Saturday, 2 February 2008

Women in the Economy: 2 Working class


How did women’s work developed between the 1830s and 1914? Domestic service, the textile trade and the clothing trades accounted for eighty per cent of all women in recorded occupations in 1851. In contrast the number of women in agriculture halved between 1851 and 1881 and there was a new and expanding category of professional occupations and subordinate offices. Most other occupations employed few women, though at a regional level there were still significant numbers in the metal trades, in food and drink manufacture and also in printing and stationery work.

A problem with sources

From 1851 the census returns provide slightly more reliable indicators of women’s paid employment based on individual occupations taken every ten years. However, there are very considerable difficulties in interpreting the data. There are doubts among historians as to the accuracy and reliability of the evidence especially for the nineteenth century. There is increasing awareness that mistakes were made either by the original enumerator or by the householder or by both[1]. This was compounded by the inconsistent use of key terms like ‘domestic servant’. Research on the returns for Rochdale and Rutland suggest that the number of domestic servants was exaggerated and many people so identified were relatives helping out the family concerned.

There are more serious difficulties with the census returns that historians now recognise. They seriously under record the number of employed women, possibly by as much as a third. There is considerable evidence that part-time seasonal and irregular work of all kinds -- including seasonal agricultural work, outwork, casual domestic work such as washing and working in family businesses -- were all ignored. More surprising than the omission of married women’s part-time work was the failure on occasions to count even their full-time work. Comparison of wage books with workers’ name and addresses, and the census enumerators’ books, for identical days, demonstrate that married women’s full-time work was seriously underestimated. Evidence from the woollen mills of the Border region suggest that up to half of married women with full-time work were recorded with no occupation in the census returns.  The value of census returns lies in their indication of trends but exact figures and precise comparisons between years should be treated with considerable caution.

Did the percentage of women in the workforce increase after 1830?

Historians are divided on this issue. The ‘optimists’ argue that the Industrial Revolution gave women more job opportunities and led eventually to their emancipation. The ‘pessimists’ and observers at the time are less enthusiastic about the results of industrialisation but are divided as to its effects on women’s participation rates in the labour market and on their status as workers.  Contemporaries argued that labour in the pre-industrial world was creative, satisfying and wholesome. Historians take a less romantic view but have suggested that home and work were more integrated and men and women more equal. Other ‘pessimists’ consider that industrialisation, though producing more female employment, had a disastrous effect on the women, their homes and their families. On the other hand, there are historians who suggest that women lost jobs because of industrialisation [as in the case of home spinning] or that industrialisation offered no employment at all for women in the new jobs that were created [for example, in the railway industry]. These writers tend to ignore the new service jobs that were created as a result of the increased prosperity of the middle classes. Female participation rates after 1871 show that the combined processes of urbanisation and industrialisation had little impact.

So what were the levels of female participation in the economy? After 1851 female participation rates can be calculated from the censuses but problems with enumeration means that figures should be regarded as only a very tentative guide.

Female participation rates 1871-1931


Census Year

Percentage women of all ages









Through the period the combined processes of industrialisation and urbanisation appear to have had little impact of women’s participation rates though these figures hide much unremunerated work. There were, however, significant differences in the percentage of women working at different ages:

Women working in 1901



Percentage of age group working






The pattern of the typical women worker in full-time, wage-earning work as young rather than an older person had some effect on the generally lower wages women earned compared to those of men. In many industries [though not all] older women with more experience could demand higher wages. However, there were fewer older women working and they were unable to ‘boost’ the average female wage. Aggregated figures should not be allowed to hide the fact that sometimes women did earn as much or more than men. This can be seen in the Potteries where skilled women decorators were paid more than some of the male potters doing less skilled jobs[2]. There were widespread assumptions about the relative value of men’s work and women’s work. Many men argued that they had greater physical strength than women do and were more skilled and therefore they deserved higher wages than women. In some cases this seems to have been based on gender stereotyping rather than on reality. Women were often skilled though most found themselves confined to the unskilled sectors of the economy

The 1871 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. It is not surprising that the proportion of the female labour force remained remarkably constant between the 1870s and the 1910s. 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.

Between 1871 and 1914 women were concentrated in certain ‘women’s jobs’. In 1881 four main occupations accounted for 76 per cent of employed women and this changed only slightly before 1914. Agriculture, which accounted for 12 per cent of women workers in the 1840s, had already ceased to be a major employer of women by 1881. Increasing numbers of young rural women went into domestic service, where they were better paid, receiving £12-£15 per year rather than £10 as a fieldworker, and were in addition given board and lodgings. The decline in the numbers of women employed in textiles, clothing and domestic service was, by 1911, substantial but these women were reabsorbed primarily in the clerical and distributive trades and to a lesser extent by the metals, paper, chemical and food, drink and tobacco trades. The growth in these occupations was sufficient to absorb a particular large increase in the numbers of women working between 1901 and 1911.

Women’s occupations 1881-1911 [percentage of women employed]


  Domestic service
























There was an important shift to white-blouse work in the period after 1871. While the numbers engaged in such work [mainly teaching, retailing, office work and nursing] increased by 161 per cent between 1881 and 1911, the numbers working in manufacturing industries and domestic service increased by only 24 per cent. Moreover the expansion of the non-manual sector was much more rapid for women than it was for men and, to some extent, this opened up routes of social mobility for working class girls. This did not by any means involve a leap into middle class status but it did provide an increased element of respectability to employment. It is the division between manual and non-manual occupations that becomes increasingly the fundamental division in women’s work rather than the, always tenuous, division between working and middle classes.

[1] The census return was initially filled in by the householder and then checked by the enumerator. The instructions given to householders and enumerators were unclear, particularly in dealing with the work of women within the household or family economy.

[2] Richard Whipp Patterns of Labour: work and social change in the pottery industry, Routledge, 1990 provides a detailed discussion of this issue.

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