Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

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Impoverished women in 19th century France faced a distinctly different set of circumstances than men of the same social class. Not only did they have new dangers- unwanted pregnancies that might jeopardize their livelihood, the venereal diseases that plagued unregistered prostitutes, etc.- but their options were far more limited.

Eugene Delacriox, La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple (1830). This symbolic image of women revolutionizing France was to some extent realized by working women's activism.

Unlike genteel young women, who might be permitted lessons at a convent, women of the poorer classes, without this opportunity, were confined to menial labor in factories or households, where succumbing to sexual harassment was essentially in their job description.


Occasionally, though, these lower-class women found outlets for their voices. One of the most prominent and revolutionary factions were the Saint-Simonians. "All for the improvement of the most numerous and poorest class" served as the motto of the Globe, the group's official newspaper, and this was hardly an overstatement. Led by Father Enfantin and Monsieur Bazard, the Saint-Simonians were committed to remedying social evils, primarily through improving the situation of the impoverished, but also through striving towards gender equality. Added poignancy was provided by the fact that women were directly involved in the movement, and their presence was actually encouraged-- something that did not occur among the Republican organizations of the time. Suzanne Voilquin, who later emerged as a leading feminist and social critic, was a hat-maker's daughter who worked as an embroiderer; other members such as Madame Bazard, Aglae Saint-Hilaire, and Cecile Fournel, provided an alternative image to that of frivolous salonnières concerning solely with society.


Newspapers provided the major forum for expression their perspective. Women were heavily involved in this as well, and the logical extension were publications such as the Femme nouvelle and the Tribune des femmes, both of which consisted of writings from women like Voilquin. They were immortalized by her as "our poor little papers, created and continued by proletarian women deprived of fortune, social standing, and an elementary education to light our path." They contained impassioned pleas for equal access to education, an improvement in factory conditions, and numerous other related issues that concerned the Saint-Simonians as a unit.

Eduard Manet, Woman Pouring Off Water (1858). The conditions of rural women, often neglected by social reformers, was addressed extensively by the Saint-Simonians, making them one of the most inclusive such groups.


The Saint-Simonians drew heavily on Biblical text for the social views. Indefinite progress was their mantra, which was in turn linked to a notion of God-given liberty for all people. Therefore, the poor classes required assistance because their financial situation suppressed them so greatly. Inextricable overlap between social, economic, and moral principles was key to their doctrine. Even their belief in equal rights for women was founded on religious grounds. Father Enfantin himself was quoted as proclaiming, "Women, like us, you are in God! Thus it is your right to be free! Show yourselves, make yourselves known, we will respect your words and your acts." Through the means of the Saint-Simonian group, many working-class women did just that.