The Origins of the Welfare State: Women, Work, and the French Revolution

The Origins of the Welfare State: Women, Work, and the French Revolution

by Lisa DiCaprio
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University of Illinois Press


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The Origins of the Welfare State: Women, Work, and the French Revolution

In May 1790, the French National Assembly created spinning workshops (ateliers de filature) for thousands of unemployed women in Paris. These ateliers disclose new aspects of the process which transformed Old Regime charity into revolutionary welfare initiatives characterized by secularization, centralization, and entitlements based on citizenship. This study is the first to examine women and the welfare state in its formative period at a time when modern concepts of human rights were elaborated.

In The Origins of the Welfare State, Lisa DiCaprio reveals how the women working in the ateliers, municipal welfare officials, and the national government vied to define the meaning of revolutionary welfare throughout the Revolution. Presenting demands for improved wages and working conditions to a wide array of revolutionary officials, the women workers exercised their rights as “passive citizens” capaciously and shaped the meanings of work, welfare, and citizenship. Looking backward to the Old Regime and forward to the nineteenth century, this study explores the interventionist spirit that characterized liberalism in the eighteenth century and serves as a bridge to the history of entitlements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252030215
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 07/09/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa DiCaprio is a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Washington and Lee University. She is coeditor with Merry E. Wiesner of Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women’s History.

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The Origins of the Welfare State



Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03021-5

Chapter One

Old Regime Charity and Revolutionary Welfare

On the eve of the French Revolution, the subsistence crisis was unprecedented in scope. High bread prices coincided with industrial stagnation and the unemployment of hundreds of thousands of workers throughout France. Continuing through 789, this crisis inspired the militancy of the Parisian populace, which, in a series of dramatic actions, demanded that the government fulfill its traditional role in guaranteeing adequate supplies of affordable bread. In the most famous of these protests, the Women's March on Versailles in October 789, women combined economic and political demands as they marched from Paris to Versailles to call on the king to return to Paris, accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and forsake his power of absolute veto.

Like many aspects of the Revolution, the Women's March on Versailles represented the old and the new. Nearly a century earlier, in the winter of 1708-9, women had marched to Versailles to protest increases in the price of bread and to demand an end to French involvement in the War of Spanish Succession.Each in their own way, the two marches to Versailles illustrate women's leading role in Old Regime protests around subsistence issues. These protests included the food riot, a traditional form of protest against high grain and bread prices. During the Flour War in the spring of 1775, the popular masses carried out three hundred bread riots in eighty-two market towns to protest increases in bread prices caused by a new governmental policy, adopted in the previous year, that allowed for the circulation of grain without governmental regulation. Faced with bread riots of this magnitude throughout France, the government restored its previous controls on the grain trade. The subsistence crisis of 1778 and 1789, however, was unique as it converged with a fiscal and ideological crisis of the Old Regime that compelled the monarchy to convene an Estates-General for the first time since 1614. Instead of maintaining the Old Regime through fiscal reform, the Estates-General set in motion a process that soon led to the abolition of the absolute monarchy.

Out of the Estates-General emerged a new constitutional and representative form of government that fundamentally transformed French politics, economics, and society. From the outset of the Revolution, government policies on bread and employment were decisive in securing and maintaining the allegiance of the popular masses. The fate of the Revolution therefore depended on the new government's ability to improve the economic conditions of the impoverished masses in urban as well as rural areas, and the politics of subsistence remained the driving force of the revolutionary process.

To eliminate the sources of indigence in France, the revolutionary government initiated the process of replacing Old Regime charity with a modern, secular, and centralized system of social welfare that incorporated such Old Regime forms of assistance as state-sponsored work.

Old Regime Precedents for State-Sponsored Work

In eighteenth-century France, during the Old Regime as well as the Revolution, the promotion of state-sponsored work to ameliorate unemployment occurred during a time of economic transformation characterized by the growth of market forces in agriculture and manufacturing. Agricultural production predominated and encompassed an estimated twenty-one million peasants, about 80 percent of the total population of twenty-six million. Approximately 85 percent of the population lived in the countryside. Only nine French cities were inhabited by more than fifty thousand people, seventy cities had populations ranging between ten and forty thousand, and 90 percent of French towns had less than ten thousand people. However, the general trend was in favor of urban growth, and in the last decades of the eighteenth century a third more of the population lived in towns than did at the century's beginning. Paris, the capital and largest city in France, comprised an estimated 640,000 inhabitants. Lyons, the center of the silk industry, was the second-largest city with about 45,000 people, of whom around sixty thousand were employed in the silk workers' guild.

