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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Patterns of Female Employment in France, 1792-1901

Patterns of Female Employment in France, 1792-1901

Auriane Terki-Mignot is currently undertaking a PhD in History under the supervision of Dr Leigh-Shaw Taylor and Dr Alexis Litvine. Her PhD is funded by the ESRC.

My research aims to establish the potential of French revolutionary population listings and nineteenth-century population censuses as sources for the study of women's work – while recognising, to paraphrase Edward Higgs, that their full potential can only be exploited once it is understood that these are not objective data tables but rather constructed texts that require interpretation.

In doing so, it seeks to highlight the potential of data on women's work to bring new perspectives to bear on long-standing debates surrounding industrialisation, and the French case in particular.

Indeed, in recent years, research on women's work in England (Leigh-Shaw Taylor, Tony Wrigley, and Xuesheng You) or Spain (Carmen Sarasúa) has begun to suggest that including female data in analyses of the process of industrialisation could force us to rethink both its nature and chronology.

The impact of data on women's work on our picture of industrialisation could be all the more potent in the French case, as numerous aspects of French industrialisation remain hotly debated to this day. On the one hand, the debate opposing British exceptionalism to a supposed French backwardness, memorably worded by Gerschenkron, has remained opened since despite a period of intense revisionism in the late 1960s (Crouzet, Milward, Saul, O'Brien and Keyder). On the other hand, the debate on the existence of a 'French path' to industrialisation has seen it being referred to in turn as a sign of agricultural retardation, a rational response by entrepreneurs to economic circumstances (Crouzet), 'ultimately a dead-end' (Lévy-Leboyer), or even a pure invention (Dormois).

My MPhil dissertation made use of the sources described above to build two case studies, one of the canton of Bréauté in the Seine-Maritime, and the other of the canton of Nogent-le-Rotrou in the Eure-et-Loir, across the period 1792 to 1901. Through a careful analysis of the sources, and building on the work of Alexis Litvine on the male occupational structure of France 1795-2010, it showed that including women in analyses of the French economy results in a significantly more industrial pattern of employment before industrialisation. It also established the existence of a major reduction in the importance of female labour within the secondary sector over the course of industrialisation, suggesting that this was largely the result of the mechanisation of textile production.

Click here for a downloadable copy of the dissertation

My PhD thesis intends to extend this research in three directions:

First, by developing the two case studies above, I will supplement the data obtained on female and male occupational structure with data on agricultural and industrial production, productivity, and wages, as well as demographic and geographic data. This will enable an in-depth inquiry into determinants of patterns of female employment and gendered divisions of labour, and their evolution over time. It will also enable the data to be linked to the central debates in the historiography of French industrialisation – specifically, the question of whether French industrialisation was 'lagging' behind the British, and whether this was the result of an agricultural 'drag' or rather of the absence of an industrial 'pull'.

Second, by looking for new case studies across different regions of France, I will aim to ascertain the representativeness of cantons such as Bréauté or Nogent-le-Rotrou.

Finally, I will aim to use the case studies and a combination of both quantitative and qualitative sources widely available across French archives to develop methods to estimate female labour force participation rates and sectoral distributions for areas where direct data is scarce or missing.

Fig.1: Extract of the An II dénombrement for the canton of Bréauté, showing occupational descriptors for both women and men

Extract of the An II dénombrement for the canton of Bréauté, showing occupational descriptors for both women and men