Margaret Talbot. Feminist Studies. Volume 17, Issue 2. Summer 1991.
On an October afternoon in 1848, a season after the decisive defeat of the Parisian proletariat, approximately eight thousand workers gathered in a cemetery outside Bordeaux to witness the unveiling of a white marble column and to listen in reverent silence to a poem entitled “Let Us Be United.” They were there to honor the socialist and feminist Flora Tristan, mère-apôtre, “lost star of the social army,” who had died in Bordeaux four years earlier on the last leg of her tour of France. Her friend, Victor Considérant, an editor with Fourierist sympathies, invoked Tristan’s “noble boldness, that rough mission ended by a martyr’s death…a strange anomaly in an egoistic century which does not understand the ardors of a generous faith.” Three “worker-poets,” a carpenter, a cooper, and a tailor, came forward to address their comrades, many of whom had contributed to the ambitious subscription drive that subsidized the monument. What they had purchased was a truncated column, heavily draped in garlands of evergreen oak, below which were inscribed the words: “To the memory of Madame Flora Tristan, author of the Worker’s Union. The Grateful Workers. Liberty-Equality-Fraternity-Solidarity.” Tristan had wanted her body donated for dissection, then buried simply, like a pauper’s. Her followers envisioned her grave rather differently—as a shrine to which the faithful among the workers might return, weary pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal.
This posthumous demonstration of faith was an evocative distillation of Tristan’s ambiguous legacy: an apotheosis that nearly eclipsed the humble graveside injunction to unite. My consideration of Tristan is primarily concerned with such tensions between the real and the allegorical in a social movement galvanized by a richly symbolic language of gender. This essay suggests that utopian socialism’s preoccupation with particular symbols of social regeneration—especially that of the redeeming woman, or femme-messie—created a unique forum in which women like Tristan might speak and be heard. But although Tristan cast herself in the dynamic roles of union organizer and social investigator at least as often as that of femme-messie, her utopian brethren and working-class following responded to her chiefly as an incarnation of the utopian allegory.
Although Dominique Desanti, Claire Goldberg Moses, S. Joan Moon, and Stephanie Michaud have all written insightfully about Tristan’s contributions to French feminism, her links to the Saint-Simonians, and her life as an engagé, they have been less concerned than I will be here with the peculiar fit between Tristan’s imaginative self-fashioning and the dominant metaphors of utopian socialism, between her compulsion to speak and the utopians’ binding need to hear her as the woman-messiah.
In a recent article, Joan Scott characterized “gender” as
a way not only to distinguish men from women, but to identify (and contrast) abstract qualities and characteristics…. These qualities and characteristics are encoded as masculine and feminine, they do not correlate exactly with what real men and women can do. Yet they are not entirely unrelated to social roles either, because they provide some of the concepts that set rules, that articulate limits and possibilities for the behavior of women and men. Gender thus provides conceptual language and is created by and through that language.
This analysis reminds us how malleable the social meanings of femininity can be over time and across the ideological spectrum. In France in the 1830s and 1840s, for example, utopian socialists assigned value to femininity because, for them, it came to embody certain abstract qualities: cooperation, social harmony, the transcendence of the striving self and the fractious marketplace—in short, an idealized antidote to economic individualism. The figure of the woman-messiah stood, metonymically, for a social solution. But within the Saint-Simonian movement, this allegorical representation of women had a more literal correlate, for it sanctioned women’s participation even as it circumscribed their influence. As we shall see, the utopian appropriation of gender as metaphor shaped Flora Tristan’s public and private life and was in turn shaped by it.
Born in Paris in 1803, Tristan came of political age in the efflorescence of utopian socialism. She took inspiration from Fourier’s emphasis on “the woman question” and his vision of communal phalanstères that would escape both the drudgery and isolation of single-family households and the inefficiency and inequity of the competitive workplace. Tristan could build on—and diverge from—his analysis of égoisme as a moral and ideological phenomenon with particular economic entailments, embrace the Saint-Simonian exaltation of useful labor and the rights of the producer over the otiose privileges of inherited wealth. Like the renegade Saint-Simonian feminists, she could both sustain a running critique of “père” Enfantin and his hierarchical organization of disciples and contribute to the socialist literature on alienated labor, with which the young Marx, arriving in Paris in 1843, felt obliged to contend.
