Overview Context Debates about gender and work Agriculture Proto-industrialisation Industrial revolution Conclusion
Context Work is a political subject eg. how work impinges on motherhood/whether cheap female or child labour causes male unemployment/ability of women to perform certain tasks Much of the history of womens work has been written from a male perspective Problem of sources: Census data provides contradictory evidence; persistent under-recording of womens work occurred; impact of womens labour and wages have not been considered by those constructing indices of economic change; women were rarely recorded in official statistics, wage books or legal records in terms other than widow or spinster Status of womens work: was the value of their work recognised in the wider community. In sources men are referred to by their occupation, while women are referred to by their marital status. However Natalie Zemon Davis found evidence of female work identity and this has been supported by research of Garthine Walker who argued that womens contributions to the household economy gave them a sense of identity and self-worth as well as neighbourhood status
Debates about gender and work These centre around whether womens status/experience changed over the course of the last 500 years and whether there was a golden age for women workers that evaporated under the new work organisation of the industrial revolution. Continuity: Bennett in a seminal review article focused on radical feminist theories which emphasise patriarchal continuities in womens history, gender relations and womens oppression. She argued that womens work changed over these [ie between the medieval and modern period] centuries but was not transformed. Also that the pace of change, the motors of change and the realities of change differed for women and men. Supported by Katrina Honeyman and Jordan Goodman who emphasise patriarchy Bridget Hill has countered their thesis by arguing that a concentration on patriarchy focuses more on men than women, that it distorts the history of women and the subtleties of the complex interaction of the many factors that shaped womens past and also ignores the fact that many elite women oppressed and exploited their poorer sisters. To some extent Bennett, Honeyman and Jordan were reacting to an enduring body of literature from the early years of this century that women somehow experienced a Golden age of (largely agricultural) work in the pre-industrial past.
Debates about gender and work More optimistic vision of industrialisation existed starting with the work of Ivy Pinchbeck in 1930. She argued that womens position was in the long term improved by industrialisation, which, by taking women out of the home resulted in better conditions, a greater variety of openings and an improved status. Areas of womens work Pinchbeck chose not to detail: domestic servants, dressmakers, milliners, slop sewers, framework knitters and boot and shoe makers have provided the focus of much recent scholarship. Far more manufacture took place as outwork rather than within factories, offering work conditions that were little changed by industrialisation. Recent work more nuanced using cultural and sociological as well as economic approaches. Much recent work points towards women as an adaptable part of the labour force crucial to an industrialising nation difficult to quantify or even catch in documents. De Vries has developed the concept of a demand led industrious revolution suggesting that work effort was intensified by the use of more child and female labour. Were some growth areas for women such as agricultural services, potteries and metalware, at the same time some women fell victim to a labour surplus economy. Specialisation created opportunities for some women whilst denying them to others.
Agriculture Women always played an indispensable role in subsistence agriculture With the increasing specialisation of agriculture greater occupational specialisation occurred and was predominantly confined to men. Snell has stressed that the marked decline in female participation in harvest labour in the south east of England in the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries was associated with the innovation of mowing across a range of cereals and a marked shift away from labour undertaken by men and women together. The transition from the light sickle used by men and women gave way to the heavier scythe used by men only. Casual labourers undertook some of the routine female tasks Decline of common land exacerbated female unemployment Fall in demand for female labour and the steady drop in female wages helped transition from the family economy (where all members of the family contributed to its total income) to a family's dependence upon the wage of a male breadwinner
Proto-industrialisation Argued that proto-industry widened opportunities for womens work and may have developed partly as a response to the changes in agriculture and the declining opportunities for women. Rapid spread of proto-industry created an unprecedented demand for cheap labour of females and children in particular. Female workforces often exceeded male by ratios of 4 to 1. Maxine Berg argues that debates about the speed and intensity of Britains industrial revolution have largely ignored the question of womens work and their contribution to the industrial revolution has not been acknowledged. High proportion of the workforce in the dynamic industries ie textiles, potteries and to a lesser extent the metal trades were female. Lacemaking was an exclusively female trade. In Colyton in Devon Pam Sharpe has found that 4000 women were employed in the industry, occupying 21% of the population of the town. Thus industrial revolution supported by largely female workforce. Reasons: cheap labour? But relatively high earnings for women were found in areas of the North and the Midlands where textiles, metalwares and potteries were expanding rapidly and in some southern areas where lace making, straw plaiting and silk spinning were growth industries. Thus it was not wages that determined the divide but the organisational and technological attributes of a womens workforce.
Workers in the Cotton Industry by Age and Gender, 1833
Proto-industrialisation Women and children were key workforce to be targeted with any novelty in manufacturing methods. Machines and processes were invented with this workforce in mind. Belief was that women and girls had a greater natural aptitude for the manual dexterity and fine motor skills required by the new techniques and that female ways of working together were more amenable to division of labour than male work cultures. It was politically expedient to present technologies in terms of the female and child labour they would employ rather than the male labour they would save. Technological change produced a reworking of the sexual division of labour. Men usually retained their ability to define their superior social status through their work. Assumptions about womens weaker physical capacity and inferior intelligence were used to justify the male monopoly of most highly paid, lucrative and high status occupations.
Industrialisation Argued that industrialisation brought about a separation of home and work. Industrialisation diminished womens roles in economic production by drastically curtailing the role of the family as a market production unit. Marxist and feminist writers argue that it was specifically the rise of industrial capitalism which created the conditions for the increasing oppression of women. Alternative thesis centres on ability of women to enter the labour market as independent wage earners. Both explanations assume that womens work and female subordination differed markedly in the pre-industrial era from what was to follow. They also underplay regional and life cycle diversity and the general problem of comparing power relationships in societies very different from one another.
Industrialisation Census data provides contradictory evidence about the impact of industrialisation on womens work. Recorded female work remained low in the nineteenth century and changes in occupational segregation were modest. The census of 1851 revealed a low rate of female labour force participation with approx. 2.8 million working women (25% of all adult women). Women remained concentrated in a few occupations that frequently revealed affinities to housework or simply represented extended housework. In Britain 35% of women were employed as domestic servants; 20% as textile workers and 15% as garment workers. There would appear to have been a sharp and persistent occupational segregation along the gender divide. Female employment saw greater emphasis on the role of single women and a diminished degree of participation in the formal economy by married women. Reflected in growing dominance of a bourgeois family model in which the breadwinner was the husband and the wife and children were dependants. Increased pressure from the organised labour movement for a family wage. Campaign tended to drive married women out of industrial employment and increased their marginalisation within the labour force as a whole.
Wife's earnings as Percentage of husband's earnings, 1787-1863 Year All Households % Women Working % Women not earning Sample size 1787-9612.1016.7028160 1834-3822.7038.3041118 1840-449.8029.106683 18636.6029.007388
Workers in a clothing factory (early 20 th century) showing strict gender separation and specialisation of tasks
Specialisation and gender segregation in the pottery industry
Conclusion No clear answer to the optimistic/pessimistic debate about the effect of the economic changes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on gender relations. Both women's and men's work patterns changed dramatically over the period but whether this was a transition from a golden age to a nightmarish dystopia is more difficult to ascertain More nuanced approach important and it is impossible to speak of a national trend. Local factors were vitally important, as was the status of the women concerned: whether they were married, single, or widowed. Importance of new techniques and technological change from industry to industry must be evaluated.