Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Women in the Economy: Middle class women

The employment of women in Victorian England was hindered by two factors. First, women shared with male workers the insecurities of employment brought about by the fluctuating nature of the Victorian economy. Secondly, they battled alone against the voice of propriety that sought to define them within an exclusively domestic environment. For middle class women, unlike their working class sisters, the issue of employment was connected with their claims for independence, for a share of the public domain, and with the demand for an identity defined by self-respect[1].

The following developments occurred in middle class employment in this period:

1841 Governesses’ Benevolent Institution founded

1859 Society for Promoting the Employment of Women founded

1860 Nightingale Fund School of Nursing founded

1862 Female Middle Class Emigration Society established

Female Medical Society [for midwives] founded

1864 Alexandra Magazine begins publication

1865 Ladies’ Medical College [for midwives] founded

1866 Englishwoman’s Review begins publication

1869 First women medical students at Edinburgh University

1873 Bishop Otter Memorial Training College for Schoolmistresses founded

1874 Women and Work begins publication

Jane Nassau Senior appointed to the workhouse Inspectorate

1875 Women clerks introduced, National Savings Bank

1876 Women’s clerical branch of the Post Office introduced

Medical (Qualification) Act allowing for the granting of qualifications to suitable qualified applicants regardless of sex

1881 New Civil Service grade of woman clerk introduced

1887 Royal British Nurses’ Association founded

1891 Women assistant commissioners appointed to Labour Commission

1893 First women factory inspectors appointed

1899 Women Sanitary Officers’ Association founded

The early campaigns of the 1850s and 1860s were concerned with the problem of finding suitable employment for single women. The reason for this lay in the prophesied rise in the ranks of women for whom marriage was to prove unattainable and the increasing failure of middle class families to maintain large retinues of unproductive and unmarried daughters. For such women, the spectre of a double failure loomed large: the inability to attract a husband marked them out in the circles of Victorian gentility, while their upbringing and education did not prepare them in any sense for the world of work. However, they were faced by fierce competition for the meagre openings that were available to them. When the Post Office Savings Bank opened its clerical doors to women applicants in 1875, the response was such that it was obliged to refuse further applications.

The aim of the mid-century feminists through their organisations and journals was to extend women’s capabilities and qualifications through education and training and to combat the prejudice that barred women from many avenues of employment. Their concern was only with ‘ladies’, with women of breeding, whose respectability was threatened by the need for paid employment. Though the early organisations did succeed in placing women in jobs, the number was tiny. They did bring a fresh and positive set of attitudes into prominence based not on the threat of poverty but on the dignity and fulfilment that waged-work could offer. Their concern with work as a worthy and indeed morally beneficial alternative to the domestic role marks their distance from those who campaigned in working class areas; though paid employment was quite clearly an urgent necessity for many middle class women, the feminists were also concerned with aspects of choice. The question of payment was, of course, a central issue. The widespread presence of women in philanthropic endeavour was acceptable only because of their volunteer status, a declaration of respectability and of moral sanctity. When their labours were a source of gain rather than personal sacrifice, the issue became one of respectability.

The tightrope of respectability was only one of a host of structural problems and personal prejudices encountered by feminist campaigners. Middle class women shared with their working class sisters the problem of a heavily circumscribed filed of opportunity. The ‘governess problem’[2] encapsulated the difficulties imposed. Because there was a dearth of employment available for middle class women, governesses rapidly became an overstocked, underpaid and hugely exploited field of labour. Feminists pointed to the absurdity of delivering educational responsibilities into the hands of women unprepared and untrained for the task. Feminist activists saw women’s unpreparedness for the eventuality of earning their own living as one of their principal targets. The campaign around the employment of middle class women centred on the questions of opportunity and of choice for the single women, and of course implicit too in that notion was that of her choice of whether or not to marry. Their demands and efforts were couched in the name of justice, a justice in which the working women and single women were no longer ideological outcasts.

