Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France


This far-reaching study of maternal societies in post-revolutionary France focuses on the philanthropic work of the Society for Maternal Charity, the most prominent organization of its kind. Administered by middle-class and elite women and financed by powerful families and the government, the Society offered support to poor mothers, helping them to nurse and encouraging them not to abandon their children. In Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood, Christine Adams traces the Society's key role in shaping notions of ...

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Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France

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This far-reaching study of maternal societies in post-revolutionary France focuses on the philanthropic work of the Society for Maternal Charity, the most prominent organization of its kind. Administered by middle-class and elite women and financed by powerful families and the government, the Society offered support to poor mothers, helping them to nurse and encouraging them not to abandon their children. In Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood, Christine Adams traces the Society's key role in shaping notions of maternity and in shifting the care of poor families from the hands of charitable volunteers with religious-tinged social visions to paid welfare workers with secular goals such as population growth and patriotism.
Adams plumbs the origin and ideology of the Society and its branches, showing how elite women in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Rouen, Marseille, Dijon, and Limoges tried to influence the maternal behavior of women and families with lesser financial means and social status. A deft analysis of the philosophy and goals of the Society details the members' own notions of good mothering, family solidarity, and legitimate marriages that structured official, elite, and popular attitudes concerning gender and poverty in France. These personal attitudes, Adams argues, greatly influenced public policy and shaped the country's burgeoning social welfare system.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Anyone who is interested in the history of the welfare state would do well to read it."--Journal of Interdisciplinary History
"Richly detailed, well grounded in existing historiography, yet fully willing to challenge existing notions. . . . An excellent monograph with applications in a wide variety of national and transnational historical fields, as well as in the study of the history of childhood."--H-Childhood

"An engaging story of the civic associations that women of privilege created and the ways in which women negotiated between their own expectations, public demands, and state interference."--H-France Review

"An absorbing and informative account of the largest and most important women's charity of its time."--French History

"The level of scholarship in the work is most impressive. Adams engages consistently with the historiography in such areas as maternalism, female philanthropy, and the history of the emotions, and she has amassed a substantial body of evidence by trawling through the comptes rendus of the various societies she has studied."--Enterprise & Society.

"Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood enables a fuller understanding of women's participatory activities in building civil society and provides a critical building block in our knowledge about the development of the welfare state. This book is essential for understanding the role of women's organizations and public policy.”--Rachel G. Fuchs, author of Contested Paternity: Creating Families in Modern France

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252035470
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2009
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Christine Adams is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland and the author of A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Maternal Societies in the Nineteenth Century....................1
1. "Moses Saved from the Waters": The Origins of the Society for Maternal Charity....................29
2. "A Grand and Official Institution": The Society for Maternal Charity under Napoleon....................58
3. Modeling Maternal Behavior: Relations between the Dames Visiteuses and the Pauvres Mères Indigentes....................83
4. In the Public Interest: Charitable Associations and Public-utility Status....................113
5. "Seconding the Views of the Government": Maternal Societies and the State....................139
Epilogue: Toward a Welfare State....................171
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First Chapter

Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood

Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France
By Christine Adams

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03547-0


Maternal Societies in the Nineteenth Century

At the general assembly of Lyon's Society for Maternal Charity in March 1847, Madame Delahante, présidente, celebrated the positive social influence of her charitable organization: "Some of these Ladies have also prevented several mothers from placing their children at the Foundling Hospice [Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés]; one of them gave the Maternal Charity's aid to a wretched woman who had already left two of these children at the Enfants-Trouvés and was prepared to do the same with the third; through her advice [conseils] and through her assistance these three children escaped the unhappy fate of abandoned children and were returned to their family and the dignity of legitimate children." Emphasizing the personal ministrations of the dames administrantes whose assistance and "conseils" persuaded the poor mother to keep her newborn and to retrieve two other children from the foundling hospice, Madame Delahante took credit for the happy outcome.

And certainly the outcome seemed happy. Still, the impression left by the vignette of a poor woman nonchalantly abandoning two children and ready to leave a third bears considerable nuancing. The account does not linger on the particulars; however, we can assume that this mother lived in one of the poorest sections of Lyon, perhaps in the center of town, between the right bank of the Saône and the left bank of the Rhône rivers. The dame administrante would not have had to travel far with her servant; the elegant Place Bellecour, home to many of the city's elite families, also lay between the two rivers. We can imagine the scenario. Despite the proximity to her neighborhood, she seems far from her elegant home as she mounts the crooked steps of the dark, dank lodging. The smell from the latrine on the landing is overwhelming. Entering the small attic room, she finds the object of her visit lying on a mattress on the floor, covered in thin, dirty bedclothes, attended by a neighbor who had helped her through childbirth. Her husband, a canut, a weaver, is not present; a victim of the "dead season" in the silk industry, he has left the city in search of temporary employment, or even alms, although proud silk workers were reluctant to beg. The silent loom rises in the corner of the bare room, as clean as an exhausted pregnant woman who had to carry in water could make it. The air is fetid in the closed space; it had been impossible to clean away all the remnants of the recent birth.

