Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Politics of Women's Work

The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades, 1750-1915

Judith G. Coffin
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvbk0
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Politics of Women's Work
    Book Description:

    Few issues attracted more attention in the nineteenth century than the "problem" of women's work, and few industries posed that problem more urgently than the booming garment industry in Paris. The seamstress represented the quintessential "working girl," and the sewing machine the icon of "modern" femininity. The intense speculation and worry that swirled around both helped define many issues of gender and labor that concern us today. Here Judith Coffin presents a fascinating history of the Parisian garment industry, from the unraveling of the guilds in the late 1700s to the first minimum-wage bill in 1915. She explores how issues related to working women took shape and how gender became fundamental to the modern social division of labor and our understanding of it.

    Combining the social history of women's labor and the intellectual history of nineteenth-century social science and political economy, Coffin sets many questions in their fullest cultural context: What constituted "women's" work? Did women belong in the industrial labor force? Why was women's work equated with low pay? Should not a woman enjoy status as an enlightened homemaker/consumer? The author examines patterns of consumption as well as production, setting out, for example, the links among the newly invented sewing machine, changes in the labor force, and the development of advertising, with its shifting and often unsettling visual representations of women, labor, and machinery. Throughout, Coffin challenges the conventional categories of work, home, and women's identity.

    Originally published in 1996.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6432-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-16)

    “Up to this point,” wrote Jules Simon in 1860, “the needle has been the woman’s tool par excellence. . . . More than half of the women who live from their labor are armed with a thimble and needle. That is a very large battalion.”¹ As Simon saw it, however, battalion’s weapons provided only a paltry defense against the perils of modern life: the inexorable combination of technological change, steam power, and market forces that promised to crush women’s traditional work. The needleworkers inL’ouvriére (The Woman Worker), as Simon’s study was titled, vividly illustrated what the author deemed the...

  6. Part I: Redefining Gender and Work

    • Chapter One WOMEN’S WORK? MEN AND WOMEN, GUILD AND CLANDESTINE PRODUCTION IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY PARIS
      (pp. 19-45)

      More than a woman worker, a seamstress is part of a social and cultural enterprise that we have come to consider distinctively feminine. Making clothing, creating fashion, maintaining wardrobes, and dressing families all seem indissolubly gendered. Yet the image of sewing as a womanly activity is relatively recent. So is the gradual feminization of the needle trades, a trend produced by several related developments in the eighteenth century: the expansion of the clothing trades, protracted battles waged by women’s guilds, and the growth of clandestine, non-guild, labor. These developments changed the character of women’s work in eighteenth-century Paris and set...

    • Chapter Two MACHINERY, POLITICAL ECONOMY, AND WOMEN’S WORK, 1830–1870
      (pp. 46-73)

      The industrializing process did not entail just factories or machines. Changes in the labor market, intensified rhythms of work, and new techniques of production all proved equally significant to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century businesses. Still, machinery and technology riveted the attention of nineteenth-century economic thinkers and social observers. The new devices and procedures embodied the mingled sense of newfound power and powerlessness that contemporaries felt in the face of the anonymous forces of industry. They seemed to be the crux of the multiple transformations that so fascinated those who witnessed them: changes in the nature and organization of work as well...

    • Chapter Three SELLING THE SEWING MACHINE: CREDIT, ADVERTISING, AND REPUBLICAN MODERNITY, 1870–1900
      (pp. 74-118)

      An 1880 pamphlet published by the Singer sewing machine company doubted whether “the history of the entire world” could “furnish an instance in which any single house . . . has had a growth so stupendous within an equal amount of time.”¹ In France as elsewhere, such pamphlets were distributed at world’s fairs, given out in department stores, and carried by traveling salesmen or dry goods merchants into the countryside. Imitating the style of popular broadsheets and almanacs, brochures likeLes merveilles de l’industrieexulted in the “miracles” of technology and tried to conjure them up for their readers. And...

