There are difficulties defining the ‘working classes’ but generally the term is used to cover women who worked with their hands, who were paid wages, not salaries, and who did not employ other people; also, and most importantly, the wives and daughters of men who fitted this description. Women worked full-time or part-time either outside the home in a factory, shop or factory or on the land or worked in their own homes or in other people’s. However, a very large numbers of women worked full-time in the home for no wages at all. A contrast was made between ‘real’ work and work in the home which since it has never been paid was somehow assumed not to be ‘real’ work at all and consequently has become devalued in the eyes of many men and women. Many aspects of women’s work were controversial throughout this period. Women, married and unmarried had always worked. They had been, for example, spinners, dressmakers, straw-plaiters and lacemakers; they had combined this with housekeeping and child rearing. These activities did not appear to arouse the controversy that accompanied the public appearance of wage-earning working women, as a result of industrialisation, in certain areas like Lancashire, West Yorkshire and the Potteries. Working wives and mothers were often regarded as unnatural, unfeminine, immoral and inadequate homemakers and parents. They were attacked by male workers who feared the loss of work but who wrote petitions full of apparent concern for women and their children. Unmarried women were also attacked.
These criticisms arose out of contemporary assumptions about women’s work and about the inherent nature and functions of women themselves. It is clear that the upper and middle class critics of working class women did not disapprove of work as such; what concerned them was the location of that work when women were seen working away from their proper sphere, that is, their own or someone else’s home. This ‘domestic ideology’ dominated thinking about women’s work throughout the period. Expressed simply, it saw the world as divided into two spheres, one for men and one for women. Men were to go out to work, make money and support their families while women were to stay at home, creating a haven for themselves and their children and for their husbands to return to. These created certain tensions as most working class women, especially if unmarried, were financially forced to work. Most women worked because they had to and were not ashamed of this believing they were supporting and helping their families by working outside the home. Paid work was not seen as an alternative to housework but as a way of enabling them better to fulfil their duty as wives, mothers and homemakers.
In general, working class women did not regard full-time work as something they would undertake for the whole of their adult lives. It is very clear that married women continued to believe firmly that their primary commitment was to home and family. Poverty drove many women to wage-earning work and it was widespread poverty that to some degree helps to explain why men held defensive attitudes against women working. 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 result of other families taking more than their fair share.
Women’s work in 1851
The 1851 census suggests that just over a quarter of the female population -- some 2.8 million out of 10.6 million -- were at work and that women made up about thirty per cent of the country’s labour force. However, when these figures are broken down region by region, and occupation by occupation, it is apparent that the participation rate could vary considerably over the country. The proportion rose to over a third in Lancashire, Nottingham, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire but fell to less than one-fifth in Northumberland, Durham, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Monmouth and Kent. Such wide regional disparities are not simply reflections of a particular age-structure, because women’s participation in work varied greatly even for the 15-24 age group, whose members were mostly unmarried and therefore notionally available for work.
There were very few activities where women actually made up three out of every ten workers involved. Viewed nationally four activities accounted between them for almost ninety per cent of women’s work. Domestic and allied forms of personal service headed the list, employing about two out of every five working women; the textiles and clothing industries provided employment for a similar proportion; and lagging a long way behind agriculture found work for about one working women in every twelve. This concentration in a few sectors had an obvious corollary: there were other important areas of economic activity from which women workers were absent completely or in which they participated in small numbers. Women were absent, for example, from the building trade by 1851 and except in a few areas where they did surface work they were not employed in coal or mineral mines. They do not appear among the clerks and secretaries in the commercial offices and counting houses of Dickens’ London. Women may have been excluded from many parts of the primary and secondary sectors of the economy but they certainly dominated others. Taken all round, women were probably under represented in the primary sector and over represented in the tertiary sector, compared with men.
Once the uneven distribution of women workers between different occupations and industries has been appreciated, the marked regional differences in women’s participation in the labour force starts to make sense. Some activities were carried out all over the country like domestic service and dressmaking while others were confined to particular specialist localities. Regional and local specialisation created marked divergence from the national norm, not only in the level but also in the variety of women’s employment. What women did depended largely on the particular economic structure of the place where they were born, and generalisations based on crude national totals ignore the essential element of regional and local variety.
 Useful studies of working women writing and speaking for themselves include: John Burnett (ed.) Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Work People from the 1820s to the 1920s, Routledge, new edition, 1994, Doris Nield Chew Ada Nield Chew: The Life and Writings of a Working Woman, Virago, 1982, Clementina Black Married Women’s Work Being the Report of an Enquiry undertaken by the Women’s Industrial Council, 1915 especially for rural work and charwomen and Maud Pember Reeves Round About a Pound a Week, 1913, Virago, 1979, a survey carried out by Fabian Society’s Women’s Group of families living on an income of 18-26 shillings a week in Lambeth, south London.