Louise Michel & the Radical Women of the 19th Century with Dr. Steve Shone
Gary: Today’s episode is an interview I conducted with Dr. Steve Shone on his new book, Women of Liberty. Dr. Shone received his Ph.D from the University of California, Riverside, in 1992. He has taught at a number of colleges, including Winona State University, Gonzaga University and the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
He is the author of Lysander Spooner, American Anarchist and was a contributor to the Sage Handbook of Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery. His new book examines the lives and ideas of ten radical feminist and anarchist thinkers from around the world. This episode focuses on French anarchist Louise Michel, who lived an incredible life of protest and revolt. Born out of wedlock in a small village in 1830. She became a teacher and opened a school in Paris. She taught underprivileged children while participating in women’s rights groups and developing a philosophy of civil disobedience. She became a leader during the Paris Commune and advocated for women’s equality. After the commune was suppressed, she was exiled to New Caledonia for ten years. Upon returning to France in 1880, she traveled across Europe lecturing about anarchism and feminism. On one of her trips. She was shot by a disgruntled clown, yet still managed to finish her speech. She died in Marseilles in 1905, and her funeral was attended by perhaps tens of thousands of people, if not more. Michel influenced many feminists and anarchists around the world. Among them, Noe Ito, a Japanese feminist of the post Meiji Period. While this interview focuses on Michel and who she influenced as this is a French history podcast, the book includes nine other major women thinkers and activists, including Noe Ito, Rose Pasada, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Katie Stanton, Molly Steimer, Lewis Waysbroker, Mercy Otis Warren and Victoria C. Woodhull. Please enjoy.
Gary: So what inspired you to look at anarchist and radical women during this period?
Shone: Well, I think there’s a problem with political theory and political science in general that we don’t seem to take a look at feminist and political science research and we don’t take a look at anarchism either. And, you know, a lot of people think political theory is finished. So, it doesn’t fit well with the rest of political science. But part of the problem is when we teach the history of political theory, it’s called the old white guys from the US and the UK, from Greece and Rome. There is not really any attempt to look at different factors. So that’s the motivation. That was the motivation for, that was the inspiration for another book called American Anarchism. And, you know, the I’m doing the same thing, which is looking at people who’ve been forgotten. Is it worth thinking about? And also this time I decided just to focus on women. So there are nine people in American Anarchism. Two of them were women. And this time there are ten women and women of liberty. So that’s really, it’s partly because I feel that political theory doesn’t function properly anymore. And it’s part of political science which is obsessed with voting as if voting had something to do with democracy. I’ve never noticed them explaining why voting is all about democracy. It seems like political science is a dead discipline.
Gary: All right. Well, hopefully you can revive it. You did do an incredible thing, which is you looked at ten women from all across the world. There’s European women. There’s women operating in North America. And also, you deal with radicals in Japan. Because you deal with women from all across the world. Was looking at such a broad topic. A challenge for you? And how did you deal with it?
Shone: Well, you know, obviously it’s going to take a long time. It took four years to do the research, and if you think about the level of analysis, we’re using one chapter to explain each person. So there’s a tremendous amount of reading that goes into it. You know, it’s not something you can just throw out there. But once you’re willing to do that, then it isn’t really a problem at all. The other thing to think about is that some of the information, say on Victoria Woodhull, there are lots of books about it, but sensationally this sensationalized her. They are not really academic books. So the situation is different with Mollie Steimer, there’s not that much. She didn’t write books. But there are letters. There are court cases. There are people who’ve written about it, so it’s, each one is not necessarily the same as the predecessor.
Gary: So your book deals with ten women across the world who became radical feminist and antiauthoritarian figures. We’re going to focus on Louise Michel, since this is a French podcast, but you do a good job of showing the interconnections between many of these women across the world. So we’re going to talk a bit about some others as we go on. But for my first question, let’s look at how a woman develops into a radical. Can you give us the backstory on Louise Michel before her involvement in the Paris Commune?
Shone: Yeah, well, she was illegitimate. She was a household servant starter. She wasn’t sure who her father was. She was poor and she saw for herself, her farm workers, and farm animals were overworked. She identified with the local Celtic kind of ideology. The area had Celtic roots. Local people spoke French with Celtic intonation. And she resisted being married off at the age of 12. She was a teacher who was able to be educated because of the way that the family in whose house she lived treated her. So, she was able to become a teacher and she was very intelligent. So she was often ‘other’ you know, she was ‘other’ to the mainstream national government in France. Therefore, she was sort of raised to be revolutionary.