  7. Part II: The Factory in the Home

    • Chapter Four THE REVIVAL OF HOMEWORK: MANY ROUTES TO MASS PRODUCTION
      (pp. 121-140)

      Economic historians of early industrial Europe have long assigned homework—in this context called putting out or cottage industry—a central role in the preliminary fits and starts of the industrial revolution.¹ It is also common knowledge that putting out was the predominant form of industrial organization in the early nineteenth century, although nineteenth-century historians often describe it as a lingering “traditional” form of production—a halfway step on the road from household manufacturing to large-scale factory organization.² If we are to understand the changing landscape of industrial Europe, grasp the dynamics of industrialization, or appreciate the centrality of female...

    • Chapter Five MARRIED WOMEN’S WORK: WAGE EARNING, DOMESTICITY, AND WORK IDENTITY
      (pp. 141-170)

      The legions of homeworkers formed what one early-twentieth-century observer called a “second industrial army.”¹ It is impossible to measure with any precision the size of this army. Much homework was hidden away from census takers, industrial surveys, and work inspectors. The seasonal variations in the labor force were so dramatic that manufacturers could not say how many persons they employed at any time of the year.² Finally, the census never used the same categories from one count to the next; at some times it grouped homeworkers with industrial laborers, at others the government created a separate rubric called “isolated workers.”...

  8. Part III: The Gender Politics of Sweated Labor

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 171-174)

      The resurgence of homework in the late nineteenth century was an international phenomenon. Throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, regional shifts in industry, changing patterns of work in family economies, new markets for consumer goods, protective legislation for female factory labor, and waves of immigration from east to west contributed to the high profile of industrial homework. Rising concern about this situation was also international. By the time the French Office du Travail published its studies in the 1910s, there were already hundreds of English, American, Belgian, and German studies of what was called home industry or manufacturing,heimarbeit, travail...

    • Chapter Six UNIONS AND THE POLITICS OF PRODUCTION
      (pp. 175-200)

      In 1898, Aline Valette, factory inspector, feminist, member of the Guesdist Parti ouvrier français, and delegate of a seamstresses’ union, penned a series of articles on women in trade unions for Marguerite Durand’s newly founded feminist newspaper,La Fronde.¹ Valette had been an inspector in Paris, and she sought to explain the obstacles to organizing Parisian working women. She did so following her version of Marxism, tying social consciousness to the social organization of production. Match and cigar makers, sugar workers, printers, weavers, glove makers, spinners, and so on were attentive to union appeals. “Laboring collectively, suffering collectively, they are...

    • Chapter Seven SOCIAL SCIENCE AND THE POLITICS OF CONSUMPTION
      (pp. 201-228)

      Labor’s urgent debates about women’s work formed part of an unprecedented groundswell of reform opinion on the subject. At the turn of the century, a small army of sociologists, political economists, and legal commentators—male and female, amateur and expert, working- and middle-class threw themselves into the fray. So, too, did all those concerned with what was then called the “woman question.” The debate over women’s industrial work and the range of literature it created would have been unimaginable but for the energies unleashed by late-nineteenth-century feminism. The nexus of economic and cultural concerns that this topic represented compelled attention...

    • Chapter Eight THE MINIMUM WAGE BILL: WORK, WAGES, AND WORTH
      (pp. 229-250)

      In France, across Europe, and in the United States, the early-twentieth-century crisis over women’s work and sweating created the context for a critical milestone in social legislation—the first minimum wage bills. Previous reform efforts had focused on working conditions and hours. After 1900, and largely as a result of the anti-sweating campaigns, reformers began to urge intervention in the wage itself. The French state edged toward new policies reluctantly, worried about the implications of its undertakings. For if the social science literature had helped erode older certainties, it had also created new conundrums. The Office du Travail’s studies of...

  9. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 251-258)

    The minimum wage bill dramatizes crucial changes that occurred in the decades around the turn of the century. Under the weight of a protracted economic recession and rising nationalism, liberal, laissez-faire certainties collapsed. A secular and newly authoritative social science stepped into the breach, identifying questions and supplying data to a newly interventionist state. The groundswell of labor, socialist, and feminist militancy brought a new urgency to the debates. Economic difficulties along with a cultural crisis created real dilemmas for conservatives—dilemmas about the character of the French economy, the central role of women therein, and the future of the...

  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 259-274)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 275-289)