But Tristan also responded to the economic convulsions of the July Monarchy (1830-48), the period in which, in the words of the historian David Owen Evans, “the French economy is creating its first heavy industries and transport system, draining off capital in a vast initial outlay, profitable only to a later generation, and imposing strains and stresses on the nation generally.” The accelerating pace of French industrial capitalism in the 1830s and 1840s, and especially the displacement of skilled workers by mechanized production, provoked waves of strikes in Paris and Lyons and insured the diffusion of cooperativist ideas. Tristan was twenty-eight in 1831 when the canuts of Lyons rose in armed revolt against their masters, following massive layoffs, deep wage cuts, and a ban on workers’ associations. In 1840, she was in Paris for an explosion of strikes and arrests among tailors, shoemakers, haberdashers, masons, woodworkers, and tanners. From the late 1830s on, she could read a Parisian working-class press in which socialist ideas (defined here as the advocacy of some form of workers’ control, ranging from rudimentary cooperatives to joint ownership of the means of production) were regularly, and heatedly, aired.
Tristan’s particular contribution, in her life and her writings, was to bridge the chasm between the spiritually charged precepts of utopian socialism and the organized workers’ movement. Her feminism mediated that connection. Like Fourier and his followers, Tristan adopted a pivotal preoccupation with women’s lot. Utopian socialism had already integrated demands for sexual emancipation into its critique of capitalism as well as its bluerints for the New Jerusalem. But Tristan also diverged from these models. Her proposals for the amelioration of women’s status were unconnected to any mystical invocations of an androgynous “third sex” or to the quest for a sacerdotal couple to reconcile the demands of flesh and spirit. For the Saint-Simonians (even for “père” Enfantin, committed as he was to sexual emancipation and to women as its corporeal instruments), women were, above all, symbols of reconciliation. Saint-Simonian feminism was thus inseparable from both its social pacifism and its critique of capitalism at a particular historical moment.
For his part, Fourier not only insisted on the power of women as agents of social regeneration, but he also offered a sympathetic analysis of the burdens of housework, linking their unequal distribution to women’s subordination within the family. Yet Fourier’s famous equation of women’s status with society’s general progress had a distinctly metaphorical cast to it, broadly connoting the treatment of the weak by the strong, the triumph of rational culture over brute nature. Fourier had reified a scheme of history in which the ponderous shifting of epochs discharged—indeed required—telltale signs of progress. But, as Juliet Mitchell has argued, this appropriation of “the woman question” as sign risks according “the problem a universal importance at the cost of depriving it of specific substance.”
By contrast, Tristan’s synthesis of socialism and feminism proposed an organized movement of women and workers in which the establishment of sexual equality and the self-emancipation of the working class would be concomitant and mutually sustaining goals. Tristan certainly was not the only woman among the utopians to bristle at Fourier’s metaphorical reveries or Enfantin’s immobilizing mysticism. Nor was she the only one to challenge these transcendental visions with plans for collective action. As Claire Goldberg Moses has shown, the women who met and organized around the Tribune des Femmes newspaper, Saint-Simonians like Suzanne Voilquin and Pauline Roland, experimented with an autonomous feminism as early as 1832. “Recognizing that Saint-Simonian feminism was imbued with a masculine perspective,” Moses explains, “they struggled to link a feminist vision to the reality of women’s experience and to define a feminism that, unlike Enfantin’s, would lead to action.”
But Tristan probably was the figure most ensnared by utopian socialism’s Hobbesian choice of allegory or agency. Like the Saint-Simonian feminists, Tristan objected to the appropriation of women as symbols rather than as active participants in the socialist movement. Unlike them, she was willing, for both tactical and psychological reasons, to adopt various charismatic personas, including that of the femme-messie. Her exotic, vaguely Eastern appearance, her solitary life and ecstatically martyred tones, her apparent renunciation of the temptations of the flesh, and her complicity in her own apotheosis led workers throughout France to greet her as the redeeming woman incarnate, a sexually unobtainable female apostle.
Tristan certainly invited her own transformation into living symbol. But she did so cannily, selectively, and with a keen eye to mobilizing a movement. Within utopian circles, it served a certain rhetorical purpose to portray her as a romantically isolated figure, oracular, undefiled by immersion in tactical matters. In fact, she was an adroit organizer and a worthy opponent in skirmishes over strategy—sparring for months with George Sand’s protégé, Adolphe Perdiguier, about his advocacy of a revitalized guild system, planning a contest for a workers’ union anthem and a door-to-door subscription drive to subsidize her book, organizing workers’ circles on her tour of France. Both her investigations of urban poverty and her proposals for a workers’ union mark her as an acute social observer with an affinity for mass movements and the will to organize them.
