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Flora Tristan: precursor of feminism and proletarian emancipation

category international | gender | opinion / analysis author Sunday March 08, 2015 16:39author by Nahuel Valenzuela - Periódico Solidaridad Report this post to the editors

Flora Célestine Thérèse Henriette Tristán y Moscoso Lesnais (1803-1844) was a French writer of Peruvian descent. Little known in official historiography, probably intentionally forgotten because of the rebellion and desire for freedom that emanates from her writings. Among her works were Peregrinations of a Pariah (1839), Promenades in London (1840) and the booklet The Workers' Union (1843). [Castellano]

Flora Tristan: precursor of feminism and proletarian emancipation

"Experience and facts tell you well enough that government cannot or will not deal with your lot when it comes to improving it. It depends solely on you, if you wish it strongly enough, to get out of the labyrinth of misery, pain and submission in which you languish".
Flora Tristan, 1843

Flora Célestine Thérèse Henriette Tristán y Moscoso Lesnais (1803-1844) was a French writer of Peruvian descent. Little known in official historiography, probably intentionally forgotten because of the rebellion and desire for freedom that emanates from her writings. Among her works were Peregrinations of a Pariah (1839), Promenades in London (1840) and the booklet The Workers' Union (1843).

After the sudden death of her father, an exiled Peruvian colonel, she remained with his mother in the most abject poverty, forced to become part of the daily lives of working people. This experience led her afterwards into a deep commitment to those whom the social progress promised by capitalist modernity had abandoned to their fate.

In her time, although there was already a certain theoretical tradition that demanded equality for women, thanks to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the movements that took place during the French Revolution, there was still no comprehensive systematization of the ideas that would later give rise to feminist thinking as a doctrine. However, during the first half of the 19th century the demand for women's equality had already appeared and the notions of patriarchy were already beginning to be challenged more strongly, thereby contributing to the formulation of feminist theory, which was still in an embryonic state and its margins still quite blurred poorly delimited. Tristan was a pioneer who inserted herself into this trend, vehemently rejecting the false principle that affirmed the inferiority of the female nature, questioning the institution of marriage and the lack of civil, educational and economic rights for women.

The search for bridges between the concern for overcoming social inequality and the situation of oppression that women live under patriarchy, were a constant in the work and life of Flora Tristan. She was the first woman to try to merge the proto-feminist and social discourses into a critical synthesis, opening the way leading for the future shape of feminism of a proletarian class character, which finds it inconceivable that there exist oppressed women who are capable of oppressing other women.

During the period in which Tristan was working, radical changes in the European continent came about, due to the implementation of the capitalist mode of production, the resulting modernization and industrialization of society and the spread of egalitarian-democratic ideology by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. However, expectations of well-being generated at first collided head-on with reality. The imminent material progress that would come to everyone and the end of scarcity and poverty advocated by the modern discourse vanished into the air and, conversely, even greater inequality and exploitation for large masses of human beings was created. Women were excluded from the most basic rights and the proletariat, increasingly numerous, fell completely outside of the wealth produced in factories and workshops.

Against this background various social reformers began to create ideal social systems to correct the ills of this society; Cabet, Owen, Saint Simon and Fourier were some of the first theorists to call themselves "socialists". Marx would later add the adjective "utopian" to them, due to the almost blind confidence they possessed in the regenerating power of education, to their extreme pacifism, and to their naive confidence of redemption of the bourgeois class.

Flora, a daughter of her time, was strongly influenced by this stream of social thought. But despite this, she managed to go a step further - she was the first to say that the proletariat must unite as a class and free itself, that is to say, rely on its own strength. It was an idea that Marx would later incorporate in the famous slogan of the First International: "the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves" and that would be claimed by the international anarchist movement to the present day.

Undoubtedly, Flora Tristan was a vital link in the modern struggle against patriarchal domination and capitalism. That is why we remember her. Her thinking was key to the birth of the revolutionary-tinted feminist movement that emerged forcefully in an organized way in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today in the 21st century, women are still struggling for their autonomy and reproductive rights and, with other social forces, continue in the gigantic task of building the new society.

Nahuel Valenzuela

Article published in Periódico Solidaridad, March-April 2015, No. 27. Solidaridad is a Libertarian Communist journal published in Chile.

Translation to English by Alternativa Libertaria/FdCA - International Relations Office.

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