The Langham Place Circle in London, established in the late 1850s, was the earliest feminist group to be involved in this area. It offered a central metropolitan conduit through which a variety of radical and feminist experiments flowed. Alongside the journal and reading room set up at Langham Place, came the first of the women’s employment societies. Founded in 1859, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women [SPEW] had two stated aims: to train women and to find employment for them. It established a register of women seeking employment and the London SPEW also established classes in bookkeeping, a skill of increasing value in Victorian society. Under Emily Faithfull it established a printing establishment, the Victoria Press, where all the compositors were women and it rapidly became the feminist printing house of the period. In August 1874 the National Union of Working Women was set up, with the help of the WPPL’s Emma Paterson in Bristol under the trusteeship of Millicent Fawcett and two male sympathisers. In its early years it had defined trade union links but by the late 1890s it had become little more than another philanthropic society.

Another important aspect of feminist involvement in employment campaigns was the establishment of feminist periodicals devoted principally either to this issue or at least offering coverage of new trades for women, as well as carrying job applications. Emily Faithfull, for example, published a weekly journal Women and Work from 1874. There were so few ways in which women could find such jobs as there were and these feminist ventures played an important role. They were cheap -- Women and Work sold for 1d -- encouraging and informative and introduced women to a whole range of related issues.

The most potent way in which activist women could extend the cause of women’s employment was by themselves moving into the new areas of opportunity. Many prominent feminists did just this, taking up employment in government jobs as factory and sanitary inspectors, in the new female professions of nursing and teaching or by fighting for entry to hitherto closed professions such as medicine and the Law. In 1892 May Abraham, Clara Collet, Eliz Orme and Margaret Irwin were appointed to the Royal Commission on Labour as assistant commissioners. The following year, the Home Office appointed Abraham and Mary Paterson to the factory Inspectorate while at the municipal level, the Kensington Vestry appointed two women sanitary officers, Rose Squire and Lucy Deane. By 1896 five women were employed by the Factory Department of the Home Office, whilst Clara Collet had taken up an appointed with the Board of Trade in 1893. Their success was the culmination of twenty years of agitation. These early appointees were women with a strong academic or vocational training. Clara Collet, for example, was not only the first female fellow at University College London, but was the first women to receive an M.A. They also had been involved in feminism prior to their appointment. If the medical profession at least proved malleable in this period, the law remained unassailable. When Elizabeth Blackwell was placed on the British Medical Register in 1859, the profession’s response was prompt: no foreign medical qualifications were acceptable hereafter. Women had no access to training in Britain but against the odds qualified women doctors began practising in England in the 1870s. The numbers were small but rising: in December 1880 there were 21 registered but by 1894 170. The problems became more acute for women entering nursing or teaching, precisely because they were the areas that rapidly became associated with and almost defining, women’s professionalism. The care of the sick and of children was, of course, acceptable areas of activities for women. Nursing was an exclusively female profession in the latter half of the century, unlike teaching, where the tendency was for women employees to be concentrated in the lower ranks of the profession and paid less than their male counterparts.

In professional and white-blouse work employers tended to play a more direct and central role in maintaining sexual segregation than they did in manual work. In the higher professions employers were also the men who controlled entry to the profession. For example, until 1914 very few teaching hospitals admitted women wishing to train as doctors despite the opening of the Medical Register to women in the early 1870s. Women were also directly excluded from top posts in the Civil Service. The few women who were appointed to senior posts, such as Mrs Nassau Senior, who was hired to inspect girls’ education in workhouses in 1874, or Adelaide Anderson, who became the Chief Woman Inspector of Factories were the social equals of the men they worked with.

In contrast to the administrative grades, very little opposition was encountered with respect to the introduction of women into the clerical and typing grade of the Civil Service. Developments in technology, particularly in the form of the typewriter and telegraph, created space for women workers. It was, however, segregated space with clerical work hived off into a separate, watertight compartment with no possibility of promotion. Men, who had previously been clerks, took on new jobs that were also created by the changing scale and organisation of office work: for example, accountant, officer manager and commercial traveller.

