Between private initiative and public interest: The work of the society for women freed from Saint-Lazare (1870-1914)

Associations, late 19th-early 20th century
By Alix Heiniger

In the late nineteenth century, the conditions of social interventionism shifted between the private and public sectors, while under the French Republic, new doctrines called for greater concern for certain segments of the population. At the same time, prison reform revised penal policies in order to better fight crime and recidivism. As part of this trend, the Œuvre des Libérées de Saint-Lazare (“Society for Women Freed from Saint-Lazare”), was founded in 1870 to help women released from prison. The Society brought together female and male volunteers. The men brought with them a sound background in politics and/or charitable work, whereas the women were gaining their first experience, and thanks to the legitimacy acquired through their fieldwork with formerly incarcerated women, they made demands on behalf of women. Their demands, influenced by the new social doctrines, were for society to recognise its duty towards so-called “fallen” women. An analysis based on sources, as well as a precise examination of the profiles of the protagonists, demonstrates, through the example of the Œuvre des Libérées de Saint-Lazare, how a new model of social intervention developed, partway between public interest and private initiative, with the support of public officials.

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