Douglas Johnson Memorial Lecture: Too hot to handle? Flora Tristan (1803-1844), campaigner for gender equality

August is that perfect time of year when, between two academic years and hopefully a cocktail somewhere warm, you catch up on things you have not had time to do / upload during the madness of term-time. So here we go! A belated but important homage to Flora Tristan via Professor Máire Cross at this year’s Douglas Johnson Memorial Lecture. Originally published in French History and possible recording coming soon *watch this space*.

On 14th January 2019 the SSFH and ASMCF held their ninth annual Douglas Johnson Memorial Lecture at the Institut Français in London. This successful event was preceded by a committee meeting as well as by the public presentation of our Undergraduate Dissertation Prize.

After introductions from Dr Alice Béja, the Higher Education and Research Attachée from the French Embassy, and from the Society’s President Professor David Andress, our invited speaker Professor Máire Cross gave a lecture entitled ‘Too hot to handle? Flora Tristan (1803-1844), campaigner for gender equality’.

Tristan’s radical story was one of crossings and transfers, a transnational life of travel, campaigning and publications. Her journeys to Peru, to London, and across France all provided windows on different societies and struggles against inequality. In recounting these travels, Professor Cross focussed on Tristan’s account of her trip to Peru, published in 1838 as Pérégrinations d’une paria, her reflections on several visits to London, published as Promenades dans Londres in 1840, and the diary of Tristan’s travels in France that Cross translated into English Flora Tristan’s Diary: The Tour of France 1843-1844 (Peter Lang, 2002). This peripatetic story was suffused with Tristan’s fascinating commentary on societies in transition, and the challenges that continued to face them. Her writing on South America attacked class, racial and religious oppression in the years that followed Peru’s independence from Spain. In London, Tristan highlighted the plight of the urban proletariat, while in France, her travels traced her activism and attempts to forge connections between workers organisations.

But Tristan’s life and work transcended her own travels. In 1843, she published L’Union ouvrière, a book which outsold both Marx and Proudhon on its release. This was the culmination of Tristan’s political thought, and a signal of how her activism for gender equality dovetailed into her analysis of class. She called for a Worker’s Charter shining a light on enduring inequalities and protecting the rights of women as a foundation stone for progressive politics. Tristan campaigned, amongst other things, for the restoration of divorce, the abolition of the death penalty, women’s right to travel, free access to education and professional training. These wide-ranging campaigns built on her belief that women need to have their Revolution, and that the one begun in 1789 had never sufficiently broken through the crust of social inequity. For Tristan, unity made for strength, and her attempt to break through the male preserves of socialist organisations and heal the fractures between different movements were in service of a more universal vision of emancipation.

Yet, her own life was marked by the violent realities of gender inequality. Seemingly borne of resentment and bitterness, Tristan’s abusive husband bought a pistol and shot her three times in the street. Tristan survived, and her husband was arrested, tried, and convicted. Even here, however, the courtroom proved a trial of her convictions, and the foreword to her Pérégrinations which detailed her own unhappiness was even used against her in court. Nonetheless, in a testament to Tristan’s values, her fervent opposition to the death penalty survived the trial, her public vilification, and the violence committed against her by her husband.

Tristan’s mythology began when her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, became her mythiculteur. He published Avant et apres (1903) which set the tone for engagement with a figure often depicted as a doomed romantic radical. Challenging this portrait, Professor Cross traced the historiography of Tristan’s life and works, showing how Tristan’s lasting significance lay in her exposure of inequalities that were not only economic and political, but also in her inspiration for campaigns against domestic violence. Professor Cross highlighted how echoes of Tristan’s struggles and campaigns resurfaced in contemporary politics, showing numerous examples where Tristan’s name appeared on women’s refuge centres, and demonstrating how the memory of this remarkable campaigner for gender equality was, to this day, transmitted as much by activist networks as by history books.

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