The Working Classes in Revolutionary France

Women's Occupations
Workers

Works Cited

 Although Victor Hugo gives us Fantine as his example of the working woman, and Fantine is shoved deeper and deeper into poverty and desperation by her circumstances, most working women of this time period did not meet her fate. Women of this time had very limited occupational opportunities, but each occupation had pluses and minuses, and women were able to make the best of what they had.

 

Women were able to obtain employment as

Seamstresses

Domestic Servants

Factory Workers

 

 

Embroiderers working at home

Bibliotheque Forney, Paris

as found in Traugott

 Seamstresses

A job as a seamstress was the most highly respected job a woman at this time could obtain. The high degree of respect was an important draw for most of the women who were seamstresses, as it could help to better her marriage prospects. Since marriage was the major method of upward mobility for women at this time, making a better marriage was one of the most sought after goals. In addition, seamstresses often worked out of their own homes, and had great freedom over their work. They could choose which assignments to take, and when to work at them.

On the other hand, there was a down side to becoming a seamstress. the work was the least well paid of all the options open to women, and it could often be sporadic, or sometimes nonexistant. In addition, a seamstress had to undergo a two year apprenticeship, during which she was not paid. Many families, who were sending their daughters to work as a last resort, could not afford either the two years of lost wages, or the chance of sporadic work. For these reasons, it was an option that was only open to the wealthier members of the working class.

 

 

Caption under "Le blanchissage"

The duties of a domestic servant typically included many hours of laundry.

Bibliotheque Forney, Paris

as found in Traugott

 Domestic Servants

The second most respected option was to work as a domestic servant. Being a domestic servant had some real possibilities as far as improving one's marriage propsects. Many domestic servants of the time used their opportunity to associate with the upper classes to study and learn upper class manners and mannerisms, which served them well on the social scene. They also made the most of the people they met, some even married men from a higher class that they met while working as a domestic servant. They were able to meet many people that they would not normally come into contact with. In addition, many young girls parents urged them to take jobs as domestic servants because they felt they could be sure of a certain level of care that their daughters would receive. She would not be left in the city to rely on her own devices for food and shelter. They also knew that their daughters would be well supervised, and have less chance of being taken advantage of or becoming pregnant as Fantine did.

The downsides to being a domesetic servant were powerful as well. The young woman would have almost no freedom, as she would be constantly supervised by her employers, and would be expected to be constantly on call as well. In addition, the positions were often far away, for at least part of the year when the upper classes journeyed to Paris. Although the girl would stay in emotional contact with her family through letters, as well as sending back the larger portion of her earnings, the seperation could often be difficult for both the family and the woman.

 

"The Departure," an engraving by Bauce, The Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. as taken from Traugott

depicts a woman leaving home is search of paid labor. She will probably find work either as a doemestic servant or as a factory worker.

 Factory Workers

Factory work was the best paying job awoman could obtain. This made it an attractive option for those families who were particularly desperate. The wages were also paid much more consistantly and relaibly than the other jobs. In addition, factory work was attractive to some women because of the relatively high degree of freedom it allowed them. Their working hours were supervised, of course, but after work a woman was free to do as she pleased.

As with the other occupations, becoming a factory worker also had important downsides to consided. The most important was that society considered the women who worked in factories to be morally suspect. And even those women who never engaged in other suspect activities could have their marriage prospects permanently darkened because it would often be assumed that they had. Victor Hugo provides us with an instructive example here when he talks about Fantine and her friends from the factory, and the grissettes. They are considered to be the type of women that a man might sow his wild oats with, but then move on to marry a respectable woman.