Treadles and history's tread

The Politics of Women's Work
September 12, 1997

One of the orthodoxies of older histories of women's place in the labour force was that the Industrial revolution created a dichotomy between home and work. Whereas in the pre-industrial family economy women were able to combine the tasks of productive work, household duties and child-rearing, in the industrial economy -so the argument went - they were obliged to make hard choices between family and factory.

In recent years, much of the most interesting historical work in the fields of women's history and gender studies has been devoted to calling into question the validity of the older model. Joan Scott, formerly an influential exponent of the home-versus-work dichotomy, now stresses the continuities between women's work in pre-industrial economies. What was new in the 19th century was not women's work itself but the extent to which it was "problematised" - that is, discussed and commented upon by observers troubled by the presence of women in the workplace because it clashed with the predominant discourse that defined women primarily as wives and mothers. Judith Coffin likewise approaches the history of the Paris garment trades from this revisionist, "new cultural history" perspective. As she points out, her subject is not "the history of the garment industry per se" but rather cultural or scientific representations of work.

In France, no sector was more revealing of continuities between pre-industrial and industrial society than the clothing industry, which throughout the 19th century continued to employ French women - many of them married - in massive numbers (1,380,000 in 1906, as compared with 594,000 in 1866) and was increasingly feminised (women comprised 89 per cent of the total labour force in 1906 as opposed to 78 per cent in 1866). Production usually took place in the homes of a dispersed female workforce. Travail a domicile remained a prominent feature of the French economic landscape at the beginning of the 20th century.

It was in the 19th century, however, that sewing came to be seen as quintessentially "women's work". Coffin explains how this transformation came about, following the collapse of the guilds and the establishment of a free labour market, which redefined gender roles at work and exacerbated conflicts between the sexes. (The latter had not been absent under the guild system but had formed part of a wider battle by skilled craftsmen against "'false" or "clandestine" work.) The invention of the sewing machine was similarly crucial in feminising the garment industry. In possibly her best chapter, Coffin shows how the dissemination of the new invention encapsulated many of the vital issues in 19th-century debates about women's work. On the one hand, many moralists railed against any kind of machine work carried out by women. Some doctors even denounced the allegedly erotic consequences of female legs rubbing together while women pedalled their machines. On the other, manufacturers, eager to restrain garment industry wages by employing women workers at minimal wages and alive to the possibilities offered by a mass market for consumer goods, engaged in a strong advertising campaign to sell the sewing machine as the ideal solution to the problem of combining home and work. Their enthusiasm was shared by economists who believed that technology was the key to progress in general and to the emancipation of women in particular. Selling the machine required new types of consumer credit payment schemes as well as new types of advertising. Hence, by the end of the century the sewing machine had replaced the needle as a symbol of femininity.

Coffin does not altogether lose sight of the women workers themselves and in part two, as others have done before her, makes use of the valuable studies carried out into homework by the French Office du Travail. What emerges forcefully from her analysis is the extent to which the home remained a place of productive employment. Bourgeois models of "domesticity" had little relevance to the conditions in many working-class households, nor was the distinction between "private" and "public" any more meaningful. The enquirers were also struck by the degree to which outwork was carried on by women: male homeworkers were rare, and women's gender was therefore used to account for the low wages, excessive hours and poor working conditions of the workforce in the sector.

The investigations of the Office du Travail were both instigated by and contributed to an outcry against "sweated labour" at the turn of the century. Coffin's final section, part three, examines the political stances of trade unionists, feminists and social reformers in the struggle to achieve a minimum wage for domestic workers, which was finally enacted in 1915. Here, however, the author is not always able to do justice to the existing literature on relevant topics (for example on women and social Catholicism). It is a pity, too, that she chooses to end somewhat abruptly in 1915, thereby ignoring the militant protests of 1917 and 1918 in which Parisian dressmakers were very much to the fore. Social historians did not underestimate such events. Nor is Coffin right to assume that the first world war "marked the emergence of new patterns of women's work in the 20th century", as she might have learned from a standard history omitted from her bibliography. Her book, however, is an important and nuanced contribution to cultural perceptions of women's work, all the more attractive on account of its generous use of illustrations to reinforce the arguments in the text.

James F. McMillan is professor of European history, University of Strathclyde.

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

Author - Judith G. Coffin
ISBN - 0 691 03447 8
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £28.50
Pages - 289

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