Cover image for Women at Work in Preindustrial France By Daryl M. Hafter

Women at Work in Preindustrial France

Daryl M. Hafter


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02969-6

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328 pages
6" × 9"
12 b&w illustrations

Women at Work in Preindustrial France

Daryl M. Hafter

“This is the first full-length study of women in all-female and mixed guilds in Old Regime France.  . . . Hafter contributes a great deal to our understanding of gender and the gendering of work, of the function of women’s work in patriarchal society, of the agency women held in early modern France to control their work, of the ways this control brought women into the public sphere of the old regime, and of the ways ideas about gender and work changed over the eighteenth century and into the Revolution.”


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The subject of women as skilled workers in the eighteenth century is central to our understanding of the history of work and technology in the preindustrial age. While recent scholarship has dispelled the notion that women did not enter the workforce until the Industrial Revolution, debate continues as to the extent to which women actually participated in skilled work in the preceding decades. This book draws upon substantial archival research in Rouen, Lyon, and Paris to show that while the vast majority of working women in eighteenth-century France labored at unskilled, low-paying jobs, it was not at all unusual for women to be actively engaged in economic activities as workers, managers, and merchants. Some even developed vertically integrated wholesale and retail businesses, while others became indispensable to manufacturers through their technical skill. In fact, Hafter documents how certain women guild masters were able to exploit the legal system to achieve considerable economic independence, power, wealth, and legal parity with male masters. She also shows how gender politics complicated the day-to-day experience of these working women.
“This is the first full-length study of women in all-female and mixed guilds in Old Regime France.  . . . Hafter contributes a great deal to our understanding of gender and the gendering of work, of the function of women’s work in patriarchal society, of the agency women held in early modern France to control their work, of the ways this control brought women into the public sphere of the old regime, and of the ways ideas about gender and work changed over the eighteenth century and into the Revolution.”

Daryl M. Hafter is Professor Emerita of History at Eastern Michigan University. She is the editor of European Women and Preindustrial Craft (1995).




1. The Political Economy of Guilds

2. The Uses of Gender in Economic Life

3. Guildwomen and Ouvrières

4. Turgot’s Reforms and Their Aftermath

5. Paths to the Revolution





The guild system in prerevolutionary France provided a unique opportunity for women fortunate enough to become sworn masters of a trade. Within a world of discrimination and hardship, these women received technical training and legal privilege, enabling them to participate directly in the market economy. Although the law considered women minors, forbidden to do many tasks on their own behalf, the law could also make exceptions and confer on designated women the right to exercise male privileges. Women were dependent on husbands or fathers to make contracts or go to court, but if they became guild masters, they were able to carve out a sphere of legal equality with men. In guilds they went through the traditional steps in training, starting as apprentices and rising to the status of masters in charge of their own workshops and staff of artisans. In this role they negotiated with the royal and municipal government over taxes, they petitioned ministers and royal councils for regulation changes, and they took commercial rivals to court with—in some cities—success. Paradoxically, it was by means of privilege that French society introduced flexibility into its system, enabling some businesswomen to break through the web of restrictions. The structures of privilege actually became a vehicle for gaining economic and personal advantage.

The means these women used to get ahead were embedded in the system of privilege that structured Old Regime France. We might even say that the same restrictive code that hindered their free activity as full-fledged adults carried within itself pockets of opportunity that they used to make their way. France before the Revolution was a society of hierarchical orders, further subdivided into privileged groups, with each given specific rights denied to the general population. Just as nobles were endowed with exemptions from certain taxes, provincial treasurers could borrow money and lend it to the king, and guilds, in turn, could exert monopolies over certain techniques and products. These privileges were liberties given by a monarch, absolute in theory, in return for some benefit or service the group might render him. They stemmed from the early days of the kingdom, mingling public and private functions characteristic of early modern Europe, and habituating people to respond to privilege rather than the natural status of individuals. In this way, women could become business proxies for their husbands and merchants acting with the legal rights of men, but only for a limited time. As guild masters, women could step out of their role as legal minors and behave as adults in the law for their entire lives. In effect, special circumstances made them “surrogate men.”

