CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 In France and other Western countries from the end of the nineteenth century, consumption gradually became an area of legitimate involvement in public affairs for women. [1] As managers of their households, women were seen as “naturally” disposed to defend their rights as consumers. Indeed, it is true that consumption, like philanthropy before it, opened up opportunities for political action for women, who did not yet have the right to vote (Diebolt 2001). Taking advantage of the fact that consumption—and in particular the everyday management of household purchases—is a space officially reserved for women, in accordance with the theory of “separate spheres” (public for men and domestic for women), some of them transformed the management of private space into a political language. Thus, women have initiated spontaneous movements against the “high cost of living” (Barzman 1997), boycotts in the Afro-American community (Micheletti 2006), and demonstrations against penury in both East and West Berlin in the 1950s (Pence 2004). But they also involved themselves in longer-lasting movements, such as the British cooperative movement (Scott 1998), associations defending free trade (Trentmann 2008), “popular family movements” in the Social Catholic current (Dermenjian 2002), consumerism (Cohen 2003; Hilton 2003) and the founding movements of ethical consumption, from the struggle against slavery to contemporary “fair trade” (Glickman 2009).

2 These brief examples of political commitments around consumption in several Western countries in the twentieth century, and many others that could be mentioned, challenge other common images of women consumers as passive or driven by their instincts, constructed by observers such as doctors, for example, the “kleptomaniac,” who also appeared in the literature of the late nineteenth century (Abelson 1989; Shapiro 1996; Roberts 1998). They also—like the work of some ethnologists or historians of technology —nuance the familiar image of a housewife confined to her home or manipulated by advertisers (Morel 1989; Horowitz and Mohun 1998; Leymonerie 2009). Finally, they show that consumption can also be a way for women to win, if not real power, then at least a certain political autonomy (De Grazia and Furlough 1996).

3 Does this mean that consumption is exclusively a matter for women and that consumer associations in the twentieth century are “women’s” associations? This was by no means self-evident in 1900, when the gender of consumption was being constructed. The French cooperative movement, unlike its British counterpart, appealed to women but made little room for them (Furlough 1991). By contrast, some Catholic consumer associations were officially formed around women. Through the example of one of these early French consumer associations, the Ligue sociale d’acheteurs (Social league of purchasers, hereafter LSA), I aim to investigate the gender of consumption and consumer associations at a historical moment when the question had not yet been settled.

4 My work is a contribution to the renewal of research on consumption in history and other social sciences (Langlois 2002; Blaszczyk 2009). In that regard, I could also have taken into account other factors bearing on the relationship between gender and consumption, such as the gender of marketers, the images of male and female consumers, or the role of advertising in gender construction (Rappaport 2000; Scanlon 2000). This research also takes its place among other studies of the gender of associations and social gender relations in activism, given that the Catholic association examined here, unlike other women’s groups, did not aspire to transform gender relations (Loiseau 1996; DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Diebolt and Douyère-Demeulenaere 2002; Fillieule, Mathieu and Roux 2007).

5 The LSA, which was active from 1902 to 1914, can be regarded as one of the first French organizations promoting “ethical consumption” (Dubuisson-Quellier 2009). Far from defending consumer rights or low prices, it advocated consumption that took account of the conditions of production and sale of goods. Founded by members of the bourgeoisie or the nobility and bringing together several hundred members, it offered lists of dressmakers respecting certain working conditions, took part in reform campaigns to reduce working time, and produced calendars informing consumers of the best times of the year for buying, in terms of the working conditions of the employees (Chessel 2003 and 2009). Created shortly after the American consumers’ leagues, which were themselves inspired by a British example, it can regarded as a reappropriation, by a small group of Social Catholic men and women, of an invention coming from elsewhere, in the context of an intense circulation of ideas and persons within the reforming world at the start of the twentieth century (Rodgers 1998; Chessel 2006).

6 Was the LSA, as the actors of the time and also the historians who have studied it have claimed, purely a “women’s association” (Fayet-Scribe 1990; Cova 2000)? Is it comparable in that regard to the American consumers’ leagues that inspired it and which seem to be representative of one wave of American feminism (Wolfe 1975; Sklar 1995; Dirks 1996; Storrs 2000)? How does one define the gender of an association? By its female or male activists? By the forms of action it uses (reform of everyday practices of consumption or lobbying for change in the law)? By the aims of the campaigns it conducts (reform of women’s work or more extensive labor laws)?

