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Ateliers nationaux des femmes

Ateliers nationaux des femmes The provisional government of the second republic of France established workshops for the unemploy ed women of Paris one full month after the creation of the ateliers nationaux. The government had attempted to address the problem of male unemployment in the capital through the decree of February 27, 1848. They proclaimed the principle of the right to work to be implemented through state-organized employment, which stirred enormous controversy in the revolutionary capital. Marie, minister of public works, disingenuously labelled the plan to convince the crowds of workers demanding employment that the g overnment would implement the ideas of Louis Blanc. Blanc had called for the organization of labor into social workshops by the workers themselves, the role of the state to be confined to providing the initial credit for these ventures. The national workshops of Marie were state charity; a man received one franc per day for labor that quickly became little more than busy work. Few, not only workers, felt satisfied with this arrangement.

Among the most vocal of the dissatisfied were the working wome n of Paris. Women marched in spontaneous demonstrations to the Hôtel de Ville calling for measure to aid laboring women. Laundresses demanded and received a reduction in their hours of work. Petitions and individual letters in addition to the street activity clamored for an end of work in prisons and convents that competed for the products of women's labor. The journal, La Voix des femmes, called for crêches, education and national restaurants to provide for the needs of poor women. Parisia n women included in all appeals made to the government demands for the establishment of workshops for unemployed female labor.

The provisional government finally responded to these demands with a proclamation issued on March 29. The mayor of Paris Marrast announced the formation of ateliers des femmes as well as centers for food relief at the town halls of every arrondissement of the city. A. Duclerc, assistant to Emile Thomas director of the national workshops, organized the workshops into the same military structure as those for male workers. Every one hundred women enrolled constituted a division headed by a woman, who as chef, received three francs a day, top wages for women at that time. Each division held ten brigades led by a brigadier paid one franc, fifty centimes. Unemployed women would sew shirts for the national guard at the rate of sixty centimes for each shirt produced.

Bureaucratic complications emerged immediately. Marrast directed the mayors of each arrondissement to find loc ations suitable for the workshops. Chambers sizable enough to hold the large numbers of women who applied for work proved difficult to find and administrative assistance was limited. Once acquired, the rooms had to be furnished with worktables and chairs. Duclerc ignored suggestions that the furniture be produced by unemployed craftsmen in the national workshops; he ordered the mayors to rent them. The mayors resolved some of their logistical problems through appeals to the wives of members of the provi sional government such as Mesdames Maire and Lamartine for their intervention and, in some cases, patriotic citizens donated needed goods and services. Financial difficulties, however, remained a constant problem. The finance ministry allocated 1,720,000 francs for the ateliers des femmes out of what would finally be a total expenditure of 14,174,987 francs for the national workshop program as a whole. From this sum, rooms and equipment had to be rented, materials for the shirts purchased and the marker s for bread and meals given to the poor paid.

The proclamation of May 29 requested that women workers meet in their district to elect delegates to the new organizations. In letters sent to each mayor, Marrast made clear he also wished these officials to select an intelligent and steady man to preside over all of the women's meetings as well as several bourgeois women to serve as directrices or overseers of each workshop. Gathering to elect their delegates, working women produced results other than t hose desired by officials of the revolutionary government. In many cases, the women elected the most militant of their number, women who demanded a social revolution following the tenets of Louis Blanc and other socialist theorists. They called for a complete restructuring of the organization of production to provide employment and a living wage for all working women, not just seamstresses but also for women trained in other trades as well. The working women of Paris called the ateliers des femmes charit y and charged that the workshops would do little to address the misery of working-class women who had to provide for themselves and their families.

Desirée Gay, a seamstress and a delegate from the second arrondissement who had a vehicle to express her views in La Voix des Femmes, emerged as a champion of working women's rights. In a series of articles, Gay challenged the structure of the workshops that created a hierarchy of wage labor based on class. She dismissed as a waste of funds the em ployment of directrices who served no useful function. Gay joined other women who argued that the type of work available in the workshops excluded many women. Not all women sewed for a living; the untrained produced unacceptable shirts and could not collect the wage. A skillful seamstress could complete two shirts in a day by working late into the night, a woman of average skill, one; sixty centimes a day fell below the bare minimum for the survival of one individual and many had families to support. In addition, the shirts for the guards required quilting and other fancy work which consumed more of the worker's time. The women's demand for a wage of one franc per day gained the support of others including the editors of the Journal des travailleurs who called on the guards to insist on plain shirts in order to support these women of the people.