The manufacturing sector was also expanding, as industries such as shipbuilding, metallurgy, and textiles grew along with France's thriving commercial sector, which included the Atlantic trade. With few exceptions, however, such as Lyons, most manufacturing on the eve of the Revolution was centered in rural areas, transforming the lives of peasants in the process. The textile industry assumed a leading role, not only with respect to the number of workers employed but also its overall significance to the French economy. For the most part, textile production was carried out in rural areas outside of the guild system and involved a system of production or proto-industrialization in which workers combined agriculture with spinning and weaving at home, especially during the agricultural slack season. In the vicinity of Rouen, a textile market town, some thirty thousand peasants were engaged in textile production. Intermediaries employed by merchant manufacturers distributed raw materials for men to weave into cloth and women to spin into thread. They then collected the cloth and thread for which the workers were paid on a piece-rate basis. In the family economy, in which all family members contributed to subsistence, children typically assisted their parents in various aspects of the spinning or weaving process. On the eve of the Revolution, mechanization was still relatively rare in France, even though it was already fairly widespread in Great Britain. French textile production assumed many forms until the mechanized factory system became predominant in the mid-nineteenth century. Factories in urban areas often consisted of a central location in which all the weavers continued to use hand looms, but now under direct supervision rather than working at home at their own pace. Sometimes an entrepreneur would centralize certain aspects of cloth production, such as the dyeing of cloth (a part of the finishing process), but thousands of weavers in rural cottages would actually weave the cloth. The entrepreneur Oberkampf, for example, employed a thousand workers in his factory in Jouy to print patterns on cloth fabrics.

The first spinning jenny was introduced into France in 1773, but few manufacturers adopted it at this time. There was a dramatic difference between the numbers of spinning jennies in England and France in the late eighteenth century. In the thirteen years between 1773 and 1786, some twenty thousand spinning jennies were placed in operation in Lancashire, England, while in France the number of jennies only increased to around six hundred. The French textile industry remained protectionist until the implementation of the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786. As William Reddy relates: "Suddenly, Manchester cotton yarn-by now produced cheaply and abundantly on water frames of the Arkwright model, on jennies, and mule jennies (both of these still operated by hand)-began to flood the French market, paying only a percent duty." In response, as envisioned by the French advocates of the treaty, some French textile manufacturers began to use spinning jennies so that they could compete with their English counterparts. However, in the two years between 1787 and 1789, they only installed some three hundred additional spinning jennies. French wine producers, according to Colin Jones, benefitted the most from free trade with England, while the textile and iron industries, some already experiencing decline, were the most adversely affected. Imports of English manufactured goods increased from "6 million livres in 1784 to 23 million in 1787 and 27 million in 1788."

Precisely because of this relative lack of mechanization, most textile workers in eighteenth-century France were peasants, and the agricultural and textile-manufacturing sectors were inextricably linked. With the expansion of industrial production and the "free market" in the latter decades of the century, increasing numbers of the popular masses faced economic insecurity and impoverishment from downturns in manufacturing cycles as well as poor harvests. Charitable and state-sponsored institutions and programs for the indigent assumed a new significance. Consequently, as with many revolutionary ideas and institutions, there were several important Old Regime precedents for the ateliers de filature established by the National Assembly in 1790 for thousands of indigent women in Paris. These included charity ateliers created in rural areas on a seasonal basis, various forms of public works projects, ateliers established within the hôpitaux généraux and the dépôts de mendicité, which incarcerated beggars, and the provision of raw materials for women to spin either at home or within ateliers located in urban parishes.

The most prominent advocates of state-sponsored work comprised a heterogeneous group: philosophes such as Montesquieu; economic theorists like Dupont de Nemours; reformers within the Old Regime administration such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who served as an intendent and later as Controller-General of Finances; and Jacques Necker, the Director-General of Finances.

While differing on various aspects of Old Regime economic and social policy and the best means of achieving reform, like many critics of Old Regime charity, they all regarded poverty as a social rather than an individual problem and assistance to the indigent as a fundamental societal obligation. State-sponsored work was the preferred form of government assistance and was promoted as an important, if not essential, means of ameliorating the economic dislocations caused by the growth of market forces, widely recognized as generating increased levels of unemployment. By providing work and thereby preventing begging, ateliers created by the government offered an alternative to the inefficacy and inhumanity of the hôpitaux généraux and the dépots de mendicité, where thousands of male and female beggars were forcibly confined and then compelled to work as a form of rehabilitation.

