“Street jobs” by Juliette Rennes: conquerors through work

Street trades. Observing work and gender in Paris in 1900

by Juliette Rennes

Editions de l’EHESS, 462 p., €24.90

One cannot imagine today the emotion and the media frenzy which surrounded the beginnings of the first coachwomen of Paris, on February 21, 1907. The entry of these two women into a corporation of 20,000 men is immortalized by a photo striking, where, surrounded by the crowd, they cannot start their cabs in front of which the journalists are banging their fists to proclaim themselves “their first customer”.

“More than 300 articles appearing in mass-circulation newspapers are devoted to the first ten coachwomen: their names and faces are reproduced in millions of texts and images”, writes Juliette Rennes. They will be represented in the circus, music hall, theatre, cinema, sung in café-concerts, caricatured in saucy drawings, they will appear on postcards and plates…

Starting from this colorful episode, the sociologist conducts a fascinating investigation of street work and its representations during the Belle Époque. The place that women take in it by appropriating a masculine space and the gaze cast on them form the heart of the book, nourished by a dense bibliography and a rich iconography.

Helmet of Gold, a prostitute against the Prefect Lépine

The author embodies her point by giving the floor to anonymous people. “When I pass in the street, men come up to me or look at me with a smile. I saw some who looked at me from head to toe, who almost turned around to see me better, as one does with something that one is about to appropriate… All this fills me with disgust”, wrote Fortunée, a 20-year-old provincial in 1887.

Coming to Paris to look for work after a conflict with her parents who did not authorize her to marry the man of her choice, Fortunée commits suicide by throwing herself into the Seine. Her destiny, shattered by the big city, rubs shoulders with that of the tough Amélie Élie, alias Casque d’or, a famous prostitute in an open fight against the prefect Lépine.

Bread carriers and vendors of the four seasons, milliners and midinettes, poster gluers and public writers joined the most numerous women in the street, the prostitutes. By describing this irreversible revolution in women’s work, the author signs a relevant, rigorous and solidly substantiated essay. She documents the vision of the working woman of the Belle Époque, an object of mockery and fascination, as well as the embodiment of modernity and the conquest of public space.


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