Tristan may even have shaped her sexual identity to accord with the public persona that granted her the greatest moral authority. At eighteen, Tristan, the illegitimate daughter of a Peruvian aristocrat and a shabbily genteel French woman, contracted a loveless marriage with André Chazal, her misanthropic employer at a lithographic shop. The union produced three children. When Tristan opted for a precarious independence by obtaining a legal separation from “this man whom I neither love nor esteem,” Chazal shot and wounded her as she walked home along the rue du Bac. News of this crime of passion made Tristan, who was already known as a comely bluestocking and a fugitive from bourgeois morality, a Parisian celebrity. She took advantage of her notoriety to pull off a publicity coup for a favorite cause. Still harboring her husband’s bullet, her flair for the dramatic gesture undiminished, she delivered to the legislature an eight-page petition for the abolition of the death penalty. Writing to her friend Olympe Chodzko, Tristan explained this feat with a motif she would turn to again and again: the conviction that as strength drained from the brittle, delicate husk of her afflicted body, it would flood and invigorate her soul: “My soul,” she confided, “is as steadfast as my body is weak.” Chazal was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor (commuted to imprisonment) for “attempted murder with premeditation upon the person of his wife.” Tristan immediately applied for and was granted permission to use her maiden name for herself and her children.
Although her portrait was published in The Beautiful Women of Paris and she did not lack for suitors, Tristan seems to have consigned herself, in the wake of the trial, to a celibate life—to the transcendance rather than “the rehabilitation of the flesh.” Psychological explanations for both Tristan’s presumed celibacy and her preoccupation with purity and self-sacrifice are certainly salient here. But there is, as well, a metapolitical one, involving a possibly quite deliberate choice about self-presentation. Most prominent among a limited repertoire of political identities available to French women in this period was, of course, that of Marianne—in her most resonant mid-nineteenth-century incarnation, a bare-breasted, ham-fisted Liberty on the barricades. Images of such femmes du peuple derived their power, as several historians have noted, from their homologous association of sexual with social disorder. But the utopian archetype Tristan adopted deliberately rejected this genealogy of power. It assumed that femininity was the province not of sexually charged chaos and social disintegration but of chaste harmony and reconciliation. The “Abbé” Constant was not the only socialist to eulogize Tristan’s mysteriously potent alchemy of “ardent strivings towards universal peace” and “angelic chastity.” As Tristan assured Fourier, she had in her character “a strength uncommon in a woman, a compulsion to do good,” and it derived, in large part, from the “purity”—a talismanic word for Tristan—of her devotion to the workers.
Unlike Marianne, the mère-apôtre was less a catalyst to insurrection than a subject of contemplation. For Enfantin, it was enough to wait in patient reverie for “the real savoir of the people, the woman.” Indeed, for some segments of the movement, as Moses observes, “the `Wait’ and the `Search’ [for her] replaced criticism, experiment, and social action.” Nevertheless, for utopian socialists, women were ideal witnesses to the social follies of their age. As the author of a fairly typical Saint-Simonian pamphlet declared,
Our entire aim at this moment…is to give women a sense of their strength and dignity so that they can make all their sufferings and desires known without shame…. When women have the strength to speak, especially the daughters of the lower classes, those whom poverty places in service to the bourgeois, to the landholder, the magistrate, then we will come to understand the morality of these men who are without pity for women.
In this case, the authors clearly had in mind prostitutes, who might come forward to confirm the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality. But they ended on a more expansive and exhortatory note: “Come then, let the woman step forward who has the power to speak…for her emancipated voice, gentlemen, I will enforce silence.” When Tristan undertook her tour of France, it was this sort of thinking about the unique prognostic and diagnostic claims of female speech which, as we shall see, impelled many workers to listen to her. But even earlier, when she journeyed across the channel to record her observations of London, she seems to have been emboldened by a peculiarly utopian sense of mission and of her own “emancipated voice.”
Tristan had already evinced an affinity for mass movements, and a liking for crowds, that could stoke her occasional impatience with rhetorical abstraction. In 1835, when she first made contact with the Fourierists in Paris, Tristan was acutely concerned with the communication of Fourier’s ideas to a wider audience. She publicly fretted that their presentation in journals like La Phalange was too fragmentary, too erudite, and too oblique to interest workers. As disseminated in those pages, even Fourier’s “sublime system” seemed “cold, sterile,” almost “paralyzing to progress.” If they hoped to generate a new social order, she argued in a letter to the editors, then their version of Fourierist doctrine must be “frank, clear and precise” enough to arrest the attention and command the loyalty of the mass of French workers.
