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About A la Recherche des Femmes Perdues

A la Recherche des Femmes Perdues (“In Search of Lost Women”), is a digital humanities project about the book On Prostitution in the City of Paris (De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris), a monumental and precocious work of social science and a precursor for literary realism. It was published in French in 1836 by Alexandre Parent du Châtelet, an aristocratic doctor and social engineer who had previously designed the famous Paris sewers. On Prostitution in the City of Paris was vital in justifying and publicizing the first national system of prostitution regulation. It was also a triumph of both quantitative and qualitative research, one of the first studies to deploy statistical methods on any topic, and the first to draw upon prostitutes’ own experiences through hundreds of interviews. These experiences, and the popular opinions and prejudices he documented, were a source of information not only for subsequent scientists, but also for journalists, novelists, and other artists.

 

This site provides English-language translations of selections of On Prostitution in the City of Paris, and social context through contemporaneous works of literature, journalism, visual arts, and philosophy. These illuminate two ways in which Parent du Châtelet’s masterwork had influence far beyond the political system it documented: in the public reception of social-scientific methodology, and in the raw material it provided artists, novelists and journalists devoted to realism in the depiction of social life.

 

The site presents citations to key academic works and primary documents from four archives:

  • new, original English translations of On Prostitution in the City of Paris

  • Documents from the Archives of the Paris Police Prefecture (Les archives de la préfecture de Police, Paris)

  • Contemporaneous artworks from the Allen Memorial Art Museum

  • Translations of period works that influenced, or were influenced by, Parent du Châtelet

 

These archives are displayed on Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform for the curation and display of digital collections, and hosted by the Oberlin College Library. Omeka uses Dublin Core Metadata standards, and items have been curated with tags that allow users to view and sort objects by theme.

A la Recherche des Femmes Perdues is the creation of Libby Murphy and Greggor Mattson, Associate Professors of French and Sociology at Oberlin College, and the students of two of their classes: Libby Murphy’s FREN 311 La Comédie Humaine: Social Identities in Nineteenth-Century France and Greggor Mattson’s SOCI 338: Prostitution and Social Control: Governing Loose Women. The title of the site plays upon the title of Marcel Proust’s masterwork In Search of Lost Time, and describes both the concern that women in prostitution were lost to society, and the scholarly act of recovering them and their worlds.

A la Recherche des Femmes Perdues was funded by grants from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for Arts and Technology and a teaching assistant grant from the Oberlin College Dean of Arts and Sciences. We benefitted from technical support and consultations with Megan Mitchell, Digital Initiatives Coordinator of the Oberlin College Library, Amy Margaris, Associate Professor of Anthropology, and Wendy Kozol, Professor of Comparative American Studies.