political symbols, see Maurice Agulhon, Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France, 1789-1800, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); David E. Apter, ed., Ideology and Discontent (London: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964); and Warner.

Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American Historical Review 91 (December 1986): 1072.

Neil Hertz, "Medusa's Head: Male Hysteria under Political Pressure," Representations 4 (Fall 1983): 27.

See, for instance, the Standard (London], 1 June 1871, 5.

The phrase is Frank Jellinek's in The Paris Commune of 1871 (1937; reprint, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 19651, 98.

Numerous histories of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune exist in English. Among the best are Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871, trans. Eleanor Marx Aveling (New York: International Publishing Co., 1898); Jellinek; Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (New York: Macmillan, 1961); Steward Ed- wards, The Paris Commune, 1871 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971).

The elected officials and supporters of the Commune held a wide variety of socialist beliefs, only a few of which are correctly labeled "communist." In addition, the govern- ment failed to make the kinds of decisions about property ownership that a communist government would make.

Alexandre de Mazade, Lettres et notes intimes, 1870-1871 (Beaumont-sur Oise, 1892) chronicles one family's agonizing decision to have the women stay in the city while the men fled to the safety of the provinces to avoid being forced to serve in the National Guard.

Robert Tombs, The War against Paris, 1871 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19811, 119, 171-93. The first executions of prisoners by the Versailles soldiers took place on May 22. The exact number of Parisians killed by the soldiers is unknown because many were buried in mass graves without being counted or identified. Estimates range from a low of seventeen thousand by General Appert, who headed the National Assembly's investigation of the Commune, to a high of thirty-five thousand by one observer. Twenty thousand is the number usually agreed upon by historians. See Jean Bruhat, Jean Dautry, and Emile Tersen, La Commune de 1871, 2d ed. (Paris: Edi- tions Sociales, 1970), 289.

Edith Thomas, Louise Michel (Paris: Gallimard, 19711, 84.

Lissagaray, 329, 344.

For a general history of women's activities during the Commune, see Edith Thomas, Les Pitroleuses (Paris: Gallimard, 1963). The total number of people arrested and not summarily executed was 38,578. Of this number, 1,054 were women, 36,909 were men, and 615 were children under the age of sixteen. The number accused was even higher-43,522. Approximately 3,000 prisoners died awaiting trial. Eventually, 168 women were tried by the courts. See Bruhat et al., 290; General Appert, Rapport $ensemble sur les opBrations de la Justice militaire rilatives B 1Tnsurrection de 1871 (Paris: Assemblke Nationale, 18751, 219.

No lasting symbol emerged from the killing of the hostages, for instance.

For accounts of the causes of the fires, see Jellinek, 331-32; Tombs, 152; and Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966), 390-91.

See, for instance, the Tunes, Thursday, 25 May 1871, 5. The special correspondent for the Standard of London wrote from Paris on 30 May (reported in the Standard on Thursday, 1 June 1871, 5): I am convinced that the first exclamation of the vast majority of those who may come over to see for

themselves the destruction wrought in Paris will be, "How grossly these newspaper correspondents have exaggerated." Had I not been in Paris myself on Wednesday and Thursday, witnessed the tremendous conflagrations, and heard the unceasing crack of artillery, mitrailleuses, and musketry, I should certainly have myself been of the opinion that the accounts of what had taken place had been, to say the least of it, highly coloured. . . .

Even the most conservative of historians no longer credit the rumor of the pitroleuses. See, for instance, Edward S. Mason, The Paris Commune: An Episode in the History of the Socialist Movement (New York: Macmillan, 19301, 281-82; and Horne, 391-93. For the similar views of a more liberal historian, see Edwards, 322-27.

Reported in the Times, Thursday, 25 May 1871, 5.

Ibid., Thursday, 25 May 1871, 9.

Ibid., Friday, 26 May 1871, 5 (emphasis added]; Le Gaulois, 29 mai 1871, 1. The fear of such activities by the pdtroleuses would keep the cellar windows of Paris closed throughout the long, hot summer that followed the Commune. The absurdity of this was remarked on by Colonel Wickham Hoffman, secretary of the U.S. Legation at Paris, who pointed out that "the windows were barred, and the cellars in Paris are universally built in stone and concrete. How they [the pitroleuses] effected their purpose under these circumstances is not readily seen. If this was their modus operandi, they were the most inexpert incendiaries ever known." See Wickham Hoffman, Camp, Court, and Siege (New York, 18771, 283. The Reverend William Gibson also recorded the "information" about the pompiers as well as about the women incendiaries in a letter dated 25 May 1871. See his Paris during the Commune (reprint, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 19741, 285. Gibson's letters were originally published in the Watchman and subsequent- ly were republished after his death in 1894.