In the 1843 L’Union Ouvrière (the workers’ union), Tristan would strategize more explicitly, elaborating a plan for an all-embracing union of skilled and unskilled, male workers and exploited women. This book is, at once, a scheme for organizing women and workers, preparing them for their unshirkable role as the historical agents of revolutionary change, and a phalansterian-style blueprint for cooperative institutions under capitalism. In it, Tristan self-consciously shed the more discursive and even poetic voice of earlier works like Promenades dans Londres in favor of a more forthrightly polemical one. “Wanting to convince, I had to use logic,” she explained in half-hearted apology to her readers, “and logic is the sworn enemy of so-called poetic form.”
As a proposal for workers’ union palaces, Tristan’s belongs to that early French socialist tradition under which minutely elaborated models of alternative institutions—Fourier’s phalanstères come to mind—offer implicit critiques of capitalism. French socialists of the 1830s and 1840s were well aware that industry had advanced more slowly and fitfully in their country than in England, and they were conscious, therefore, of inhabiting a kind of prelapsarian lagtime. That awareness, combined with a deep conviction that the laissez-faire marketplace contravened the moral order because it debased the worker, encouraged a certain audacity in the blueprints for cooperatives. Capitalism was still young enough, still malleable enough, to be resisted and reshaped. Moreover, given the preeminent causality attributed to ideas (as opposed to economic structures) in early French socialism—the extent to which, as one historian explains, “the major obstacle to achieving socialist community is [seen as] a moral and intellectual problem at its most fundamental level”—a book like Tristan’s might well be considered a powerful organizing tool in its own right. The more graphically it evoked the allure of cooperative communities, the closer those communties were to becoming reality.
In The Workers’ Union, Tristan is careful to delineate the particular mechanisms by which self-governing, quasisyndicalist workers’ committees and departmental workers’ palaces were to be established. Eager to support fledgling cooperatives (we know she bought shares in at least one, a worker-run bakery where she also took responsibility for organizing the consumers), Tristan nonetheless regarded detailed and widely available plans as essential for these enterprises.
Significantly, the capital accumulated in the form of dues would not be used to purchase the means of production but to build what Tristan called workers’ union palaces, which would integrate schools and residences with workshops and farms. Like other French socialists, she emphasized the community as refuge from the thwarted relations and limited horizons of the patriarchal family and the private household. With its “noble but simple” architecture, its light and air in unstinting quantities, its fusing of love and work, and its blurring of public and private, the palace would become a hospice for spiritually unmoored and physically depleted workers. The functional and aesthetic unity of this “vast communal dwelling” would counteract the fractured character of life under capitalism, for it would be both “tripartite and unified,” “fulfilling all the conditions of beauty, comfort and freedom.” It is easy to imagine the heady appeal of such reinventions of space for working-class readers who lived and labored in close, squalid quarters. Nonetheless, Tristan predicted that two particularly obstructionist mentalités would impede the workers’ acceptance of her proposals: namely, the tenacity of the compagnonnage, or fraternal guild, ideal and the fetishization of an abstract “liberty,” piqued by the rhetoric of 1789.
One of the extraordinary features of The Workers’ Union is the extent to which Tristan rejects “the corporate idiom” as a language of class. Her plan is for a universal union embracing all those who work with their hands and recognizing no hierarchical gradations of skill. Even casual laborers, whose protean identity and rootlessness alarmed social commentators and alienated skilled artisans, were to be included. Moreover, in Tristan’s view, the common identity and objectives of the proletariat transcended the claims of nationality; effective solidarity would eventually mandate international association.
The crucial equation at the core of Tristan’s treatise, however, is that set forth between women and workers. As society’s true “pariahs,” systematically cast out of the polity, victimized by the law and exploited by their social superiors, their civil existence a cipher and their economic existence in constant jeopardy, they were natural allies in the struggle for emancipation. Modern gender relations were as restrictive a species of “helotism” as modern labor relations—and the alliance that linked women and workers in seeking to transform both was, for Tristan, a nearly sacred one. For male workers, recognizing the abstract principle of sexual equality meant inviting women to unionize with them in an unprecedented display of solidarity sure to intimidate the bourgeoisie. Thus, in Tristan’s estimation, union men were obligated to “use all their influence to get their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and girl friends to join in with them.”
