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Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century.

Our understanding of the experience of working-class women has increased markedly since those ambitious but inconclusive debates of the 1970s which, from only a narrow research base, discussed whether wage work for women in the nineteenth century disrupted families and brought greater independence for women or whether greater female labour market participation merely meant heightened exploitation in a patriarchal and capitalist society. In the past decade increasing numbers of research monographs have addressed the problem of working-class women m urban and industrial societies and altered the focus of attention. In contrast to earlier work, these studies have emphasized that women were not merely passive victims but exercised at least some control over their destiny and that they played a more important role than previously supposed, not just in family economies but in working-class cultures as a whole. Some recent research has even begun to reassess the lived experience of single working-class women. Rachel Fuchs, who in a previous book analyzed child abandonment in nineteenth-century Paris, now proposes a study that examines a major facet of the life of women in the French capital at this time: how poor urban women experienced their fertility, coped with pregnancy, and attempted to exercise some control over their destinies through family limitation, through birth control, abortion, infanticide, or child abandonment. She seeks to concentrate on the single mother who faced the most severe and complicated problems. However, since she is never really able to separate their experience from that of working-class women, she is forced to study poor women as a whole. Her principal sources are elite discourse on the pregnant poor, a few scattered published sources left by private charities but, above all, the records of those charged with policing giving aid to mothers in need. She uses these sources to examine elite attitudes and to show how changing attitudes influenced welfare programmes and to try to explore women's experience of their fertility and the wider problem of gender and class relations.

Her problematic is clearly an important one in feminist historiography. It promises, first, to further deepen our understanding of the mind sets of elites and the welfare policies they adopted, thus adding to the already extensive theoretical and historical literature on social policies and gender relations. It promises, secondly, to shed light on an as yet little-studied group, single women in the city. Such light is much needed for women alone constituted a significant group: not only did nineteenth-century cities shelter a larger proportion of single women than did rural areas, they also had important numbers of female-headed households. Claudia Goldin ("The Economic Status of Women in the Early Republic: Some Quantitative Evidence," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16 (1986): 375-404), for example, has shown that one in six households in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century was headed by a woman; the proportion in the present-day United States is only slightly greater at one in five. Another scholar, Joanne Meyerowitz (Women Adrift. Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, Chicago, 1988), has even suggested that women alone successfully created their own networks and solidarities and, by defying conventions in their sexual relationships with men, laid the economic roots of modern sexual expression. Third, Fuchs's examination of women and their fertility, and her intention to show that women attempted to exercise some control over it, should also be a useful way to explore families, networks, even cultures and gender relations. Her use of elite sources to seize the experience of women, finally, raises important questions about decoding sources to recreate lives that leave but fleeting direct traces in surviving documents.

Unfortunately, Fuchs's research yields convincing answers only on the first of these issues. Her study is particularly strong on the attitudes of Parisian elites, and over a quarter of her text is devoted to demonstrating how and why these changed over the century. Down to 1870 discussions of the social problem represented by poor pregnant women centred around fears of the danger that they would reproduce "the dangerous classes." By the early Third Republic, however, reformers were more concerned with the problems of depopulation and high infant mortality in the capital than they were with working-class morality. Fuchs successfully shows how these changed attitudes redefined the social question and how the poor and pregnant came to be perceived less as evidence of widespread immortality than as society's victims. She also shows that, apart from the lying-in and foundling hospitals run by the city, the major relief effort down to the 1870s came from religiously inspired private charities which directed their assistance less to single women than towards helping deserving married mothers and to encouraging single mothers to legalize their unions. Only after 1870 was there put in place what Fuchs aptly terms a "welfare patriarchy," when increased aid was given for childbirth and for infants, though still far short of the needs of the poor whether married or single. Alongside this, the major achievement of her study, Fuchs also offers an analysis of the control that working-class women were able to exercise over their fives by controlling their fertility. Her discussion, though, remains general and is only able to confirm what we already know about working-class fertility control before the twentieth century. Her analysis also corroborates what other studies of domestic servants in Paris and elsewhere have already suggested: their vulnerability to finding themselves pregnant and alone, which explains why they were so heavily represented among poor women at the lying-in hospital and other groups in receipt of aid.

