- Women at Work in Preindustrial France
Daryl Hafter’s book examines women who worked in cloth production in two of France’s key centers of that trade, Rouen and Lyon. In the former city, women could become members and even masters in a number of guilds, eight that were associated with textile production, including linen drapers, spinners, makers of knitted wear, and ribbon-makers, along with the guild [End Page 211] of grain and flour merchants and that of pin and button makers. Hafter has discovered that approximately 10 percent of the guildmasters who had acquired the mastership in their own right in 1775 were women, and another 10 percent were guildmasters’ widows. Each of these groups numbered around seven hundred, not insignificant numbers. In Lyon, textile production, especially that in the city’s famous silk grande fabrique, also depended on women’s work, but the women were not guild members. Instead, the twenty thousand women were auxiliary workers, some working legally and some illegally, primarily preparing thread for master silk weavers.
Hafter’s primary argument is a comparative one: The traditional guild system of France provided advantages for women, just as it did for men, allowing them to become a privileged group with protected rights. Such privileges took precedence over the legal disadvantages of gender, and the guildswomen of Rouen were all marchande publique, the French equivalent of the better-known English legal category femme sole. This meant that they were allowed to act as legal persons on their own, without male approval, even if they were married. And act they certainly did. Much of Hafter’s rich archival source base consists of legal cases in which guildswomen stood up for their activities in production and sales. By contrast, the women who worked in the silk industry in Lyon were disadvantaged by this same system. Because they were never able to become guild members, they had little bargaining power and were, not surprisingly, overworked and badly paid.
Hafter does not simply present a static picture of these two situations, however. She traces the effects of dramatic changes in the technology, organization, and politics of both cloth production and guild organization in France over the long eighteenth century. One chapter focuses on the efforts of reformers such as the finance minister Jacques Turgot to liberalize and “modernize” the economy, which happened at the same time that new types of looms and new styles of fabric were being introduced. Hafter examines the responses of various groups in each city—masters, journeymen, and officials—to these complex changes and explores their impact on women’s work.
The book’s final chapter provides a detailed look at the effects of the French Revolution and its aftermath on guilds in general, on various types of cloth production, and on the situation in these two towns in particular. The Revolution disrupted demand, particularly for luxury goods such as the silk of Lyon, destroyed machines and materials, and transformed workers into refugees. In 1791 all guilds throughout France were suppressed—along with other privileged corporations—a suppression that was not uniformly enforced, but that shaped the forms of economic organization that developed later. Hafter carefully analyzes what all of this meant for male and female workers, concluding that female labor continued to be key to new businesses begun after the Revolution in cloth production. Ultimately, however, women never quite achieved the status they had in the guilds of [End Page 212] Rouen. Hafter is not nostalgic about this—here was privilege accorded to a small group, in her eyes, and not some “golden age” of women’s work—but it is clear that the newer opportunities are on a smaller scale, and that gender is an increasing determinant of women’s work status.
This book focuses on women’s work, but it is about far more than that and will be of great interest to readers of this journal for its discussion of the technology of cloth production, the culture of the workshop, France’s distinctive economic history, and the relationship...