Saturday, 2 February 2008

Women in the Economy: 3 Working class

Types of work: some examples

The notions of ‘a woman’s job’ and ‘a woman’s rate’ were regarded by employers, trade unions and by women workers themselves as a ‘natural’ phenomenon throughout this period. The consequence this [or was it the cause?] was low pay and a sexual division of labour leading to segregation. Patterns of sexual segregation were by no means fixed throughout the country. Brickmaking was a woman’s trade in the Black Country where men worked in ironworks and coalpits. In Lancashire where women worked in cotton and where openings for men were scarce, it was a male preserve. It was, however, rare not to see a clear dividing line between women and men’s jobs within occupations and between women and men’s processes[1].

Not only was there vertical segregation at work with men’s and women’s processes clearly distinguished but there was a trend to horizontal segregation increasing after 1911 with women working in lower grade occupations, at a lower wage.

Women’s work commanded a woman’s rate, even when they were involved in the same processes as men. In manufacturing occupations women generally earned about half the average weekly earnings of men. Only in textiles did women earn significantly above 50 per cent of male earnings. New methods of wage payment introduced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reinforced the idea of a woman’s rate. Women were more often paid by piece rate than men. They also found their rates lowered or they earned ‘too much’. Non-manual workers generally earned a higher percentage of the average male earnings: women shop assistants earned about 65 per cent as much as men in 1900 and women teachers 75 per cent their male colleagues.

Average earnings for women in 1906

Occupation Percentage male wages
Textiles 59

Clothing

47

Food

42

Metal

38

Total

43

 

In all-female occupations, women often did worst of all. Nineteenth century nurses were often paid little more than domestic servants. Indeed their pay was actually lowered to encourage middle class applicants who did not need the money. Middle class parents were roundly condemned by feminists for allowing their daughters to work for pocket money because they considered it to be more respectable and genteel. Theirs was voluntary work rather than real work.

In trying to assess the number of working women during this period, we run up against a number of confusing problems. The change of work-base from the home to the factory or workshop led to changing, though never fully clarified definitions of the meaning of ‘work’, ‘employment’ and ‘occupation’. In effect, ‘work’ became shorthand for waged work. Yet formal employment was a minority theme in the social history of working class women in this period. When the census of 1881 excluded unpaid household work as a category of gainful employment, there was a dramatic drop in the female work rate figure from around 98 per cent [and almost the same as the work rate for men] to 42 per cent. In reality, however, working class women worked in large numbers and often for a considerable proportion of their lives in both paid and unpaid position. This occurred despite the howls of middle class protest raised periodically in parliament and in the press against their involvement in the world of work with their consequent neglect of husband, family and home.

What is difficult to explain is the persistence of low paid, sexually segregated and poorly organised work as the norm for women. The historiography of attempts to resolve this issue began with a natural view of a sexual division of labour in which sex discrimination was an accepted part of life. The whole proposition of a sexual division of labour was, however, rejected by feminist writers after the 1960s. Early commentators on the problem, like Sidney Webb, concluded that women’s inferior earnings were mainly due to natural causes: women’s productive power was usually inferior to men’s both in quantity and quality. This was linked to the notion that low pay was a matter of individual female choice because of the prior commitment of women to marriage, childbearing and childcare. Women, it was argued, were not prepared to invest in long training programmes or apprenticeships, sought work close to their home, had interrupted career patterns and were prone to absenteeism. This model treats the possibility of sex discrimination as a residual factor and ignores the systemic processes that trap women as a group rather than as individuals within certain grades and kinds of work. Investigators often conflated the natural and historical explanations of women’s work.

Modern economic and social theorists reject the notion of a sexual division of labour as natural and a matter of choice on the part of women. They argue for the existence of a dual labour market in which primary workers were assured a stable career with rising wages and secondary workers, who were often unskilled or who possessed highly transferable skills, and who come to be seen as unstable workers. Large proportions of the latter were women. More radical versions of the dual labour market theory suggest that it is not so much job specific skills that explain the development of career hierarchies and grading structures, but rather the process of deskilling which leads to a breakdown of grading and skill differentials functional to capitalism. It is the male preservation of their skill differentials at the expense of deskilling women that was the issue.

Both employers and male trade unionists denied women access to the means of acquiring real skills by their exclusion from training and apprenticeship programmes. This pattern of male dominance and control at the workplace must be related to the power dynamics within the family. It has been suggested that male dominance over the pre-industrial family work unit and the practice of sexually segregating tasks was carried over into the factory when the workplace separated from the home. The boundary between men’s and women’s work was defended in the face of technological change [which threatened to blur the distinction between sexual boundaries] by means of union exclusiveness and the control skilled men managed to exert over apprenticeship and via their power to subcontract work. The conclusions reached as to what was suitable work for women differed from area to area and between social classes but male workers, employers, government and women workers themselves largely shared it.

Domestic service was the most common occupation for working class girls and women throughout this period. Between 1851 and 1871 there was an increase in the numbers employed rising from 9.8 to 12.8 per cent of the total female population in England and Wales. After 1871 there was a slight decline down to 11.1 per cent by 1911. It has been frequently stated that domestic servants were usually country girls who has few alternative forms of work and certainly many country girls did follow this route. However, in towns where heavy industry dominated there were often few opportunities for girls other than domestic service. The vast majority of domestic servants had in common a heavy workload but they did not all share the same social status. All servants were affected by the social status of their employers and within a household there were considerable differences in power of influence of, for example, the housekeeper or the kitchen maid and there were also male and female status hierarchies involved.

