Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Policing Poor Women

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"[Javert] folded the paper and handed it to the sergeant of the guard, saying: 'Take three men, and carry this girl to jail.' Then turning to Fantine: 'You are in for six months.' The hapless woman shuddered. 'Six months! six months in prison!" cried she. 'Six months to earn seven sous a day! but what will become of Cosette?'"

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

The notion of "the dangerous class," already evolving as a result of the tension between rich and poor, solidified in 1828. An official report from the general inspector of highways, Louis Daubanton, vividly displayed the burgeoning population and squalid living conditions of the poorer districts. Yet he did so in such a manner that the poor were seen as the cause of these problems. The perpetuating of this image- that the lower classes were dirty and uncontrolled- persisted throughout the years to come, and was evidenced in the police's treatment of poor individuals. Coupled with the prevalence of prostitution and sexist attitudes, impoverished women were targetted with even greater frequency and severity.


Jeanniot, At the Station, from Les Misérables. Hugo writes Fantine's arrest so that it is blatantly unjust, perhaps in an attempt to outrage his audience. The police troops in 19th century France were highly classist and sexist, and therefore, poor women bore the brunt of their prejudices.

Women were particularly prone to police persecution if there was suspicion that they were prostitutes. Cafes proved prime grounds for such arrests; indeed, prostitution was rampant in many establishments. But numerous innocent women also found themselves suffering as a result of this prevailing stereotype. One interesting dimension of this occurrence is the profession of falsely accused women. Breaking down the demographics, out of the total group charged with prostitution, a staggering 26.5% were actually in domestic work-- although they composed only 8.1% of women arrested overall. This reverts to yet another stereotype: that domestic servants were promiscuous because they were so frequently seduced (naturally, no blame was attached to males of the household).


"As [the girls] ran they were talking to each other. The taller one said in a very low voice: 'The cognes came. They just missed pincer me at the demi-cercle.' The other answered: 'I saw them. I cavale, cavale, cavale.' Marius understood, through this dismal argot, that the gendearmes, or the city police, had not succeeded in seizing these two girls, and that the girls had escaped."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Marius Book XIII, Chapter II


Other common offenses women were charged with included slander and public drunkenness. Both of these allegations reveal the law's inherent sexism. Slander and gossip were considered exclusively feminine traits, products of a babbling tongue. And while drunkenness was certainly not gender specific, only in women was it deemed so inappropriate that it was a criminal offense.