Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Nineteenth-century French liberal economists and the women question: The dark side of industrialization

Sigot Nathalie, PHARE, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

This paper deals with the analysis of the women question by nineteenth-century French liberal economists: it aims at showing that this analysis contradicted Bastiat’s conviction that they adopted, according to which “men’s interests, when left to themselves, tend to form harmonious combinations and to work together for progress and the general good” (Bastiat, 1850). Indeed, French Liberals are usually labelled optimistic: they denounced the pessimistic and fatalist character of the “English school of economics” based on Ricardo’s rent theory and Malthus’s law . On the opposite, they attempted to prove that economic development resulted in an improvement of the situation of all, especially that of workers. This attempt must be viewed in the context of a period during which socialist movements were very active in France and social unrest was strong. It was also a reaction to the evolution of socialism: utopian socialism gave way to “pragmatic socialism” which focused on the plight of workers. From the 1860s onwards, capitalism was being more and more questioned, as well as wage-employment. It is within this context that Socialists denounced the low wages paid to workers. French liberal economists were much worried by this discourse: they denounced the socialists’ discourse, which resulted in “endoctrin[ation] of the working class” whose ambition was “flatten” and whose “instinct of revolt” were encouraged. On the opposite, they stated that wages had increased as well as opportunities for social advancement. However, most of them gave a nuanced picture of the situation of the working class, by distinguishing the case of women from that of men (§.I): women did not benefit from this improvement. Baudrillart’s statement exemplified this mixed picture of the situation: “In spite of many problems, there are positive factors in the picture due to the increasing output that not only benefits to the wealthiest. Only one single stain, large and deep, attracts the observer’s attention with sadness: the situation of women in the world at work has worsened”. The low wages paid to women were a true concern for most of the liberal economists. They accordingly tried to understand its reasons, which led them to adopt a specific theory of wages for women, according to which the price of labour should be at the level where women can satisfy their own needs. However, this theory was different from the one they developed for men (§.II). Finally, French Liberals also tried to find solutions that might improve the situation of women: while they agreed that the solution was the promotion of female education, they diverged about the nature of the knowledge that should be provided. Indeed, providing professional skills to women would increase their capacity to enter the labour market. Accordingly, it would alienate them from their “primarily role” or “natural vocation”, which was “to be mother and educator” (§.III).


Keywords: French Liberals ; Women question ; industrialization

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