Originally published on Komundergi, written by Asli Polat.
The women‘s communes “les Pétroleuses*”
In the spring of the year 1871 in Paris.. In the popular uprising known as the Paris Commune the participation of women was very high. Typically, women were seen as those who carry medicines, canned foods or other supply to the front. Men were dominant on the front, but many women took up arms in the same way. Some were seen as brave, female lions, some were regarded as ugly dragons. One which was often talked about, was Pétroleuse, a woman arsonist. It is not clear whether she was really existing or not. But the organisation which was founded in April 1871 „The union of the women for the defense of Paris“ was reporting on the need of „procurement of gasoline and weapons for the fighting women of Paris“. Some government buildings are burned down during the last week, of the commune, the “Semaine Sanglante” Bloody Week, where tens of thousands have been massacred. During these days, women were often seen accompanied by their children carrying gas canisters.
Illiterate women, crazy women: Arsonists were found in the devil women body. This is why all the women participating in the commune were labeled as arsonists. Finally only a few women were charged with arsonry and all were denying the crime.
These women – and others who were waiting for their trials in a prison in Versailles – were immortalized by a photographer named Eugène Appert.
The Paris Commune trials started in Versailles on August 7 1871 ten weeks after the bloody week between May 21 and 28. Since the declaration of martial law on April 7 1871 all the trials were processed by the military court. According to a statistic report of General Félix Antoine Appert from 1875 the government would have in January 1872 arrested 38.499 people, prosecuted 10.488 and let 8.535 people free. From the 1.051 women which were brought to Versailles 168 were prosecuted in front of a military court. While most women were released because the witnesses could not identify them, 5 women from the working class were tried for arsonry.
Elisabeth Retiffé : She was a cardboard worker and during the time of the Commune worked as cook there. She was sentenced to death. This sentence was turned into exile and a long imprisonment by the court.
Eugénie (Léontine) Suétens: She was a washer and already before one year in prison for theft. She was also sentenced to death. This sentence was turned into exile and a long imprisonment by the court.
Eulalie Papavoine: She was working in the sewers. During the time of the Commune she was medic. She was not sentenced to death, because her criminal record was empty.
Joséphine-Marguerite Marchais: She was day laborer and cook during the time of the Commune. She was also sentenced to death. This sentence was turned into exile and a long imprisonment by the court.
Joséphine- Lucie Bocquin: She was also day laborer and got a ten year prison sentence. She was not sentenced to death because her criminal record was empty.
Louise Michel: Teacher. Together with André Léo, Elizabeth Dmietrieff and Paule Minck she was escaping, but as the famoust women from the women communes she was tried on December 17 1871. She was refusing a lawyer as legal defense and defended herself on court. She took the responsibilities for the actions of the Commune and defended it in this way. She was sentenced to exile.
* Pétroleuses: Women artisans. The name was given to women accused of setting fire to Paris during the bloody week (21-28 May 1871) by the government of Versailles.