Our visiting lady had heard about this poor mother from the local bureau de bienfaisance (municipal relief agency). She has already climbed these stairs once before, to encourage the expectant mother to apply to her organization for assistance, giving her the subscription card to present to the society's secretary-treasurer. Consequently, the poor mother had gone to the home of M. Perret-Lagrive in the ninth month of her pregnancy to give him her registration card, carrying her proof of marriage, along with a certificate of indigence and good behavior issued by the bureau de bienfaisance and her parish priest. She confirmed that she had two living children, omitting the detail that she had been forced to abandon them at the Hospice de la Charité, which receives Lyon's abandoned children and foundlings, when her husband left town. She had hoped that the 100 francs and other assistance that Lyon's maternal charity promised would allow her to keep this baby, rather than abandoning it, as well; the 10 francs she received from M. Perret-Lagrive paid the midwife. However, reality set in, then despair. She realized that she could no more support this child than she could the other two, especially in the absence of her husband. With so little food in the cupboard, she was certain that she would not produce the milk necessary to breast-feed her new baby, as she had promised when requesting aid from the Society for Maternal Charity. She has already confided in her neighbor that she plans to abandon this child, as well.

The dame administrante has been visiting the homes of the poor since she was a girl accompanying her mother on her charitable rounds; she has been in many garrets like these. Her Catholic faith taught her that she must overcome her repugnance at the odor, the filth, and the poverty she confronts each time she makes a home visit; she has read Le visiteur du pauvre by her fellow Lyonnais, the Baron de Gérando, and knows the importance of face-to-face contact with the poor she serves. Her genuine compassion for these poor mothers helps her to mask the discomfort she feels in this hovel.

She kneels beside the woman holding her baby and motions to her servant to set down the bundle containing the layette, the food, and the first month's stipend. "How are you? Where are your other children?" she asks. The mother begins to weep and confesses that she has taken them to the foundling hospice and will be forced to do the same with this child. The dame visiteuse listens sympathetically. While social economists and others decried the immorality of a woman who abandoned her children to the care of the state, and while the regulations of her charitable organization decreed that this mother's actions should cause her to forfeit the society's assistance, her many years of charitable visits have made this dame administrante familiar with the harsh choices that poor mothers faced. In soothing tones, she promises that the society will provide assistance until the return of her husband; she will herself contact the director of the Hospice de la Charité to arrange for the return of her other children. Realizing the delicacy of her mission, she shows much tact, but also a certain authority, indispensable qualities in a "visitor of the poor." The miserable mother, exhausted but grieving at the thought of losing yet another child, agrees.

But surely her life did not become any easier with the return of two small children, and an infant to nurse, even with the pecuniary assistance and visits of her patronnesse, who continued to visit each week, to pray with her, to check discreetly for any evidence of poor use of the society's funds, and to offer advice that sometimes irritated its recipient, however well intended it may have been. The records of the Society for Maternal Charity offer moving insight into a society in which women of the bourgeoisie urged maternal identities upon women of the working class who had abandoned theirs, more often through necessity than neglect. The efforts of the members of this organization to spread their ideals of motherhood among their unfortunate compatriots merit integration into the narrative of the development of the welfare state in France.

Charitable associations were the key source of assistance for poor individuals before the advent of the welfare state. But this does not mean that these associations survived on private funding alone; indeed, the distinction between the private and public provision of social services was, and continues to be, less clear than we might think. In the United States, the second Bush administration's support of "faith-based" organizations, subsidized by federal dollars, to alleviate social problems is only the most recent manifestation of this blurring of the lines. Historians—particularly gender historians—have long questioned the stark division between public and private;5 that binary opposition is particularly problematic in the case of charity and social services before the welfare state, and even after the state began to expand its public-assistance programs. The Society for Maternal Charity was a private organization but received strong support from national, departmental, and municipal governments. In fact, the list of revenues from that same compte rendu of Lyon's society indicates that assorted governmental sources provided it with 7,790 FF in 1846, nearly 40 percent of its total income for that year. Without state subsidies, the Society for Maternal Charity would have found it difficult to carry out its mission.

State intervention to deal with the problem of poverty and its effects on the family is not a product of our times. Rather, governments throughout history have sought the most effective ways to mitigate poverty and its effects on their most vulnerable citizens, always balancing societal needs with cultural and fiscal constraints, and often working through religious or other voluntary associations. This book focuses on one of the most serious sustained efforts in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France to assist poor mothers and their children, the Société de Charité Maternelle (Society for Maternal Charity). The best-known female-controlled charity in post-Revolutionary France, the Society for Maternal Charity was dedicated to providing assistance to poor women and their infant children. It was organized and run by middle-class and elite women and drew support from powerful families throughout France, as well as French regimes as diverse as that of Louis XVI, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic governments, subsequent monarchies, the Second Empire, and the early Third Republic. While the Paris maternal society was the largest and the best funded, provincial branches were organized throughout France. By 1813 there were sixty-two societies in addition to that of Paris; in 1831 the number had dropped to only thirty-two; but by 1853 there were forty-three, and sixty-seven by 1862. By the end of the nineteenth century, at least eighty-one maternal societies existed in France.

