Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

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" During these times, she said to a neighbour: 'Bah! I say to myself: by sleeping but five hours and working all the rest at my sewing, I shall always succeed in nearly earning bread. And then, when one is sad, one eats less. Well! what with sufferings, troubles, a little bread on the one hand, anxiety on the other, all that will keep me alive."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Fantine Book V, Chapter IX

The Industrial Revolution that swept through Europe during the 19th century left a dramatic imprint on France as well. On a positive note, the explosion of factories opened up more positions for unemployed workers; however, this phenomenon also brought with it labor segregation. Women were especially conscious of the division between women who worked and those who did not, probably due to the stereotypes that prevailed about the former.
19th century women hardly had access to a wide range of occupations. The majority were involved in the garment trade, domestic servants, seamstresses, laundresses, and, when necessary, prostitutes. Each brought with it a distinct set of challenges. Seamstresses and those in the garment trade generally were responsible for a great deal of work at home. Given the high price of lamp oil, they would squint at their needle and thread by candlelight; many lost their eyesight as a result. Domestic workers, meanwhile, were constantly forced to fend off advances from men of the household. Countless young girls found themselves pregnant, in which case firing was imminent, leaving them penniless and desperate. Negotiating their options- child abandonment, dangerous and crude abortions, or complicating their lives by keeping the infant- proved a difficult task.

Mary Cassatt, Girl Sewing (1878) . Most working women in the lower class found themselves confined to menial labour, particularly in the garment industry.

  Interestingly, the police persecution of women seemed to target particular professions more severely than others. Common allegations included public drunkenness and, due to the burgeoning numbers of streetwalkers, prostitution. Despite the odds against them, a number of working women managed to devote the remainder of their depleted energy to social reform. They were able to speak from experiences that upper class feminists could only summarily comprehend; they railed against a society that denied women equality and kept its people impoverished. Societies such as the St.-Simonians relied heavily on the efforts of working women to advance their cause.