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The Virtuous Marketplace: Women and Men, Money and Politics in Paris, 1830-1870

Author(s):Thompson, Victoria E.
Reviewer(s):Liebowitz, Jonathan J.

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Victoria E. Thompson, The Virtuous Marketplace: Women and Men, Money and

Politics in Paris, 1830-1870. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins

University Press, 2000. viii + 229 pp. $32 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6414-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan J. Liebowitz, Department of History,

University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Professor Thompson, of the History Department at Arizona State University,

cannot, of course, deal comprehensively with all the items in her subtitle in

this brief volume (less than 170 pages of text). She does present the reader

with an intriguing picture of how women of the “popular classes” fit into the

changing economy of mid-century Paris. For the marketplace to become virtuous

in the eyes of middle class observers, she argues, women would have to be

excluded from it, at least as producers, a task well on its way to realization

by the end of the Second Empire.

This is not a history of the French economy, nor of society, but of how

society was viewed by journalists, fledgling social scientists, and authors of

memoirs and popular descriptive literature. Thompson also investigates

attitudes and actions of the police and other municipal authorities. Though

she does not attempt to assess the extent to which the observers were

representative, her research does impress as exhaustive. Her strategy is to

concentrate in each of the more-or-less chronologically ordered chapters on a

specific type of Parisian woman. We come away believing with Thompson that at

least some Parisians were worried by an encroaching market and wanted men and

women to have different places in it.

Thompson starts with views of women and the market in the early nineteenth

century and the July Monarchy (1830-48). Did involvement in the market imply

selling one’s virtue? Were working women (and journalists) prostitutes? Could

raising women’s wages lessen prostitution? Or was the answer to remove some

realms, like the emotional, from the market?

Thompson chooses to elaborate this debate through the person of the

grisette, the Parisian shop girl. At first seen as seeking her own

interest and thus dangerous, by the later July Monarchy, she had been

transformed into a creature who brought love to lonely students (like Mimi and

Musetta in La Boh?me). By acting unselfishly, the grisette (and

the male writers who depicted her) demonstrated how someone could be part of

the market but resist its morality.

During the 1840s workers’ wages became an important issue. But workers faced a

conundrum: how to ask for higher wages without appearing selfish. For at least

some, the answer was to stress the male role as breadwinner. Men needed higher

pay to support their families. Their part in the market could be virtuous. The

other side of the coin, however, was that women would be relegated to the

private sphere, and not just in economic activity, for the removal of women

from the world of work implied also their exclusion from citizenship, which

men were granted with universal male suffrage in the Revolution of 1848 and

its aftermath.

Thompson continues by discussing the women she calls “merchants” (from the

French marchandes, really shopkeepers or peddlers) in the years after

1848. While earlier they had been accepted as part of the Parisian market

scene, now they were seen as threatening. Either beggars or prostitutes, they

needed special control. The Second Empire, generally avid for control and

order, sought to regularize commerce by the reconstruction of the central

market. The rebuilt Halles was believed, Thompson writes, to have

achieved this goal, ending the threat of insurrection it posed.

The final chapter of The Virtuous Marketplace focuses on the

lorette, another young working class woman but by the Second Empire one

who engaged in affairs with wealthy men in the pursuit of gain. Writers looked

back with nostalgia to the years of their youth and the grisette. Now

the lorette and the speculative mania she embodied had triumphed.

Speculation and especially speculative women needed control, just like the

market and market women, so the government introduced gates and laws to

control access to the stock exchange and exclude women from it.

Thompson believes a virtuous marketplace had been created by 1870. It had been

accomplished by defining masculine and feminine in new ways. Women — their

virtue private, their identities tied to consumption — were removed from

production. Men’s virtue was public – honor — achieved by the

“self-regulation of one’s conduct”(p. 164). Through the course of the century

women had gone from active involvement in production and trade to confinement

in what everyone considers to be the lesser realm of consumption. Like many

other feminist historians, Thompson finds that women’s independence became

limited during the mid- to late nineteenth century as they were confined by

the ideology that declared their place to be at home.

The book, though narrow in scope itself, adds a piece to our understanding of

how women’s roles changed in a new political and economic environment. We

might hope that Professor Thompson would continue her research with a broader

work on the intersection of gender roles and economic change.

Jonathan Liebowitz studies late nineteenth century French economic history.

He is currently working on the impact of the agricultural depression on

tenants and sharecroppers.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century