Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades 1750-1915

This article delves into the dramatic industrial developments of the 19th century and their correlating effects on the changes in both the perception and the nature of woman's work. The first and possibly most important development discussed is the invention and introduction of the sewing machine into industrial France in 1829. Coffin argues that the sewing machine paved the way for new discussions about gender roles and, in the implicated woman's work involved in the garment industry. With the advent of industrialization, woman's work became a concretely defined and separate endeavor from man's work. With women drawn out of familial enterprise and into factories this distinction between male and female work became synonymous with the distinction between "work that was skilled and unskilled, craft and cheap, honorable and demeaning, productive and pathological." The introduction of the sewing machine initially caused anxiety among women workers that the mechanization of a formerly female responsibility would only further marginalize and displace women's work.

This association of women with low quality labor is complicated by Coffin's analysis of Dupin's ideas about woman's education. Dupin's theory was that women should be taught basic geometry and applied mechanics in a trade school because of the precision, regularity, and symmetry needed for women's industrial work. According to Dupin, since the female body was weak, the forces which they do possess must be cultivated and fully utilized, just as one would attempt to fully utilize any economic force. This thoery represents the types of questions about women and thier assorted capacities which the innovations and changes of the industrial era inspired.
Dupin goes on to discuss the developement of ready-made clothing and the subsequent immergence of departement stores; enterprises which marigalized the work of skilled tailors. These tailors added to the negative view of women during this period. As Dupin says, "as the tailors saw it, the decline of skills and ruinous competition were enseparable from feminization" because of the association, discussed earlier, of women with unskilled work.

Categories: Education, Employment, Gender
Image: Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Adélaide Pastoret 1791-92, oil on canvas. Image from Web Gallery of Art: http://www.wga.hu/index1.html

1 comment:

  1. I think it is telling that the anti-feminist rhetoric hiked during the decline of the garment industry. Male tailor-Luddites would have been looking for someone to blame for the changes in industry that affected, not only women, but everyone involved in hand-sewn manufacture of garments.

    I have noticed in my history classes that whenever abrupt social change occurs, a common enemy must be found. If there is not clear external enemy, i.e. Napoleon, Hitler, or any other foreign demon, then a domestic enemy will be found. In 19th century Europe, political parties were not as widely identified with as at later times. Thus: women were the culprit for the decline of the garment industry according to the male tailors. They saw feminization (the distraction of geometry, politics, education, etc.) as harmful to productivity. I think this historical episode demonstrates the danger of the division of sexes.