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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Europe
  • Judith F. Stone
Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Europe. By Rachel Fuchs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 267 pp. $65.00 cloth $22.99 paper

Fuchs has written an outstanding and ambitious study of gender and poverty in nineteenth-century Europe. Her principal concerns are the circumstances and responses of poor women, explored through the lens of gender with its emphasis on the discursive construction of social categories. She retrieves impoverished European women from historical obscurity and analyzes their various strategies for survival as they faced multiple and diverse hardships during the long nineteenth century, 1770 to 1914. Solidly grounded in the quantitative traditions of social history, this work examines the processes of population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and migration. Fuchs underscores long-term continuities and identifies points of rupture, especially those beginning in the 1880s. She examines the impact of economic change and life-cycle events on women within particular family arrangements. Equally as important, [End Page 265] she analyzes their systems of coping with such changes. These central subjects link the perspectives of social and cultural history.

The book's six chapters combine chronological and thematic approaches. Although the scope encompasses all of Europe, Fuchs focuses extensively on conditions in Great Britain, France, and Germany. She devotes an early chapter to demography, which in many respects set the parameters of poor women's lives. She traces the fluctuations of fertility rates from the mid-century high to the late-century decline. She includes a review of women's various strategies to limit conception. Throughout, she is especially successful in including issues that have often been neglected, such as women's experiences of rural poverty in the mid-nineteenth century. She emphasizes the interactions of key developments, such as the complex links among rural poverty, migration, and urbanization. Fuchs gives considerable attention to the legal framework defining women and poverty. In an early chapter, she carefully analyzes the Napoleonic Code that dominated the continent and relegated women to the status of non-persons. The final chapter examines women's central roles as recipients in the century-long transformation from faith-based charity to state-funded welfare programs.

The study centers mainly on the responses and actions of the poor. Fuchs defines the poor to include the working poor, "paupers" whose condition is the result of a temporary calamity, the chronically indigent, and the destitute. She stresses that the precariousness of working-class employment was the major cause of poverty. Women were also faced with destabilizing life-cycle crises, such as childbirth or old age. The disasters of economic insecurity and life-cycle catastrophes enveloped poor women in what Fuchs calls a "climate of calamities." Fuchs adamantly rejects the concept of a "culture of poverty," and formulates instead a "culture of expedience." She recognizes the often-overwhelming difficulties encountered by poor women and their impressive resilience.

The tone of the book always remains even-handed and calm; Fuchs does not romanticize. Nonetheless, the extraordinary difficulties facing poor women are powerfully conveyed. The skillful use of excerpts from working-class autobiographies and biographies from a variety of periods and places provide a vivid immediacy to this study. Fuchs demonstrates women's abilities to survive, manage their lives, and raise their families. She recaptures and communicates the texture of the past and the diverse experiences of women living in poverty. She starkly identifies the powerful constraints that women faced, providing a portrait of their limited successes and their abject failures. Women's vulnerabilities and their strengths emerge clearly. Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe will be welcome by experts for its breadth and by beginning students as a well-written introduction to a complex and relevant subject.

Judith F. Stone
Western Michigan University


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pp. 265-266
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