Divisions and tension continued to rise as the needs of working women, local administrators and the Provisional Government clashed. Individual mayors att empted to intercede for the workers employed in the state workshops. Arguing that it was unworthy of the revolutionary government to force its seamstresses to work seated on the floor, they continued the search for proper furnishings for the workshop. They complained of the tardy receipt of funds for wages and of the inadequate amount of materials provided to permit full employment of the workers. When, in mid-April, Duclerc ordered the mayors to suspend the allocation of bread allowances for those women employed at the workshops, local officials protested the decision as unfairly harsh; in their view this loss of assistance would push already desperate women beyond the brink of survival.

Accusations of the administration's bad faith brought counter charges that women in the workshops abused government beneficence. Desirée Gay, charged by officials of stirring up trouble and being a revolutionary, lost her position as a delegate. Duclerc issued directives to the mayors of the city that urged them to eliminate the undeserving from the ateliers des femmes. His assistants, much to the annoyance of the mayoral staffs, brought accusations of corruption against the management of various workshops and of fraud, theft and immoral behavior by individual workers. Duclerc refused as unnecessary the mayors' request to provide banners for the women to carry in the parade marking the fête de la Concorde on May 21; appeals to Marrast and Marie brought the same response.

The disputes emerg ed in a climate of growing bourgeois discontent over the expenditures for the National Workshops. These men called for their dissolution with charges that the government created an army of sloth and retarded the recovery of the economy at the expense of the honest taxpayer. Duclerc attempted to lower the visibility of the ateliers des femmes by allowing women to leave the workshops and take their sewing home. On this issue, the views of both the administration and the workers coincided. Many women wrote to the mayors, Duclerc and to members of the Provisional Government asking permission to be employed as home workers. These women had young children, ill or elderly family members in need of their care; in their homes, they could fulfill their dual responsibilities. This harmony of necessity, however, did not last.

A census ordered on May 23 by the ministry of the interior of all employees of the national workshops counted 25,000 women as members of the ateliers des femmes. Marrast immediately di rected the mayors to suspend the inscription of women into the workshops program; food relief would be available to those who qualified. Trélat, replacing Marie at the ministry of public works, sent Emile Thomas on a mission to Bordeaux, a mission that in reality became house arrest. It was clear to the workers that the government planned to close the workshops. As humiliating as it is was to accept charity, which the national workshops were in the minds of many, they represented for the workers of Paris an essential means of support in a time of serious economic dislocation. A crowd of women and men marched to the Hôtel de ville to protest Thomas' dismissal and to demand that the workshops remain open.

The government, after much debate, finally come to a decision. On June 23, the national assembly voted to close the national workshops. At the same time, they agreed to allocate three million francs to provide bread for the poorest people of Paris. Protests, even from the mayors, rec eived no response and the insurrection of June began. Women fought alongside men at the barricades of the June Days. Police records show that many of the women arrested during and after the fighting had worked at the ateliers des femmes. THe military tribunals sentenced all of those who admitted to that distinction to deportation.

Judith DeGroat


Gossez, Remi. Les Ouvriers de Paris, 1848-1851. 2 vols. La Roche-sur-Yon: Imprimerie de l'ouest, 1967.

Perrot, Michelle. "La Femme populaire rebelle" in Histoire sans qualités Christine Dufrancatel (ed.) Paris: Editions Galilée, 1979.

Sullerot, Evelyne. "Journaux feminins et lutte ouvrière." in La Presse ouvrière Jacques Godechot (ed) La Roche-sur-Yon: Imprimerie de l'ouest, 1966, 88-122.

Vannier, Henriette. La Mode et ses métiers: Frivolités et luttes des classes, 1830-1870. Paris: Armand Colin, 1960.

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Holly Johnston revised this file ( on February 28, 1997.

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