The extent to which the nature of work for labouring women changed has two dimensions that are historically and ideologically important. First, to what extent were changes in the nature of work, especially the development of the factory system, if significance in allowing women into the labour market as independent wage earners? Secondly, how far did this employment alter women’s role in the ‘domestic sphere’ and what impact did this have on the family?
Opportunities or marginalisation?
Ivy Pinchbeck, in her classic study of women workers first published in 1930, argued that economic changes between 1750 and 1850 transformed women’s employment opportunities. There was an increase in the availability of employment outside the home, improving women’s status and conditions and acting as a vital element in the destruction of the notion of the ‘family wage’. Valuable though Pinchbeck still is, several qualifications can be made to her basic thesis. The notion that the industrial revolution increased the participation of women in general outside the home is difficult to sustain. After 1820 female participation rates in the productive economy declined. In rural areas participation rates probably declined even earlier. The replacement of the sickle with the scythe played an important part in this process. The scythe was never used by women and led to them being reduced to the lower-status, lower-paid jobs of weeding or stone picking. The long-term depression in farming after 1815 and the high levels of male unemployment or under-employment exacerbated this situation. By contrast, however, in pastoral areas women’s participation did not decline and there may even have been an increase in real wages for women specialising in livestock, dairying or hay-making. In the north-eastern coalfields women ceased to work underground in the eighteenth century and none had worked below ground in Staffordshire, Shropshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire for some time before they were forbidden to do so by the Mines Act of 1842.
Levels of female activity varied according to area and occupation. The wives and daughters of migrant Scottish farmers astonished East Anglians in the 1880s by doing work that had been done exclusively by men there for almost a century. But few women found themselves emancipated in terms of having sufficient income to make themselves independent of either their parents or husbands. Contemporaries may have been impressed by the ‘freedom’ of the lasses of the mill towns who secured a reputation for flashy dressing and an undeserved one for sexual promiscuity. But they were not typical. In 1851 domestic service accounted for 37.3 per cent of female occupations [aged 15 or over], textiles 18.5, dressmaking 18 and farming 7.7 per cent. Most of these occurred in the home where constraints on emancipation were very real and where women’s wages were at a level that was assumed to be supplementary.
Male exclusiveness largely explains why changes in social attitudes to women’s employment had remained largely unaltered by 1850. Traditionally, manufacturing skill had been associated with men and this had created a sense of male solidarity that extended beyond the workplace into community and home. Men’s struggles to maintain their skilled place in the workforce against machinery and against the encroachment of unskilled women was an important part of their efforts to maintain their social status within the community and their families. The sexual division of labour was a familial, customary and social construct rather than one largely determined by technical considerations. It was part of the social hierarchy established among activities: in male dominated society women’s tasks were considered inferior simply because they were carried out by women. The division of labour was an effect of the social hierarchy dominated by men, not its cause.
This patriarchal ideology was used to justify keeping women away from the new technology, as in a petition from the Staffordshire potters in 1845: ‘To maidens, mothers and wives we say machinery is your deadliest enemy ... It will destroy your natural claims to home and domestic duties....’ It also limited men’s incomes, as cotton spinner pleaded in 1824: ‘The women, in nine cases out of ten, have only themselves to support, while the men generally have families ... The women can afford their labour for less than men.... Keep them at home to look after their families.’ These contemporary criticisms of working women were based on an ideological consideration of a proper women’s sphere, not on a proper investigation of actual working conditions. With the exception of skilled artisans, whose status generally ensured an income sufficient to support a wife and family, most women in the working class worked not merely to ‘top up’ the family budget but to ensure basic levels of family subsistence.