7 To answer these questions, I shall examine the action of the LSA, whose members were both men and women. While we know that consumption has sometimes also been part of the construction of masculinity, as shown by the figures of the “collector,” and later the “dandy” or the “DIYer” (Pomian 1987; Schnapper 1994; Kuchta 1996; Mort 1996; Breward 1999; Gelber 2000), it is interesting to ask what men were doing in an association that presented itself as a “women’s” organization. I shall first examine the activists—both men and women—in the LSA and the reasons for their involvement. I shall then consider the aims of several campaigns in which the association was active and the forms of action it used.

Men and Women in the LSA: Different Reasons for Involvement

8 How many men and how many women were there in the LSA? It is difficult to answer this simple question, just as it is difficult to know exactly who was a member. On the basis of the lists of members of the first LSA set up in Paris in 1903–1905, the proportion of women was 70 percent. The numbers were small (about fifty members in the first year and 250 in 1905). But the presence of men was not negligible: while the executive committee was entirely female, the two deputy secretaries were men (Joseph Bergeron and Jean Brunhes) and men were joining from the start. [2] In 1908, an international conference of purchasers’ leagues was organized in Switzerland by the founders of the French league, Jean and Henriette Brunhes. In the French list of the “International committee of patrons” of that conference (some 150 names), there are more men than women. Among the French representatives, there are seventy-six men and thirty-one women (i.e. 30 percent women) (Chessel 2004).

9 So there were more women than men involved in founding the LSA in Paris in 1903, but there were more men’s than women’s names displayed at the international conference in 1908. The international conference list did indeed have a publicity function, with a good number of men who were not members of the LSA. But there had also been an evolution over time, with growing interest on the part of men in this association, especially outside Paris. These indices show that men were not negligible in the purchasers’ leagues, even if the French term mixité is not appropriate for the start of the twentieth century. In education, the term then used was coéducation, whereas the term mixité does not appear in official texts until the 1950s (Zancarini-Fournel and Thébaud 2003).

Women in the LSA: from Charity to Consumption

10 As in many women’s associations, the bourgeois women who founded the LSA made use of their social and financial resources. They also drew on what was recognized as feminine specificity (generosity, faith, and the capacity to look after the household and children) and appropriated it in order to carve out a public role (Walkowitz 1980). More specifically, consumption allowed action in the public arena that was not too remote from their everyday lives and that at first sight reinforced the gender norms of their social milieu. Managing the domestic space was part of the demands made on a woman of the bourgeoisie (Smith 1989). Transformed into an association, consumption was both a domestic activity and a social activity. These women reappropriated the “rhetoric of separate spheres” while making it evolve de facto, in the same way as female manual workers working outside their homes did on being confronted with a comparable rhetoric (Perrot 1976, 1991, and 1995; Downs 2004). Stressing the need to educate consumers, the women of the LSA also “denaturalized” the activity of consumption, which was no longer “feminine” by nature but something to be learned as part of education in household management (Roll 2008).

11 A public role through a consumer association also enabled these women to transform the philanthropic heritage that inspired them. The Catholic Henriette Brunhes in France, the Jewish Maud Nathan in New York or the Protestant Emma Pieczynska in Switzerland all benefited from a religious and charitable heritage on which they drew (Cross 1971; Käppeli 2004). At the same time, they wanted to break away from charity, in a context of the professionalization of social intervention (Plongeron and Guillaume 1995; Rater-Garcette 1996). Consumption enabled them to go beyond charity, on the one hand by concerning themselves directly with the world of work—rather than the poor—and on the other hand by declaring themselves stakeholders in capitalism, as consumers. It was because they defined themselves as “responsible” for a situation—for example a seamstress having to work at night to finish a dress they had ordered for urgent delivery—that they could take it upon themselves to go and check conditions in the dressmakers’ workshops.