Awarding equal rights in one aspect of life did not mean that the French patriarchy was surrendering its power. On the contrary, as Joan Kelly asserted in her path-breaking essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” exceptional rights that women received in patriarchal society served to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. Taking her example from medieval chivalry, Kelly reasoned that courtly love “reinforced, as its necessary premise, the practice of political marriage,” and it provided a loophole to counterbalance the tensions incurred in the system of cementing political alliances with arranged marriages. By the same token in the eighteenth century, permitting women in business to act with the freedom of men benefited the husband, the family, and society. Guildwomen’s rights were protected by the system of privilege to such a degree that they could argue in conflicts with other guilds as if they were male. Thus we see the paradox of women gaining a measure of equal rights by means of privilege.

While guildwomen received their privileged freedom to act in the context of the artisanal economy, their business reflected how intensely the French economy was responding to the emerging brisk, competitive, capitalist world market. Like the subcontracting in Parisian guilds reported by Michael Sonenscher, Rouen’s guildwomen illegally farmed tasks out to rural artisans. They also inspected and purchased goods legally from the stream of knitted items brought to town by country people, and they fought in courts to maintain control of the lucrative wholesale linen goods trade in the city, a benefit awarded in their original guild statutes. Thus they used customs and regulations originating in the Middle Ages to put themselves into the position of modern merchants aiming to keep in charge of the linen industry from yarn to cloth, and to ensure their monopoly of its manufacture and sale.

The lived experience of guildwomen put the lie to theorists dubbing women as unsuited to the public world of the economy. Guildwomen demonstrated aptitude for advancing their business agenda from their ambition to use their assets, to policymaking in guild meetings, to their ability to press their claims for technical and product monopolies in court. Indeed, women were such an integral part of economic production in industry and agriculture that the question of female work loomed large in the preindustrial age. Where and under what terms women could be set to work was a major issue. Whether dealing with the relatively small number of privileged guildwomen or hiring and training the massive numbers of female industrial laborers, the French economy found women to be crucial players.

Moreover, the general view that females were incapable of managing technology had not yet taken hold. In view of society’s prejudice against women, this statement needs explanation. Historians have argued that labeling women’s work “unskilled” simply because it was performed by women obscured the real training and performance that tradeswomen had. It was a political means of curtailing women’s wages by investing male training and tasks with prestige rather than an accurate assessment of female capacity. To be sure, people believed that menstruating women spoiled metal casting and that gathering vertdegris from copper strips might make men impotent; but these ideas did not keep male and female workers from performing many of the same tasks.

With rare exceptions, until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Rouen’s guilds did not use incompatibility with technology on the basis of sex as an argument. It was assumed that women in guilds were capable of using technology productively. Despite our modern view of historic times as rigidly gender-bound, men and women did a variety of tasks depending on circumstance and need. Only when a deep cleft between male and female natures became a general ideology were women branded as technologically incompetent. For the first time social theorists suggested that women’s nature was not compatible with wage earning and that their role in society ought to be invested in the social capital of nurturing the family. This new idea arose at the same time that the French state was pressing its administrators to analyze the economy in increasingly numerical and abstract terms.

From 1775 to the end of the century, an era of transition brought old assumptions into conflict with modernizing efforts. Unable to abolish the guilds, administrative reformers tried to improve their efficiency by restructuring them along “rational” lines. This way of thinking viewed workers as abstract productive units. Bureaucrats were accustomed to dealing with men in these terms, but could females be considered in the same terms as males in work associations? Taking into account the presence of females as workers, they opened the guilds to men and women irrespectively. The male guilds, however, seized on the new ideology of women as technologically incompetent, and some used it as a bar to deter women from entering their associations.

When the Revolution abolished legal privilege, guildwomen lost the protection that accorded them a more equal playing field in the economy. By suppressing guilds in 1791, revolutionary legislation in France stripped guildwomen of the chance to gain legal exceptionality and threw them into competition with other male and female workers. In the revolutionary critique, nature supplanted tradition as the touchstone of rational social structure. It was not the assignment of man-made categories that should form the basis of the state, but rather that human beings should be assigned to the roles that their natures dictated. While this ideal brought the civil benefits of divorce, equal inheritance, and the chance to speak in court to all women, it negated the possibility of some women to gain the freedom of “honorary men.”

