IX. Work: Leaving it to the Professionals

“Their talents will be their dowries.”

—J-J Bachelier, Mémoire sur l’éducation des filles (1789)

Because motherhood was deemed the natural profession of women, moralists railed against women engaging in professions—in the more usual sense—on the grounds that such activities interfered with maternal duties. Despite such opposition, many women, of course, did have professions or worked for a living—whether by choice or necessity.

For example, women were published writers or held literary, philosophical, or social salons. Typically, they came from the upper reaches of society, were well-educated, and had no need to earn their livelihood. But a young woman born into misfortune might be obliged to find employment, perhaps as a domestic servant, in order to earn her dowry, without which she could not marry. A young woman of the petite bourgeoisie might learn a trade such as maker of fans or artificial flowers or be a shop assistant. Perhaps she would find her way into the demi-monde to become an actress, dancer, or courtesan—some of whom ascended to spectacular heights of fame and fortune. A daughter of lower classes might be a laundress or a street crier hawking her wares. Or she might become a flower girl, a vendor of savory goods or, if she was very unlucky, a vendor of unsavory ones.

Many mature women worked in the trades alongside their husbands and fathers, others performed on the stage or at the easel. A few were admitted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, but others had careers outside of it. And finally, what of women who were not mothers, or women who could not or would not marry? Then as now, for many of them, work or a professional occupation offered refuge and fulfillment, if not always a path through life strewn with flowers.


Image: Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (Metz 1734–1781 Saint-Denis), Russian Peasant Woman, n.d., Red chalk on cream antique laid paper, Inv. no. D-F-73