12 These women’s involvement is also linked to the field of women’s associations in France in the 1900s. The women who founded the LSA were on the margins of various movements: they were less conservative than other Catholics—the intransigent women of the Ligue des femmes françaises (French women’s league) or the Ligue patriotique des Françaises (Frenchwomen’s patriotic league) (Dumons 2006; Della Sudda 2010)—and more socially aware than other philanthropists on the margins of the feminist movements. The creation of a league of consumers enabled them to create a space of their own, given that it was not possible for them to join the secular feminists (Klejman and Rochefort 1989; Cohen 2006) and that they wanted to differentiate themselves from the Catholic movements.

13 While the reasons for women’s commitment to the LSA become clearer, there remains the question of the place of men in this consumer association. Do they offer the “context” that allows us to understand the women’s involvement and the commitment of social and financial resources, or did their investment go further?

Men in the LSA: Catholic Intellectuals Committed to the Republic

14 Jean Brunhes, Georges Goyau, Max Turmann, and others were among the first Catholics who had come over to the side of the Third Republic, and they therefore did not want to involve themselves politically against it. After the failure of the political involvement of the “Christian democrats,” they were looking for a new type of engagement in the public sphere (Pelletier 2005).

15 These men can be regarded as “Catholic intellectuals” by virtue of their education at the École normale supérieure and their positions as journalists and men of letters or academics. The typical “academic” is represented by the geographer Jean Brunhes (Notice 1988), the typical publiciste (journalist and man of letters) by Georges Goyau (Grondeux 2007). They can be described as “Social Catholics” because they were among those who played a part in reconstructing Social Catholicism around a doctrine and organizations, from the start of the twentieth century. Through their writing as Social Catholics and their teaching in the Semaines sociales (a summer university for Catholic social activists), the men of the LSA—who were in some cases the husbands of women engaged in the association, but not always—were therefore both intellectuals and activists of Social Catholicism (Durand 2006).

16 The scope for commitment by men was greater than for women: it included professional roles and activist commitments. The Semaines sociales, the journal La Chronique Sociale, and the movement Le Sillon were all opportunities for public speech and action for these Catholic men. In contrast to the women, their world was not defined by a domestic sphere that had been extended into the associative sphere. They had the right to vote and could therefore participate officially in the democratic debate (Verjus 2002). They did not need to make a detour through a rhetoric legitimating their action (consumption).

17 Having said this, the comparison between the men and the women is interesting. Paradoxically, the men of the LSA also seemed to be in more or less marginal positions. Their Catholicism situated them de facto on the margin of the republican structures of public debate. The republican intellectual sphere was largely closed or hostile to them, in the context of the Dreyfus Affair (Fouilloux 1997; Pelletier 2003). These Catholic intellectuals now sought to make a place for themselves in the Third Republic, without engaging in party politics, because the Pope discouraged this. Social action in the LSA, not in place of their professional and campaigning activity but in addition to it, offered a way of engaging in politics, both as the women did and also in a different way.

18 The involvements of the women and the men were both parallel and complementary. First, the women’s initiatives were not totally independent on the male discourses that encouraged them. Thus, men (priests or laymen) urged women to take initiatives, organize themselves, run groups, or create a new section of the LSA. Secondly, women also contributed to the birth of “Christian democracy,” for example in the Le Sillon movement, where they founded women’s groups (Rogard 1997).

19 Men and women had complex relationships within the association. The division of labor seems at first sight classic for the world of associations: for men, conferences; for women, everyday work, caring, or practical advice (Diebolt 2001). However, a more detailed analysis shows that the men encouraged the women to act and chose the places and times they wanted to be associated (or not) with their action. Their wife’s name could sometimes usefully replace their own. As Jean Brunhes explained to the editor of the Catholic journal La Chronique Sociale: “Print [in the public list of your contributors] my wife’s name without mine; when you name her, you well know that you are naming me, and in my [scientific] world, I prefer it not to be possible to accuse me of engaging in journalism.” [3] At other times on the contrary, he wanted to be associated with his wife’s social commitment.

20 Because there were both men and women in this association, with different but partially overlapping reasons for being involved, one may wonder how their work in the association played out in practice. Who did what in the LSA? Did the women deal with consumption and the men with social legislation? Did this work depend on the type of campaigns being conducted? To answer these questions, I shall examine two main types of campaigns conducted by the LSA. The first were run by women around a cause relevant to women, namely the campaigns on the work of seamstresses. The second also mobilized men and were concerned with men’s work; these were the campaigns for the reduction of working time. Our present knowledge of the LSA suggests that these campaigns were representative of the main modes of action employed and of the different types of contribution made by men and women to campaigning. The LSA was, however, involved in a large number of other campaigns that are not detailed here and that would merit closer study in the future.