Gary: One fascinating thing about this book is that it looks at how life experiences shaped these women’s ideologies. So often the biographies of influential male thinkers from the Enlightenment to Marx depict them as developing their ideas from pure a theory based in academia and gloss over their personal lives. Since academia was largely closed to women during this time, I imagine writing about women thinkers involved more research into their personal correspondence and lives than academic papers. Care to tell us about the challenges and opportunities presented by researching these thinkers who are more active in their communities than their male counterparts?
Shone: It’s interesting. Kropotkin argues that many major inventions were not made by academics at all, but rather by people who worked with our hands. He talks about Thomas Telford, a civil engineer who built roads and canals. James Watt, who improved the steam engine. And so it does raise that question why people study engineering or anything else in a university, you know, makes us ask what the role of the university is, an increase in knowledge. And as I said, Michel was lucky because she had access to formal education because her, quote, “grandparents”, unquote, chose to treat her like a grandchild. But other people that I talk about in other chapters, Elizabeth Katie Stanton was unable to move from high school to union college. Margaret Sanger started working, never went to Cornell as she planned, Victoria C. Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin probably received only about three years of formal schooling. Lois Westbrook was only able to train to be a teacher after poverty. It forced her to give up her kids for adoption. But on the other hand, all ten wrote political and autobiographical books and articles. Many wrote letters. Some wrote poetry. Michel wrote a number of books and articles, although many of them didn’t survive. She wrote a biography and many poems. Also another thing to take into account, in the case of Elizabeth Katie Stanton, there’s a lot of materials. But that hasn’t stopped her being pretty much ignored because she was seen as being too radical, because she presented the Bible as a sexist document. You really have to use whatever is available. And fortunately, I was able to do that.
Gary: Yes. Well, I’m always up for a bashing universities. But moving on from that just a bit. So let’s get into her ideas themselves. How would you describe her philosophy? What were its major points?
Shone: Well, if you think about the commune, how it came about in the spring of 1871, many people on the left wanted to replace capitalism with something kinder. And this included both Marxists and anarchists who were both very much in favor of the commune. Pressure had defeated France with Paris surrendering in January of 1871. So there was a new government, a new national government, but it was heavily influenced by monarchists.
So the citizens of Paris, they had a rare opportunity to revolt, which they did with little violence. Then they held their own elections. One of the things they really wanted to do. And definitely Michel was part of this was to remove the Catholic Church from the education system, to have separation of church and state. Secularism that still exists in France. For Kropotkin, it was a case of peaceful rebellion by the people. It was a unique revolt which sprang from the people’s hearts. It wasn’t something deliberately planned. It was just something that felt right to many. For Marx the commune was significant because it was the first time that the working class had staged a revolt. And therefore it pointed the way for future revolutions. At the time of a trial when the national government crushed the economy, Louise just wanted to die. She had a friend, maybe had a relationship with Fairfield. She goaded the court to kill her. She said, “if you’re not cowards, kill me.” So being exiled after it was not the outcome that she foresaw. In the new order that Michel and the other communards wanted to bring about. She encouraged women to just take positions not to wait for a man to give them to them. And of course, that was how she lived her life, too. We should also note she cared about animals when she came back from New Caledonia. She smuggled five of her cats on the ships. You know, since he’s known very much for not only caring about poor people, but caring about animals.
Gary: Yeah. I can’t even imagine how she managed to do that without getting caught because cats are not the quietest things. In fact, before this interview, I had put my cat away because it was meowing at the door. So in any case, Michel joined the Paris Commune with gusto. But at times it seems like it didn’t quite meet her ideological expectations, as women had separate vigilance committees from men and often had to perform traditional roles as nurses and teachers. Can you elaborate on what she appreciated and oppose within the Paris commune?
Shone: Well, certainly she believes that the education system in France in general had the effect of training women to be less intelligent and less equal. The man, just like Elizabeth Katie Stanton, she argued that women in traditional occupations, looking after kids, making meals had limited mental proficiency. This is not a, you know, a standard feminist argument. But but she felt the women had been brainwashed into thinking that running households was womens natural role. And this meant that they settled for domination by man. You can also find that argument and Mary Wollstonecraft and it’s quite different from today’s contemporary libertarian feminists who say women will always have different lives because they give birth. But Michel is more radical. Her position also is more compatible on education with, that of the German anarchist Max Steiner, who believes that education should be about individual self development, not memorizing what teachers tell you, that they’re being successfully educated is to reject all authority but your own. You can maybe think of Sartre too, when will you make that argument.
Gary: Yeah, that’s quite a interesting thing to reject all authority. And on that note, I think that in order to be considered a truly great thinker, one has to be exiled at some point or another. It happened to Bakunin, Lenin, and Michel. How did Michel’s ten years in New Caledonia affect her and her ideas?
