List of uprisings led by women

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Women-led uprisings are mass protests that are initiated by women. They range from village food riots to the protests that initiated the Russian revolution.

Women's march on Versailles during the French Revolution 1789

Food riots[edit]

E.P. Thompson's classic article "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century" emphasised women's role in many food riots. He argued that the rioters insisted on the idea of a moral community that was obliged to feed them and their families. As one contemporary commentator wrote: 'Women are more disposed to be mutinous ... [and] in all public tumults they are foremost in violence and ferocity.' [1]

John Bohstedt later argued that Thompson had exaggerated women's role in food riots. Thompson responded by forcefully rejecting Bohstedt's criticism.[2] We will never know the exact proportion of women's involvement in 18th Century food riots, but it appears that, at the very least, women led or initiated a significant minority of such riots and they participated in many more. This involvement by women is in striking contrast to women's lack of participation in earlier uprisings such as the widespread popular revolts of the late Middle Ages.[3] This indicates that women's new assertiveness had something to do with the weakening of the patriarchal control of women as feudalism declined and market relations expanded.

Women also participated with men in food riots in Ireland, Belgium, Holland and Germany (where contemporary reports claimed that women initiated many riots). Women also conducted nearly a third of food riots during the American Revolution.[4]

French revolutions[edit]

Women were especially prominent in food riots in French marketplaces (although men dominated those in the countryside).[5] The most momentous French food riot was The Women's March on Versailles. This occurred in October 1789, when the market women of Paris began calling the men 'cowards' and declaring: 'We will take over!' These women proceeded to march to Versailles with soldiers following them. This crowd then forced the King to return to Paris where, three years later, women were again major participants in the demonstrations that led to the abolition of the monarchy. As a police inspector said in 1793: 'It is mainly the women who are stirred up, women who in turn communicate all their frenzy to the men, heating them up with their seditious propositions and stimulating the most violent effervescence.'[6]

Meanwhile, women in the countryside initiated 'counter-revolutionary' protests against the new government's policies of the repression of the Church and the conscription of male peasants into the army.[7]

Later, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, women were prominent in preventing the army from moving their cannons from Paris, an event which helped spark the Paris Commune.[8]

World War I[edit]

Women's protests for the right to vote became particularly militant in Britain. They included arson, widespread window breaking and attempts to storm both Parliament and Buckingham Palace. The shift to wartime patriotism in 1914, however, derailed the suffragette movement.[9]

Suffragette handbill

During World War I, women led large numbers of food riots in Germany, Russia, Italy and elsewhere.[10] Women workers also led the way in strike-waves in Berlin and Paris. The German authorities reported that union leaders were doing 'everything possible to prevent such disturbances and strikes over food provisions, but ... it is the countless female workers who constantly agitate and stir things up.' Women's prominence in these struggles helped delegitimize the war, and the regimes that were fighting it, paving the way for the huge strike-waves and revolutions at the end of the war.[11]

Aftermath of Berlin food riot, 1918

Women also led food riots in non-belligerent Japan and Spain. Women's protests against high food prices spread across Spain in both 1913 and 1918. In Barcelona, in 1918, women used the slogan: 'In the name of humanity, all women take to the streets!'. They organised repeated demonstrations and attacked shops, warehouses, government offices and music halls. Women also staged food riots during the Spanish Civil War.[12] Temma Kaplan has theorised such uprisings as examples of 'female consciousness'.[13]

Russian Revolution[edit]

Marxists, such as Vladimir Lenin, warned against food riots. But Karl Marx himself had recognised that 'great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment'[14] and, in 1917, it was Petrograd's female workers who spread the idea of a general strike on 8 March, International Women's Day. On that day, hundreds of women threw stones and snowballs at factory windows and then dragged their fellow male workers on to the streets, where the rioting crowds had no problems creating their own leaders. Women participated in the riots by, for instance, attacking police stations. However, many troops refused to shoot protesting women, who were often with their children. As Leon Trotsky later wrote, the women took hold of the soldiers' rifles and 'beseeched almost commanded: "put down your bayonets and join us"', and, within five days, the centuries-old Tsarist regime had collapsed.[15]

