Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Women and employment

How depicted?

The standard images of Victorian women are the 'angel in the house', the factory girl, and the domestic servant (and possibly Florence Nightingale's nurses).  Women in Victorian art are usually portrayed as wives subordinate to their husbands and rarely in paid employment. (The exception here is the series of photographs the barrister Arthur Munby took of the domestic servant Hannah Cullwick – whom he subsequently married – and other working-class women.) You can read about his extraordinary relationship with Hannah here.  His revealing photographs are held by Trinity College, Cambridge, and some of them can be viewed here.

Hannah Cullwick (1833-1909)
Servant and  barrister's wife
Public Domain
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton portrays the life of a Victorian working girl. Significantly, she is confronted with severe family problems – an aunt driven 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. The social researcher Henry Mayhew highlighted the dangers of underpaid needlewomen turning to prostitution. The world outside the home was often seen as a dangerous place for women.

Census information

The 1851 census was the first to record occupations, both male and female, in any detail. It gave a total of 2.8 million women and girls over the age of ten in employment out of a female population of 10.1million, forming 30.2 per cent 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.

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 per cent of occupied women were in domestic service.) The majority of domestic servants worked in small households – we must rid ourselves of the Downton image! A frugal middle-class household, like that of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, might only employ one servant. Mrs Carlyle had great difficulty keeping her servants and often had to do the household tasks herself.

Jane Welsh Carlyle
Public Domain

The next largest group of women in employment was the textile workers, closely followed by those in the clothing trades, most in workshops or outwork.
The overlap between home and work continued to be one of the themes of women’s lives, whether they were engaged in rural industries such as straw-plaiting or working in the ‘sweated trades’ of the great urban centres. A good example of this is the previously all-male tailoring trade. Rising demand for army and navy uniforms and for clothes of all kinds led to a new form of putting out – middlemen employed workers, mainly women, to mass-produce garments in their own homes or workshops. This eventually destroyed the control of male tailors. But the great disadvantage for women was that wages were constantly driven down.

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 industrialisation is very different from that of men’s work. In the later nineteenth century 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. Industrialisation probably reduced the female presence in the formal job market. Official returns in the second half of the nineteenth century show a small decline in the proportion of women in the occupied work force from 34.1 per cent 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. 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, however, 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 (see later post) were women. Though less qualified, they constituted 75 per cent 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 and by 1890 65,000 Model IIs were being sold. This drew women into the hitherto exclusively male clerical occupations. The new position of telephonist was dominated by women from the start. (Bell delivered his first telephone message in 1876.) 

The Post Office was another major employer. The writer Flora Thompson, the author of Lark Rise to Candleford, began work as a sub-postmistress in 1891. However, women had to be dismissed from the Savings Bank Department because of male opposition. By 1900 women were 20 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent of working-class females married into middle-class families.


From the mid 1820s the mechanisation of weaving (the application of steam power to the power loom) 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. 

In the Lancashire cotton factories, the majority of employed women were young single women, with a minority of poorer married women. 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 only a small proportion of the overall factory workforce. Where alternatives existed, married women were more likely to do work which could be done at home. It was only where  there were no alternatives that she would enter factory employment.


  1. Until 1891 most women in work were employed as domestic servants.
  2. Women’s work was often informal and casual and is therefore poorly recorded in the censuses.
  3. In some occupations, women were replacing men. New technology also created job opportunities for women.
  4. However, rising working-class incomes union pressure for the ‘family wage’ kept many women in the home.

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