Shone: Well, I’m not sure I agree with you that Lenin was a great thinker, more of a mass murder maybe. But Michelle didn’t expect to arrive in New Caledonia. But the once she got there, she spent a time trying to help the native people there, the Kanaks. She learned the language, she taught the kids. She supported them in their political goals. He even supported them in an uprising that took place when she was, which put her on the opposite side to the other deportees. You know, she was always radical. And she also took the opportunity to study the flowers and the geography there. She wrote a book about them and about the culture and history of the Kanaks people, including the music. She hung out with some of the Algerian prisoners who’d also been dumped there in the middle of nowhere. And she also became more of an anarchist rather than a Marxist by talking to other prisoners, by reading Proudhon.
Gary: So that’s interesting. So after her exile, she returns to France in 1880 after a clemency is granted to former members of the Commune and spent the last fifteen years of her life lecturing across Europe. How was she received by various countries and communities during this period?
Shone: While she was often watched by the police, she spent time in jail for being involved in demonstrations and so on. A lot of the time she was working with disadvantaged Jewish people and White Chapel area of London. There is disagreement. René Giroud a friend of Michel who visited Algeria with her in 1904 wrote a book about her, La Bonne Louise, in which he said, her life is virtually zero from 1890 to 1895. But it depends what you look at in London with Kropotkin she founded on an anarchist school in 1890. Unfortunately, the school hired Auguste Colomb, paid for by the police to disrupt anarchists. They hired him as an English teacher. So probably wasn’t the best move. And it led to the school closing down. She also got involved with symbolists and decadence, admiring them for challenging accepted literary and artistic norms. But our own poetry was much more mainstream and it didn’t fit well with what they were doing, kind of from the literary perspective. So she moved away from then intellectually.
Gary: So there’s a fascinating story you tell about how she was shot while giving a speech, but then continued to deliver it, something which I only know Theodore Roosevelt did. Care to tell our listeners about that episode?
Shone: In 1888, she was giving a speech in Le Havre and a man called Pierre Lucas, a former circus clown who was an enemy of anarchism, shot her twice, wounding her in the ear, and then the audience beat him up. But Louise claimed that they were only blanks that he’d fired. She continued her address, she spoke up on his behalf, refused to file charges against him. And it’s worth noticing that another anarchist around the same time Voltairine de Cleyre refused to prosecute one of her students. Herman Helcher who shot at her, you know, a little bit later in 1902, and I think what’s similar between the de Cleyre and Michel is they didn’t seek vengeance for slights and attacks because like many anarchists, they felt that crime and violence are societal problems, not individual problems. You know, today we tend to blame the homeless. We don’t notice the 10 percent of all the poor people have left California in the last couple of years because there’s no housing. You know, many of the ways that we look at things to view the individual like a homeless person, as being a drunk or being lazy. We don’t realize there’s a shortage in the housing supply. And generally anarchists, including Michel, would make that distinction in her writing,
Gary: Certainly. So there is quite a lot to unpack there. And one thing which I want to talk about is how Michel lived a life of paradoxes. On the one hand, she wasn’t allowed to attend her own mother’s funeral, but her own funeral in 1985 attracted at least 50,000 people. Do you think that her ideas had become popular or was it just that she was this renowned figure herself?
Shone: Well, I’m not sure you can separate those two things. She was poor, but she was educated. She came from nowhere. But she had a tremendous influence. She was a symbol. And she thought of today as France’s greatest revolutionary. For decades, people on the left viewed her as a role model because she, more than anyone else, typified the spirit of the communards. She was known as “La Mère Louise” So she herself and her ideas were fused. And I think it’s also true. Many of the people who admired her knew little of the specifics of a thought, which is still true today.
Gary: That is interesting. All right. So I want to expand this a little more, because obviously we have focused on Michel’s life and the French part of your book. But your book is really fantastic because it looks at ten different anarchists women from across the world from numerous different cultures. And it looks at the interconnections and similarities between women thinkers. So how did Michel impact other feminists and anarchists in France and around the world?
Shone: Well, definitely she was a role model for Emma Goldman. Goldman, in turn, has become a role model for, you know, pretty much everyone who is an anarchist. So that’s a tremendous influence. And she worked when she was in London with Kropotkin and Erico Malatesta and other anarchists. But maybe she also didn’t specifically have an influence in the sense that people read what she wrote, partly because a lot of what she wrote is, isn’t there? You know, she wrote poems and she wrote an autobiography that is definitely an account of what it was like as a departure. But she didn’t write a book extolling the virtues of feminist theory or of anarchism. So it’s only since the 1960s that academic researchers have gone back and looked at the things she did right, which still exist. And they pieced together some of the theories. But, you know, even then, of course, because this is the academic world. A lot of disagreement between scholars as to what she really thought.