Scarcity and hunger made it very difficult for Russian workers to transform society themselves and women's participation did not continue at the same level as in February/March 1917. However, it was women's food protests, in May 1918, that sparked the first major wave of workers' unrest against the new Bolshevik authorities.[16] Then, later, during Joseph Stalin's program of breakneck industrialisation and forced collectivisation, women were again at the forefront of the workers' strikes and peasant protests that resisted this brutal policy.[17] Stalin's regime was, however, able to contain all resistance through starvation and repression.

Colonial revolts[edit]

Women were prominent in various revolts in the colonial and ex-colonial world. One of the most notable in Africa was the Igbo Women's War against British tax collection in Nigeria in 1929.[18]

The civil rights movement and feminism since the 1950s[edit]

It was a boycott of segregated buses by African-American women that sparked the US civil rights movement that then inspired activists across the world.[19] Young women's rejection of the patriarchal family and sexual repression was also a major factor in the rebellions of the 1960s.[20] The revived feminist movement then helped transform gender roles in the following decades. Women were also at the forefront of many working class struggles in the 1970s and 1980s. (For example, in the British Isles, women's protests and leadership were significant during the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland, during the Grunwick strike and during the miners' strike.[21])

The creation of the first human societies[edit]

Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers show that their strong sense of moral community is maintained by autonomous individuals who constantly resist any form of personal domination. In fact, many hunter-gatherers are so egalitarian and communistic that even a non-Marxist anthropologist like Christopher Boehm argues that hunter-gatherer societies - the first human societies - must have originated in uprisings against dominant males.[22]

Chris Knight, and other anthropologists influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have theorised that these uprisings were led by women looking for collective support to ease their childcare burdens.[23] They have used a wide range of evidence from anthropology, primatology, mythic narratives, evolutionary biology and archaeology. Some Marxists have dismissed these ideas.[24] However, although the idea of women-led uprisings creating the first societies is controversial, a number of highly respected anthropologists have taken the thesis seriously. (Mary Douglas, Robin Dunbar, David Lewis-Williams, Caroline Humphrey, Marilyn Strathern, Clive Gamble, Keith Hart and Chris Stringer have all made favourable comments about Knight's work.[25])

Women and austerity today[edit]