The increasing popularity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s analysis added to the notion that the natures of men and women were different and complementary, and that in the well-ordered society men conducted activities in the public sector, while women performed the nurturing role of wife and mother in the home. Because citizens were defined by their essential natures, the postrevolutionary conception left an indelible stamp on the roles assumed by individuals. Women could not escape their role as private, wifely beings, unsuited to public life in business or politics. Following this logic, social rhetoric cast females as lacking in technological aptitude. There was no longer an exception to the belief that women’s work was unskilled work as there had been during the earlier period when guilds ordered social roles.

Without orders or privilege, the categories that had composed the Old Regime, French society turned to the grand remaining differences: wealth and sex. Instead of the horizontal separation of society into clergy, nobles, and Third Estate, the modern state arranged itself into a division between males and females. This vertical separation was more deep-seated than earlier ways of organization because it rested on the supposedly indelible nature of men and women and it imposed social norms on every aspect of human life. The separation intensified discrimination against women by defining them as naturally unsuited to public life whether in business, politics, or the use of complex technology. During their last years, women’s guilds turned the tables by claiming a monopoly on gender-specific tasks, such as hairdressing and sewing, to exclude the men who flocked to those trades.

To understand how drastic the new order of feminine restriction was, we need to contrast it with the experience of women guild masters under the Old Regime. In this book I will tell the story through case studies of women workers in two major centers of the manufacture of textiles in preindustrial France. I will compare the guildwomen in the city of Rouen with female workers in the silk industry of Lyon in order to analyze how these two groups of productive workers carved out a space for their economic activity and attempted to exert control over their lives. Both sets of women were occupied with the production of textiles, the most numerous goods produced and sold in the preindustrial world. Both catered to the luxury trade, but their different opportunities depended on their location, what crafts they undertook, and their legal status. By becoming masters in Rouen, then a city of 90,000, the guildwomen gained the chance to trade legally in wholesale as well as retail markets, and to sell primary materials as well as manufactured goods.

The majority of women workers of Rouen were day laborers who toiled for their employers by weaving linen, carding wool, and carrying coal and wood to furnaces; like most female workers, these employees received minimal wages and were laid off in business downturns. At the opposite end of the workforce, Rouen was unique in having many female guild masters ruling over their workshops, deciding collective policy, and going to court to preserve their technical monopolies. With their members numbering more than one hundred, the linen-drapers of new cloth (lingères en neuf) were the predominant guildwomen in the city. Much smaller, but highly vocal, the all-female linen-drapers of old cloth (lingères en vieux) sold used clothing and continued to operate as a distinct women’s commerce throughout much of the eighteenth century. The female knitters (bonnetières) excluded men until late-century reforms. Other women’s guilds of feather merchants (plumassières), hairdressers (coiffeuses), seamstresses (couturières) and pin makers (épinglières) were gradually absorbed into larger guilds with various specialties. Although it seems logical that the all-female guilds had women officers, it comes as a surprise that guilds with male and female masters, like the spinners (filassières) and the ribbonmakers (rubanières), elected predominantly women officers. All told, the female masters amounted to some 7,000 persons, 10 percent of the city’s guild population. They worked as seamstresses; cotton, linen, and silk spinners; hat makers; linen weavers; pin makers; ribbon and fringe makers; shoe decorators; purveyors of feathers and linen; and even grain merchants.

By contrast, Lyon’s work force was largely devoted to the silk industry, which outdistanced its production of other goods—wool, iron, and sundries. In this city of 150,000 inhabitants, some 35,000 artisans turned out the luxurious silks for which France became famous. Even its function as a financial center and a hub for transshipment did not outshine the silk business that spread through the flat peninsula and up the steep slopes of Lyon’s cliffs. Composed of one large guild that encompassed all the silk techniques, the grande fabrique, as it was called, employed at least 20,000 women and children as day laborers. Only one of the trades, the passementiers making decorative braid, allowed women to become masters; the rest relied on the work of male apprentices and journeymen, wives and daughters and sons of guild masters, and hired female craft workers. The women and girls active in silk manufacture were divided into two categories: relatives of master silk weavers or wage earners legally excluded from becoming masters. To be sure, like most other French cities, Lyon had its associations of female guilds that included seamstresses, hairdressers, and river barge women, but these trades had neither the prestige nor the economic power of silk making.

