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Women and Trade Unions in France

The Tobacco and Hat Industries, 1890–1914


Sandra Salin

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.
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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,...

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