Women and Trade Unions in France

The Tobacco and Hat Industries, 1890–1914

by Sandra Salin (Author)
©2014 Monographs XVIII, 400 Pages


Based on the thorough examination of French archival sources, this book examines in detail two industries in which women formed the majority of the workforce in France between 1890 and 1914. The choice of the tobacco and hat industries is particularly relevant in the sense that the tobacco industry, unlike the hat industry, was a state monopoly in which women were in the majority and held meaningful responsibilities in unions at a time when women were generally in the minority and under-represented in the labour movement.
The main aim of this comparison is to assess and qualify differences between both industries in terms of workforce and work organisation, trade unions’ attitudes to women and women’s membership and participation in order to get a better understanding of the factors that could have had an impact on female workers’ attitude towards trade unions.
By making women’s presence more visible, therefore more apprehensible, this book contributes to a better understanding of the way in which women perceived themselves, and were perceived, as workers, women, union members and militants in French trade union history prior to 1914.

Table Of Contents

← viii | ix →Figures

Figure 1    Average size of strikes in the tobacco industry

Figure 2    Average size of strikes in the hat industry

Figure 3    Ratio of female strikes to the presence of a union in the hat industry

Figure 4    Ratio of mixed strikes to the presence of a union in the hat industry

Figure 5    Women in hatters’ strikes and unions (Paris)

Figure 6    Women in hatters’ strikes and unions (Chazelles sur Lyon)← ix | x →

← x | xi →Tables

Table 1       Proportion of women in industry

Table 2       Wages in the tobacco industry

Table 3       Examples of wages in the hat industry

Table 4       Average working day in the tobacco and hat industries between 1891 and 1893

Table 5       Number of workers in the tobacco industry

Table 6       The working population in the hat and tobacco industries in 1896

Table 7       The working population in the hat and tobacco industries in 1901

Table 8       The working population in the hat and tobacco industries in 1906

Table 9       The working population in the hat industry in 1911

Table 10     Distribution of workers in the production of felt hats

Table 11     Unions and members in the tobacco workers’ and hatters’ national federations

Table 12     Unions and membership in the tobacco industry

Table 13     Unions and membership in the hat industry

Table 14     Women in workers’ unions

Table 15     Membership in the tobacco workers’ federation

Table 16     Female membership in tobacco workers’ unions

Table 17     Female membership in hatters’, cap makers’ and milliners’ unions

Table 18     Male, mixed and female unions in the tobacco and hat industries between 1900 and 1914

Table 19     Women in mixed and female unions in the tobacco industry between 1900 and 1914

Table 20     Women in mixed and female unions in the hat industry between 1900 and 1914

← xi | xii →Table 21     Proportion of women belonging to female unions as opposed to mixed unions

Table 22     Proportion of women in tobacco workers’ national congresses

Table 23     Proportion of women in hatters’ national congresses

Table 24     Number of strikes in the tobacco and hat industries

Table 25     Number of strikers in the tobacco industry

Table 26     Number of strikers in the hat industry

Table 27     Average number of strikers per strike

Table 28     Proportion of strikers in relation to workers employed in the tobacco industry

Table 29     Proportion of strikers in relation to workers employed in the hat industry

Table 30     Proportion of women in strikes in general

Table 31     Women in strikes in the tobacco industry

Table 32     Women in strikes in the hat industry

Table 33     Distribution of women in mixed and female strikes in the tobacco industry

Table 34     Distribution of women in mixed and female strikes in the hat industry

Table 35     Claims in the tobacco industry

Table 36     Claims in the hat industry

Table 37     Successes, transactions and failures in the tobacco industry

Table 38     Successes, transactions and failures in the hat industry

Table 39     Proportion of successful strikes in the tobacco industry

Table 40     Proportion of successful strikes in the hat industry

Table 41     Proportion of success for a pay increase in male, mixed and female strikes

Table 42     Average duration of strikes

← xii | xiii → Preface

Carmen meets La Bohème

Two of the best-known and most popular nineteenth-century operas, Bizet’s Carmen (1875) and Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) have a (recalcitrant) woman tobacco worker and a (meek) Parisian seamstress meeting their deaths prematurely, one from domestic violence and the other from the killer disease of tuberculosis. The poignancy and drama of the theatrical plots depend on their individual situations as isolated women workers.