Unlike the Saint-Simonian feminists, Tristan tended to represent the working class as male, and women as a separate caste, defined less by their productive than their reproductive labor. In The Workers’ Union, women would not be the agents of their own emancipation; male workers would fulfill that role as they freed themselves from fealty to the capitalist bosses and launched cooperative communities in which women would be treated as equals and childcare shared by all. Yet Tristan saw herself as a liberator, a redeemer, a social actor—and to continue to do so, meant, increasingly, adopting the pose of the femme-messie, a woman who would free others, not walt to be freed by men.
As long as Tristan fastened her feminism to an idealized future in the union palaces, its potential threat to male workers was largely defused. But Tristan, like the Saint-Simonian feminists, also committed herself to equal wages and to the reevaluation of “women’s work” in the present. She pointed out that in all the trades exercised by both women and men, the female worker was paid one-half the daily wage of her male counterpart. Within those trades, moreover, the tasks performed chiefly by women (typesetting in printing, tying the threads in cotton spinning) were degraded in both social worth and real wages, not because they required less skill or dexterity but because they were trivialized as “women’s work.” Finally, because Tristan wanted women to have the option of living alone, she emphatically rejected the concept of a family wage.
In the early 1840s, pamphleteers and journalists of the Parisian working-class press began paying anxious attention to the dilemmas of women in the workplace. As a number of writers have noticed, they focused on threats to female chastity and on the alleged drop in men’s wages, under pressure from female interlopers. Their dire conclusions were quite different from Tristan’s radical optimism about women’s potential for productive and justly remunerated labor outside the home. Left-wing writers pegged women as a source of wage-debasing competition in the labor market and authoritatively restated their primary responsibilities to children and household. In 1842, for example, a writer in the workers’ newspaper, L’Atelier, reminded readers that women’s work was “less productive for society than that of men” and worried that the presence of women workers side by side with men in factories threatened public morals by inviting promiscuity. “If the salary of the male worker were generally sufficient for the keep of his family—as it should be—his wife would not be obliged to frequent the workshop.” She could do a bit of piecework while safely ensconced at home and primarily occupied with her little ones; and thereby avoid “turning out bad subjects later on.”
When The Workers’ Union was finally published, champions of hearth and home on the working-class Left targeted Tristan herself. L’Atelier, for example, ridiculed Tristan for her pretensions to a public forum and a life given over to political work.
An O’Connell [the Irish nationalist leader Tristan admired] in skirts?…Who knows? The free woman, the woman-messiah whose coming Enfantin the revealer announced to us…we would like to see her upon the hustings, one hand on her chest and the other clenched, her eyes on fire, her brow knit and making us all cry hurrah, but all very nicely like a well brought up woman, because a popular orator, the aristocrats say, is an ugly thing; it looks like a man of the people in a rage.
The acidly dismissive tone reminds us that outside of utopian circles, women would scarcely be considered as public orators and agitators.
In the preface to The Workers’ Union, Tristan complained that although two young laundresses had pledged to bring her two francs every three months toward the establishment of a workers’ union, her support from working women had generally been tepid. But Dominique Desanti cites a poignant letter published in Le Populaire on 12 April 1843 and signed by the Saint-Simonian feminist Eugénie Soudet, which sheds considerable light on the reluctance of female workers to endorse Tristan wholeheartedly.
You judge [the workers] according to some that you have seen, all advanced men, but they are still weak exceptions, and it is the masses that you need…. I see with sorrow that you are exposing yourself to a lot of disappointments…. I see very few people and those are phalansterians and don’t want to talk about anything else…. You don’t know the workers, they’re not yet ready to give women justice and have faith in them. If my husband presented your idea to his colleagues, they’d laugh in his face…. As for me, I can’t take any part in a work that I don’t believe is realizable, although I find it very beautiful, but the time hasn’t come: men must learn and our children will understand better.
Male artisans and the working-class press, although they may have seemed less ambiguously committed to pragmatic goals than the utopians, mostly neglected women and their demands.
By the spring of 1844, Tristan had resolved to test her powers of persuasion in a larger arena and to proclaim the bonds between insurgent labor and oppressed women. In The Workers’ Union, she had advocated the creation of workers’ union envoys: “Their mission,” she explained, “will be to create communities organized exactly on the same basis as those in Paris in all the towns, villages, boroughs, and hamlets.” By April, she had apparently decided to appoint herself the first such envoy and wrote to Considérant, asking him to publish an article announcing her imminent departure on a tour of France and to include “something about the difficulties of my mission.” (By then, she was convinced that “the whole world, almost, is against me,” especially, “the men because I’m demanding equal pay, etc.”) The idea of the tour was reminiscent of both the circuit traveled by a new journeyman after his initiation into a guild and of the apostolic missions undertaken by Saint-Simonian women and men. But Tristan seems to have conceived of it in her own terms. As a woman of “faith and force,” in her words, she was sure she could address the workers as no one had dared to before. She would engage them in a dialogue, albeit one-sided, about their experience, rather than appropriate them as terms in a discourse about social disorder. “They have often been spoken of—in the legislature, from the Christian pulpit, in society gatherings, and especially in the courts. But no one has yet tried to speak to them” the would-be apostle concluded presumptuously. “This has to be attempted.”
