The Fabric of Gender

Review: Felter-Kerley on Chenut

Helen Harden Chenut. The Fabric of Gender: Working-Class Culture in Third Republic France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. vii + 448 pp. Maps, illustrations, bibliography, index.$60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-02520-9.

Reviewed for H-Women by Lela Felter-Kerley, Department of History, University of South Florida
Published by [mailto][/mailto] (February, 2008)

Working-Class (Sexual) Politics in France's Third Republic

The debate over when, where, why, and how a working-class identity developed in nineteenth-century France continues to be a concern for historians long after the publication of Karl Marx's classic texts on the subject.[1] In an effort to provide greater balance to an earlier historiography that presented a linear, progressive view of class relations deterministically driven by structural, material, or institutional changes, labor historians have addressed the political, social, and cultural, as well as economic, processes that transpire within and between classes. Helen Harden Chenut's recent monograph is a refreshing contribution to this trend in labor history that expands the conceptual and methodological parameters with which historians understand industrialization, capitalism, politics, and gender relations during France's Third Republic.

One need not be an expert on modern France or labor history to appreciate what this book has to offer. Although dense in archival research, the book eases the reader into an intricately woven fabric of its own, composed of various thematic threads ranging from gender and consumer politics to civic festivals and street protests. Chenut's case study of textile workers and mill owners in the northern French town of Troyes represents a "history from below" that places local social relations, economic institutions, and political structures within a larger national context. Bearing out a claim made by the local paper Le Petit Troyen in 1909 that "Troyes is to the knitted industry as Lyon is to the silk industry," Chenut highlights the importance of her micro-history to French labor historiography, but keenly points out where her work departs (p. 203). "The co-existence of two forms of production," the putting-out and factory system, "made it unique in relation to other textile regions" and formed the essence of a particular type of technical culture that was characterized by division and solidarity (p. 106).

Using a wide range of sources from oral testimonies, autobiographies, and family monographs to local newspapers, advertisements, estate inventories, and photographs, The Fabric of Gender reconstructs the impact of industrialization on the French working class through experience. As a mill town composed almost entirely of textile workers, Troyes underwent two stages of mechanization from 1890 to 1945 that altered relations between the sexes, mill owners and their employees, trade unionists and socialists, and producers and consumers. Because industrial transformation evolved through an "uneven and piecemeal" process, the desires and needs of Troyes's diverse constituencies often came into conflict when issues of work, family, leisure, consumer culture, politics, and the community were concerned (p. 393). [...]