Women as Beneficiaries of Reform, Women as Reformers: the Campaigns on the Work of Seamstresses

21 There are several reasons for looking closely at the contribution of the LSA to the reform of the work of seamstresses. First, women predominated in the labor force of the clothing industry and the discourses of the time presented this occupation as “naturally” feminine (Schweitzer 2002; Omnès 2003; Battagliola 2004). Moreover, dressmaking was the first occupation with which the LSA concerned itself. As a corollary, the first mode of action used from 1903—and the only one mentioned in the statutes [4]—was the drawing up of “white lists” of dressmaking firms that respected a certain number of conditions, in particular regarding working hours. This form of action was copied from the American leagues. The white lists were mainly compiled by the women of the LSA: they made inquiries to check the working conditions in the workshops, drew up lists, and kept them up to date. [5]

22 The investigations of the LSA into the world of labor, which are still little known, took place amid a proliferation of public and private inquiries into labor conditions around 1900, for example those conducted by the Office du travail (Labor office) (Lespinet-Moret 2007). They testify to the commitment of a number of women, socialist or conservative, in social inquiry around 1900 (Savoye 2005). Here too, an activity previously regarded as masculine became feminized. The LSA was inspired in this regard by several French and foreign examples, both masculine and feminine: the surveys of the school of Le Play, Catholic studies or those of the Office du travail, the work of the National Consumers League, or even literature. Nonetheless, the inquiries and white lists of the LSA were run autonomously by members of the association, with women in the forefront (Chessel 2009 and 2011).

A “Feminine” Mode of Action? The White Lists

23 White lists, which were first drawn up by the American consumers’ leagues and provided favorable publicity for suppliers who agreed to respect certain conditions, had the advantage of not competing with the trade unions and their certificates, and of being an alternative to boycotts, which were then illegal (Friedman 1999). The French movement adopted this same mode of action, which was ideologically of interest to Catholics who did not want to confront the dressmakers directly but preferred an ideology of cooperation, and the principle of white lists was precisely that they favored voluntary concessions.

24 The white lists identified a small number of suppliers—no more than fifty or so—who had signed a contract with the consumers of the league. The owners of dressmaking businesses who wanted to appear on the Paris list—and who signed a letter of commitment—undertook not to make their seamstresses normally work after 7 p.m. and never after 9 p.m., even in “peak periods” (it was a seasonal activity), never to give them work to finish at home in the evening (a practice known as the second late-shift) and never to make them work on Sundays. [6] The question of wages was not mentioned here, in contrast to the USA (Dirks 1996; Storrs 2000).

25 The criteria adopted for drawing up these lists were not independent of the context, in particular of labor legislation; they either aimed to apply it, or went beyond it. In this respect the LSA differed from another league, the Ligue catholique d’acheteuses pour le repos hebdomadaire (Catholic league of purchasers for weekly rest) founded in Amiens by the Ligue patriotique des Françaises, which declared that there was only one route to reform: “private initiative.” [7] The LSA by contrast made clear its interest in “Legislation to protect women’s work.” [8] This wish to persuade women to ensure enforcement of the law was not self-evident. Henriette Brunhes, the founder of the LSA, justified this action by pointing out—backed up by labor inspectors’ reports—that the relevant laws were not observed, especially in the sectors of interest to the LSA, and, she stated, the law would not be observed until clients induced their dressmakers to observe it and changed their own behavior. [9]

26 The wish to go beyond the law eventually had consequences, as the LSA reached the point where it supported a modification of the law, with a total ban on night work for seamstresses. A decree published by the Ministry of Labor in 1910 prohibited “shifts after 9 p.m. in fashion, dressmaking, and lingerie workshops.” This measure was presented to the LSA as resulting from the campaign in which it had taken part, together with other women’s associations and the labor section of the Conseil national des Femmes (National women’s council), for the prohibition of night shifts and of exemptions from the law on women’s work. The white lists were then presented as pioneering actions that had preceded the law: before being consecrated by law, an experimental shorter working day had been attempted by some clients, employers, and seamstresses. [10]

27 Ultimately, the white lists did not represent a feminine alternative to legislative lobbying but rather a rather a particular way of becoming involved in it. Their rhetoric led these women to take it upon themselves to intervene in the world of labor. Their involvement came in several stages: the demonstration of their own responsibility as consumers, their positioning as partners in the context of a contract with dressmaker employers, their activism in drawing up white lists, the stand they took on the application of the existing laws, and finally the demand for new laws. This process, which was not necessarily conscious, enabled Catholic women, who did not oppose republican laws but did not feel entitled to criticize them, to intervene in public debate.

