Carolyn J. Eichner is Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, specializing in modern France and empire, gender, race, political radicalism, and the politics of names. A 2022-2023 Fulbright Research Scholar (Paris), and a Spring 2023 Camargo Foundation Fellow, she has also held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her publications include Feminism’s Empire (Cornell University Press, 2022), The Paris Commune: A Brief History (Rutgers University Press, 2022), and Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (Indiana University Press, 2004), translated as Franchir les barricades: Les femmes dans la Commune de Paris (Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020) (Prix Augustin Thierry 2021 finalist).
The Paris Commune: The Long Shadow of France’s “Other” Revolution
At dawn on March 18th 1871, working-class Parisian women stepped between cannons and French soldiers, physically blocking the troops from removing the artillery from their neighborhood. The military men refused orders to fire on the women, and instead turned and arrested their leaders. This sparked the Paris Commune, France’s revolutionary civil war that shook the nineteenth century and shaped the twentieth.
The Commune emerged as a radically egalitarian democracy with multiple power centers. Communards, as the participants became known, undertook programs for greater political, economic, and cultural equity. Women remained formally disenfranchised, but wielded authority in powerful political clubs, labor associations, and vigilance committees. The 72-day radical experiment ultimately ended with the French army’s brutal slaughter of more than 15,000 Parisians in a week of bloody street battles.
The Commune represents for some the last insurgent burst of the French Revolution’s long wake, for others the first ‘successful’ socialist uprising, and for yet others a model for egalitarian political, socio-economic, and feminist change. Activists have referenced and incorporated its ideals into social and political movements across the world, throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Countless scholars in dozens of languages have examined the 1871 insurrection, taking positions ranging from exalting to damning this world-shaking event. Overturning hierarchies of class, religion, and gender, the Commune presented a concrete vision of alternate, more equitable possibilities.