What was the reality? Where could women in difficulty make their voices heard? During the same epoch of these opera compositions new opportunities arose for women to defend their specific interests. Although general strikes were the exception rather than the norm, women tobacco workers and hatters did take part in strikes in both of their separate sectors and therefore experienced moments of solidarity. In addition, by the end of that period, state intervention to improve women workers’ health had begun. This work examines some of the issues around how French working women reconciled their work to living conditions and how they acted collectively in these age-old industries of tobacco and millinery.

Women have a long history of working in addition to fulfilling their family duties going back well beyond the industrial revolution, but somehow in France and elsewhere their history has only been touched on very lightly as an historical topic. However, France has a strong intellectual tradition of feminist thought and militancy with regard to criticising the working conditions of women: Suzanne Voilquin, Flora Tristan, Pauline Roland, Eugenie Niboyet, Elisa Lemonnier and Jeanne Deroin being the most studied activists in the Utopian socialist era. They are the visible exceptions: it is a much greater challenge to source any articulation of women workers’ feelings and opinions as a gendered collective group in a profession. ← xiii | xiv → ‘L’union fait la force’ was one of the slogans Flora Tristan uttered in 1844 when she campaigned for women and men workers to mobilise and form an international workers’ union in order first, to maximise solidarity and second to emancipate la femme, la prolétaire du prolétaire.1

By the end of the nineteenth century this dream of solidarity across occupations was far from being realised on both counts. Unions combined into federations according to industrial activity, political ideology and, as we learn here, gender. While there is a solid history of men in unions and the growth of the syndicalist movement especially after they were legally permitted from 1884 – a measure also interpreted in political history as part of the reforming zeal of the new Republican regime – much less is known about women as workers, as union members or about conflicts over gender in the workplace. However, Sandra Salin’s book sets the record straight in a decisive manner showing just how far women were involved in two contrasting industries: tobacco and the hat industry, the former state-owned compared to the latter in the private sector.

It appears that a comparative study between the union opportunities and working conditions for hatters and tobacco factory workers, two of the most prominent occupations among women’s employment in France, has never been undertaken anywhere, and that indeed the subject of women as workers and as union members is greatly neglected. Why? It may come as no surprise to learn that until the advent of government and union statistics and publications in the workforce at the end of the nineteenth century, what happened behind the scenes of women’s workplaces is singularly hard to detect and few traces were left by illiterate women. That changed as free compulsory state schooling began in earnest in 1880: another key social reform. As the state became more interested in demographic issues the topic of gender became more visible as an issue in records from government, employers and unions. Even then, archival sources on women and unions were more prone to destruction than preservation and until the development of gender studies, women in unions was an off-stage presence. Nevertheless as Sandra Salin discovered, if you search hard enough, ← xiv | xv → records exist in several places for the tobacco and hat industries. From the late 1880s until 1914, strike actions occurred with increasing frequency and unionisation grew. Meetings of tobacco and hat workers were held at local, national and international levels, union newspapers were published, politicians and officials of the Third Republic were made aware of issues of concern to women and men workers, as well as the interests of the state as employment regulator. Of particular interest here is the question of how women acted and how they were treated in these comparative contexts. But this study goes further than that. While the main focus is to learn how women’s union militancy fared in the largely female workforce of tobacco and millinery, Salin also brings to the fore many other aspects, such as what men thought of women at work and in unions, how women trade unionists worked alongside men, how women fought for their dignity at work, how they coped with social expectations around parenthood and what issues led to industrial disputes.

