Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-1939

By Laura Lee Downs | Go to book overview

C H A P T E R 5
Welfare Supervision and
Labor Discipline, 1916-1918

In 1925 Général Appert, director of the Alsthom electrical works at St-Ouen, looked back on the strikes of May— June 1917 with smug satisfaction, recalling that in his factory, "order and discipline reigned ... despite the excitement and the threats" from women strikers. 1 He attributed this quiet to the anodyne presence of five surintendantes d'usine (women welfare supervisors), whom he had hired just weeks before to oversee the health, discipline, and productivity of Alsthom's enormous female labor force. By monitoring worker discontent and "gently rebuking" the more rebellious souls, the five had installed a harmonious matriarchal order that stifled any mutinous murmurings among the factory's 6,000-plus women.

The middle-class "welfare ladies" were especially unlikely travelers in the notionally all-male and distinctly proletarian world of the metals factory. Yet their presence in this world was no accident. Employers in both nations brought lady superintendents into their factories during World War I for the ostensible purpose of attending to the health and welfare of the new female workforce. Ultimately, however, their work went far beyond ensuring the physical and moral well-being of the nation's working mothers. Ever mindful of the connection between the individual worker's health and her productivity, metals employers were quick to call their welfare supervisors into more directly productive service. The "welfare lady's" expert and intimate knowledge of the woman worker's capacities and character made her a valuable ally in management's wartime campaign to tighten discipline and raise output.

The idea of factory-based welfare supervision first arose in England; the

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1
Général Appert, " Allocution du Général Appert," Bulletin de l'Association des Surintendantes (hereafter BAS), 1925. Alsthom, already one of the largest factories in France, had tripled its female workforce over the course of the war, from 2,000 to 6,000.

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