‘She was audacious, she was autonomous, she was an indefatigable combatant for the workers and for the women.’
A pioneer of Latin American feminist movement and instrumental in the growth of Utopian Socialism, the life of Peruvian-French social activist Flora Tristan took her on a global journey of the sort seldom undertaken by lone women of the time. Undaunted, Flora took it upon herself to raise and defend the cause of the oppressed and challenge the injustice she saw, documenting and publishing her travels and observations in Pérégrinations d’une paria (‘Pilgrimage of a Pariah’).
Flora’s youth is largely undocumented, due to the circumstances that befell her. Born in 1803 into a wealthy family, the death of her Navy colonel father in 1807 led to significant poverty for Flora, her mother and brother, perhaps a foundation for her later work in socialism. Until the age of fifteen, the historical consensus has been that Flora lived in the countryside, before moving back to Paris with her mother to pursue art and dance. This led to employment with engraver Andre-Francois Chazal, and to their subsequent marriage, at the age of seventeen. Chazal claimed to have ‘saved [Flora] from poverty and obscurity’ through their marriage. Despite – or perhaps due to – this ostensible ‘kindness’, Flora walked out of the marriage and divorced Chazal after only four years of marriage, whilst pregnant with their third child; however, the separation only became official after Chazal shot and wounded her, thus giving her legal grounds for divorce.
Undertaking a journey atypical for women at the time (both in terms of purpose and of scale), Flora travelled from France to Peru in 1833 to claim her paternal inheritance from an uncle in her father’s hometown. These travels, in conjunction with early life and experiences of marriage, formed the basis of Pérégrinations d’une paria. The publication of the journal was groundbreaking both in terms of female travel-writing and of Flora’s open and frank discussions of her marriage. Eschewing the gender expectations of compliance and submission, Flora wrote powerfully about her feelings of oppression and enslavement in the relationship: ‘You are married!’ True, he’s a despicable creature… you cannot escape his yoke!’
The majority of Flora’s legacy, however, lies in the final years of her life. Her essay ‘The Worker’s Union’ (‘L’Union Ouvriere’) is held in equal esteem to the work of Fourier and the Saint-Simonians in the Utopian Socialist movement; however, Flora’s particular legacy is in the blending of socialist and feminist theory, advocating for education and safety for children, workers’ health and collaboration with other classes. The proposed Union – widely considered to be one of the most practical and workable propositions of the era – would collect dues to pay for the aforementioned services, and in turn support and unite the members. Flora’s famed rallying cry of ‘Workers, without women, you are nothing!’ encapsulates the ethos of the socialist feminism she pioneered.
Continuing to travel, Flora took her Workers’ Union ideas on a speaking tour of France, seeking to set up committees to lay foundations for the union. This tour, however, although undoubtedly a mine of information and inspiration for future work, immediately preceded Flora’s death in Bordeaux at the age of 41.
Perhaps the core of Flora’s work lay in her cohesion of ideologies that, in the early-mid nineteenth century, did not naturally mesh. Due to the infancy of the feminist movement, the argument of common humanity was not necessarily one she could use to great advantage. Instead, she utilised the concept of the union to create a sense of togetherness and, through this, political consensus. In believing and declaring that securing rights for women would ‘fix’ society, Flora brought into consideration the notion that types of oppression differed depending on social factors other than socio-economic. Furthermore, she understood clearly her primary audience and, instead of deviating from her personal ideology, used her influence to introduce a new level of discourse to the existing debates.
Why, then, has history forgotten Flora Tristan? Despite her wide-ranging influence, little is written about her, and beyond a school in her name in Peru, she has largely been forgotten. Was she eclipsed by contemporaries of the European left, such as Marx and Engels? Did her lack of active work and limited publication decrease her longevity? It is certain, however, that her life was one lived to the full and she was truly a radical of the age.