Zola shows sympathy toward working-class women in this novel, without idealizing them in the way of other romantic writers of his period. In other words, he doesn't turn them into saints or gentle, redemptive angels. As a naturalist, he tries to show the women as they are in their environment. In fact, because conditions in the coal mines are so rough and the coal miners so impoverished, the working-class women spend most of their free time having sex because that is all they can afford to do. Catherine, for example, has more than one lover. The working-class women, like the men, don't get enough to eat, and they have only the bare minimum of consumer goods. When they attack the troops, they are more violent and uncontrolled then the men, again overturning romantic stereotypes about the feminine nature.
Wives of the mine owners, such as Madame Hennebeau, exploit the workers while withholding sex from their husbands. These women are portrayed as negative characters and they act harsher then the men toward the lower-classes. This is in contrast to Victorian visions of middle-class women as angels of the home. Ironically, for all their good food and fine clothes, the middle-class women are withholding the one thing the poor have in abundance: sex.