The female silk workers of Lyon made their way by assisting their husbands in the family trade or by becoming so skilled that they became indispensable to their patrons. Whether related to a silk master or hired from the ever-renewing pool of wageworkers, the many women gained more social capital than their circumstances might suggest. Where business was king, the practices of the silk guild bent to the realities of demanding customers and the need for technical skill. Wives and daughters of silk master weavers hired themselves out to more prosperous masters with large orders. Wageworkers in the auxiliary trades performed such specialized tasks that their guild masters feared their desertion to other employers and made it illegal. At the top of this group the readers (liseuses), who were highly paid and highly sought after, did the painstaking work of making programs that enabled brocade weavers to transform the designer’s pattern into cloth. Even the drawgirls, whose tasks required mostly muscular strength, pulling down cordage attached to weights in order to advance the brocading program, were valued enough that that guilds required masters to give them lodging and a yearly contract.

Moreover, the women themselves set up clandestine networks of commerce, stealing raw materials, running workshops to process them, and colluding with merchants who specialized in selling their wares. The underground economy to which these women contributed was not a sideline; it was an essential part of business in the risky silk commerce. Master weavers had to make outlays for an expensive raw material without the assurance that pattern styles would last and that they would be reimbursed for their time and that of their workers. Throughout the industry, masters relied on discounted merchandise and pilfered raw materials to weather the economic uncertainties.

These examples do not change the fact that the majority of women and men labored for subsistence wages in disagreeable and dangerous conditions. It is important, however, to notice that entrepreneurs acknowledged the importance of female employees whether or not they gave the women pay commensurate with their skills. Recognition that the women’s work was crucial to the structure of the industry sometimes came in the form of prohibitions against leaving before a contract was finished or strictures against working for rival masters or guilds. These lifelong female wageworkers were excluded from becoming apprentices and eventual master in the guild. Nevertheless, they were the motor force of one of the largest manufactures in the preindustrial era. Contrary to our expectations, even the dispersed nonguild industry of prerevolutionary France employed far more women than men, relying on their cheap labor to transport wood, break coal, tear rags, weave, bleach woolen cloth, and perform any number of other unskilled and semi-skilled tasks.

Research on women’s work in eighteenth-century France shows that we have left behind the idea posited by Ivy Pinchbeck and others that women’s work outside the home began with the Industrial Revolution. As Robert Lopez, the eminent medievalist has said, the preindustrial world was an era of scarcity, as production relied on wind, water, and animal and human labor for energy. So few surpluses arose from the primitive tools and limited motor power that every person had to work to provide subsistence. As more sophisticated economic structures emerged, merchants at the top of the scale did well, but ordinary people still had to worry about their next day’s support. Women and children worked at productive tasks as well as men, and even when the trades were conducted in the home workshop, caring for the home itself took low priority. Enhancing the family shelter became important only when industrialization created enough of a surplus to enable a middle class, with wife and children not employed outside the home, to clean and fuss with the family shelter. As Louise Tilly and Joan Walloch Scott wrote, early modern society expected women to earn money to help keep the family economy afloat. Mothers had the primary responsibility to provide for their children. Folktales warned young men that wives with no aptitude for work would bring disaster to the home. Whether women assisted their husbands and trained their children in the trade or left the family workshop to earn fees outside the home, women have always worked cleaning, selling, transporting bundles, preparing raw materials for manufacture, and crafting goods.

But there was a paradox here: society expected women to be effective economic participants, but the legal system—embodying the general discriminatory view of women—set strict limits to their independent actions. Marriage coverture was the structure devised to enforce this uneasy and unbalanced relationship. As the British jurist William Blackstone put it, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs every thing.” Women in France, too, under the Old Regime were generally considered minors in the law; they could not make binding contracts, sue, or be sued on their own behalf. Husbands, fathers, or another close male relative had to speak for them in legal disputes, unless—usually with father deceased—they were considered to be in charge of their own affairs as adult unmarried women (filles majeures) or widows.

Women in Rouen had the additional burden of discrimination from the Coûtumier de Normandie, Normandy’s legal code, which was in operation until the Revolution. These laws required wives to be supervised constantly by their husbands and restricted their inheritance to a smaller percentage of the assets than widows received under other legal codes. Because each generality had its own traditional set of customary law, the rights of women were not the same throughout France. Lyon, which was under the Paris parlement’s jurisdiction, posed different obstacles for women. Although the Paris legal system was not as restrictive as that of Normandy, the majority of Lyon’s working women labored in the silk industry under master weavers, with no possibility of becoming head of their own business. Contrary to first impressions, however, working women in both cities managed to rise above their restrictive situations, wives in Rouen becoming guild masters and industrial laborers in Lyon taking advantage of an underground economy to compete with legitimate silk masters.

