Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Women and industrialisation

An industrialising economy

• Britain first state in Europe to become an industrial power

Women’s work - political subject

• concerned with the politics of gender, and of production and reproduction

• this colours debates and research, for example:

• on how work impinges on motherhood

• whether female or child labour (always cheaper to employ than male) causes male unemployment

• on the ability of women to perform certain tasks

‘missing from history’

• women’s part in industrialisation absent from older accounts

• until 1970s, histories of industrialisation written from male perspectives, focusing on the formal economy of work

• assumed that work and home were separate entities

• work took place in different and distinct locations

• work was something undertaken for pay

• studies of industrialisation have tended towards macro-economics

• long-term change across populations and industries

• long runs of quantitative data on women’s occupations, labour-force participation and wages are generally unavailable

• thus impact of women’s labour and wages have not been considered by those constructing indices of economic change

• as a result, women’s contribution to industrialisation has almost certainly been under-recorded

• did not fit easily into the criteria on which data sets were compiled.

• Much female work was concentrated in irregular, low-status waged work and

• in multiple tasks surrounding the home.

• Measuring women’s work is hampered by the problem of sources

• Eg census and other official data

• persistent under-recording of women’s work occurred because much women’s work not visible to officials

• much seasonal and part-time work by women was not recorded

• often not employed at the time of year when the census was taken

• assumptions of officials who collected the information from households

• preconceptions of those who framed the questions, designed the schedules and wrote census reports

• assumed married women did not work

• attitudes of male heads of households

• often did not see what their womenfolk did as ‘work’

• often anxious to avoid implied ‘slur’ of not being able to support wife and family on his wages alone

The Family

• On the other hand, placing of women workers within the social setting of the family is important

1. Family economy

• in pre-industrial and industrialising societies

• all family members had a part to play in the survival of the family as an economic and social unit

• production took place within the premises of the household

• Father = head of the household, directing the labour of its members; distributed payment amongst them as he saw fit

• productive tasks shared by husband and wife

• wife engaged in reproduction

• women’s working life was part of their life cycle of maiden, wife, mother, and, possibly, widow

• their work embedded in social, as well as the economic, relations of the household

2. family wage economy

• with industrialisation, this

• replaced the family economy;

• instead of producing goods within the household,

• family went out to work,

• earned wages for the benefit of all members,

• women - smaller contribution, lower wages than men

3. family consumer economy –

• in later nineteenth and in the twentieth centuries, this

• replaced the family wage economy

• now male breadwinner deemed to be earning sufficient wages to support his family,

• women to stay within the household


Women as workers

attitudes to

• women, apart from elite women, were expected to work but

• how was their labour seen by their contemporaries?

• did perceptions change over time?

• or was there a fixed, stereotypical model of women’s labour?

• enormous range of opinions

• these varied according to the types of work done, class of those doing it, and changed over time

• labouring women

• poor, non-elite women

• overwhelming majority of the female population

• early eighteenth century - seen positively;

• made an important contribution to national economy

• their work had a patriotic flavour to it

• by end of century - seen negatively,

• poor women deemed idle and in need of gainful occupation

• changed attitudes coincided with

• decline in demand for female labour (particularly in agriculture)

• increasing numbers of deserted wives

• increased illegitimacy

• rising poor rates

• negative attitudes continued into nineteenth century

• women from the middle ranks of society

• eighteenth century, a proportion of such women engaged in waged work

• but more likely running their own businesses

• socially acceptable

• became increasingly unsuitable for ‘respectable’ women

• by 1820s/1830s unusual,

• except in ‘feminine’ occupations, e.g. needlework, education


• attributes of female workforce

• ambivalent, contradictory attitudes of contemporary observers

• cheap, numerous, allegedly docile, passive; adaptable; dextrous - qualities which made them ideally suited to industrial processes; good at team-working; productive

• also: resistant to change; talkative; required supervision; irrational; preferred customary methods to ‘scientific’ developments in production

• how working women saw themselves

• again contradictory - depends who is talking –

• wide spectrum, reflecting personal experiences

• pride in their craft; independence; occupational identity;

• grievances - oppression by men; poverty; lack of opportunities for economic independence; of men’s encroachment into occupational areas which had traditionally been women’s ones - classic example - midwifery

wage rates

• general rule of thumb, in virtually all occupations, women received half to one third of men’s wages

• why?