We must also note what Fuchs does not do. She is not able, first of all, to determine how many single mothers there were in Paris and whether illegitimacy rates fluctuated across the century. She claims (p. 36) that "Parisians lived in a world in which illegitimacy was an overwhelming social problem." This was certainly a tenor of elite discottrse on working-class mores and official statistics appear to indicate that one in four births was illegitimate. To determine whether this was really the case, though, we would need to know how many of these were to non-resident women who only came to the capital to have their babies and how many of the babies recorded as illegitimate were born to women who actually lived in consensual unions (which probably made up one union in five in the French capital at this time). Second, since Fuchs does not do so, readers are left to make their own calculation as to what proportion of poor women received succour from private or public welfare agencies. It would seem, though, that even at the end of the century when programmes greatly expanded, under half of those in need of aid actually received any. The majority of poor women, then, are not present in Fuchs's sources. Obvious source deficiencies prevent the author from establishing the specificity of Parisian women's changing recourse to birth control, abortion, or infanticide. However, it has long been argued that infanticide was less widespread in cities than in rural areas, and it is certainly the case that prosecutions for this crime in the Seine department were well below the national average throughout the century. Fuchs does not address this issue. She does try to analyze place of birth, marital status, and occupation of mothers receiving aid but the usefulness of her computations is limited because she makes no attempt to compare them with the demographic and professional distribution of the female population as a whole. More importantly, women's experience would have been more clearly grasped had the author attempted to establish demographic patterns and, above all, of course, nuptiality, natality, fertility, and mortality rates for women. If we are to understand poor women's experience of childbirth we need to know something about mortafity rates among momen of childbearing age and, in particular, whether, as Arthur E. Imhoff ("La surmortalite des femmes mariees en age de procreation: un indice de la condition feminine au XIXe siecle," Annales de demographie historique, 1981, 81-97) has suggested was the case in German cities, rates mere high because women were overworked and undernourished. We also need to establish death rates in childbirth to discover whether, as elsewhere, these rates were somewhat lower than women's poor physiological conditions and risks of infection would have led us to expect. Some discussion of perinatal and infant mortality through the century would also have helped us understand attitudes and behaviour. We already know from earlier studies that these death rates mere frighteningly high (Etienne van der Walle and Samuel Preston, "Mortalite de l'enfance au XIXe siecle a Paris et dans le departement de la Seine," Population 29 (1974): 89-107) and Anthony S. Wohl (Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, London, 1983) entitled his chapter on infant mortality in England at this time "The Massacre of the Innocents." Most significantly, however, Fuchs is largely unsuccessful in her objective of showing "how women negotiated their environment and, in some respects, helped to shape it" (pp. 1-2). Thus on more than one occasion she indicates she is aware that poor women with infants may have had networks of kin and friends who provided information on abortifacients and abortionists, and aid in birthing and childcare. She is not able to uncover any evidence of their existence or importance.

Some of these failures, of course, were inevitable. The attitudes, behaviour, and solidarities she seeks to uncover leave but furtive traces in surviving documents. For any period attitudes towards motherhood and children, towards sexuality, attempts to control fertility, mutual aid between women, and even between women and men (the latter are notably absent from Fuchs's study except as administrators and reformers) when the principal means of birth control is coitus interruptus, are destined to remain elusive to the historian. For the Paris before 1870, indeed, the sources are especially lacunar because the fires of the commune consumed many dossiers, including all civil registration records, held at the police and departmental archives. Besides, the demographic systems of nineteenth-century cities remain little studied and too little research has yet been done on how patterns differ across class and between genders. There is a further barrier: the records of hospitals and relief agencies Fuchs uses cannot be persuaded to yield many insights into women's control over their fertility, survival strategies, or demographic patterns. The studies which have been most successful in revealing women's experience, informal networks, and their role in working-class cultures are those, like Elizabeth Ewen's on women immigrants in New York (Women in the Land of Dollars. Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 1890-1925, New York, 1985), the work of Francoise Cribier and Catherine Rhein on immigrants in Paris in the twentieth century (Une generation de Parisiens arrive a la retraite, Paris, 1978 and "Jeunes femmes au travail dans le Paris de l'entre-deux guerres," doctoral thesis, Universite de Paris VII, 1977), or even more tellingly by Elizabeth Robert and Carl Chinn on working-class women in industrial cities in Britain (A Woman's Place. An Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890-1940. Oxford, 1984, and They Worked All Their Lives. Women of the Urban Poor in England, 1880-1939, Manchester, 1988), which have used not elite sources but oral history techniques.

We must concede, then, that Fuchs faced grave source problems and was unable to call upon oral testimony. We might also point out, however, that her manner of interrogating some of her sources poses problems and that her source base is too narrow and could have been widened. Thus she attempts a statistical analysis of the registers of La Maternite, the Paris lying-in hospital, which she describes (p. 21) as offering "an unparalleled look at the poor and pregnant of Paris over the course of the century." To do this she takes random samples which she then uses to determine the characteristics of the poor women patients there. At well under 1 per cent of entries her sample is too small since it is generally agreed that a minimum of 10 per cent is needed to be statistically representative. There are also source s that Fuchs chose not to consult. She does not mention but she was probably right not to use published data on prosecutions for abortions and infanticides available for every department from 1825 onwards in the Compte general de l'administration de la justice criminelle, because such cases represent only a tiny and not necessarily representative fraction of the crimes committed. However, she might usefully have examined the registers of the Paris morgue which dutifullty recorded all the bodies of foetuses and newborns discovered in latrines, sewers, streets, and waterways and thus offer raw data unaffected by whether the police were able to find those responsible or decided to prosecute. She might also have consulted the archives of some of the private charities which helped poor pregnant or nursing mothers or helped those in consensual unions enter into legal marriage. By far the most surprising gap in her sources, however, are the quinquennial population censuses which are especially rich for the later nineteenth century, the period for which Fuchs's other sources are richest. Censuses and etat civil records certainly pose difficulties for the researcher and especially those of under-registration and mislabelling of causes of death. There can be no question, though, as to whether their interrogation would have helped Fuchs find some answers to her most important questions. Long ago, historical demographers used parish registers to reveal the existence of a demographic model peculiar to early modern Europe, a crucial element of which was how women's fertility was controlled. Historians of nineteenth-century cities and the working class have also used census returns and manuscript censuses to understand demographic, family, labour-market, and mobility patterns.

Poor and Pregnant in Paris, then, is an important study, though less for the answers it furnishes than for the questions and problems of source and method it raises and the avenues for future research it opens. Its publication should stimulate historians of women and the working class to further reflect on how surviving sources can be decoded and cajoled to reveal glimpses of ordinary lives and cultures and, in particular, how to use census data to yield some of those funestes secrets that other sources refuse to reveal to us. Its publication should encourage others to undertake much-needed research on the lived experience of working-class women.
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Author:Ratcliffe, Barrie M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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