Male teachers were also incensed by the growth in the number of women teachers. Between 1875 and 1914 the number of women elementary teachers increased by 862 per cent compared to a 292 per cent increase in men. This led to the proportion of female teachers rising from 54 per cent in 1875 to 75 per cent by 1914. Unlike doctors and top civil servants, male teachers were not in a position to control recruitment that was in the hands of school boards and then local authorities after 1902. The nineteenth century pupil-teacher system had encouraged the entry of working class girls into teaching. Like nurses, they learned on the job. Pupil teaching did not enjoy a high status and it was not unusual for such girls to be considered in the same bracket as shop assistants or clerks. Many female teachers remained uncertificated: in 1913 the ratio for women was 1 in 9 compared to 1 in 3 for men. After 1907, the bursary system of teacher training replaced the pupil-teacher scheme. Boys or girls intending to become teachers had to stay on longer at school and become student teachers at seventeen. As a result, more middle class women entered the profession and its status rose.

Women in non-manual occupations, particularly those in the professions, experienced rather more direct discrimination by employers in respect to recruitment and promotion than did manual workers. As the number of qualified women increased, and it became usual for middle class girls to work on leaving school, the lines of sexual segregation were increasingly closely defended. Ideas regarding the proper role of married women in particular lay behind the introduction of the marriage bar, particularly after 1918, which assumed that all married women could be treated as a reserve army of labour because of their primary responsibility to home, family and husband[3].

Some conclusions

Gender distinctions were woven into the fabric the nineteenth century industrial capitalism and the development of industrial capitalism had an impact on what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They created different experiences for men and women and led to men and women doing different jobs in manufacture within the working class and to demands for access to the same jobs as men by middle class women.

The language of gender represented women as childbearers and dependants and men as breadwinners. It constituted the labour market as a domain in which men designed jobs. Women often were accused of undermining male workers and their economic pursuits stigmatised their husbands. Men’s unemployment became symbolic of a character failing, a symptom of male dishonour. Women and men were thrown into competition; workers fought with each other as well as with their employers in their struggle for a livelihood.

At the heart of the nineteenth century debate about working women was the concept of respectability, initially developed by the middle classes it developed as a supreme value among the working classes during the course of the century. To be respectable required that a man earn enough to support his wife and that he conduct himself at work and in the community in ways that were considered ‘manly’ or honourable. Family respectability, and the respectability of family members, was premised on a male breadwinner whose wife could devote herself to the arts of domesticity. There was an inherent contradiction between waged work and domesticity. For the working classes women worked out of necessity; for middle class women they worked out of choice or, in same cases, need. Yet the desirability of the women as full-time homemaker and mother remained.


[1] Working class women and some poorer middle class women could not afford the luxury of employment as an expression of their identity. For them it was a matter of subsistence.

[2] On the issue of governesses see Kathryn Hughes The Victorian Governess, Hambledon, 1993.

[3] Lee Holcombe Victorian Ladies at Work: Middle class working women in England and Wales 1850-1914, David & Charles, 1973 and Martha Vicinus Independent Women: Work and community for single women 1850-1920, Virago, 1985 provide a much needed focus on the problems facing middle class women who either did not wish to enter into marriage or for whom work was necessary within marriage. Catriona Blake The Charge of the Parasols, Women’s Press, 1990 examines how women fought for and obtained entry into the medical profession. Kathryn Hughes The Victorian Governess, Hambledon Press, 1993 and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, Weidenfeld, 1993 provide valuable insights into two areas where middle class women found a niche [albeit an insecure one]. F.K. Prochaska Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century England, OUP, 1980 is a subtle study of the lives and motivations of middle class women as well as about their ‘causes’.

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