The goal of the society was to provide financial assistance and moral guidance to women in childbirth and through the first two years of that child's life, in hopes that the mother would bond with, rather than abandon, the child. To that end, the society also championed contemporary ideas of good mothering, family solidarity, and legitimate marriages. This study, then, deals not only with the philosophy and goals of the society, which foreshadowed a variety of actions taken by the French government in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when laying the groundwork for the welfare state, but it also examines constructions of family and maternity that structured official, elite, and popular attitudes concerning gender and poverty. Indeed, maternal societies constitute the crucial link in the transition from a system in which the care of poor families was largely left in the hands of charitable volunteers promoting their own social vision, to a modern French state in which paid social-welfare workers took the lead in providing assistance and advice to indigent mothers and their children in the service of secular goals, including population growth, social hygiene, and strong, patriotic families.

Seth Koven and Sonya Michel have noted that in the United States and Europe since the nineteenth century, women have usually been the first to identify and respond to the social-welfare needs of mothers and children with various charitable organizations. Anne Firor Scott goes further, noting that "it is possible to argue that since the late eighteenth century, women's organizations have provided a kind of early warning system, identifying emergent social needs and trying to deal with them." The Society for Maternal Charity was a European pioneer in this regard. French governments, whether royal or imperial, provided considerable financial and institutional backing for maternal societies, which supplied material and moral assistance to poor parturient women of good character who were already the mothers of large families. The type of assistance provided to indigent mothers by the Society for Maternal Charity—secours à domicile (home assistance, sometimes referred to as "outdoor assistance"), delivered in person and accompanied by moral advice and surveillance—would serve as a model for future public assistance to poor mothers and families. As early as 1837, Agénor-Étienne de Gasparin, former prefect of the Rhône and future minister of the interior, in his Rapport au roi sur les hôpitaux, les hospices, et les services de bienfaisance (Report to the King Concerning Hospitals, Hospices, and Charitable Services), suggested that a "fine system of home assistance for mothers," along the lines of the Society for Maternal Charity, could replace the nation's foundling hospices. "The Societies for Maternal Charity, whose activities are so bienfaisantes [charitable], provide an example of imposing authority, and it would perhaps suffice to organize these societies on a wider scale." Two years later, noted philanthropist Baron Joseph-Marie de Gérando concurred that the assistance offered by the Society for Maternal Charity could easily be expanded, and taken over, in part, by the public sector. The appearance of numerous charities, following a model similar to that of the Society for Maternal Charity, suggests the popularity of this type of voluntary association, with its emphasis on home assistance. When the provision of state-funded services to children and families increased under the Third Republic, government agencies frequently followed the society's model.

However, it was also under the government of the Third Republic that official support for the Society for Maternal Charity began to wane, as the moralistic and religious underpinnings of the societies came into conflict with the secular purposes of the government, especially as the state's welfare provisions were expanded under the leadership of philanthropists such as Théophile Roussel and Paul Strauss. But even so, the Interior Ministry continued to look upon these societies as allies in its efforts to combat infant mortality and child abandonment, and to promote good mothering and strong families.

My analysis of this charitable organization highlights a number of issues that preoccupied politicians and others in nineteenth-century France and that continued to be relevant in the twentieth century and beyond. Most importantly, the spread of this particular charitable organization reflected the growing concern for children's health and welfare. When the Society for Maternal Charity was first founded in 1788, its primary goal was to prevent the abandonment of legitimate children at the overburdened foundling hospices. Commentators decried the horrific mortality rates of abandoned children, but state administrators were at least as concerned about the cost of caring for abandoned children. The issue of child abandonment continued to resonate with the French government and public throughout much of the nineteenth century and remained a serious problem until the 1860s. By the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, the problem of abandonment had declined significantly. However, infant health, welfare, and hygiene achieved increasing importance. By the third quarter of the century, these new preoccupations would be reflected in legislation regulating the wet-nursing industry, maternity leave, and child protection. Maternal breast feeding, which the society championed vigorously, was of increasing interest to legislators, especially after the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1871 against a backdrop of fears over depopulation and infant mortality.

While the approach to mothering became increasingly "scientific" over the course of the nineteenth century, the promotion of maternal breast feeding, the core of the Society for Maternal Charity's program, had its roots in the eighteenth century, in the Age of Enlightenment, and especially in philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau's sentimental view of motherhood and the crucial role of breast feeding and maternal care in creating a permanent bond between mother and child. The emotional resonance of this imagery, and its potential for ameliorating the effects of poverty, led the founders and later members of maternal societies to emphasize the development and nurturing of these positive emotions to carry out their work.


Excerpted from Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood by Christine Adams Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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