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Reviewed by:
  • Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Jean Elisabeth Pedersen
Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France. By Christine Adams (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2010) 251 pp. $45.00

Adams' Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood explores the history and significance of women's contributions to civil society and their substantial participation in the creation of the welfare state by focusing on the activities of the Société de Charité Maternelle (the Society for Maternal Charity). One of the oldest and most important of the private organizations that worked with French national, regional, and municipal authorities to provide assistance for poor mothers and their children, the Société de Charité Maternelle founded its first chapter in Paris in 1788 under the leadership of Anne-Françoise d'Outrement de Fougeret and grew to include more than sixty local chapters in cities across France by 1862. Adams' study of the shifting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fortunes of the Société is particularly rich because it offers a comparative analysis based on extensive work in the archives of no less than seven of these cities, their surrounding regions, and their individual Société sections: Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Rouen, Marseille, Dijon, and Limoges. In each case, Adams shows how the strengths and weaknesses of the city's dominant industries affected the number of poor people that the city had to serve; how the social situations, political orientations, and religious affiliations of the city's philanthropically minded men and women affected the resources they were able to mobilize for the Société from their private purses and the coffers of the state; and how changing political regimes and national priorities affected the facility with which the elite women who joined the Société were able to fulfill their primary mission of encouraging poor mothers to raise their infants themselves instead of sending them away to wet nurses or abandoning them outright.

Although Adams claims that her work draws on "the interdisciplinary tools of gender studies and sociological analysis" (24), her book actually engages most closely with the more purely disciplinary findings of history, especially the political history of European and American public policy, the cultural history of French and British emotions, the social history of modern workers and municipal poverty, the family history of men's and women's relationships to children, the feminist history of male and female reformers, and the women's history of mothers both rich and poor.

Readers who are curious about unusual approaches to history may be particularly interested, however, in the opening of Adams' introduction—a three-page section that builds on her work in the departmental archives of the Rhône to recreate a typical moment in the life of the Société, its volunteers, and its clients. Six eloquent paragraphs ask readers to "imagine the scenario" in which a poor mother who is about to abandon her third child receives a visit from a member of the Société who not only convinces her to keep her new baby but also helps her to retrieve her previous two children from a foundling home and recommence their care (1-3). Adams' touching account illustrates both [End Page 293] the pleasures and the perils of extrapolating from primary sources to recreate the physical and emotional sensations of past events. On the one hand, the story that Adams tells is much more dramatic than Delahante's original report to the Société de Charité Maternelle de Lyon, vividly describing "the crooked steps of the dark, dank lodging," the "overwhelming" smell of the "latrine on the landing," the poor mother's "despair," and her privileged visitor's mixed feelings of "genuine compassion" and "discomfort" (1-3). On the other hand, even though Adams' presentation of the episode seems completely plausible based on the weight of the textual evidence from the by-laws, letters, minutes, financial reports, statistical surveys, conference proceedings, and government publications that she eventually analyzes in the remaining six sections of her book, the question of where to draw the line between verifiable fact and speculative fiction in such a historical recreation remains.

In the end, however, Adams' work should stand...


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pp. 293-294
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