may have been less productive because worked less hours or with less intensity

it was assumed that women relied on men for at least part of their subsistence;

in other cases, did lower status jobs than men

received less training/apprenticeship than men

if engaged in group work (e.g. harvesting, muck spreading, mine work), bulk of payment made to male leader of group


Types of Women’s Work


• eighteenth-century England = a rural society, despite flourishing town life and growth of towns

• est. 70 % of population lived in countryside in 1780s

• the cottager family

• self-sufficient rural family economy

• multiple sources of subsistence:

• grew or produced at least part of their own food

• some waged work for larger farmers

• cash payments from the sale of foodstuffs they produced

• cash payments from by-industries (spinning, knitting, etc)

• occasional payments under the old Poor Law in times of need

• early modern England

• occupational segregation in agricultural work well established

• men and women probably worked together but on different tasks

• men – ditching, hedging, carting, ploughing

• women - weeding, hoeing, sowing seed; harvested cereal and fodder crops, using sickles, threshing the harvest;

• skilled work in dairy, poultry and pig rearing

• also some shared work – muck spreading

• also crucial to family economy of labouring poor was

• access to ‘use rights’ –

• variety of customary rights to glean, graze cows and pigs on common land, gather firewood, nuts and berries

• apparently unaltered agricultural life was changing

• commercial agriculture, specialisation, new crops, tools

• restructuring of land holdings, - from 1750s increased enclosure of common lands

• criminalisation of customary ‘use rights’ (gleaning, grazing, gathering of berries, nuts, and fuel from common lands)

• effects on working women

• overall, women lost out in the new agriculture

• women did not disappear from the agricultural workforce but

their types of work changed

• generally excluded from new types of agricultural work

• regular work went to men

• divisions between male and female types of work and working patterns accentuated

• greater occupational specialisation, confined to men

• reduced women’s chances of learning farming skills, eg dairying

• under-employment of women - left with routine, seasonal tasks - stone picking, haymaking

• many women, esp. widows and single women, forced to move off the land and into towns to find work

• declining female incomes from agricultural labour

• situation made worse by loss of ‘use rights’

• changes in their entitlements under the New Poor Law

• in some areas, demand for women’s work rose, their wages rose too, eg in livestock and dairying (Snell)

• nineteenth century - very poor women and children working in travelling agricultural gangs led by men - offended middle-class ideas of decency, mixed-sex agricultural gangs gradually disappeared



• production in home or workshop for sale for cash

• also called domestic industry/putting out /by-industries

• goods produced by hand or using simple tools

• usually, although not always, carried on in the countryside

• based on division of labour

• regional differences in what was produced

• useful way of absorbing ‘surplus’ female and child labour ‘released’ by changes in agriculture

• tools designed for domestic industry, eg spinning jenny might, in time, be modified for factory production

• but: proto-industrialisation - not necessarily the immediate fore-runner of factory production

• proto-industrial production might run alongside factory production

effects on women’s employment

• widely debated by historians – differing views

• pessimistic

• more paid work for women but little improvement in their status or earning levels

• Pinchbeck: proto-industry resulted in women’s manufacturing work becoming closely linked to low wages - absorbed cheap, unemployed/underemployed female labour

• optimistic

• Medick – proto-industry improved women’s status within family –

• their work given new importance - greater parity between partners, extended to emotional life as well as economic - care with ‘golden age’ type assumptions –

• Gullickson - proto-industry did not bring about significant improvements in women’s social and economic position because

• status attached to the worker, not the work

• feminisation of tasks occurred -

• men had to differentiate their work on gendered basis of male strength, skill, and intelligence

• optimistic

• Jan de Vries - the ‘industrious revolution’

• ‘industrious’ rev. taking place all over Europe - consumer demand primarily female

• proto-industrialisation gave wives and daughters greater role in household decision-making because

• women earned money from domestic manufacture

• used this to new products – cotton clothing, new foods, chinaware, etc

• had to calculate the benefits of working in a cash economy compared with unpaid work making goods for home consumption, e.g. buying cloth rather than making it at home

• optimistic

• lacemaking in Colyton, Devon - 4000 women lacemakers, 21% of town’s population - women’s independence as wage earners (Sharpe)

• Women’s wages higher than some male workers

• men not engaged in lace making, and did not wish to - reasons social and cultural, not economic•

• ‘selling the industrial revolution’

• many middle-ranking women ran businesses selling new consumer goods

• primarily within the context of the family enterprise, as wives and daughters assisting husbands and fathers but also as widows

• reasons for women’s declining involvement in business

• their own choice or

• economic, social, cultural pressures beyond their control?

