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Reviewed by:
  • Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Mary Lynn Stewart
Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France. By Christine Adams (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. xi plus 251 pp.).

Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood is an institutional history of the thirty to eighty maternal charity societies operating in France, from the original society in Paris founded by Madame de Fougeret in 1788 to the encroachment of state welfare and disappearance of state subsidies to maternal charities in the 1890s (though Christine Adams notes that the Parisian society operated into the 1920s, just not as the primary provider of services to new mothers and infants). Statistics about the number of local societies and members, and the like, are balanced with more detailed accounts of developments in Paris and six provincial cities (Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Rouen, Limoges and Dijon). These sites were chosen because of available archival sources, and to represent different economic, social, and cultural profiles. This multicity approach reveals interesting differences in the level of the provisions in cash (mainly in the amount of the "milk money" and the length of time it was paid to indigent mothers to encourage breastfeeding) and in the composition of the provisions in kind (in a few cases, societies went beyond layettes to cribs and even beds for family members, to reduce the number of adults sleeping with small children). Adams also presents several short biographies of ladies who led these local societies, as well as vignettes about their lobbying of government officials, that enliven the account.

One of the recurring themes in Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood is the charity's relationship with the French state, symbolized by the titular leadership of queens and empresses from Marie Antoinette through Eugenie, but materially based on varying degrees of state support and intervention. Having developed an interest in policies for abandoned children, Napoleon decreed the creation of an Imperial Society with branches in forty-four major cities (although nowhere near that many branches were established or re-established after closing down during the Revolution). Succeeding regimes were less enthusiastic, but continued state support. The relationship between the private and public sector was complex and sometimes tense, because the societies were local and the socially prominent ladies who administered them were usually Catholic and, at least in the opinions of republican and nineteenth century monarchical and imperial officials, too closely associated with legitimist royalists. One of the real contributions of this book is attention to the variations in the membership of the societies, including the presence in some of the larger societies of prominent Protestant and Jewish ladies, and noticing that most of the societies were flexible enough to accommodate changes in social attitudes and public policies. Another source of discord was changing priorities on the part of the many succeeding regimes, notably about designating maternal societies to be of public utility, which several societies thought was unnecessary and cumbersome and accordingly resisted for many years in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s, the emerging welfare state's decision to assist unwed mothers clashed with most societies' insistence on mothers being wed, though no longer necessarily in the church, to qualify for their aid. All of these developments are contextualized by reference to the literature on the mix of private and public assistance, and the importance of local organizations, in the development of the [End Page 1143] French welfare state, as well as to the appropriate national and local political and social histories.

The public versus private narrative that weaves throughout Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood could have been accompanied by disparagement of the social aspirations of the ladies subscribing to these charities or of their smug assumptions that they could inspire proper mothering among the poor. Adams eschews easy criticism. While she cites instances of officials and members using social prestige to attract members, she basically accepts the society's openly proclaimed goals of preserving the lives of infants and encouraging women's maternal and housewifely role and its overt motives of moralizing the family and stabilizing society. She offers examples of women showing greater sympathy to the difficulties faced by poor mothers than public...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1143-1144
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-25
Open Access
No
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