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Nineteenth Century French Working Women: Love, Marriage and Children

Kelly Grear

    While most members of the French laboring class experienced great hardships during the nineteenth century, women were presented with a very unique set of circumstances, making their experience unlike that of men. Aside from the general trials of the time, such as inadequate nutrition, hard work and poor hygiene, French women were also charged with the responsibility of the home, their husbands, children, parents and often times in-laws. They were asked to manage all of these tasks while being second-class citizens with little protection or respect. A brief overview of their home lives, including love, marriage and children, will shed much more light on the struggles of nineteenth century French working women.

    Working women in France filled a variety of occupations, but generally not in the same sphere as their male counterparts. Working women of this time generally did work outside the home. They would manage household affairs and the children. Many women did, however, perform tasks for pay inside the home. It was not uncommon for women of this time to work as seamstresses, embroiderers or laundry maids. These occupations allowed them to remain in the home while also providing a supplemental income.

    Certainly love existed in nineteenth century France, but it presented itself in a very different form from the romantic love we think of today. In many instances it seems that love was not the catalyst for marriage, but rather developed thereafter. There are numerous instances of arranged marriages. Within these arrangements the primary focus was economic security. However, many relationships developed into great respect and love. Martin Nadaud writes that, "a masonís greatest pleasure, upon returning to his village, was to take his wife to the nearest town on the very next Sunday" (185). He writes of a great celebration that conveyed honor and pride and most importantly, a reunited family. This reunited family most certainly pleased the wife, who had spent years managing the farm and raising the children alone. While the period of togetherness was brief, it did provide a small amount of relief.

    During this time in French history, marriages were seen as a necessity. People generally married within their socio-economic class and with someone from the same region. Marriages were often initiated by the parents for economic reasons, but also by mutual friends. There was generally a short courting period in which the couple and their families became acquainted before a marriage was settled upon. This period was seen with varying levels of zeal, depending on the circumstances of the arrangement. Martin Nadaud writes of "never missing a chance to go three or four times a week to visit his fiancee" (239).

    While the union of marriage is usually difficult for anyone, it was much more stressful in France during this period. Not only were couples attempting to have a happy marriage, they were also trying to provide for a family. In many cases, the women were the backbone of family life. Martin Nadaud writes of his grandmother, calling her "the guiding spirit of our family" (190). Women were seen as the caretakers of the home and children. They served as maids, cooks, hostesses, disciplinarians, accountants, and peacemakers. Many of the laboring class families were also rural, farming families. With the males of the household typically traveling for their occupations, the women were also left with the management and maintenance of the farm. Jeanne Bouvier writes of her tasks, saying, "I would help my mother do all the little farm chores: hoeing, gleaning, and gathering grass for the animals" (340). Women were faced with undoubtedly a long list of physically and emotionally stressful tasks each day.

    Caring for the children of the household was yet another task left to the women. The levels of emotional attachment varied, however, from family to family. Jacques Etienne Bede recalls "being detested by my unhappy mother and mistreated by my older sister" (50). His situation was similar to numerous others, but it was not caused by lack of heart. The dreary situation could more rightly be blamed for lack of resources. Women were often left to care for children who they could not support and were often forced to turn children, especially male children, away at a very early age to care for themselves. A very different story is seen through Agricol Perdiguierís statement, "my mother, that good and courageous woman, paid the fees for her daughters [education] with the money she earned (all the while she was managing her considerable household) by making little childrenís bonnets, a task at which she excelled. My father only paid for his sons" (119). It seems that when provided with sufficient means to care of a family, women did so with the utmost care and respect. There are many instances of women sacrificing themselves for their children to ensure they would lead a more successful life than the previous generation.

    Life in nineteenth century France certainly posed many difficulties for its working class population. Women however, often bore the brunt of the difficulties and had fewer resources with which to deal with them. Women often labored from dawn until dusk with housework, paid labor and farm tasks. They were often times left alone for long periods and faced many more difficulties than did males. However, women of the era persevered and survived and seemed to carry a level of pride and morality throughout their lives, which aided all around them.

 

 

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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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