So from late spring till late fall, Tristan trekked through France—from sooty mining and manufacturing towns like St. Croix and Roanne to venerable maritime cities like Marseilles and Bordeaux; across newly cracked faultlines of class conflict to epicenters of agitation like Lyons. She spoke on behalf of the workers’ union in workshops, taverns, and rented halls, staying in the homes of sympathetic workers along her route.
Her record of this sojourn into the heart of proletarian France encapsulates the paradoxes of her political legacy. Plagued by recurrent pain and constant fatigue from the outset, the forty-one-year-old Tristan was soon thinking of her journey in quasireligious terms, as a mission that might well bring her martyrdom. Arriving in Auxerre, her first stop on the tour, for example, she felt “something like a divine grace, enveloping, magnetizing, transporting me.” And speaking for the first time to large groups of working women, Tristan was suffused with an empathy that enhanced her already exalted sense of purpose. As she vowed in her diary, “poor women, poor mothers, my sisters, I swear I will deliver you!”
More surprising perhaps than Tristan’s self-fashioning as re- demptress was the extent to which crowds of workers responded to her in this guise. In Lyons, in Tristan’s estimation, perhaps the only city in France where workers read serious books, and certainly the only one where they had “left behind the political domain to enter the social,” silkworkers, pères de famille, chefs d’atelier, came by the hundreds “to listen to a woman’s voice, to acknowledge her sympathy, to recount each of their deprivations, their tribulations, their injustices….” A group of local workers “totally devoted to the cause” raised 1,000 francs to publish a third edition of The Workers’ Union “and help spread its gospel to thousands.”
In Lyons, too, Tristan found an ardent disciple in the young laundress Eléonore Blanc. Blanc pledged her life to Tristan in large part because the older woman seemed a convincing incarnation of the utopian allegory. “I am a laundress and own nothing,” she rose to say at a public meeting. “So I give you what I have: my life. Make of it whatever you will to serve the cause. I want to carry your word. I know how to read and write. I can tell other women that at last our messiah has come to free us.” Blanc was seized, as she confided when she called on Tristan, by “a violent desire to live your life.” For her part, Tristan regarded this overwrought ouvrière as a gift from “Dieux.” (She habitually referred to God in the plural in deference to what she saw as the supreme being’s essential androgyny.) Blanc’s husband was jealous, Tristan noted, not without a nip of vindictive satisfaction, for he instinctively knew she would never love him with the same fervor she bestowed on her messiah. The thought “tortured and humiliated him,” Tristan added coolly, but he evidently did nothing to block his wife’s flight.
Jules Janin has left us a contemporary description of Tristan on the hustings which not only suggests how she looked but also hints at how she looked a part.
She had a lithe, elegant figure and a proud, vital way about her; her eyes were full of the fires of the Orient and her long black hair cast a sheen over that beautiful olive complexion where youth and spirit mingled and burned…. [There was] tremendous grace in her confident bearing and gait and in the austerity of her dress.
Hers was not the milky pallor of a well-bred demoiselle. Merely to gaze at her, Janin effused, was to recognize her as “a child of hot climates, a child lost in the Northern lands.” Tristan’s tropical complexion, onyx eyes, and exceptionally dark hair could certainly be attributed to her Peruvian ancestry. But the exoticism invoked by Janin and others was generic and vaguely Eastern. His romantic reconstruction of her drew on nineteenth-century French Orientalism and its overlap with the Saint-Simonian search for a female apostle. To an audience primed for the advent of a woman messiah from the East, in general, or Egypt, in particular, Tristan was typecast. She could validate the myth of the woman-messiah—the deus ex machina of social change—merely by appearing to embody it.
Tristan’s stay in Lyons was also punctuated by more dispiriting episodes, however. She was hounded by overzealous police authorities whose petty but persistent espionage infuriated her. To her chagrin, the local police commissioner confiscated not only her papers and manuscripts but also her personal letters, citing Tristan’s electrifying effect on the workers and her aims to found “on the ruins of the traditional guild system a vast association which includes all male and female workers in France, regardless of trade.”
