Firestarters: Insurgent Women in the Insurrection of Southern Martinique and the Paris Commune

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Six months before the Paris Commune, Black people of South Martinique revolted against the newly created Third Republic’s colonialism. Jacqueline Couti describes the two revolts on both sides of the Atlantic through the specific concept of state misogyny that murdered, criminalized and deported women of the Commune and the South Insurrection.

Article published in The Funambulist 34 (March-April 2021) The Paris Commune & the World. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

A few months before the Paris Commune of Spring 1871, a challenge to the French Empire-turned-Third Republic came not from its European heart but, rather, from one of its oldest colonies: Martinique. On September 22, 1870, oppressed working-class citizens in the Martinican countryside took to the streets (and fields) to revolt against the bourgeois status quo and profiteering, crying out for equality, respect, and true democracy. Martinican women stood at the forefront with their fellow insurgents, not only daring to dream of a better and more just world, but demanding it.

In her 2000 play Lumina Sophie dite Surprise, about Martinican women’s participation in the 1870 Insurrection of Southern Martinique, Suzanne Dracius calls the women “Pétroleuses of the South.” The anachronistic use of the term Pétroleuse (female arsonist and pyromaniac), for rural women of African descent fighting for equality, better working conditions, and social justice erases their Creole identity. In the early days of the French Third Republic, Martinican women were the first to embrace insurrectionist militancy and the grassroots movement against oppression. In fact, the idea of the Pétroleuse also flattens the different experiences of women from the elite and the proletariat who participated in the Paris Commune (March 18–May 28, 1871), whose detractors wielded that term as a slur to demonize Communardes as unruly and a menace to society, and to minimize their political engagement.

Comparing the rhetoric labelling insurrectionists as unruly “viragoes” and rejects from both sides of the Atlantic reveals Martinique to be a magnifying glass that amplifies not only French oppression and racism but also misogyny and classism. The interplay of gender, race, and class in colonial repression of women in the aftermath of the 1870 Insurrection foreshadowed the reactionary backlash that followed the 1871 Paris Commune. The present text calls attention to an intriguing process of othering and dehumanization which at fleeting moments becomes visible in the expression of a masculine suspicion of women that hides a deep-seated fear and hatred. This misogynistic leeriness, which can be found both among Martinican men and Frenchmen from the continent, is integral to the French state. This mistrust hides a controlling set of bourgeois biases that restrict women to the roles of submissive mother and wife for the greater good of the nation. Women who dare to break free from the shackles of their purported gender roles generate a visceral hatred — what can be termed a national misogyny — that always demands retribution for perceived transgressions.