Intermediations: Bringing together feminism and socialism in First International.
The examples of Virginie Barbet, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, André Léo and Victoria Woodhull
Vortrag beim Kolloquium »150 Jahre Internationale Arbeiterassoziation«, 19./20. Juni 2014 in Paris
The International Workingmen’s Association was a predominantly, if not only, male organization – at least as far as its leading members or its international congresses were concerned.
This was not as self-evident as it might seem. After all, women had been participating actively and in large numbers in earlier so called „utopian” socialist movements. The second half of the 19th century saw the emerging of various feminist groups and organizations, focusing mainly on the promotion of women’s access to the labour market. Other International organizations of the time, such as the League of Peace and Freedom, had numerous female members as well as women speakers at their congresses.
However, the First International was not only male-dominated, it even showed a clearly anti-feminist image, at least in its first years. The proudhonist leaders in France were strongly opposed to paid work for women and even any female activity outside the household, which is quite clearly in opposition to contemporary feminism. This position was at least partly written into the resolutions which were officially adopted by the first two Congresses in Genève and Lausanne.
So not only our emancipated perspective from the 21st century sees the International as anti-feminist. Most women activists of the time also did.
But despite this, some female socialists decided to take an active role in the International. How did they combine both feminism and socialism in their political ideas?
In my dissertation, published 15 years ago, I discuss the political ideas of four women activists:
*Virginie Barbet, one of the leaders of the International in Lyon and member of the Bakunist Alliance of Socialist Democracy (I have no picture of her);
*Elisabeth Dmitrieff, one of the leaders of the Russian Section in Genève and co-founder of the Union de Femmes during the Paris Commune (on the right);
*André Léo, Paris-located author and advocator of women’s rights, supporter and critic of the Commune and later leading figure in the protests against the “authoritarian” way of the General Council (in the middle);
*Victoria Woodhull, controversial leader of the American suffrage movement, who co-founded the first English-speaking sections in New York, but was expelled from the International at the Hague-Congress of 1872 (on the left).
I am very grateful for being invited to this conference, even though I had hoped my research would be somewhat outdated by now. However, it seems that still little attention is being paid to gender issues related to the First International or to its female activists.
And this is something which I can partly understand. I myself at first struggled with what I had found out about my protagonists.
When I started my research, I somehow wanted to find a “female” voice in all this male labour movement thing. But even though those four women were highly involved in the movement, I could not really identify what they stood for. How did their positions challenge the male dominance? What were their opinions on the “big questions” being discussed under the roof of the First International?
Compared to the “great” polemic texts of the male Internationalists, those women seemed somewhat inconsistent. They didn’t really fit into the lines of interpretations that are usually used to classify the International’s protagonists, such as Marxists or Anarchists for instance. So, perhaps that was the reason why researchers of the International didn’t find them so interesting.
By the way: The same was true for feminist researchers on women’s history. They also showed no interest in these women as they did not represent strong voices for classical women’s rights arguments either – such as the right to vote for instance.
The only interesting thing seemed to be the fact itself: that they were members of the International despite being feminists.
Only when I was ready to admit that – and it took me a while – I realized that this was not a banal observation at all.
Why had they, being feminists, become members of the International in the first place?
Victoria Woodhull for instance. She is one of the few really non-bourgeois, non-middleclass voices in the history of socialism; you could even call her „Lumpenproletariat”. Born the seventh child to a family of petty thieves and con artists, she had earned her living for many years as a spiritual advisor and clairvoyant for both sexes but particularly for women. By doing so she became acquainted with the most basic life problems of the lower classes – poverty, childbearing, exploitation, early death, rape and so on.
Her shift into politics became possible when she fell in love with one of her clients, James Blood. He was an active member of the reform movements of those days. So, he helped Woodhull to bring her experiences and ideas into the political arena.
Soon after, she made a fortune by giving advice to multi-millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. She probably had insider information from some of her friends who worked as prostitutes for wealthy clients. With that money she did not only open the first female broker office at Wall street but also her own weekly newspaper.
Victoria Woodhull also paved her way into the organized feminist movements of her days. Those mostly middle-class feminists, however, did not receive her with arms wide open. They strongly doubted her “respectability”, and rightly so. Victoria Woodhull openly advocated free love, the abolition of marriage laws, and in no way did she confine her activism to suffrage alone. But when she managed to give a speech defending female suffrage in front of the Judiciary Committee in Washington, the suffrage movement could no longer ignore her and instead made her its leader and spokeswoman.