What seems to have frustrated Tristan most, however, was the impact of the Cabetists on the class-conscious workers of Lyons. When she arrived in May, Tristan took stock of the ongoing conflicts between the “communist” Etienne Cabet and his mostly artisanal following over what some regarded as his excessive paternalism and reiterated her own message that the workers ought to think and act for themselves. In her diary of these weeks, Tristan rehearsed biting objections to Cabet-style politics and cursed the Icarian loyalties of Lyons’s tailors. She reproached Cabet for endorsing paternal authority in the families of utopian Icarie and private property within its economic order.
But her most incisive, and characteristic, critique was that Cabet’s promised land of Icarie, the spectral province of some indeterminate future, diverted the workers’ attention from organized resistance to capitalism in the present. Transfixed by visions of an elusive Icarian community, they were, politically speaking, in a state of suspended animation.
The workers today…remain fascinated by this vision of Icarie. They wait instead of actively working. Preparing for this goal, this happy kingdom, occupies all their energy. I consider this a great calamity—they cannot remain immobilized for such a long period of time.
Her concerns here were tactical, but in the broadest sense of the word. Tristan herself was vitally concerned with achieving a compound of rhetoric and imagery that would embolden workers to act on their own behalf. The irony was that the persona she had begun to adopt was at least as conducive to political inaction as the dream of Icarie.
As the journey wore on, Tristan’s curious annunciation as the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the femme-messie became increasingly apparent. At a meeting at Croix-Rousse, for example, an elderly Saint-Simonian, his face wet with tears, stood up to proclaim the coming of the woman-messiah for whom the workers had been reverently waiting for over twenty years. The “messiah” herself observed that only one idea had drawn this hoary-headed silkworker into the Saint-Simonian fold. It was “that of the woman. But this idea, this immense and fertile idea presented itself to his spirit with such power, such force; this idea opened for him a world so full and rich it dazzled his brain and he could not support the shock.”
He was, she concluded, literally intoxicated with his vision of a redeeming woman who could represent and call forth social harmony, who could turn back the clock on a callous capitalism. Scenes like these can seem rather risible and it is clear that they occasionally grated on Tristan. Yet they tell us something about the powerful appeal of the female redemptress as a secular allegory among socialist workers all over France. Partly, as Maurice Agulhon and other historians have perceived, the image was a de-Christianized emblem of spiritual inspiration. And there is little doubt that the obeisance paid Tristan owed some of its fervor to a transference of Catholic faith on the part of dogmatically anti-clerical workers. Romantic Catholicism and its Mariolatry merged with and reinforced the utopian myth of a mother-apostle.
But its meaning as a surrogate religious icon does not explain the allegory’s confinement within the parameters of the socialist community nor even its tug on the early socialist imagination. To explain its magnetism, we must remember that if baneful competition and the rigors of the marketplace were associated with masculinity, then restorative repose and equilibrium (often presented in utopian literary conceits as the precise antitheses of the entrepreneurial mentality) were metaphorically linked with femininity. The onus of the moral case against capitalism was that it fragmented the seamless whole of social life, fractured human purpose to satisfy its venal exchange values. The mère-messie was an image of healing, of the binding together (especially when paired with a male counterpart) of seemingly disparate impulses, of harmony, reconciliation, and integration; it was the mystical inverse of capitalism’s most egregious failing.
On the tour, Tristan was often a willing accomplice to her own transformation into living symbol. Her physical pain, pursuit by the police, and intense relationship with her young protegée Eléonore Blanc all inflated her sense of half-divine mission. She was soon pledging that “the Christian people are dead today in degradation and Flora Tristan, the first strong woman, will raise them up again.” By September, she was signing her letters to a workers’ circle in Toulouse, “Votre Mère.” The “Abbé” Constant remembered the grandiose identity that Tristan conjured up for herself: “Flora’s personality had passed into myth, she believed herself to be the femme-messie; after having struggled like a demon, she dreamed of being transfigured into a martyr, so that she could ascend heavenward on angel’s wings.”
But Tristan seems also to have chafed against and imparted new textures to the images and metaphors through which she was viewed. She assessed their political advantages, reinterpreted them for her own purposes, accepted them on her own terms. She could be as shrewd and strategic in choosing her allegorical representations as in fitting an argument to its intended readers. If audiences cast her as Mary, she cast herself as a still more powerful intercessor: Christ. If the Saint-Simonians saw her as the woman-messiah, she often described herself as a femme-guide, a slightly different conception of the public self since she characteristically envisioned it as a single figure, not the père’s better half. Moreover, the use of the word “guide” suggested a less hieratic, more comradely role. When others presented her as a pitiable sufferer, she insisted on the ecstasy of ideology.