A “Feminine” Argument? The Transmission of Disease by Objects

28 Another contribution by the women to the reform of seamstresses’ work deserves mention—their role in the great international campaign against the “sweating system,” which in France meant the struggle against work at home (Coffin 1996; Green 1998; Avrane 2010). The LSA’s contribution took the form of exhibitions of objects, again linked to investigations made by the women of the League.

29 These exhibitions presented objects produced by seamstresses, accompanied by posters explaining how much the worker had been paid and the price they were sold for (Conference 1909; Richter 1912). Conceived as negative versions of the universal exhibitions, they presented a miserable picture of women’s work. They were presented as “naturally” complementary to the investigations made by members of the league among the seamstresses. The procedure is comparable: showing and convincing by sight and not intellectually, which was totally acceptable to the Catholic men of the LSA, who left investigations and exhibitions to women. The idea was that the “sight” of these objects would also succeed in persuading visitors of the necessity of raising these women’s wages. This was paradoxical since it was the descriptive labels that showed the exploitation and poverty, not the objects themselves. [11]

30 A particular argument was put forward in this campaign by the women, based on the fact that microbes cross social barriers (Latour 1984). It consisted in saying that handmade garments transmitted endemic diseases and tuberculosis. In other words, consumers were judged responsible for the seamstresses’ low wages if they bought these garments too cheaply, and they would “pay” for it by bringing disease into their homes. This idea sprang from a Christian culture that makes reference to polluting, harmful fluids, blood, or sweat. The metaphorical equivalence between objects and the persons who made them had already been at the heart of the early campaigns by committed consumers against slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which consumers were accused of drinking the blood of slaves when they put sugar in their tea (Sussman 2000; Glickman 2004).

31 So the LSA seems to take its place among various “feminine” associations that aimed to reform the working conditions of the seamstresses. The women of the LSA took part in the construction of a “problem” (the “sweating system”) and they used a range of specific modes of action (white lists, investigations, and exhibitions) to join in a more general campaign in which male reformers also took part. These men almost unanimously agreed on the need to set up a particular “protection” of women’s work (Laufer 2003). Only certain feminists then opposed this consensus (Gubin 2004). From that point of view, the modes of action were perceived as feminine and the LSA appeared as a women’s association supported by men, with modes of action left to women and even encouraged by men: empirical investigations (little valued at that time by academic sociology), exhibitions, and white lists.

32 Other examples, taken from campaigns to reduce working time, nonetheless make it possible to refine this analysis. Men were involved in them, campaigning for a reform of working time that also concerned men. We shall also again find there modes of action and arguments that we have just described as “feminine.”

Men Involved in Reform Campaigns: the Case of the Reduction of Working Time

33 During this period, some men were not inactive within the LSA. Let us start from two reforming campaigns aimed at reducing working time: first regarding work on Sundays, then regarding the night work of bakers. They took place amid the large-scale mobilizations that led to the reduction of working time in France (Fridenson 2004). In these campaigns, what was the role of the men within the LSA? Does the association still appear “feminine”?

Masculine White Lists? The Campaign for a Weekly Rest Day

34 Women had been legally entitled to a weekly rest day—generally Sunday—since 1892. The campaign to generalize the Sunday rest day was conducted from the 1890s, with strong support from Catholic circles, Christian labor unions, then the CGT trade union federation, and the Radicals. This disparate coalition brought about a law on Sunday rest, dated July 13, 1906, which was applied with many exemptions (Beck 1997; Beck 1998; Beck and Brejon de Lavergnée 2009).