So, why did a woman like her join the First International? Why did she have the communist manifesto translated into English and published it in her Newspaper? Why did she co-found sections of the International in New York? Why did she organize a demonstration in honour of the Paris Commune? All of this only got her into further trouble with the bourgeois women’s rights movement.
We could ask similar questions of Virginie Barbet. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out a lot about her as a person – unlike the scandalous Victoria Woodhull, she didn’t make the newspapers headlines of her time. I don’t even know her date of birth.
But she must have been a rather important figure in the Lyon International. I stumbled upon her when I found some inconsistencies in the protocols of the Alliance of Socialist Democracy which lead to the conclusion that an important yet unsigned article in the journal “Egalité” (advocating the abolition of inheritance laws) almost certainly had been written by her, and not by Bakunin to whom it is usually contributed.
I became interested in who this woman was and how she had become involved. She probably first met Bakunin and his allies at the 1868 congress of the League of Peace and Freedom in Bern, where she gave a speech as the representative of the “Social Democrat Women of Lyon”, which is how she introduced herself.
It was at this congress that Bakunin and his friends split away from the Peace and Freedom League and founded their own organization, the Alliance, which would later join the First International. Barbets name is not listed among the initiating founders of the Alliance. But one year later, in June 1869, she would be listed as a “founding member of Lyon”. She published some interesting texts, on atheism for instance, or defending the International against Mazzini. And she supported and commented on a big strike of mostly female textile workers in the summer of 1869 that brought a lot of new members to the International – even though their demands were only half-heartedly supported.
So, prior to her involvement with the International, Virginie Barbet too had already been involved with the feminist movement. Together with Marie Richard – the mother of Albert Richard – she was a founding member of a feminist group in Lyon that advocated a rather “egalitarian” form of feminism and the abolition of all gender differences. It is a similar kind of gender-egalitarianism which we find in the Alliance’s programme.
Egalitarianism, we must know, was not mainstream in French feminism at the time. There was still a rather big impact of Saint Simonian feminism that had been prevailing in the first half of the century. The Saint Simonians tried to draw upon gender differences, for instance, they formed separate groups and structures for men and women and had a formal 50-per-cent quote for both genders in their leadership. Their argument was that because women were different from men they should have a voice in the decision-making process.
But due to the then upcoming anti-feminist ideology of “separate spheres”, which was driven forward by many male thinkers, particularly in France, focusing on gender differences became more and more dangerous for feminists. So, some of them shifted their line of arguments to a more egalitarian approach, although saint-simonian convictions still remained strong.
Another French feminist who represents this shift, while being far better known than Barbet, is André Léo. By the time she joined the International in the late 1860’s, she was a well-known author of novels with strong female characters. She also had been involved in various feminist organizations and activities prior to joining the International. For instance she was one of the principal founders of the Societé pour la Révendication des Droits de la Femme. In 1869 she published her theoretical book “Les femmes et les moeurs”.
And like Victoria Woodhull, her involvement with the International got her into conflict with her more “bourgeois” feminist allies. Actively supporting the Paris Commune isolated André Léo from the French women’s rights movement. But she did not evade conflict with either side. She criticized the feminists for not supporting social issues, but also those socialists that advocated militant and violent concepts of revolution. She publicly criticized the anarchist editors of “Egalité”, the journal of the Roman Swiss branches of the International, and later the Blanquists in the Commune. In opposition to them, she pointed out the necessity of instruction and deliberation, and insisted that the end does not justify the means.
And last but not least there is Elisabeth Dmitrieff, a young Russian, who played a leading role in the Russian Section in Genève. She was only 19 years old when she went to London to meet Karl Marx personally and then moved on to Paris where she founded the maybe largest women’s organization of the Commune.
She came from an entirely different background compared to the other three. Having been raised in an aristocratic family (although an illegitimate child), she formally married a male ally so she could leave Russia. She had been influenced by “Nihilist” feminism which was very different from Western feminism, mostly because the young Russians had never experienced the strong regiment of the “separate spheres” ideology. In non-industrialized Russia the difference of classes still outweighed the difference of sexes by far. So, the young, revolutionary, “emancipated” women with aristocratic self-esteem did not linger on what women could not do. They were convinced that women could do everything they wanted, if they only had the determination and willingness to do so. In that, by the way, Dmitrieff was similar to Victoria Woodhull who due to her lower-class-background was not held back by bourgeois concepts of womanhood either.
It is not hard to imagine, that some “clash of cultures” must have taken place in Paris, when this young, self-assured woman started to organize the “Union des Femmes” without consulting the opinions of the older feminists. Unfortunately, we have only some vague hints as to the nature and issues of those disputes.