It is easy to give in, to remain silent, when the reward for doing so is honor and tranquility. But I say that the martyr’s lot is full of blessings—bittersweet but great, that there is triumph in the struggle, and that the pariah would not change places with the most envied among you.
At times, she actively resisted her own fetishization, chiding her followers for displacing their loyalties from her project onto herself. In Lyons, for example, when three Icarians offered her an enormous wreath of myrtle and laurel, she promptly refused it. Ideas, not individuals, deserved to be crowned, she explained. When workers distributed cheap portrait engravings of her, Tristan agonized over her transfiguration into an icon. But she ultimately complied with the imagemakers, posing restlessly for portraits, because she saw in them “a means of propaganda.” From her point of view, she was submitting to “disfigurement,” but at least, “if they all want to have a portrait and to stick it up in their workshops, then my idea will be represented by my person in all those ateliers. In this way, a personal tribute becomes a universal idea.”
Tristan confided in her journal that her “great magnetism” sometimes seemed to eclipse her exhortations to unionize and vowed to speak not in her name but “in the name of principles, nothing but principles.” In short, although many of the crowds assembling around her seem to have been eager to cast her in the wish-fulfilling image of the femme-messie, Tristan did not succumb to this transformation passively.
Utopian socialism’s preoccupation with a female redemptress permitted Tristan a public role, but it was a peculiarly circumscribed and male-defined one that threatened to contract her pragmatic agenda even as it magnified her myth. The workers who flocked to see her on the tour had an allegorical rubric for defining Tristan that largely accounted for their willingness to listen but which effectively deflected attention from the nuts and bolts of her organizational scheme. Cheap portrait engravings of her may have adorned workshop walls, yet many of the workers she met with refused to believe that a woman could have written The Workers’ Union; it was “too well written, too analytical to be the work of a woman.” They insisted she was fronting for a timid man. Although she claimed that the sympathetic appearance of a femme-guide did more for the feminist cause than “all that one could write or say on the question,” a few particularly telling incidents on the tour belie her confident conclusions. At a meeting of Saint-Simonians before which Tristan advocated equal pay, for example, a member of the audience charged her with debasing all women by demanding such prosaic rights when they were rightly secondary to the divine quest for the femme-messie. Such encounters suggest how little of Tristan’s plea for male workers to insure class solidarity and the ascendancy of socialism by allying with women was understood, let alone endorsed.
The irony was that in sanctifying the woman-redeemer, utopian socialism provided Tristan with a forum in which to argue these points. The tendency of the “scientific socialism” that she partly anticipated and of the production-oriented workers’ movement that superseded early cooperativism was to push women like her to the margins of political visibility and influence. The institutionalization of left-wing politics in the late nineteenth century dissolved many of its visionary and prophetic elements, thinned its forest of symbols. The cost, as Barbara Taylor has shown for the Owenites, was both in breadth of vision about the transformation of personal life and in sustained attention to gender as well as class inequality.
Utopian socialists who had believed in Tristan tended, after her death, to both mystify and sentimentalize her connection to the movement; it became a form of mother-love—the messiah domesticated. “The child of her love was socialism,” the “citizen” David avowed at her memorial service. “She took it from the cradle, led it by the hand, faster and faster, but alas, it died before her task was completed.” On the other hand, when Tristan herself emerged from the pages of a posthumous collection of her writings, it was to express a wistful longing to do as well as to represent, to build a movement as well as to embody its dominant metaphors, to organize as well as to prophesize. She identified herself with “an architect of antiquity [who] after having listened in silence to the ambitious plans of another architect, a great spinner of theories, surpassed him crying: ‘He has imagined it; I will accomplish it!'”
Tristan was a product of utopian socialism and, in part, a beneficiary of its interpretations of gender; but she was also, it seems to me, fatefully constrained by them. Tristan’s practical feminist politics, yoked to a wider vision of socialist community, her rudimentary historical theory, and her strategies for international organization all transcended the blinkered bounds of her political culture; the aura of the femme-messie did not. The self Tristan projected on her tour of France was, to borrow Stephen Greenblatt’s phrase, “not an epiphany of identity freely chosen, but a cultural artifact” that cannot be wrenched loose from the normative world of utopian socialism.