Utopian socialist. Dangerous woman?

Jelena Vasiljević, PhD in Social Anthropology, is a Research Associate at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade, and currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for South-East European Studies, University of Graz. Her latest research is focused on exploring the paradoxical relationship between solidarity and citizenship.

Flora Tristan’s name and work sadly remain insufficiently recognized. Today she is mostly mentioned as one of the overlooked (yet instrumental) representatives of French utopian socialism, together with Charles Fourier and Saint-Simone; as a grandmother of the famous painter Paul Gauguin; and as immortalized heroine in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Way to Paradise (El paraíso en la otra esquina)…

If only her name somehow did not have to be attached in this way to so many other, male, names before we could recognise just how important and unique her life and work have been. History, in this respect, did not do her justice, as her pioneer work in feminism and socialism remains overshadowed by men, ironically silencing her famous cry: ‘Workers, without women, you are nothing!’

Flore-Celestine-Therèse-Henriette Tristan-Moscoso was born to a French mother and a Peruvian father, who was a colonel of the Spanish Navy in Peru. Her whole life could be told as a series of struggles. Her personal struggles – for a divorce and for custody of her children, and for a family acceptance and inheritance – are reflective of a woman’s degrading position in 19th century society. As the personal is also political, her public activism echoed her life story, which was interwoven in her struggles for the improvement of the lives of workers, and especially of working women.

Upon her father’s death, at Flora’s age of four, the family declined into poverty which marked Flora’s youth and adolescence. Given some legal doubts regarding the marriage of her parents, she was not recognized as a legal heir of her father, whose brother was a viceroy of Peru. At seventeen she married her employer, an engraver Andre-Francois Chazal. The marriage was violent, and four years later, after having two children and with a third on a way, Flora left her husband and began a desperate fight for a divorce. It was only after an incident in which Chazal shot and wounded her that she was granted legal grounds for separation.

Another struggle to secure her rights led Flora to undertake an unusual and dangerous journey – especially for a lone woman of that time: namely, determined to claim her paternal inheritance, she sailed to Peru, to her uncle in Arequipa. Having spent a year there, she returned with no inheritance, still considered an illegitimate child, but with a plethora of thoughts about oppression, subordination and the lonely struggles women are left to fight if they want to secure their rights. She composed a book, which was a travel memoir and a personal diary of everyday abuse she endured during the violent marriage – under the title Pérégrinations d’une paria (‘Pilgrimage of a Pariah’).

She was one of the first historical figures to write about the oppression of women in marriage, advocating for the right to divorce, and pointing to a societal, rather than a personal problem: “women’s ignorance, hostility toward their husbands, or brutality toward their children [was] not their fault but that of society”, she wrote (quoted in Moses 1984: 112).

Her ability to see the wider social and political causes of the terrible predicaments in which many individuals lived, turned her to socialist ideas and the movements flourishing in the pre-1848 France. It was her influential essay The Worker’s Union (‘L’Union Ouvriere’) which earned her a place in Utopian Socialist movement. It was a pioneering work due to the blending of socialism and feminism, as she claimed that the struggle to overcome oppression of women had to be accompanied with the struggle to obtain better living and working conditions. She recognized the especially vulnerable position of working women, realizing that fight for workers and women rights has to be a unified struggle. She also insisted that the emancipation of the working class could not happen without the liberation of women, since their subordinated position fractures the whole class. In this respect she was truly a pioneer in socialist feminism. Even forty years before Engels, she stated that the relation of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie is what the woman is to the family.

Her propositions were not merely theoretical, but very practical and focused on everyday needs: the proposed Union from her essay was envisaged as a body collecting dues of all members to pay for the institutions dedicated to education and safety – primarily of women and children. She proposed that unions should construct “a series of ‘worker’s palaces’ to educate their children, to aid ‘the wounded of work’, and to care for the aged” (Moses 1984: 109).

With the publication of The Workers’ Union she became a political activist, aligned with the utopian socialists of the time. However, unlike them, she did not believe in the enlightened middle-class, but chose to speak to the workers directly, telling them that they alone are the best representatives of their interests.

Practical as she was, she set off on another journey – with the intention to put her ideas to work. She embarked on a tour of France, visiting factories and delivering speeches to workers, with the aim of setting up committees to lay the foundation for the Union. The same effort she invested in her arguments she also applied to her praxis: disseminating her thoughts in France, with concrete ideas about how to realistically realize them is how she spent her last days, dying at the age of 41.

Flora Tristan was an illegitimate child and a social outcast, a woman who left her husband and fought her own battles, despite societal norms and expectations. She was often depicted as dangerous – for her society, for her children, for the general order of things; but she remained radical, fierce, and ready to give her whole self to fight for what she taught was right and the promise of a better future.

Commemorating her as a dangerous woman, though, does not do her full justice – it exoticises her and diverts our attention from the true worth of her deeds. We should remember her as the woman who was brave enough to fight for what she strongly believed was right, having had nobody to rely on except her own thoughts about what is just and worth fighting for.


References and suggested further reading

Cross, Máire and Tim Gray 1992, The Feminism of Flora Tristan, Berg Publishers Ltd.

Llosa, Mario Vargas 2003, El paraíso en la otra esquina. Alfaguara, (Eng. trans: 2004, The Way to Paradise. Faber and Faber).

Moses, Claire Goldberg 1984, French Feminism in the 19th Century, New York: SUNY Press.

Tristan, Flora 2007, The Workers’ Union, University of Illinois Press.

Tristan, Flora 2015, Peregrinations D’Une Paria, Createspace.

Tristan, Flora, Doris Beik, Paul Beik 1993, Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, Indiana University Press.