Dmitrieff was not at all isolated in Paris. She had support from the Marxists in the International but also was an old friend and admirer of Anna Jaclard (the wife of Victor Jaclar), who had already been a friend back in Russia. And she had established a friendship with Benoit Malon, who by now had become the lover of André Léo.
So, there are many intersections between the feminist protagonists during the Commune, but also differences. For instance, neither André Léo nor Anna Jaclard joined Dmitrieffs Union. Why not? I am convinced that deeper research, particularly on those differences would be enlightening, but this has yet to be done, as far as I know.
So, what is the contribution of these four women to the history of socialism, to the history of the First International?
I would like to put forward an interpretation that takes into consideration the difficult relationship between socialism and feminism at the time.
As I’ve already pointed out, feminists were somewhat forced to shift their arguments from focusing on gender differences to focusing on gender equality. And maybe some of them moved one step further and decided to not only shift their arguments but also their actions.
They kind of infiltrated male political organizations in order to keep feminism “in”, not by arguing, but by simply being there. Perhaps this was the only way to handle this serious problem: the drifting apart of feminism and socialism.
The early socialist movements in the first half of the 19th century still had a broad agenda, including not only economics and politics but also culture and explicitly the relationships between women and men and children and new forms of family and community-building. On this basis, feminism and socialism weren’t considered as separate movements. After all, workers and women alike were being excluded from the rights of bourgeois men and suffered from the material consequences of a concept that defined “equality” as only a formal right.
But in the 1850’s, the issues and concerns of the feminist and socialist movements drifted further and further apart.
For the Women’s movement it was no longer about change in society, but equal rights with men: access to the labour market, reform of marriage laws, and the right to vote. And for the labour movement it was no longer new forms of living, working, and loving, but higher wages, political parties and other means to increase the political influence of workers.
So, both movements were losing the broader cultural perspective, and consequently, feminism and socialism lost their common ground. In the end, they often found themselves on opposite sides of the fence in defending either the interests of women or those of male workers. Feminist movements became anti-socialist, Socialist movements became anti-feminist.
A woman with a feminist agenda that joined a male-dominated labour organization made it out of that stalemate. She would criticize and contest that stalemate, not by writing yet another pamphlet or founding yet another party, but proving it wrong in action. She would leave the politics of positions and standpoints and start – or continue – a politics of relations.
Those women joined male spheres not in order to argue about women’s rights, but in order to bring their personal difference into play.
I call this “embodiment of politics”. Bringing a female body to places, where women are not expected and maybe not even be welcome, creates the necessity of mediations, that otherwise would not take place.
So, what seemed inconsistent and weak in matters of positions and straight opinions, now becomes reasonable. Those women did not want to carve out differences and standpoints. They wanted to keep social issues connected that in their opinion belonged together – socialism and feminism. They relied on acting in a concrete contingent situation, and therefore their positions and opinions would adapt to that situation and to the concrete persons involved. They did not act on principles, but on necessities in a given context.
By doing so they also challenged one of the main topoi of the time: that politics meant struggle between opponents and parties. Pointing out contradicting interests was a spreading strategy in labour and feminist movements alike – men against women, labour against capital.
By contesting this topos, the feminist socialists earned themselves the verdict of not being radical enough, and they earned it from their fellow socialists as well as from their fellow feminists.
But it was not a lack of radicalism, but faithfulness to the roots of the social movements, to keep a broader agenda – namely the common good, that included all aspects of life and did not consider some as more important than others. A point of view which, by the time of the International, was discredited as “utopian” in socialist ranks and as „naive” in feminist ones.
That doesn’t mean that those feminist socialists ignored or negated the real difficulties or contradictions. There really was antagonism in the interests of women and men or of capital and labour. Trying to negate this on a theoretical level would have truly been utopian or naïve.
But by opting for the politics of personal intermediations, they found another way: going to the places of the others and talk to them. Establishing relationships, staying in contact, instead of deepening the abyss by still one more sharp analysis. Searching for intermediations between what she is and wants right now and what the other is and wants; the concrete other that she has to deal with in a given context. That means negotiating, taking into consideration her own wishes and convictions as well as those of the other people involved, not in an abstract and theoretical manner, but concretely, here and now.
At least this is the lesson I have learned from those feminist socialists in the First International: that the concrete interactions and relations between activists are the center of politics, and not their fixed pamphlets, the consistency of their theories, or the standpoints they take. It is only in relations with others that we develop political ideas, and as valuable as texts, positions and viewpoints surely are, they are not what really matters in political activism.
And this lesson is, unsurprisingly, still true and relevant for social movements of today.
Thank you very much for your attention.