Bourgeois Men and Working Women in Montmartre

Roles and expectations for bourgeois men and working women in Montmartre

Republican parliamentary government

By the last two decades of the nineteenth century the republican form of government was well-established in France. A parliament elected by universal male suffrage and a constitution guaranteed the liberal ideals of the rights of the individual and an increasingly secular society.

The shadow of the monarchy or the elected dictatorship of the Second Empire were now historical phenomena. The developing educational system was secular with primary teachers proclaiming the republican credo of liberty, equality and brotherhood. The influence of the Catholic Church lessened.

With the rights of property assured and no income tax in sight until 1914 it was the bourgeoisie, who bought most into the Third French Republic.

The slow pace of the industrial revolution in France

In France the industrial revolution was a much slower process than elsewhere in Europe; even in 1911 56% of the population lived in rural surroundings and 40% worked in agriculture.

Industrialisation was, however, happening and the accompanying drift from country to city included a good proportion of female workers.

Working women in a male-dominated society

Women were employed in the many small scale workshops and factories that sprang up around the Paris area. This took them out of the domestic sphere, gave them a little more independence and made them more visible on the streets of Paris.

Working women were typically employed in the textile and garment trade, tobacco and cigarette works, in laundries, and food industries. By 1892 the legal working day for a woman was limited to 10 or 11 hours. Needless to say a female employee was paid less than her male colleague.

Women were excluded from the political process, and took no part in setting the political or economic agenda.

This was a male-dominated society. Gender inequality had found its way into law: the Napoleonic Code institutionally confirmed a woman’s place as being subordinated to her male spouse; her place was the domestic sphere. She was effectively banned from any independent decision making.

The law expected a married man to look after his wife on the same basis as a domestic servant. If a woman worked, by law, (until 1907), she could not receive or spend her salary without her husband’s consent. Her husband’s permission was needed if she wished to enrol in a university (until 1938). She was excluded from the vote until 1944 and could not independently open a bank account until 1965.

Domestic service

Potentially the worst case employment scenario of all for a woman was to be in domestic service. Because there was no income tax domestic employment was widespread. Here a country girl, often speaking a local variant of French which could isolate her, was at the mercy of the whim and humour of her bourgeois masters.

She may have to work for 15 or 16 hours a day and listen out for the bell for 24. Sometimes mistreated, regularly ill-lodged, if she was unlucky and became pregnant then she lost her job and might end up in prostitution.

Liberal republican ideals were of limited use to the domestic servant when, behind closed doors, those who were supposed to uphold them simply exercised their privilege to abuse as freely as any self-serving aristocrat of the old regime.

The bourgeois experience

French society was conservative and economic activity was on a small scale; there were many small firms, artisans, shopkeepers and in the country small scale peasant proprietors.

Commercial liberal speculative capitalism never took root in economically conservative French soil. The typical well-off bourgeois may own a small self-financing company, or perhaps be well-placed in the civil service, the legal profession or a bank. Land and property were the age old measures of respectability.

If a man had money to invest then the number one priority would be to buy property and then rent it out, second on the list would be government bonds.

Arranged marriages

Among the bourgeoisie at this time the institution of marriage was a strategic manoeuvre for social advancement engineered by families. A woman had to have a good reputation and come with some money.

Parents would study ‘form’ and try to match complementary social standing, revenue and beneficial networks. Attraction, love, or shared interest were secondary considerations. The marriage was essentially arranged, the happiness of the couple a lucky offshoot.

Whilst bourgeois men had a duty to provide for their wife and family, they probably spent as much time with their colleagues at work and with their social equals in clubs or professional associations. Socialising regularly helped consolidate alliances and widen networks.


Regulated prostitution, which took place in recognised maison-close where the women received regular medical examinations, was seen as a necessary evil. It was said to exist in order to protect ‘honest people’ and satisfy, (for the male partner at least), the frustration of the often loveless domestic arrangements.

There were other unofficial forms of prostitution: those who were occasionally forced into it through economic precarity and lack of opportunity.

The high end of the sex trade was dominated by a small number of famous high society courtesans who skilfully played the richest in society for their own gain.

Theatricalising bourgeois ignorance of the working classes

It was in Montmartre and especially at the Moulin Rouge that impresario entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to exploit and theatricalise bourgeois ignorance and curiosity about working class culture.

Bourgeois men came to laugh a little at the mild insults they expected from the cabaret performers; to experience the unrestrained free energy of the female dancers with their savage cries, high kicking legs and billowing petticoats.

They came to gawp, to flirt or more with the many unregulated prostitutes. They came to strut and pose and fraternise, to observe the poorer people, the dancers, the lights, the orchestra and the decor and to let go a little.

Montmartre was a way to escape the stifling social conservatism of bourgeois values, conventions and behavioural expectations and to experience, (from a bourgeois point of view), the less constrained, natural life force of the uncultured lower orders of society. That vigour and spirit is caught by Toulouse-Lautrec in the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster.

The owners of the Moulin Rouge were intelligent enough to formularise and market the entire package to make it bourgeois friendly. Unlike other more popular dancehalls such as the Elysée Montmartre or the Moulin de la Galette where there was a risk of confrontation, at the Moulin Rouge the girls got in but the pimps stayed out.

Whilst the male bourgeois clientele were the principal paying customers at venues such as the Moulin Rouge, the entertainment in Montmartre, far from being subversive or corrosive to the established order, merely reinforced class roles, expectations and stereotypes.

Please see the Montmartre history and culture page for more on Montmartre.