It is astonishing to read her discoveries of the gaps in records of the end of the nineteenth century and to learn that while there have been nation-based studies of unions, local or case-by-case studies are so rare. There have been major publications on later periods of the twentieth century looking at the broader economic context of women’s employment.2

This study is a beacon of excellence for anyone who wishes to tackle the silence specifically around women in unions through the close reading of assembled sources and qualitative and quantitative analysis applied to figures, tables of which are supplied in the appendices. It is vital to our understanding of the thorny question of identifying patterns in gender relations the historiography of which has been complicated further by the tensions around class, in addition to coping with the growth of socialism and feminism as movements with their own agendas. Unions and women are the minor players in that saga. By delving into archives of the unions, ← xv | xvi → police and the state, this author has put together a topic that for too long has been absent from social history, the experience and treatment of working women both at the grass-roots level and from the top. Her study is equally significant for the history of mentalities because it shows the subtleties in a gendered discourse expressed by women and men at a crucial moment in the growth of trades unions: by men towards fellow women workers, by men as employers and as union leaders, as well as by women as workers, militants or simply as union members. Further casework or local studies of women in trades unions are to be encouraged in order to give much more room on stage to the likes of women whose merit as workers and union members went for so long unsung.

Máire Fedelma Cross

14 February 2014

1Flora Tristan, L’Union ouvrière (Paris: Imprimerie Lacour et Maistrasse fils, 1843).

2See Laura Levine Frader, Breadwinners and Citizens. Gender in the Making of the French Social Model (London: Duke University Press, 2008) and Jackie Clarke, France in the Age of Organisation. Factory, Home and Nation from the 1920s to Vichy (New York and Oxford: Berghan, 2013).

← xvi | xvii → Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the people who have helped me and encouraged me, by accident or design, in the making and writing of this book.

My special thanks to Professor M. Cross for her relentless support, enthusiasm and understanding; to Professor C. Phelan, my editor, who initiated this publication and made it a reality; and to Graeme Kent and Conrad Smith for their meticulous scrutiny and helpful advice.

I also wish to express my gratitude to the staff of the following English and French institutions for their advice and assistance in obtaining documentation: the Archives Nationales, the Rhône and Puy-de-Dôme Archives Départementales, the Riom and Lyons Archives Municipales, the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, the Clermont-Ferrand University Library, the Newcastle University Library, the Northumbria University Library, the Musée Social, the Paris and Lyons Institut CGT d’Histoire Sociale and the Centre de Recherches d’Histoire des Mouvements Sociaux et du Syndicalisme.

Last, but not least, I am indebted to my beloved ones, to whom this book is dedicated, for their patience, understanding and unconditional faith. ← xvii | xviii →

← xviii | 1 → Introduction: The Context

Women’s work has a long history that has been rarely closely exemplified. The objective of comparing and analysing the relationship between female workers and trade unionism in two different industries in France before 1914 is twofold: the labour movement as a whole has been approached by previous authors in a variety of ways, but major gaps remain, particularly in the realms of gender and case studies.

Firstly, while some aspects of feminism resulted in the expansion of women’s history in the labour movement, this development was uneven. As shown below, an imbalance is particularly noticeable when considering the study of women in the French labour movement before 1914. On the one hand, the place to be allocated to women in socialist politics has been the topic of extensive and wide-ranging studies. On the other hand, although the attempts of the trade union movement to deal with women were, by 1914, relatively more encouraging, they remained comparatively neglected in the history of this movement for a long time,1 which gave rise to the belief that they did not exist or did not get involved in unions simply because they were not mentioned.

Secondly, the existing literature in the field of women in trade unions has not yet covered all the aspects essential to understand the differences existing from one industry to another. Further studies are needed to qualify the general assumption made on women’s lack of involvement in trade ← 1 | 2 → unionism as well as to assess women’s ability to defend their rights as both women and workers in unions.

Before going further into the examination of the literature related to women and trade unions in order to demonstrate the relevance of this study, it seems pertinent to say a few words about the place women had in the labour movement during the period under scrutiny. This should provide an idea of the general context.

Women and the labour movement at the end of the nineteenth century


XVIII, 400
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
majority attitude workforce
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 400 pp., 6 b/w fig., 42 tables

Biographical notes

Sandra Salin (Author)

Sandra Salin teaches French language and French studies at Newcastle University. She is particularly interested in language teaching and learning as well as the history of the labour movement in France, with a particular focus on women’s role and status in this movement.


Title: Women and Trade Unions in France
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