• social emulation

• increasing prosperity accompanied by status symbol of leisured woman

• alternatively, 18c feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, complained of limited occupational choices for middle rank women

• Davidoff & Hall: changing social and cultural values meant that it became socially unacceptable for women of that class to be economically active + structural economic change (separation of home and workplace)

• Pinchbeck: 19c industries needed greater capital which women did not have



• machines and processes invented with women and children in mind

• based on extensive division of labour

• processes requiring dexterity, deemed to be inherently ‘female’

• effects of industrialisation on women’s work

• uneven, changed over time

• changes in types of work

• decline in hand spinning because of concentration of mechanised jennies in workshops and factories

• much rural/urban migration by single women and widows

• high proportion of workforce in ‘dynamic industries’ of eighteenth centuries (cotton textiles, ceramics, metal wares) were female

• changes in location of work

• separation of home and workplace meant that

• married women with children found it difficult to work outside the home

• industrial workforce initially predominantly young women and children

• development of a different type of family model

• male breadwinner with dependent wife and children

• separation of home and workplace

• particularly inimical to work of middle-rank women

• factory work =too low status

• other work choices limited if family enterprise not in same place as home

• middle-class women likely to be ‘forced’ into ‘feminine’ occupations only if economically essential


measuring change

• Berg: what makes the industrial revolution revolutionary is the extent to which it required a new (female) workforce but

• quantifying their contribution to output very difficult because of lack of data

• female work officially recorded as such remained low in nineteenth century

• census data to be treated with considerable caution - criteria changed during nineteenth century

• 1841 married women working in family enterprise, but not receiving wages, not classed as working

• change in 1851 - recognition of (probably) unwaged contribution of middle-class wives to family enterprise

• nonetheless 1851 census – only 25% of all adult women classed as working

• clustered in ‘female’ occupations - 35% in domestic service, 20 % in textile production, 15% in garment trades



• Did women’s working status and experience of work change during the last five hundred years?

• Or was there a ‘golden age’ for women workers that disappeared; if so, what caused this?

• ‘Golden Age’

Alice Clark (1919) – golden age failed to survive the development of capitalism

• Clark’s thesis on the family as an economic unit supported by Tilly & Scott’s work on France (1978), who also extended it with the model of the family wage economy


Continuity - a pessimistic thesis

Bennett(1988) + (1993)

• Women’s work changed between the medieval and the modern period but

• ‘was not transformed’

• had always been of lower status and more poorly paid than men’s and remained so

• women more likely to be dismissed in times of economic downturn

• The pace of change, the motors of change, and the realities of change different for men and women

• This continuity affected all working women; the enemy was patriarchy. Strong connections between women’s history, gender relations and women’s oppression. Patriarchy, the rule of men, authorised by political, legal, religious norms in society

Criticised by Hill (1993)

• Emphasis on patriarchy focuses more on men than women, thereby distorting women’s history, and the complex inter-actions of the multiple factors that shaped women’s past.

• Also ignores class aspects, i.e. oppression and exploitation of poor women by many elite women.

Change: a more optimistic thesis

• Clark saw change negatively but

• Pinchbeck: guardedly optimistic view of industrialisation

• Benefits for married and unmarried women.

• Married women relieved of ‘double bind’ of waged work and housework;

• could rely on male breadwinner and give sole attention to child rearing and home-making.

• Single women - working outside the home, greater economic independence .


Concluding remarks

• recent research bringing out the unevenness of female experience

• social and geographical differences may be as influential as economic ones - there were differences between types of work and wage rates in different trades and regions; differences within same sectors of the economy - differences between women in arable and pastoral farming;

• acquisition of skill/specific training could influence women’s earning capacity

• no short answers to optimistic/pessimistic debates on effects of agrarian and manufacturing change in eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on women’s work and relations between men and women work;

• both changed dramatically; not clear whether from ‘golden age’ to an era of oppression and poverty.

• it is clear that we need, and are beginning to find, more nuanced approaches which take in local factors, regional differences, differences in the legal position of women (whether married, single, or widowed); differences of class; differences between industries.