As austerity economics is imposed across much of the world, working class women are predicted to face the majority of the burden in the form of public sector job losses and welfare cuts.[26] Whether this will lead to more women-led uprisings remains to be seen.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ E.P.Thompson, Customs in Common, p234.
  2. ^ E.P.Thompson, 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century' and 'Moral Economy Reviewed' in Customs in Common, p185-335; Malcolm Thomis and Jennifer Grimmett, Women in Protest, 1800-1850, p28ff; John Bohstedt, 'The Myth of the Feminine Food Riot' in Harriet Applewhite and Darlene Levy, Women and Politics in the Age of Democratic Revolution.
  3. ^ Samuel Cohn, Lust for Liberty, p130-5, 228.
  4. ^ William Sheehan, Riotous Assemblies, p160; Wouter Ronsijn, Western Europe's last food riots: a comparison of the market riots of the 1840's and 1850's in Flanders; H.Applewhite and D.Levy, Women and Politics in the Age of Democratic Revolution, 127-30; Manfred Gailus in K.Hagemann, Civil Society and Gender, p174-9; Barbara Clark Smith, 'Food Rioters and the American Revolution', William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, p3-5, 26-9.
  5. ^ Cynthia Bouton, 'Gendered Behavior in Subsistence Riots', Journal of Social History, Vol.23, No.4; C. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class and Community in Late Ancien Regime French Society.
  6. ^ D. Garrioch, 'Everyday Lives of Parisian Women in the October Days, 1789', Social History, Vol.24, p231-2; H.Applewhite and D.Levy, Women and Politics in the Age of Democratic Revolution, p76, 81ff; Olwen Hufton, Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution, p1-49; H.Applewhite and D.Levy, 'Women and Political Revolution in Paris', in Renate Bridenthal, Becoming Visible, Women in European History (1987 Edition), p285-300.
  7. ^ James Mcmillan, France and Women, 1789-1914, p25-6; Wikipedia: War in the Vendee.
  8. ^ Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, p24ff.
  9. ^ Susan Kent, Gender and Power in Britain, 1640-1990, p262, 268-73; Women's Social and Political Union.
  10. ^ Belinda Davis in K.Hagemann, Home/Front; the Military, War and Gender in Twentieth Century Germany, Ch.4; Keith Allen, 'Food and the German Home-Front' and Simonetta Ortaggi, 'Italian Women During the Great War' in Gail Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War, p181, 190, 218-36; Beverley Engel, 'Subsistence Riots in Russia during World War One', Journal of Modern History, Vol.69; Temma Kaplan, 'Women and Communal Strikes in the Crisis of 1917-1922', in Renate Bridenthal, Becoming Visible: Women in European History (1987 Edition); Lynne Taylor, 'Food Riots Revisited', Journal of Social History, Vol.30, No.2; Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots, Ch.4.
  11. ^ Ute Daniel, The War from Within: German Women in the First World War, p293, 246-50; Laura Lee Downs, Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-39, p119-144; Davis in Hagemann Home/Front ..., p131.
  12. ^ Michael Seidman, Republic of Egos, p102, 219.
  13. ^ Michael Lewis, Rioters and Citizens; Mass Protests in Imperial Japan; Temma Kaplan, Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso's Barcelona, Ch.4 and 5; Temma Kaplan, 'Female Consciousness and Collective Action: The Case of Barcelona, 1910-1918', Signs, Vol.7; Kaplan 'Women and Communal Strikes...'.
  14. ^ Manfred Gailus in K.Hagemann, Civil Society and Gender, p178-80; Marx, Engels Collected Works, Vol.43, p184.
  15. ^ Choi Chatterjee, Celebrating Women; Gender, Festival, Culture and Bolshevik Ideology, p43-54; Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution, 147-157; Kaplan in Bridenthal, Becoming Visible...,.
  16. ^ Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, p229-30.
  17. ^ Lynne Viola, Peasant Rebels under Stalin, p176-84, 202-9, 237-8; Jeffrey Rossman, Worker Resistance under Stalin, p6-7, 206, 232.
  18. ^ Bonnie G.Smith, Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, Vol.1, p540; M.J.Diamond, Women and Revolution; Global Expressions.
  19. ^ M. Bahati Kuumba, Gender and Social Movements (2001), AltaMira Press, U.S. p24, 33-4, 74, 80. ISBN 0759101884
  20. ^ 'Women '68ers, Marching on Alone', Lynne Segal,Radical Philosophy, No.149.
  21. ^ Fairweather, McDonough and McFadyean, Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland, the Women's War (1984), Pluto Press ISBN 0861046684; Wikipedia: Grunwick Dispute; Wikipedia: Women Against Pit Closures.
  22. ^ Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest; the Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour, p1-10, 84-9, 172-3, 193-6, 249, 256.
  23. ^ Chris Knight, 'Sex and the Human Revolution' and 'Solidarity and Sex'; Chris Knight, Camilla Power, Ian Watts, 'The Human Symbolic Revolution', The Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol.5, p75ff; www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/publications.htm.
  24. ^ Chris Harman, International Socialism, No.54, p169-74. Some other Marxists have been more positive, e.g. Jack Conrad, 'Origins of Religion and the Human Revolution'.
  25. ^ Chris Knight, Blood Relations; Reviews of Blood Relation; Chris Stringer, The Origin of Our Species.
  26. ^ Johanna Brenner, 'Caught in the Whirlwind: US Working-Class Families Face the Economic Crisis'; The Fawcett Society, Life Raft for Women's Equality; Mark Kosman, 'Is Revolution Back on the Agenda?'