Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Birthday - Flora Tristán

She only lived a short while, but managed to fit several lifetimes of activism in her 41 years.
Flora Tristán is one of the most interesting women of the nineteenth century, unusual for her origins, her international experiences, her extraordinary frankness, and her unique combination of feminism, socialism, and activism. Among the writers of her time she emerged with the Utopians but went out on her own, displaying a kind of naïve fearlessness both in her activism and her sorting out of the issues.
(source: Preface from Flora Tristán, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, edited by Doris and Paul Beik)
Flora Tristán (Flore-Celestine-Therèse-Henriette Tristán-Moscoso) was born on April 7, 1803, in Paris. Her father was a colonel in the Spanish Navy, born in Ariquipa, Peru. In fact, her father's family was well-connected in Peru, as her uncle was the Peruvian viceroy. Her mother was French. Her parent met in Bilboa, Spain, when her father was stationed there.

Her early life was marked by sadness when her father died before her fifth birthday.
I was four years old when I lost my father in Paris. He died suddenly, without having put his marital arrangements in order, and without having thought to compensate for that by arrangements in his will. My mother had only limited resources to survive on and to raise my young brother and I; she retired to the countryside, where I lived until the age of fifteen.
(source: Flora Tristan: Life Stories, by Susan Grogan)
Tragically, her father's death occurred at the same time Napoleon was at war with Spain, and so Flora and her mother were barred from claiming his inheritance, since he had been considered an enemy of the French. The lack of a will ensured their poverty. To protect her children from the hardships of growing up in the slums of Paris, her mother moved the small family to the French countryside, where they were at least able to live a simple life. Sadly, her younger brother died while still a child.

When Flora was 15, she and her mother moved back to Paris. It was here that she learned that since her parents' marriage had never been officially recorded in France, she considered legally illegitimate, which severely limited her ability to move into any higher social realms by way of marriage.
Having grown up with stories of her father's aristocratic background, Flora at this time learned of her own legal illegitimacy and entered the labor market, becoming an employee of the painter and lithographer André Chazal, whom she married in 1821. The marriage was a failure, blame for which can scarcely be assessed. Flora, with her regular features, dark hair, and compelling eyes of a Spanish beauty, as acquaintances described her throughout her lifetime, was impulsive and strong-willed and had vague dreams of a better condition. Chazal thought she looked down on him and complained that she neglected the household. Irritations and mutual accusations multiplied. After four years she left their small apartment near Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Of her children one son was still with a wet nurse; the other was unwell, and Flora, pregnant with the baby who was to be her daughter Aline, use the pretext that the sick child needed fresher air, took him to her mother's apartment, and never returned to Chazal. There began a long contest with her husband, thirteen years full of charges and countercharges and appearance in court, and finally, on September 10, 1838,... he shot her... Flora, out of danger in a few weeks despite a bullet that remained in her chest, received increased notoriety at Chazal's trial, which led to his sentencing to twenty years of forced labor, later commuted to imprisonment...

In those thirteen years between abandonment of her husband in 1825 and his attempt on her life in 1838, Flora Tristan struggled, first, to make her own way, and then to become someone. Finally, she began to succeed.
(source: Preface from Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, edited by Doris and Paul Beik
After her daughter Aline (who would become Paul Gauguin's mother) was born, she left her three children to be cared for by her own mother, while she took a position as a servant to an English family. In 1826, she traveled to England, and began to take notes of her surroundings and society, but she claimed to have destroyed them later because she was embarrassed as they revealed her low status. Her position took her on trips to Switzerland and italy, and likely many other places. Her husband attempted to use her position against her, and filed claims in court accusing her of being a "kept woman." This only fueled her desire to be independent.
What is certain is that Flora was strongly motivated by what she called her pariah condition -- that of a woman trying to be independent in spite of legal and social barriers to divorce and other handicaps women faced if they tried to earn a living and think intelligently about public affairs.
(source: Preface from Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, edited by Doris and Paul Beik)  
In 1833, at the age of 30, she and her mother traveled to Ariquipa to claim his inheritance, which was under the care of her uncle. She was unable to win her petition, but her time in Peru was not wasted. During her stay, she wrote a travel diary about her experiences during the post-independence period of Peru, The Peregrinations of a Pariah, published in 1838.
She witnessed from within privileged circles, yet with the eyes of a European outsider, the behavior of rich and poor, of women, of priests, soldiers, politicians, and slaves in a still underdeveloped society. Indeed, she watched all of these during a period of civil war and, as her principal biographer Jules Puech notes, must have been stirred by and awakening consciousness of her own perspectives and capabilities. She recorded all of this with much talent and little restraint, and her notebooks, partly confessional and partly reportage of a high order, were to open her way to a career, first in literature and then in social action.
(source: Preface from Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, edited by Doris and Paul Beik)
Upon returning to France, she became increasingly bold in the expression of her beliefs and actions. She began a new career as a travel writer, by publishing a brief pamphlet in 1835 discussing why women traveling alone should be treated better, based on her personal experiences and convictions. She continued to travel, and to write about her experiences in the Revue de Paris.

It was also during this time that she began to recognize the changes in French society, as well as to become more politically active on behalf of workers and women. She wrote a letter to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1837 urging the legalization of divorce. In 1838, after her recovery from being shot by her husband, she wrote her first attempt at fiction, Méphis. Framed as a narration of the lives of two lovers, the protagonist represents the working classes, while the woman he is in love with, the Spanish stranger, represents womankind in its desire for a meaningful life.

Now her travel writings were not only about her experiences as a tourist, but also as a social commentator. In 1839, she again traveled to England, this time critiquing the whole of English society, from the way it treated its prisoners (male and female), the industrial revolution, several different slums, and even the after-hours clubs where wealthy young men mingled with lower-class women. She even wore a Turkish man's clothing to sneak into the House of Parliament, where women were not allowed.

It was during this time she began to promote the concept of forming a Utopia (a rather popular idea at that time). She hosted a salon in her apartment, continued to attend social events, and continued to work on several different manuscripts and novels. She also spent much of her time addressing the needs and concerns of workers, even signing a letter of solidarity between French and English socialists.

In 1843, her book Workers' Union was published, which was to be her most remarkable contribution to the movement.
The workers' union she envisaged should be capable of looking after its elderly and its sick and disabled while educating its children and its women so that they might be free and mature individuals. 
(source: Preface from Flora Tristan, Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade, edited by Doris and Paul Beik)
Sadly, she contracted Yellow Fever in 1844, and died in November of that year. Several of her works were published posthumously, and she was celebrated for a few years during the socialist movement in Europe. Her popularity faded though, and she was nearly forgotten in the later part of the 19th century. It wasn't until the 1920s, and again in the late-1940s that her work began to receive more attention. She is now recognized as one of the first feminists and a renown socialists in France, and around the world.

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