Two important legal instruments helped women to participate in economic life. The first was the designation of marchande publique, merchant in the public domain, which gave a married woman the right to conduct business on her own behalf. She could perform all the functions necessary in business just like a man—buying, selling, making contracts, suing, being sued, and investing. Her business and her funds were separate from those of her husband, and his creditors could not accost her if his business failed. Female guild masters automatically became marchandes publiques. A second legal instrument was the device of séparation de biens that severed a couple’s finances, allowing the wife to take charge of her own business and monies. This expedient helped a woman whose husband was wasting the resources of her dowry or was on the brink of bankrupting the family.

These exceptions to the rule of masculine domination were hardly attempts at women’s liberation; instead they were devices to maintain real estate or goods in the woman’s birth family or to promote the welfare of the husband and family. According to French law, the letters of séparation de biens and the autonomy invested in the role of marchande publique were permissions the husband gave his wife to benefit himself. Nevertheless, the marchande publique acted as an honorary man, participating in business with the same instruments a man would use. The practice of awarding rights by means of royal decree or legal title accustomed the French to accept the constructed status of privileged individuals. Thus, despite the general prejudice against women that assumed their lack of intelligence, manipulative nature, and excessive sexuality, women with privilege were accepted in terms of their legal status. As William Sewell put it, privilege trumped gender discrimination to enable women in guilds to behave as guild masters rather than minors under the law.

This resulted in episodes of remarkable behavior in Old Regime France. Women became masters in guilds that were exclusively female and also in guilds of mixed sex. In some places women became officers for female guilds and also for mixed associations. In Rouen, the guilds to which these women belonged had the same structure, habits, and legal rights that male guilds employed. They competed with male guilds on the basis of legal equality, asserting their control over the use of materials and technical and commercial monopolies in opposition to male guilds that challenged them.

With such evidence, this book helps to overturn the traditional view of guilds as bastions of exclusively male privilege. In Chapter 1, “The Political Economy of Guilds,” I define the qualities that guilds shared. All guilds, both male and female, had in common the principle that they were sworn trades conferring privileges upon their members. Guilds modeled themselves on the traditional structure of masters, apprentices, and journey workers, training and licensing the producers of medieval and early modern products. These professional associations held monopolies on the goods they created and the technology they used, prosecuting unlicensed interlopers whenever they were found making or selling similar objects. In keeping with their corporate function, guilds each pledged devotion to a patron saint and formed confederations that paid for masses and held ceremonial meals. Despite these common traits, what characterized the range of guilds was how individual and idiosyncratic they were.

Moreover, not every group of sworn tradesmen formed a group with all the institutions of the traditional guild. Some workers took only the first step of guild creation by being sworn as apprentices. Others became legal peddlers, counted among a limited number of itinerant venders of food or secondhand items. Such groups of female peddlers, or revendresses, which could not accept a new member until an old one had died, had letters that licensed them to trade only particular goods and forbade them to enter other professions. Since they had no guild structure, they were on the fringe of the corporate system; still their license gave them a monopoly of sales and the right to ply their wares on the streets outside of the market boundaries.

In Chapter 1, I also show that even in guilds with a more traditional formation, the particular products, tools, and specifications for manufacture and sale varied according to the region. It followed that different entrance fees, statutes, initiation practices, and size characterized guilds in various parts of France. Guilds with the same name often had dissimilar technical practices in different cities. The makers of decorative braid (passementiers), for instance, were counted as ribbonmakers in Rouen, knitters in Paris, and silk weavers in Lyon, and each guild had particular rights not shared by their counterparts in other cities. This variety worked to the women guild masters’ advantage, since the Old Regime abounded in particular privileges that marked out legal boundaries.

