The standard images of Victorian women are the angel in the house, the factory girl, and the domestic servant. There are plenty of visual representations of the first, far fewer of the second two. Working women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives and subordinate to their husbands. (The exception here is the series of photographs Arthur Munby took of the domestic servant Hannah Cullwick – whom he subsequently married – and other working-class women.) Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton portrays the life of a Victorian working girl. Significantly, she is confronted with severe family problems – an aunt drive to prostitution, a father on strike, and she is threatened with seduction by the employer’s son.
Moralists fretted about female employment. Ashley (Lord Shaftesbury) believed married women should not work outside the home. Henry Mayhew highlighted the dangers of underpaid needlewomen turning to prostitution.
The 1851 census
The 1851 census was the first to record occupations in any detail. It gave a total of 2.8m women and girls over the age of ten in employment out of a female population of 10.1m, forming 30.2% of the workforce. This is almost certainly an underestimate - perhaps by as much as a third. The census showed that women were clustered into certain occupations.
- 1. Domestic service took by far the greatest number - 905,000, not including 145,000 washerwomen and 55,000 charwomen. (In 1871 – the peak year – 46% of occupied women were in domestic service.) The majority of domestic servants worked in small households – we must rid ourselves of the Upstairs, Downstairs image!
- 2. Factory work was an important area of work for some women.
- 3. The next largest group was textile workers, closely followed by those in the clothing trades, most in workshops or outwork.
Dundee was one of the great areas of female employment as the jute mills sought to fight off Indian competition by using low-paid female labour. It was described as a city of ‘over-dressed, loud, bold-eyed girls’. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were almost three women to every two men in the city between the ages of twenty and forty-five and a third of all heads of houses were women.
There is also the unrecorded work - seasonal agricultural work, outwork, casual domestic work such as washing, and working in family businesses. An ‘occupation’ was generally perceived as the work performed by a male head of household or a single unmarried person.
Women and change
The history of women’s work in the second phase of industrialization is very different from that of men’s work. Heavy industries expanded: iron and steel, shipbuilding, transport. These industries did not provide work for women but for skilled male craftsmen, who began to build a trade-union movement. The TUC met for the first time in 1868, representing primarily the interests of the skilled crafts, who campaigned for the ‘family wage’. In this kind of movement women had virtually no place. In 1875 Henry Broadbent, union official and later (from 1880) ‘Lib-Lab’ MP for Stoke-on-Trent, told the TUC that the goals of the labour movement included the conditions where
‘wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world’.This was not merely an ideology. Industrialization probably reduced the female presence in the formal job market. Official returns in the second half of the 19th century show a steady decline in the proportion of women in the occupied work force from 34.1 % in 1861 to 31.15 in 1891. The majority of these working women were young and unmarried. In many sectors of the economy - such as the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory – a formal marriage bar operated. Even in the Lancashire textile industry, working mothers were a minority (see below). This is a reflection of the growing prosperity of working-class families. The family wage, though low, was sufficient to allow the mother (called ‘mum’ from the 1880s) to remain at home – a place which could be a place of power for her.
In the following decades more women entered the labour market. By 1911 there had been a significant build up of women working in various branches of engineering: 128,000 – more than the numbers engaged in agriculture and horticulture.
But the most momentous change in the female labour market was the growth of middle-class posts – in teaching, retailing, office work, and nursing. The majority of the teachers in the Board Schools created by the 1870 Education Act were women. Though less qualified, they constituted 75% of the 230,000 teachers listed in the 1901 Census.
Another great catalyst for change was the typewriter, which took off in the 1880s. The first Remington model was sold in 1878; 304 Remington Model IIs were sold in 1880, 27,000 in 1887 and 65,000 in 1890. This drew women into the hitherto exclusively male clerical occupations. It also led to a semi-pornographic novel, Confessions of a Type-Writer (1893)! The new position of telephonist was dominated by women from the start. (Bell delivered his first telephone message in 1876.) The Post Office was a major employer, though women had to be dismissed from the Savings Bank Department because of male opposition. By 1911 the GPO employed nearly 35,000 women in the telephone and telegraph services and as counter clerks. By 1900 women were 20% of all white-collar workers, earning on average 25-30s a week.
Women were paid much less than men even when doing the same jobs, something demanded by both employers and unions. For example, shop assistants earned about 65% of men’s income. But the real problem lay in the notion of a ‘woman’s rate’ (amounting to little more than 10-12s a week, or else a fixed percentage of male earnings. For most girls the best route to advancement still lay though making a ‘good’ marriage. It has been estimated that 10 % of working-class females married into middle-class families.
From the mid 1820s the mechanization of weaving (the application of steam power to the powerloom) for the first time brought women in large numbers into textile factories. (They had already entered such factories earlier as a minority of spinners.) Worsted followed after 1835, wool after 1850, hosiery from the 1850s, and women’s work of seaming and finishing from the 1850s. The timing of the entry by women into factory production varied greatly.
This shows that the character of the female labour force in these industries was quite diverse. Throughout, it remained influenced by the assumptions of the family economy - women’s work was less skilled and poorly paid. The only area where men and women worked together was powerloom weaving in the cotton industry.
In the Lancashire cotton factories, the majority of employed women were young single women, with a minority of poorer married women. They worked as powerloom weavers or in other preparatory work such as carding. One analysis of the census returns of 1851 for seven districts of Lancashire suggested that overall only 27% of women cotton operatives were either married or widowed. The married woman factory worker was the target of much condemnation from observers of the factory system. However the mothers of small children were probably a small proportion of the overall factory workforce. In the seven Lancashire districts only 20% of these married women in work had children under a year in age - though these numbers were gradually increasing. A family’s prosperity depended on how many members were actually contributing to its overall income. A married woman in factory work was most likely to leave employment in her thirties when her first children were old enough to enter employment. Where alternatives existed, married women were more likely to do work which could be done at home. Where there were no alternatives, she would enter factory employment.