Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France by Christine Adams (review)
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Reviewed by
Christine Adams. Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 264 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03547-0, $45.00 (cloth).

In this book, Christine Adams joins a growing band of scholars who have investigated the role of women in the numerous philanthropic initiatives of the nineteenth century. Her particular focus is on the Society for Maternal Charity and its campaign to support poor mothers and their infants in Paris and various towns in the French provinces. The general argument is that the wealthy middle- and upper class women who ran these societies brought a “sisterly” approach to helping mothers facing the dire consequences of poverty, stemming from the common experience of childbirth. This encouraged them to hone their political skills when fighting the corner of the poor and [End Page 185] to provide a model for helping poor mothers and their children that would later be adopted by social workers during the twentieth century.

The book, satisfyingly enough, has a clear structure. The beginning covers the foundation and early successes of the Society during the particular circumstances of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The context here is a concern over the large numbers of abandoned children in the towns, given their appallingly high mortality rates—and their burden on the public purse. The founder of the Society, Madame de Fougeret (wife of a receveur général des finances), reasoned that the best remedy would be to prevent such abandonments in the first place by encouraging poor mothers to breastfeed their infants and develop bonds of affection with them. Hence in 1788 she outlined plans for a society that would deliver a substantial cash payment directly to the mother. Paradoxically, although rooted in the ancien regime, and bristling with members of the aristocracy, the Society flourished during the early years of the French Revolution. Members of the Comité de mendicité recognized that to achieve their aim of guaranteeing the “right to subsistence” for all citizens they would need support from private philanthropists and so were prepared to provide state subsidies. The general chaos of the Terror in the mid 1790s forced the Society to cease all activity. Gradually, though, it picked up again in Paris and the provinces under Napoleon. Indeed, his support led to a massive boost in state subsidies, though at the cost of becoming an arm of the imperial government.

The middle section of the book covers the period 1814–1870, under the constitutional monarchy, the Second Republic (1848–1852) and the Second Empire. Again, there was tension with governments as the societies solicited state subsidies but chafed at the bureaucratic interference that inevitably followed. During the 1840s, e.g., they were indignant when ministers in Paris required them to modify their regulations to be accepted as establishments of public utility. The end of the story is the Society’s gradual loss of influence under the Third Republic, from the 1870s onward. It made considerable efforts to adapt to changing circumstances, e.g., shifting its attention from child abandonment, which receded as a problem from the 1860s, to child health and welfare. Their problem was that the fervently Catholic and socially conservative dames who were prominent in the Society, insisting that the mothers they helped must have married in a church, grated with the increasingly anticlerical republicans in government.

The author is for the most part persuasive when handling some of the delicate issues that arise when discussing nineteenth-century philanthropists. She emphasizes the genuine sympathy that the middle- and upper class women felt for the unfortunate mothers they were helping. She agrees with the Society that women were more suited [End Page 186] to the task in hand than men, on the grounds that they were “more sympathetic, more willing to come to the aid of their suffering sisters” (p. 95). There is no doubting that their efforts helped save the lives of thousands of infants and improved standards of mothering among the poor. At the same time, she is aware that the ruling elite (including the women themselves?) saw the generous efforts of the Society’s members as a...


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