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
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.