When Flora Tristán leaves Paris for Peru, her father’s country, in 1833, she does not know that the heritage she’d come to claim would lead her to a very different path. How did the daughter of a Peruvian aristocrat and self-proclaimed “pariah” become one of the first feminist and socialist militant? how did she come to reconcile and understand the cultural sensitivities of these two countries?
Born in 1803 in Paris, Flora is the daughter of Mariano Tristán y Marquis, a colonel of the Spanish Navy born in Peru and Anne-Pierre Laisnay a French exile during the Revolution. The couple met and married in Spain. Unfortunately, Tristán did not go through the paperwork to have the marriage recognized and he suddenly died. Flora was not even 5 years old. The comfortable life they had led abruptly ended and years of financial struggles would follow, forcing Flora to marry at 17 years with André Chazal, an engraver for whom she was working as a colorist. It turned out to be a very unhappy union. Chazal was jealous, and violent with Flora who also had a fiery temperament. Nevertheless, they had three children together, two of them making it to adulthood and her daughter Aline would become the mother of painter Paul Gauguin.
In 1825, Flora, then pregnant with Aline, managed to escape her husband. Divorce was not allowed in France at the time but they will never be getting back together. To support her family, she started working as a maid and that made her particularly sensitive to the plights of workers and women’s conditions.
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In 1833, Flora decided to meet her father’s family in Peru, hoping to be recognized and to get a share of her heritage. The travel to Arequipa, the home of the Tristán family, was long and difficult. She almost died of thirst on the way there. Upon meeting her uncle Pio Tristán y Moscovo, the head of the family and former Viceroy of Peru, her illusions were shattered. Since her parents’ marriage was never recognized, she was considered illegitimate but still, she would get a small pension. After staying a little bit in Lima on the way back, she could not help but notice the social injustice in Peru. The gap between rich and poor, men and women, Spanish-descended Peruvians, natives, and Afro-Peruvians… This led her to write a book, starting her career as an author: Peregrinations of a Pariah. The book did not please the uncle back in Peru and the pension was cut off.
“The most oppressed man finds a being to oppress, his wife: she is the proletarian of the proletarian.”Flora Tristán
Free from judgment, Flora became a political activist, writing pamphlets, rallying for the cause of women’s condition, but also calling for the end of capital punishment. Socialism was then in its infancy but she was interested, especially in the more utopian side of it. She devised her own kind of socialism which she summarized in the “Workers’ Union” (1843) where she called for the creation of “unions” if the proletariat wanted to become a political force to be reckoned with.
Flora then embarked on a tour around France to promote her book and spread her ideas. Unfortunately, in November 1844, she contracted typhoid fever and died in Bordeaux at 41. Her meetings and discussions with militants and factory workers were published posthumously.
By placing women at the heart of her political thinking, Flora Tristán stated that workers’ and women’s rights were a unified fight and that true emancipation could not happen without the liberation of women. This makes her one of the first modern feminists.