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In Chapter 2, “The Uses of Gender in Economic Life,” I make the case that within the contentious arena of guild politics, gender was a minor element, largely overlooked and of far less significance than it is for us today. This point is illustrated by the contretemps between the female linen-drapers of Le Havre—who sought to expand their business to include selling cotton cloth, material of mixed composition, and linen thread—and the male guild of merchant mercers, which owned the rights to this wholesale commerce. When merchant mercers refused to relinquish their monopoly over these items, the women proposed to amalgamate their guild with the mercers and thereby gain the commercial rights. Rightly assessing this proposal as a hostile takeover, the merchant mercers mounted a propaganda campaign that reveals how guild masters regarded gender. Their first arguments rested on the traditional pillars of past practice and incompatibility of goods. Only later did the merchant mercers point out that a male guild and a female guild were two separate entities that should not be joined. The reasons they adduced were not based on the women’s lack of skill, but rather on their own, since the lingères required an apprenticeship and masterpiece, whereas the merchant mercers did not. Not a word was written suggesting that men and women had different technical capabilities; what they contended, significantly, was simply that since the women were already trained, they would have the advantage over the merchants.

Nevertheless, gender norms did play a role in accustoming society to associate women’s work with a domestic setting and justifying women’s debased wages. Thus the social construction of gender regulated women’s work and their wages throughout the economy, save for places like Rouen where the guilds created an exception. Still, even the Rouennaise guildwomen, with all their privileged protection, earned less than comparable male guild masters. At times, the government emphasized their feminine nature and created guilds expressly for women, like the couturières guild in seventeenth-century Paris. And women were not above playing the feminine card themselves when they might gain some advantage. As historians have noted, women played a shifting role that depended on their economic bracket, their particular function, their location, and their personal situation.

In Chapter 3, “Guildwomen and Ouvrières,” I contrast the daily experience of these two groups of women. We see how Rouen’s linen-drapers of new cloth (lingères en neuf) used legal instruments to fend off attempts by other guilds to gain access to their technology and commercial markets. Behaving like any other guild, the lingères opposed the powerful male merchant mercers’ bid to make and sell linen garments, cloth, and knitted objects. They lobbied the authorities in Paris to gain the right to sell colored thread. When woven shawls started to be used as headscarves, they opposed the female knitters’ claim to hold a monopoly on headgear. In all these contests, the linen-drapers of new cloth won court decisions and were able to protect their commercial and manufacturing spheres. They countered hostile actions by male and female guilds alike and used the identical legal instruments available to male guilds. They behaved in these arguments exactly like their male counterparts. Considerations of gender fell away before the legal assertion of privileged rights and the equality created by loopholes in the misogynistic law.

Another aspect of government preoccupation with the composition of the workers and their shop-floor discipline can be seen in Lyon. While the guildwomen of Rouen were exercising their privileges and asserting equality between male and female masters, the silk workers of Lyon were using covert means to mitigate the disadvantages of gender-based work. One major issue in the silk guild was the struggle between the small master weavers, who tried to retain their place as merchants as well as producers, and the wealthy master merchants, intent on monopolizing sales and using the master weavers as hired hands. Women’s work was a crucial prize in this struggle as the small master weavers tried to exclude nonguildwomen from weaving while maintaining their own wives and daughters at the loom.

In Chapter 4, “Turgot’s Reforms and Their Aftermath,” I examine changes in the guild structure in the aftermath of reforms made in 1776 by Controller General Jacques Turgot. In an attempt to modernize the economy, Turgot abolished guilds, but this decree, although enforced only in the Parisian region, aroused such hostility that it was soon rescinded. Nevertheless, the strategy appealed to the administration that turned it into a money-raising scheme, abolishing guilds and then forcing them to reconstruct themselves and pay for new patents. To avoid the traditional bickering over monopolies, guilds performing the same technology or making similar products were merged. And men and women were formally permitted to enter any trade in which they were competent.

From the perspective of this book, the crucial changes occurred when men were permitted into women’s guilds and also with the banning of female masters from participation in the governing of mixed-sex guilds. Until then, Rouen’s female guild masters had been members of the ruling assemblies and officers of the mixed-sex spinners and ribbonmakers. Under the new rules, the spinners, ribbonmakers, knitters, and linen-drapers of old cloth were merged with male guilds, and the women masters in these sworn trades were immediately silenced. This step prefigured the consignment of women to the category of “passive citizens” during the Revolution. It focused attention on the difficult problem of considering women as full-fledged economic participants while rejecting them as active citizens. Like other measures designed to curtail their actions, however, archival research shows that women found ways to exert influence as long as the guild structure was in place.