Created in the seventeenth century, the Hôpital Général was a unique Old Regime institution and not a hospital in the modern sense of the term. Here were grouped together a wide assortment of individuals: the physically and mentally ill, the aged without sufficient income to live on their own, illegitimate children and foundlings, and beggars (the unemployed as well as criminal vagrants). The failure of the hôpitaux généraux to deal adequately with begging and vagrancy inspired the royal edict of 764, which prohibited begging and gave the maréchaussée (mounted police force) the authority to incarcerate beggars in dépots de mendicité that were created throughout France. Often, the maréchausée also detained workers who were simply without a passport or in transit while seeking employment. Unlike the hôpitaux généraux, which operated mainly on local initiative, the dépôts were funded by the government and administered by royal intendants who determined the lengths of confinement for beggars.

As an intendant in Limoges and then as Controller-General of Finances, Turgot was an especially important advocate of state-sponsored work. In February 1770 and May 1775, he provided instructions for the creation of outdoor ateliers (public works projects) and the distribution of raw materials for women and girls to spin at home. In his first set of guidelines, written during the famine of the winter of 1770, Turgot emphasized that assistance to agricultural workers without alternative resources represented "the obligation of all and the concern of all." He called for the creation of charity bureaux, in which the curés were to assume a prominent role, that would systematize the collection and distribution of funds to the poor, the provision of work to the unemployed in outdoor ateliers in rural areas, and the distribution of raw materials for women to spin at home. Men, women, and children were to be admitted to the outdoor ateliers, where they would be assigned different tasks and paid according to their gender and age. Wages were to be lower than in private industry to discourage those already employed from seeking work in the ateliers. Women and girls in towns and rural areas who could not work in the outdoor ateliers were to receive wool, flax, or cotton to spin at home from the charity bureaux which were also to provide them with spinning wheels and to pay a spinner to teach those who did not know how to spin. The ateliers would be based in the parishes, and all workers seeking employment in the outdoor ateliers or spinning at home were to receive a certificate of indigence and good morals from the curés. Funds for the ateliers would be provided by the royal government (the Abbé Joseph-Marie Terray was Controller-General of Finances at this time) and distributed to the intendants, who were given responsibility for their establishment.

Turgot's 1770 Instructions facilitated the creation of ateliers in urban and rural areas throughout France between 1770 and 1775. These ateliers, according to Camille Bloch, were motivated by three main factors: inadequate work during the winter season, high prices resulting from poor harvests, and famine (which continued until 1775 in some parts of France). In May 1775, when Turgot was Controller-General, he issued more detailed instructions, this time advocating for ateliers in the context of the dramatic increase in bread prices resulting from his 1774 edicts on the free circulation of the grain trade. As Judith A. Miller explains in Mastering the Market, these edicts were so thorough as to prohibit the government from purchasing grain to ensure its availability, the stockpiling of grain by municipalities for emergencies, and the free distribution of grain in times of shortage. Turgot believed that merchants would only be motivated to sell their grain in the market if various extreme measures were implemented that would allow grain prices to be determined without any governmental regulation. He now promoted the provision of work in ateliers as a means of assisting those who were unable to afford the new, higher prices of bread. Ateliers continued to be established after 1775, especially in response to increased unemployment in the 1780s, which particularly affected textile workers, and by the eve of the Revolution existed in all of the provinces of France. Turgot's 1775 Instructions also inspired the Bureau de la filature, created two years later, which was supported by Necker and provided employment for thousands of indigent female workers in Paris.

For many of the same reasons as the philosophes and reformers, eighteenth-century manufacturers affirmed state-sponsored work, which not only protected workers from the adverse effects of cyclical unemployment but also maintained them in a state of preparedness, or "the precious habit of work," as it was then called, which was useful and necessary for the manufacturers. Their recognition of the importance of state intervention is evident in a mémoire sent by a fabricant to the director of a National Assembly atelier de filature soon after it was established. The author, a manufacturer of cotton cloth for fifteen years, explained that he had maintained his workforce even through "the terrible winter of 1788," when sales had stagnated, but was forced to dismiss many of the workers in 1789. As the situation was improving, he proposed to employ some of the workers from the National Assembly ateliers in his own manufacture. While advancing his proposal as a cost-saving measure, the manufacturer emphasized the necessity for ateliers funded by the government during periods of commercial stagnation, the effects of which he described in this way: "The truth is only too real for the misfortune of the workers as for the entrepreneurs who are forced to dismiss them, from which it naturally follows that these unfortunates, finding themselves without resources, become a charge to their concitoyens and the town is obliged, to save them from the horrors of despair, to establish at great cost the ateliers de bienfaisance to provide for their subsistence."


Excerpted from The Origins of the Welfare State by LISA DICAPRIO Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1. Old Regime Charity and Revolutionary Welfare....................1
2. State-Sponsored Work for Women....................45
3. The Year II Transformations of Work, Welfare, and Citizenship....................93
4. The Dismantling of Centralized Welfare....................146
Epilogue: The Legacy of French Revolution Welfare....................195
Illustrations follow page....................92

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