21. See, for instance, the reports in Paris under Siege: A Journal of the Events of 1870-1871 Kept by Contemporaries and Translated and Presented by Joanna Richardson (London: The Folio Society, 1982), 180-98.

Le Gaulois, 28 mai 1871, 1; ibid., 29 mai 1871, 2; E.B. Washburne, Recollectionsofa Minister to France, 1869-1877(New York, 1887), 155. One of the most amazing aspects of Washburne's account of the pitroleuses is that it appears in a memoir rather than in an unedited or unpublished diary. By the time Washburne's memoirs were published in 1887, many, like Colonel Hoffman, no longer believed the rumors about the pitroleuses. Time apparently had done nothing to alter Washburne's belief in the rumors, however. For Hoffman's views, see his Camp, Court, and Siege, 282-83.

Le Gaulois, 28 mai 1871, 28; and 29 mai 1871, 1. The story of the incendiary boxes was repeated on the 29th.

M. Chastel, "Letter," 24 May 1871, quoted in Gibson, 283.

Washburne, 222.

Ibid., 222-23. Notice that Washburne's account of the amount of money paid to the pdtroleuses differs from that of Le Gaulois.

Hoffman, 281; Washburne, 155. Hoffman reported six deaths; Washburne, eight.

Georges Renard, "Mes Souvenirs, 1870-1871," La RBvolution de 1848 et les Rdvolu- tions du XIXe SiBcle 1830-1848-1870,28 (1931): 78.

26 mai 1871, Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, Journal: MBmoires de la vie littgraire, 1864-1878,vol. 2 (Paris: Fasquelle-Flammarion, 1956), 815.

Cited in Gibson, 290. Six hundred and fifty children aged sixteen or under were taken prisoner by the Versailles government. The number killed in the streets of Paris or on the forced marches from Paris to Versailles is unknown. See Appert, 180.

Times, 27 May 1871, 5; Edwin Child to his father, 28 May 1871, published in Pans under Siege, 197.

Le Figaro, 2 juin 1871, 1.

New York Herald, Sunday, 28 May 1871, 7.

Appert, 214. The numbers in the government report constantly change. Here, Ap- pert uses the figure of 850 women remanded for trial rather that that of the 1,054 women arrested.

Child, "lettef (emphasis added).

Parisjournal, Wednesday, 31 May 1871, cited in Mason, 291 (emphasis added). Only the conservative newspapers were still publishing at this point.

Gibson, 27 May 1871, 270 (emphasis added).

D.A. Bingham, Recollections of Paris, 2 vols. (London, 1896), 2: 124 (emphasis added).

Reported by Ernest A. Vizetelly, My Adventures in the Commune (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), 316 (emphasis added).

Goncourt, 8 14 (emphasis added).

Le Figaro, 1 juin 1871, 1.

Times, 29 May 1871, 10.

Goncourt, 815.

Chastel, "letter," 28 May 1871, quoted in Gibson, 290.

Bingham, 121.

Times, 27 May 1871, 5; Le Gaulois, 5 avr. 1871, 1.

Times, 27 May 1871, 5; Goncourt, 815.

Goncourt, 814.

Times, 27 May 1871.

Maxime DuCamp, Les Convulsions de Paris, vol. 2, 5th ed. (Paris, 1881), 299.

Archibald Forbes, "What I Saw of the Paris Commune," Century Magazine 44 (1892): 54; Daily News (London), 26 May 1871, 5. Articles in the Daily News, as was the general case in this era, were unsigned. The identity of the correspondents was well known in journalistic circles, however, and Forbes notes in his 1892 article that he went to Paris as the Daily News's reporter. In addition, the wording of the 1871 and 1892 articles is identical.

Gaston Cerfbeer. "Une Nuit de la semaine sanglante," La Revue Hebdomadaire 6 (23 mai 1903): 423.

New York Tribune, Wednesday, 31 May 1871, 1.

For a more complete analysis on the role of female nudity in art, see Warner and Hollander. During this period of war and civil war, it was common for artists to depict both France and Paris as a semiclad goddess being raped or stabbed in the back by evil men. For examples, see James Leith, "The War of Images surrounding the Commune," in Images of the Communellmages de la Commune, ed. James Leith (Montreal-London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 19781, 11 1.

Child "letter," 197. The Bibliotheque Nationale's collection of drawings from the period of the Commune contains many representations of p&troleuses, all of whom are depicted in skirts or dresses.

Gibson, 293. Here, he is quoting a letter from a member of his congregation.

The phrases come from an editorial in the New York Herald, Sunday, 28 May 1871,

7. Although the writer went on at length about the behavior of the communardes, he thought that both women and men had given free rein to their worst instincts.

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