35 Among the actors in this campaign, particular mention should be made of the Ligue populaire pour le repos du dimanche (Popular league for Sunday rest), which was founded in 1890 and was made up of philanthropic Republicans, Le Playsians, democratically-minded priests, Protestants, and women from the aristocracy. This league for a Sunday rest day very soon brought consumption into its panoply of arguments and no doubt constituted a resource for the LSA—the two leagues merged in 1910. Made up of liberals, the Ligue populaire sought to achieve a Sunday rest day through change in individual behavior (the “free will of each of us” private initiative). In particular, from the 1890s, it appealed to workers and peasants, the main Sunday consumers, inviting them to show solidarity with the employees. In this context, lists of shops closing on Sundays were drawn up. This was the case in Lyon, where from 1894 to 1899 the local league published a “list of shops and workshops in Lyon whose owners make it their duty to close all day on Sundays and public holidays.” [12]

36 So consumption and white lists had been used by men even before the birth of the LSA. The LSA was drawing on a heritage that was, therefore, not exclusively feminine. But it evolved in two ways: by giving a real place to women—who had no real role in the Ligue pour le repos du dimanche—and in supporting the Republican labor legislation—whereas the Ligue populaire despaired at the prospect of the need for legislation to bring about a weekly rest day. In contrast, the members of the LSA were very much in favor of the law of 1906.

37 In 1909, with regard to this law, a member of the LSA explained that:


We Social Catholics—who are not the government now, far from it, who will no doubt not be the government of tomorrow but who will perhaps one day be the government and perhaps sooner than people think—have the right and perhaps the duty to act and to tell the government loud and clear how we want it to apply the law, to tell the legislators how we want them to reform it and what we are prepared to do, through our personal efforts, to facilitate that application and that reform. [13]

39 These men used the cause of consumption to take their place as citizens in the republic. For them, the reform of behavior was not a substitute for legislation but a complement to it. We find here a logic that has been described above as “feminine,” and which consists in taking a stand on the basis of a reform of one’s own behavior to assert a citizenship that is social even if it cannot be political (Dietz 2000).

40 So in this example, consumption has ceased to be purely “feminine.” Even before the birth of the LSA, consumption was used, with the same rhetoric, by men who wanted to promote the day of rest in various fields of mobilization. The gendered conception that may have prevailed in our interpretation of the white lists is here nuanced, since men used consumption and white lists either to act in the place of labor legislation or to support the labor laws and take their place in the republic.

Arguments that Circulated: the Campaign against Bakers’ Night Work

41 The campaign to ban night work in bakeries started with the initiative of the Radical Party MP from Lyon, Justin Godart, who promoted a bill aimed at prohibiting bread-making between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. After tabling a first bill in 1909, he contacted the LSA, requesting its support for his proposal. [14]

42 Even more than in the previous campaign, it was mainly men who were involved, partly for reasons related to the organizational history of the LSA. From 1909, the association was reorganized around the Lyon region and a cluster of Social Catholics linked to the Chronique Sociale de France and the Semaines Sociales, two Social Catholic organizations to whom the members of the LSA had always been close. In 1910, as noted above, it merged with the Ligue pour le repos du dimanche, which was strongly implanted in Lyon and led by Augustin Crétinon, another Social Catholic based in the city. Justin Godart, a Lyonnais himself, made contact with the LSA in Lyon, through Jacques Tourret, the new secretary of the LSA in France.

43 Godart’s bill encountered many objections, which can be read in particular in the debates of the Conseil supérieur du travail (Higher Labor Council), where the employers’ representatives were very virulent (Ministère du Travail et de la Prévoyance sociale 1911). In his defense, Godart pointed to a movement of public opinion which he himself encouraged, in the LSA among other places. His book, Les Mineurs blancs, published in 1910, was dedicated to the consumers, who must have heard the “wheezing moans of the bakers as they kneaded the dough,” and who have no doubt seen through basement windows “half-naked, sweating men, pale under their coat of flour”—consumers who have been guilty of this scandal and who will therefore be ready to support the reform (Godart 1910).

