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  • Illuminating Poverty and Social Policy:Rachel Fuchs's Contribution to the History of the French Welfare State
  • Laura L. Frader (bio)

Inspired by the stories of poor women, mothers, and abandoned children in such works as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a novel to which she returned many times, Rachel Fuchs gravitated towards the study of those who many scholars marginalized or entirely left out of the historical narrative, those at the bottom of the social ladder—the poor, the abandoned, and, particularly, working-class women. In her many books and articles, she uncovered the lives of impoverished women, carefully mined archives and the observations of government officials, and examined the French state's response to those in need. Her work on the welfare state and social policy made several important contributions to a field where historical work on these topics was just beginning.

Unlike those who focused on welfare state institutions as gender neutral, Fuchs showed how ideas about sexual difference shaped the contours of public assistance from the very beginning. As she demonstrated, the fact that women were prominent among the poor and were widely considered legally and socially dependent meant that ideas about gender difference inflected the development of state policies addressing the plight of foundlings, poor pregnant women, and mothers. While historical and sociological research had focused primarily on the "top-down" initiatives that marked the development of allegedly gender-neutral state welfare, Fuchs's careful analysis of the archival records permitted her to look not only at state policies and institutions but also at the gendered discourses of poverty that shaped them. In addition, whereas some historians viewed the welfare state as principally a response to France's demographic deficit in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with policies to encourage births by providing assistance first to needy families and eventually to all French families, Fuchs showed how this history was much older and more complex and could be traced to the French state's response to the problems of infant abandonment and single and poor motherhood. Equally important were the stories of those who most needed assistance and whose predicaments led to the development of social policies to aid them. Fuchs keenly demonstrated the agency of even the most impoverished and needful women who mobilized social networks to deal with childcare or to learn about the public [End Page 161] assistance resources available to them. The women she studied fashioned what she called "a culture of expediencies," inventing ways of managing the calamities of daily life. These major contributions appeared throughout much of her substantial body of work: from her early examination of state responses to the problem of abandoned children; to her path-breaking work on poor, pregnant women in nineteenth-century Paris; to her synthetic study of gender and poverty in Europe; and her efforts to understand the actors who shaped public policies on children and motherhood. Several major works provide examples of these important contributions.

Fuchs's first book, Abandoned Children, pushed the origins of state welfare back to the eighteenth century and to the first state institutions that were developed to deal with abandoned children.1 From the eighteenth century forward, the state gradually assumed responsibility for the care of foundlings, displacing charity and the contributions of religious institutions. The French Revolution, which nationalized church property, helped to propel this change, as did shifting attitudes towards abandoned children. Revolutionaries believed foundlings needed assistance and moved away from the pre-revolutionary notion of the abandoned child as the product of illegitimacy and the symbol of women's immorality. Fuchs showed how by 1811, the state took over the protection of abandoned children by creating a system of foster care and how the safekeeping of abandoned children shifted over the course of the nineteenth century. In her view, these gradually evolving social policies did not constitute merely a system of social control through the imposition of a particular model of the family upon the poor. By the late nineteenth century, increasing and genuine concern about child welfare and well-being accompanied the "tutelary regime" of state assistance. The history of child abandonment, as Fuchs demonstrated, also revealed a richer picture of social...


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pp. 161-186
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