Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Women in the Economy: Introduction

Between 1830 and 1914 there were significant and radical changes in many areas of British economic and social life. The critical question is whether there were parallel changes in the world of women’s work. This section explores this issue from a variety of perspectives[1].

Some general questions about women’s work

There are three major issues that can be raised from the outset about women’s work, especially that of the working class. First, the idea and practice of the sexual division of labour was seminal. For the most part women did ‘women’s work’ defined in terms of low wages. For example, in the Glasgow tailoring industry in the 1890s men were paid 3/6d and women 9d for making the same garment. Women had a reproductive rather than a productive role and as this reproductive work was unpaid society regarded it as having no economic value. This perception was translated into the labour market and a gender hierarchy of labour developed whereby women’s work was given a lower social and economic value than that of men. The sexual division of labour therefore split the working class along lines of sex. It split the unity of that class and often the enmity between the two groups was seen in trade union activity.

Secondly, women were regarded as a cheap reserve pool of labour that could be brought in and out of the workforce to suit the requirements of capital and/or the state. Finally, the Industrial Revolution brought about a decisive separation between home and work. In pre-industrial society women were engaged in production at home. Industrialisation sifted production into the factories or workshops and many women became factory workers or ‘sweated labour’. Cheap labour is a fundamental element of the capitalist mode of production and female labour was and is cheap labour. By introducing machinery and low-paid women into factories, manufacturers sought to break down many specialist tasks into a series of mechanical operations and so keep wages low. Many women were tied to the home yet in need of money to support themselves and their family. Some form of outwork or homework was often their only option. This was, and still is, a particularly exploitative form of employment. Much of this work was brought to the public attention by The Sweated Industries Exhibition of 1906 and by the widely publicised action of the Cradley Heath chain makers’ strike of 1910.

Many aspects of women’s work were controversial. Women, married or unmarried had always worked. However, by the mid-nineteenth century working wives and mothers were regarded as unnatural, immoral and inadequate homemakers and parents. These criticisms arose from contemporary assumptions about women’s work and indeed about the inherent nature and functions of women themselves. The problem historians face is that these assumptions were not always clearly expressed, were not universally shared and which were ambivalent and contradictory.

It is clear that the upper and middle class critics of working class women did not object to work as such. Most objections arose from the matter of the location of work and when women were seen working away from their proper sphere; that is, their own, or someone else’s home. This domestic ideology affected attitudes to women’s work throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Initially observable among the middle classes, it spread to sections of all classes, and to members of both sexes. These ideas not only affected those from upper and middle classes who criticised working class women for working outside their homes; they also had an impact on the attitudes of many working class men and women.

Many women saw paid work, not as an alternative to housework, but as a way of enabling them better to fulfil their duty as wives, mothers and homemakers. In general, however, working class women did not regard full time paid work as something they would undertake for all of their adult lives. Married women who, for financial reasons, were compelled to work rarely continued to work when the financial crisis had ended. It was poverty that drove many working class women into wage-earning work and it was widespread poverty that to some extent helps to explain men’s defensive attitude against women working. E.H. Hunt wrote of the period 1850-1914[2] ‘Men believed that a limited amount of work was available and suspected that allowing women to share work would cause some families to be without pay as a consequence of other families taking more than their fair share.’

For working class women there could be no clear distinction between the public and private spheres, however much ideally they would have liked there to be one. This confusion between private and public spheres can be seen in a variety of ways: women taking in lodgers or selling food from their back kitchens or acting as a domestic servant.


[1] The classic works are I. Pinchbeck Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution, first published in 1930, but reprinted in 1985 by Virago with an introduction by Kerry Hamilton and B. Drake Women in Trade Unions, London, 1921 reprinted by Virago, 1984. D. Thompson Women in the Nineteenth Century, The Historical Association, 1990, J. Perkin Victorian Women, John Murray, 1993, J. Rendall Women in an Industrialising Society: England 1750-1880, Blackwell, 1990, Judy Lown With Free and Graceful Step? Women and industrialisation in nineteenth century England, Polity, 1987 and Paula Bartley The Changing Role of Women 1815-1914, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996 are good, short introductions to the background of the subject. Jane Purvis (ed.) Women’s History Britain 1850-1945: an introduction, UCL, 1995 is an outstanding collection of essays. They should be supplemented by E. Roberts Women’s Work 1840-1940, Macmillan, 1987 and E. Richards ‘Women in the British Economy since 1700’, History, volume 59, 1974. For the post-1850 period see Jane Lewis Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change, Harvester, 1984 is a good introduction. S. Rose Limited Livelihoods: Class and Gender in Nineteenth Century England, Routledge, 1992 is a major study of the relationship between capitalism and women. A.V. John (ed.) Unequal Opportunities: Women’s Employment in England 1800-1950, Blackwell, 1986 is a useful collection of papers.

[2] E.H. Hunt British Labour History 1815-1914, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981, page 24.

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