44 In what ways were the LSA and the consumers useful to Godart in this debate? First, the experience of the American consumers’ leagues and the LSA in regulating women’s work, based on the need to “protect” women and mothers, was useful to him (Jenson 1989). Shortly before, in 1907, Godart had been the rapporteur of the bill to ratify the Berne International Convention prohibiting night work for women in industry. Without openly saying so, he drew on that experience and more generally on the arguments used in support of regulating women’s work, opening a breach in the liberal defenses. He tried to show the legitimacy of prohibiting night work for a group of adult male workers, by extending the reasoning used to prohibit night work for children and women—the “facts,” not the law. He wanted to show the exceptional nature of bakers’ work, with a view to expanding that exception to other occupations and then working to make the texts uniform (Mahaim 1925).

45 Secondly, the LSA supplied arguments to Godart and transformed his discourse. A new argument, often used by the LSA, only appeared in the second version of his bill: tuberculosis or other diseases would be transmitted to the consumer through bread. This argument was not invented by the LSA, but the association helped to construct and popularize it, in particular through the campaign against the sweating system, discussed above. Just as garments made at home were presented as (metaphorically) covered in the blood of the seamstresses or (really) infested with their microbes, so bakers’ diseases would be spread through the bread they made. This idea, bolstered by the importance of the hygienist current at the start of the twentieth century (Bourdelais 2001), was circulated between the members of the LSA and Justin Godart, via various (especially Catholic) advocates of the bill. Thus Godart says in his book: “If, through night work, society exposes bakers to risks of contagion, in return that contagion will go forth and vengefully strike those whose demands impose this dangerous form of work….The evil that you do to other humans will come back, kneaded into your bread, to you, the guilty parties” (Godart 1910).

46 In other words, the LSA took part in the dissemination of an argument that was taken up everywhere—the link between night work, bad working conditions, the health risk of the products, and the support of consumers who do not want to contract tuberculosis from their daily bread. This argument was mainly vehicled by men, with the tools of traditional activism, but they partly relied on the ground won in the campaigns on women’s work.


47 At a time when the gender of consumption was under construction, the LSA does not appear as a feminine association, made up of women fighting on women’s issues with women’s tools. Once one has observed the presence of men, one might expect to see—as a counterpart to the campaigns on women’s work conducted by women—campaigns to reform the work of men, conducted by men with specific modes of action, comparable to the white lists, from which women would be excluded. This is not at all the case. One finds white lists and practical advice offered by men in the campaign for a weekly rest day. Overall, it is true that, in the LSA, white lists and practical advice tend to be more feminine, but they had been reappropriated by the women who were active there, in contrast to other associations. While the contribution of gender cannot be denied, it is indeed the context of use that makes a particular mode of action “feminine” or “masculine.”

48 Yet, in the actors’ discourses—which diverge from their practice—the “feminine” nature of the LSA was, paradoxically, emphasized throughout its history. This was constructed around two central arguments: the protection of women’s work, a theme on which Catholic and secular reformers agreed (against the feminist movement), and the responsibility of female consumers. This conception was based on the notion of the “irresponsible consumer,” which was very widespread at the time. The central role of the consumer was brought to light by various writings at the turn of the twentieth century, in particular those of the economist Charles Gide (Gide 2001), but as soon as an irrational or irresponsible consumer was mentioned, the male consumer [consommateur] became a “female consumer” [consommatrice]. In a general way, those who want to establish that the consumer is a pivotal actor in political economy tend to define the consumer as a man; those who emphasize the consumer’s passivity and irrationality (requiring reform) insist on the consumer’s femininity (Donohue 1999).

49 Taking account of circulation, an approach inherited from the analysis of transfers and transnational history but here applied to a local field, seems to us particularly productive (Douki and Minard 2007; Werner and Zimmermann 2003). We have seen the circulation of the practice of white lists between the American consumers’ leagues and the LSA, but also between the Ligue pour le repos du dimanche and the LSA. Likewise, we have brought to light the circulation of arguments between the “protection” of women’s work and men’s “right” to work—the prohibition of night work and a weekly rest day existed for women before being discussed for men. Finally we have discussed the circulation of the argument that the object purchased transmits the worker’s disease. All this presents us with a fluid world of reform, made up of men and women, objects of reform, and modes of action that are more less gendered. In this world, nothing is stable. The proof of this is that the LSA, long seen as an example of a feminine association, remote from the masculine world of reform, seems to us on the contrary emblematic of a new way of understanding the “reforming nebula” (Topalov 1999) at the start of the twentieth century, by integrating gender into it.