Gary: If you ask two academics for an opinion, you’ll get three. So in any case, I was particularly interested in learning about people that she inadvertently influenced. So, for example, Louise Michel inspired Russian born North American based anarchist Emma Goldman, as you mentioned. But then she in turn influenced Japanese thinker Ito Noe. Can you explain how Michel’s ideas traveled from France to Japan?
Shone: Well, in 1895, Goldman traveled to London to meet Michel. They appeared on stage together at a rally. And so definitely Goldman admired Michel very much as someone of an earlier generation. And if you think about Goldman, was Goldman also an outsider? Know she was from the Russian empire, but technically she was from the pale of settlement. She was from Lithuania. She was curious. Her partner, Alexander Berkman, who was also from Lithuania. He could go to Petersburg and speak Russian in a way that he would pass as a Russian. But Goldman didn’t speak Russian that way. So she he couldn’t pass, It was more obviously, a Lithuanian, too. So, you know, right at the beginning of her life, she was always second class citizen in the Russian Empire. I don’t know if Ito was familiar with Michel. So it’s the connection is unclear That clearly other European anarchists and feminists, including Kropotkin, Steiner, Henrik Ibsen, Margaret Sanger, had been translated and they were read by radicals in Japan, Edo and her first husband translated some of Goldman’s writings and also Ibsen’s plays or who were honest in Tokyo. So definitely was a lot of influence. There also is a chapter about Margaret Sanger. I point out she actually visited Japan to try to get people to think about contraception. And it was difficult for her even to get it. But eventually they let her in. So she had she had an influence on thinking in Japan a hundred years ago.
Gary: Yeah. That is truly incredible. And I like how your book and so many historical works today emphasize transnationalism and a global connections. So do you think there was a universality to Michelle’s ideas and those of the other female thinkers during this time? And perhaps as an example? Can you tell us a bit how Ito Noe had to adapt her ideas for a Japanese audience?
Shone: Well, I mean, both Louise and Noe were anarchists, feminists, and certainly there’s a universality to both of those belief systems, which, as I argued right at the beginning, should be studied much more and thought about. Much more should be present in classes and political theory or political philosophy. And, you know, there may be of more value today because of the failure of governments, which we see all around us. Neither Louise or Noe were really willing to compromise. Michel wanted to die for the commune. She asked to be executed and Ito did die because of her beliefs after martial law was declared in 1923, at least indirectly due to the Japanese government, maybe directly, she was murdered because of her beliefs. But although the Japanese government resisted women’s rights, resisted anarchism and socialism at that time, it wasn’t really able to silence her. People will go to jail and then read the works of Kropotkin and Goldman. So far from being successful, you reach a point eventually in the 1970s where there’s a strong feminist movement.
Gary: Fascinating. And I do like that note that now is the best time to get into
anarchism to all those listening. This is a perfect time. So we’ve covered Louise, Michel and Ito Noe, but what other feminist thinkers particularly interested you in the writing of this book?
Shone: Well, all ten fascinate me because they have important ideas. As I’ve been saying, they’re missing from the way we explain history of political philosophy pretty much, except in women’s studies classes. Obviously, there’s attention given to many of the women. But that raises the question, why are they missing in political science and history and philosophy classes. And, you know, as I said before, they’re important because I don’t think voting has anything to do with democracy and the presence of Trump in the White House to make people much more skeptical. You know, even if they were strongly in favor of it in the past of the importance of it. Well, one person I could talk about is Margaret Sanger, who wanted to promote contraception, to liberate women’s lives. And she reacted against the Catholic Church’s view that sex should only be to try to have a child. And she realized that sex could be a much more important part of women’s lives, not just lying there with a drunken man on top. That actually could be something that women could learn to enjoy. You know, that view of the Catholic Church, that sex should only be to have a baby and therefore contraception shouldn’t be allowed. You know, we find Texas Senator Ted Cruz making that same argument today. It’s sort of hard to believe, but true. And so the Catholic Church went after Sanger and tried to claim that she was wanting to kill black babies, you know, but really their goal was to keep the second class citizens not withstanding all the lies that they told about a saw in my book in that chapter. I have a somewhat different opinion, as you can imagine. I refer to her as the scientist of human salvation. You know, in other words, she wanted to get everyone in the world committed to the idea that the only kids born would be the ones that would be looked after and wouldn’t be hungry and would have parents who cared about. And I think that makes it one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.
Gary: Well, we’ve covered so much today. Archaism, killer clowns, sex and
radicalism. I want to thank you very much for this fascinating talk. And thank you for being
with us, Dr. Shone.
Shone: You’re very welcome.