The revolutionary era offered opportunities and disadvantages to businesswomen that no one had dreamed of, a topic I explore in the final chapter, “Paths to the Revolution.” Like so many others, ordinary wage earners were caught up in the ferment of ideology that erupted in 1789. In a more fortunate bracket, guildwomen expressed their complaints, demanding education, professional training, and the exclusion of men from traditional women’s trades. Discrimination against women’s inequitable wages and limited range of jobs was also a theme brought into the marketplace of ideas. But these reforms took second place to the major changes enacted by the National Assembly. Once the abolition of privilege became a cardinal principle, the institutions of France were changed to reflect egalitarian ideals. Legislators reformed taxes, suppressed venal positions, applied civil law equally, and, most significant for our inquiry, they abolished the guilds and opened trades to everyone.

Although some revolutionary legislation bettered the lot of women—permitting divorce, mandating equal inheritance, and offering the prospect of public education—the suppression of guilds in 1791 brought a sea change to women’s economic standing. Female masters had enjoyed the legal protection of institutional privilege during the regime of guilds. It was by no means a “golden age” for women economically active, but within the terms of guild membership, female masters could take on the competition of their male counterparts, in some cases and in some cities, as equals. They could protect themselves from competition from nonguild rivals and negotiate with administrators for lower taxes and greater craft freedom. The fall of guilds cast them into the economic marketplace just when trade barriers, expensive raw materials, drastic style changes, and revolutionary wars disrupted commerce. Women’s comparative lack of capital and the small size of their businesses also put them at a disadvantage when government contracts were being offered. Nevertheless, in Lyon, more than a thousand women took advantage of the new freedom to start businesses of their own, according to a survey of silk fabric manufacturers.

Commercial obstacles and warfare devastated Lyon’s silk industry as hostilities prevented foreign customers from gaining access to Lyon’s goods. Citizens living through the unhappy days of the 1793 “revolt” of Lyon and its bitter suppression were in the worst condition. Within the city, the call to arms thinned the ranks of male weavers leaving female wage earners to take up men’s tasks. But tragedies do not last forever, and by 1810, with Napoleon’s encouragement, silk was once more being produced in Lyon’s shops. The changing laws and economic circumstances brought new realities to the industry. As the process of weaving became feminized, salaries for work at the loom declined just as the male guild masters had warned earlier. Paradoxically, however, it was through the support of these underpaid women weavers that the remaining male weavers were able to preserve their intricate hand weaving and their artisanal way of life. The women helped to keep silk masters in Lyon while the Jacquard device, enabling weavers to create figured patterns by themselves, spread ordinary brocade manufacture to the countryside around Lyon in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

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In Rouen, the system of privilege became a means of personal and family benefits for those women lucky enough to become guild masters. Separated from the legal and social discrimination that most women in the Old Regime endured, the female guild masters used all the instruments that male guild masters employed to gain economic advantages. Like their male counterparts, they responded to market pressure by subcontracting and hiring workers without credentials. They also aimed at controlling all aspects of manufacture, from preparation to wholesale commerce, in order to extract the maximum profit. Moreover, their position as “honorary men” brought them face to face with royal officials, and they pursued a lobbying effort through legal briefs and contacts with Paris officials. Instead of preparing them to take their place as responsible voting citizens, however, their intervention in government policy fell victim to the Revolution’s definition of women as passive citizens whose civic beliefs were expressed through their husbands.

Lyon’s women workers, if they were related to a silk master during the eighteenth century, also benefited from guilds, but without such a family tie they fell into the large pool of wageworkers competing for employment. Their skill did not bring commensurate salaries from the masters or journeymen who employed them even though they were indispensable to the silk industry. Some profited by participating in the underground economy of cut-rate work, some married silk masters, while others ended their days in the Hôtel de la Charité among the poor and disabled.

The Revolution disrupted this system of guild and artisanal craft, throwing women and men into direct competition. As the vertical divisions of the three estates and multiprivileged associations were cast away, gender differences became the overriding division in society. No longer could women shelter themselves, even those few women who might earlier have become guild masters in a privileged institution. All were now at the mercy of the market, which continued to extend opportunities to the lucky few and to impose poverty and hardship on the others.

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