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Gender and work in the nineteenth century


1. impact of industrialisation on lives of working women

in theory, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century industrialisation should have tended to create more opportunities for female employment

• new opportunities for waged labour in factories and workshops for women and children ‘released’ from agricultural labour by structural changes in that sector;

• wages paid to individuals rather than the household head – challenge to patriarchy

• offered women the possibility of a degree of economic independence or

suggested that power relations within the home might be re-negotiated

• steam and electrical power reduced the need for physical strength that had

justified men’s monopoly of certain trades

• in the longer term, new technology led to de-skilling

• de-skilling and the disappearance of guilds encouraged increased use of women’s labour

but official statistics suggest that industrialisation failed to transform existing sexual divisions of labour

• women’s work concentrated in a small number of sectors characterised by their links to housework

• challenge to the patriarchial nature of production that early industrialisation presented was short lived because

• more and more men were forced by economic necessity into waged labour and

• the gendered nature of production in the family economy was reformulated in the light of new technologies and new workplace locations

2. considerable gender antagonisms existed as men and women competed

for work, particulary in the hungry 1830s and 1840s - working men

believed women workers depressed wage rates

3. relationship between gender and technology was a very complex one

• where new technologies were introduced, they had the effect of

• re-inforcing the gendered division of labour because

• the new machinery was worked by men, whose labour was deemed to be skilled, and the existing machinery was worked by women, whose labour was deemed to be unskilled

• on the other hand, in areas where there was a cheap female labour force, manufacturers were disinclined to invest in costly new technologies

4. sharp and persistent occupational segregation on gendered lines

• occupational segregation, aka the sexual division of labour

• overwhelmingly women worked in certain trades and employments that were deemed ‘feminine’; late 20c/early 21c understandings of equality of opportunity, or of equal pay for equal work unknown

5. women’s participation in the formal, waged officially recorded economy did not increase

• percentage of women in the working population (male and female) remained remarkably consistent, as did

the percentage of working women out of the total female population

• greater emphasis on single women’s employment

• lower rate of participation in the formal economy by married women

• 1911 – 69% of all single women worked but only 9.6% of all married women

6. consideration of gender and work in nineteenth-century Britain also must take into account

the ubiquitous discourse of separate spheres/domestic ideology

• ‘bourgeois’ family model of a male breadwinner, with dependant wife and children

nineteenth-century political liberalism with its emphasis on personal and economic freedoms

• includes increased pressure from organised labour (TUs) for a ‘family wage’

• state intervention to regulate capitalist industrial production and ‘protect’ workers


Home-based work

• Home-based work for cash = an important part of pre-industrial and industrialising family economy; cottages trades such as straw-plaiting, glove making, fine embroidery (Irish speciality) persisted throughout nineteenth century

• Others such as hosiery and shoemaking became factory-based in the 1870s and 1880s

• New home-based trades developed to absorb the reservoir of cheap female labour, e.g. matchbox making, artificial flowers, umbrella making, tennis ball making, as well as all types of clothing

• State regulation of women’s work outside the home also led to an increase in industrial work inside the home

so-called sweated trades

• Most work on piece rates – subcontracted – no security of employment

• wages low and continued to fall during nineteenth century

• Some home working was simple, repetitive work – often children involved in this too – other work involved high levels of skill – often unacknowledged

• Work could be done at all hours under any conditions

• Impacted negatively upon women workers and their families

• Families often eating and sleeping in same room as women were working


The informal economy

• Male wages remained low – much male employment was casual or seasonal

• Married women had to seek work in the informal economy – unrecorded in official statistics

• Expanding capitalist economy was characterised by rapid urbanisation – offered many opportunities for women to find informal work that would generate income

• Much of this informal work drew upon women’s neighbourhood or family networks, involved reciprocity and payments in kind as well as in cash

• May have made the difference between survival and starvation in some communities

• Types of work – childminding, cleaning, washing, casual nursing, taking in lodgers, petty trading in foodstuffs



• Family economy increasingly attached to men’s visible work

• Women’s household work became devalued and less visible – its pre-industrial status was rapidly declining

• ‘bourgeois’ family model created a concept of housework that radically altered women’s work in the home – in pre-industrial households production and reproduction both contributed to family economy

• creation of the ‘housewife’ – initially had more meaning for middle-class women than for working-class ones

Mrs Beeton, Household Management (1861) - phenomenal success – hugely influential on middle-class married women – careful and informed purchasing, management of servants, food preparation

Beeton’s standards often hard to achieve even for middle-class women (McBride)


Domestic service

• One of the most important sources of female employment in nineteenth-century Britain

• mainly urban occupation – 1860s, 33% of London’s female workforce were domestic servants

• demand for servants helped hold up female wage levels

• decline in female domestic service did not occur until the twentieth century

• according to middle-class observers, domestic service was the most appropriate employment for young working-class girls

• tremendous variety in the types of work and households in which female domestic servants were engaged

• beware the Gosford Park version


Late nineteenth-century Employment

• According to social arbiters such as Sarah Ellis, a middle-class woman who undertook undertook paid work ‘ceased to be a lady’ (D&H, p. 315) but middle-class women increasingly expressed their frustration at the enforced idleness of their lives

• Towards the end of the century, new opportunities in non-manual work for middle-class and upper working-class women - white blouse work

• 1851-1911 there was a 7-fold increase in male clerical jobs but

• an 83-fold increase in female clerical jobs

• offered employment opportunities for literate women

• women’s white blouse work aided by technology and innovation - telegraph, telephone, typewriter, training in Pitman’s shorthand, development of department stores;

• department stores required refined (i.e. middle-class) young women to serve customers of the leisured classes

• such women deemed to be adaptable, lacking ambition, dextrous, passive; - low rates of pay, poor working conditions,

• employers’ assertions that to pay them more would have been insulted women’s gentility and constituted a threat to their ‘genteel’ status

• occupational segregation

• women’s clerical work was a deskilling of the high-status male confidential clerk of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries


• By the late nineteenth century, certain norms about women’s work - low pay and the sexual division of labour - had been accepted by employers, trade unionists, experts on employment practices, and by many women workers themselves.

• Furthermore, if asked to explain why or how this oppressive and exploitative state of affairs had come about, the standard answers included its ‘natural’ basis, that it was ‘historical’, i.e. things had always been that way.

• ‘Natural’ explanations were grounded in the innate differences between men and women. There was anectdotal evidence that women had definite ideas of what was their work and what was men’s.

• Women were, of course, committed, or assumed to be committed, to marriage, home life and a family - their engagement with the world of work was temporary and connected with their life cycle - and, for the majority, it was assumed that they were unwilling to undertake the training which might have given them access to better-paid, higher-status work.

• It was also argued that women’s productive power was lower than men’s in quality and quantity. Thus economic factors could be used to re-inforce innate difference: men deserved better pay than women because men were better workers than women.

• It may be argued that the ideology of separate spheres and political liberalism had combined to oppress working women by attempting to exclude them from the paid workforce and there is much evidence to support this. On the other hand, there are dangers in treating such accounts unproblematically or uncritically.

• Falls into the same trap as nineteenth-century discourses on the ‘woman’ question, which treated all women as an undifferentiated mass with identical charactistics, aspirations, and circumstances.

• They ignore regional and occupational differences.

• They do not stand comparison with individual case studies which indicate a hugh diversity of women’s experience of paid work.