Elevate Difference

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

The Society for Maternal Charity, a women-run organization, survived more than one hundred years through wars, revolutions, and changes of government. The group began because the large numbers of foundlings, abandoned due to poverty, were not only expensive for the State but had a very high mortality rate. The women’s societies were viewed as better bargains than orphanages and an extension of the women’s domestic sphere. Besides, France needed population for cannon fodder in its many wars.

The same dichotomous themes marked the Society’s growth and demise as we see today: rich/poor, government/private, national/local, stay-at-home/working mothers, male/female, and resentment by the poor/blindness of the rich. The same hot button questions existed in the nineteenth century: the worthy poor versus the lazy hordes, married women versus single tarts, breastfeeding versus wet nurses, the question of whether women were positive influences in society to “clean up” messes and women as children.

Even after the French Revolution, women remained barred from politics and civic affairs. But from participation in these organizations, they gained valuable skills and leadership training. Many of the societies had large budgets and staff giving the women executive experience. The Society raised money, lobbied politicians, and ran formidable businesses. These women from the elite classes proved that women could do hard work by going into ghettos and experiencing situations they had never imagined, let alone encountered.

These groups originated many business principles that today we consider basic: accountability by detailed financial statements, transparency by annual published reports, and maintaining minutes of meetings. They understood that often the husband’s interests didn’t align with the wife’s, and thus they gave the aid directly to the woman. Today, it is axiomatic in international aid that assistance should go to women, because they will spend it on the family while men may not.

The Society was eventually brought down by a perception that they were enforcing religious doctrine by insisting that the women have a religious marriage and enforcing morals such as that the recipients breastfeed and be “proper” women. The Society as a whole was faulted for relying on these religious precepts, though less than fifty percent of the organizations held these beliefs. Yet, the issue of the deserving versus undeserving poor is based on the impact of religion in political affairs. In reverse, the Bush Administration deliberately favored faith-based charities, as doing the job that government should not.

As France became more secular and organized, they recognized the potential power of civic organizations and tried to rein them in. They created model statutes and bylaws and required the Society to adopt them. When the Society refused, the funding stopped and the Society died.

Prior to the welfare state, all assistance was charity. States still question if it is a duty to provide for the poor. By demanding money from the state, the Society made the point that the State had responsibility to care for the poor. Christine Adams, the author of Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood, claims that these societies are the reason that France, as most of the European Union, has a much better welfare state with specific provisions for pregnant women and families, more generous vacations, health care, paternity leaves, etc. The women’s Societies, women’s work, should be given due credit.

Written by: Dianne Post, December 31st 2010