  • [1]
    This article is based on work for a habilitation to direct research in history (Chessel 2009) and several papers given in 2008 and 2009 for seminars at the Centre de Recherches Historiques (Historical research center) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School of higher education in the social sciences), Paris: seminars of the Études Sociales et Politiques des Populations group (Social and Political Population Studies Group), the seminar on “The gender of social reform,” and the “History of gender” seminar at the Centre de Recherches Historiques. I am grateful to the co-organizers and participants of those seminars for their questions and comments, in particular Magali della Sudda, Laura Lee Downs, and Paul-André Rosental. I also thank Nancy Cott, Sheryl Kroen and Mary Louise Roberts for their teaching on the history of gender, and Franck Cochoy for his comments on a first version of this text.
  • [2]
    Archives nationales (AN), 615 AP 67, list of members provided in a letter from J. Bergeron to H. Brunhes, July 1, 1905.
  • [3]
    Archives municipales of Lyon, 130 II 11, Letter from J. Brunhes to M. Gonin, December 15, 1908.
  • [4]
    “Statuts de la LSA,” Bulletin de la LSA, 1st quarter 1905, 45.
  • [5]
    On the compilation of these white lists, see “Couturières et listes blanches: de la consommation à la loi,” in Chessel 2009, 309–360.
  • [6]
    The white lists were published on leaflets or in the Bulletins des LSA. See for example Bulletin de la LSA, 1st quarter 1905 and Bulletin des LSA, 1st quarter 1907, 2nd quarter 1909, and 1st quarter 1911.
  • [7]
    AN, 615 AP 81, “Ligue catholique d’acheteuses pour le repos hebdomadaire, Appel-programme,” tract, Amiens, 1907.
  • [8]
    Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Dossier LSA, Tract no. 2, Législation protectrice du travail des femmes, July 1903.
  • [9]
    H. Brunhes, “Réponse à une objection,” Bulletin de la LSA, 3rd quarter 1905: 114–115.
  • [10]
    H. Brunhes, L’Éclair, February 19, 1910, quoted in “Articles publiés par des membres des LSA,” Bulletin des LSA, 1st term 1910: 12–17.
  • [11]
    H. Brunhes, “Lettre sur les expositions portatives du travail à domicile, lue par Mme Léon Brunschvicg à la conférence de Versailles du 11 juin 1908,” Bulletin des LSA, 188–191.
  • [12]
    Ligue populaire lyonnaise pour le repos du dimanche, Liste des magasins et ateliers de Lyon dont les patrons déclarent se faire un devoir de fermer toute la journée des dimanches et fêtes, 3rd edition, Lyon: Impr. Paquet, 1899.
  • [13]
    G. Piot, “Le repos du dimanche et les travailleurs,” Semaines sociales de France, VIe Session, Bordeaux, 1909, Lyon: Chronique Sociale de France, 1909, 485–498.
  • [14]
    AN, 615 AP 80, letter from J. Tourret to J. Brunhes, April 10, 1909. On the whole campaign see also the private archives of François Bilange, great-grandson of Justin Godart.

Since the end of the 19th century, it has been quite common to say that consumption opens new room for feminine political activism. But does that mean that consumers’ organizations are always feminine? This article focuses on the gender of the Ligue sociale d’acheteurs, a French consumers’ organization which promoted fair trade at the beginning of the 20th century. It looks at men and women who were active in this association, analyzing the reasons of their activism in the association. Then the author looks at two different types of reforming campaigns, on garment trades (against the “sweatshops”), on the one hand, and on the reduction of working hours for men, on the other hand. The author wants to show that gender does not organize the work at the lsa in a simple way (feminine versus masculine). Gender is important but equally important are circulations between men and women, between “feminine” and “masculine” ideas and reforming practices, and between reforming countries.


  • bakers
  • consumers’ organizations
  • consumption
  • France – 1900-1914
  • gender
  • Ligue sociale d’acheteurs
  • needlewomen
  • social catholics
  • sweating-system
  • work


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Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel
Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel is a historian and a director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National scientific research center), Centre de Recherches Historiques-EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales). Her publications include Consommateurs engagés à la Belle Epoque. La Ligue sociale d'acheteurs (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2012) and Histoire de la consommation (Paris: La Découverte, 2012).
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