Elevate Difference

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

The women-run organization The Society for Maternal Charity survived more than a hundred years of wars, revolutions, and government changes. Initially the group began because of the number of children being abandoned due to poverty. Not only were these foundlings expensive for the state, but they also had a very high mortality rate. Women’s societies were viewed as more ideal than orphanages and seen as an extension of the women’s domestic sphere.

In following the growth and demise of the Society, Poverty, Charity, and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France covers the themes of rich/poor, government/private, national/local, stay at home v. working mothers, male v. female-run, and the resentment by the poor/blindness of the rich. The author, Christine Adams, also outlines hot button issues that existed in the nineteenth century: the worthy poor versus the lazy hordes; married women versus single tarts; breast feeding versus wet nurses; and the question of whether or not women were positive influences in society, there to “clean up messes.”

Even after the French revolution women remained barred from politics and civic affairs, but through 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. Women from the elite classes proved that they could make a difference by going into rough neighborhoods and aiding in situations they had never imagined, let alone encountered.

As Adams illustrates in Poverty, Charity and Motherhood, these maternal societies created many business principles, such as accountability, transparency, and sustainability. The societies understood that a husband’s interests often didn’t align with the wife’s, so aid must be given directly to women.

The Society was eventually brought down because it was believed they were enforcing religious doctrine; the Society insisted women have religious marriages and it required them to act as “proper women.” As a whole the Society was faulted for relying on these religious precepts, though less than fifty percent of the organizations held these beliefs.

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. By demanding money from the state, the Society made it clear that the State had a responsibility to care for the poor. Adams claims that these societies are the reason that France and other European countries have a much better welfare state, with specific provisions for pregnant women and families, more generous vacations, health care, paternity leave, etc. The women’s Societies should be given due credit.

While the Societies signaled many of the issues that remain today, as Adams points out, they were not strong enough to consider the implications of inequality in their own lives; a different brand of woman had to do that. As with the “club women” of today, they do offer a valuable service: they are training grounds for women’s leadership and they should be given credit for the work they do.

Written by: , October 30th 2010