By 1900 there were increasing complaints about the shortage of servants from members of the middle and upper classes. It was not simply a matter of wages since these increased steadily throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. The wages still appeared to be low: average annual wages for 1907 were £19 10s for general servants and £26 8s for parlour maids. What is more difficult to compute is monetary value of board, lodging and uniform provided by the employer. In households where everything was provided arguably domestic servants had a distinct wage advantage over other female workers since they has a reasonable disposable income out of which it was possible to save. Various reasons have been provided for the ‘servant shortage’. An increasing number of women regarded the wages as insufficient compensation for what were regarded as long hours, the hard physical effort and lack of independence. There was an increase in alternative employment. While town girls preferred to have different employment to domestic service, for country girls it represented an easily available and acceptable occupation. However, the difficulty in finding servants around 1900 needs to be seen in relation to the declining rural population.

Textile workers increased in number throughout the period especially in the cotton industry in England. This expansion was accompanied by the steady decline of the Scottish cotton industry as it became more concentrated in Lancashire. In the Lancashire industry women had more equality with men than on most other industries. The only major process from which they were excluded was mule spinning. Women were also excluded from being tacklers or overlookers, the person in charge of a group of weavers. Women weavers were paid well compared with most other women workers. Oral evidence suggests that they could and did earn more than unskilled men on other areas of employment and a good woman weaver could earn as much as her male counterpart. However, in most mills this was not the case and the aggregated figures show that women weavers earned less than men.

The tendency for women working in urban trades was to see their condition decline after 1830 and the sweated trades expanded. Outwork was the contracting out of tasks to a group of workers employed in a small factory or workshop while homeworkers, as the name implied, worked at home on raw materials supplied by an employer. The drive towards increasing mass production in urban trades forced male skilled craftsmen to defend their position as their livelihood was threatened. The outcome for most women workers in these trades could only be exclusion from skilled work and employment in subdivided or unskilled work at lower, often very low, wages. In the printing industry, women were effectively excluded by 1880. There were important technological advances: the steam press from 1814 and new composing machines in the 1850s. Male unions -- the provincial Typographical Association and the London Society of Compositors -- both attempted to reserve the new compositing machinery for men only. Women were employed but at a lower rate and male dominance was confirmed by the introduction of the linotype machine in the late 1880s. By contrast women bookbinders preserved their skill and status, though also their low wages relative to skilled men, until changes in the 1880s.

By the 1850s, except in large cities like Manchester and Leeds, homework had disappeared from the North of England. In the Midlands and the South, however, the pattern was very different. For example, in Birmingham many women made nails and chains in sheds attached to their homes; Northampton women made boots and shoes. One of the largest concentrations of homeworkers was in London where women worked in the various garment trades, a situation aided by the marketing of the sewing machine after 1851. Outworkers and homeworkers were predominantly women. Women had always been involved in agriculture. The decline in the number of women involved after 1861 reflects growing mechanisation but the census figures neglect the seasonal nature of much of the work.

Clerical and office work offered increasing opportunities for women and in 1914 about twenty per cent of clerical workers were women. Between 1861 and 1911 the number of male clerks increased fivefold while the number of women clerks rose by 400 per cent. The expansion of large commercial firms and the growth of insurance, banking and communications all provided more jobs for women. Typing and shorthand were generally presumed to be particularly suited to women. A similar rise can be found in shop-work. In this ‘white-blouse’ sector automatic dismissal often followed marriage which gave the employers constant access to younger and cheaper labour. It also upheld the notion of the separate spheres whereby the paid labour of a married woman was equated with a husband’s failure in fulfilling his role in the conjugal bargain.


The nature of change: a conclusion

The ideology of the separate spheres made little impact on working class existence where economic necessity intervened, but it found an effective parallel in the sexual division of labour. The consistent and increasing relegation of women workers to poorly paid and low status jobs, both within the manual and non-manual sectors of employment, effectively inhibited women’s economic independence. The growing degree of state regulation of women’s work further emphasised that the gender distinction was to remain an important feature of labour politics throughout this period.

In trying to assess the number of working women during this period, we run up against a number of confusing problems. The change of work-base from the home to the factory or workshop led to changing, though never fully clarified definitions of the meaning of ‘work’, ‘employment’ and ‘occupation’. In effect, ‘work’ became shorthand for waged work. Yet formal employment was a minority theme in the social history of working class women in this period. When the census of 1881 excluded unpaid household work as a category of gainful employment, there was a dramatic drop in the female work rate figure from around 98 per cent [and almost the same as the work rate for men] to 42 per cent. In reality, however, working class women worked in large numbers and often for a considerable proportion of their lives in both paid and unpaid position. This, despite the howls of middle class protest raised periodically in parliament and in the press against their involvement in the world of work with their consequent neglect of husband, family and home.


[1] Carl Chinn They Worked all their Lives: Women of the Urban Poor in England 1880-1939, Manchester University Press, 1988 and K.D.M. Snell Annals of the Labouring Poor, CUP, 1985 provide an urban and rural perspective. Harriet Bradley Men’s Work, Women’s Work, Polity, 1989 is an up-to-date survey and critique of the available research material on the sexual division of labour. It contains valuable case studies of a variety of occupations. Margaret Hewitt Wives and Mothers in Victorian Industry, Rockliff, 1958 is useful for information. Dyhouse and Lewis have questioned its conclusions. D. Bythell The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth Century Britain, Batsford, 1978 is the standard work while Shelley Pennington and Belinda Westover A Hidden Workforce: Homeworkers in England 1850-1985, Macmillan, 1989 examines a specific area. Theresa McBride The Domestic Revolution: The Modernization of Household Service in England and France 1820-1920, Croom Helm, 1976 is a valuable comparative work. Pamela Horn The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, 1975 is still the best work on the subject. Studies of other industries include: A.V. John By the Sweat of their Brow: Woman Workers at Victorian Coalmines, Croom Helm., 1980, Patricia Malcolmson English Laundresses: A Social History, Illinois University Press, 1978

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