There within their family, who was available for labour

There has been much debate by historians and economists as to whether
the industrial revolution was fundamentally beneficial for women. It is
frequently considered a “great historical turning point in the nature of
women’s working lives” (Berg, 1991) second only
to the vast increase of female labour in the 1960’s. On the one hand optimists
believe it allowed emancipation to occur as opportunities increased, liberating
women from their social constraints. On the other hand pessimists consider it
bound them to the stereotypical housewife role as industrial innovation reduced
the demand for female labour. Agriculture and domestic service, in absolute
numbers, were the largest sectors employing women during the 17th
and 18th centuries than any other income earning occupations.
However, as opportunities within these sectors decreased, employment prospects
for women fell at a proportionate rate. Similarly, innovations within the
manufacturing industry created the potential for women to earn a higher wage
yet drastically cut down the demand for female labour. It remains crucial to
consider the reliability of any evidence that can be used to sculpt a model of
the female work force since the early censuses are known to be unreliable as
were family budgets. Therefore, we must ensure we are aware of the possibility
of large errors when discussion the impact industrialisation had on women’s
working lives.


Pre-industrialisation agriculture was a
major sector for women’s employment. Many women worked on either an annual
basis as a live-in servant or on a daily basis, mostly during the harvest. Women
were seldom offered employment during the winter meaning their potential
earning was less than their male counterparts. Females in agriculture worked an
average of 4 days per week compared to males working 6 days per week; male labour
was more desirable due to their assumed greater strength. Women’s labour was frequently
seen as dispensable. In less populous counties male employees were often required
to offer a “bondager”; this was a woman, usually within their family, who was
available for labour whenever the employer required yet had no guaranteed
regular employment (Pinchbeck, 1930 p. 65). This
therefore resulted in no guarantee of regular employment and the opportunity to
earn a wage. Agricultural innovations also resulted in the shedding of labour,
consequently the number of female workers fell at a far higher rate than their
male peers (Berg, 1991). As technology and
techniques improved women’s long-term employment, especially during the harvest,
also fell. They were unable to use the heavier but more efficient scythe that
replaced the sickle, subsequently this work also went to the archetypal
stronger male. Women’s employment was progressively limited to unskilled and
undesirable jobs such as weeding, hoeing, stone-gathering and spreading manure
(Berg, 1991). From this we can infer that women
were receiving less job satisfaction than they were previously used to which
encouraged them to look into other employment opportunities. The industrial
revolution meant that manufacturing, specifically textiles, was the preferred
industry to gravitate to.

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advance of factories was a defining feature of the industrial revolution, particularly
in the textile industry. The most dramatic productivity growth was seen in
cotton manufacturing where female labour dominated. Industrialisation and
technological improvements revolutionised the production processes and the
labour division. Arguably, the most prevalent invention for women was James
Hargreaves’ ‘Spinning Jenny’ which transformed the spinning process. This
invention allowed women to earn up to 7s 6d a week, a far higher wage than the
2s 6d that could be achieved as a hand spinner. However, this only required one
worker, displacing “9 out of
10 warp spinners and 13 out of 14 weft spinners” (Berg, 1991), resulting in many women becoming
unemployed. Table 1 (Mitchell, 1834) shows us
that women dominated the factory labour force in 1833, especially in the wool,
silk and flax industries. Technological advancements allowed women to succeed
in a previously inaccessible male dominated environment to the extent that
56.8% of all factory workers were female. This supports Berg’s (1991) optimistic approach, discussing that “the factory brought gains in
employment and higher wages”. The potential of higher wages brought a
new facet to women’s economic lives, creating new opportunities and disposable
income in many cases. Valenze (1995) however,
observed that female labour was often preferred not only for its “cheapness” compared to
their male counterparts but also because they provided “hard labour in the factories without complaint”.
This docile reputation follows Rousseau’s (1762)
image of an ideal women being “subjugated,

and passive” suggesting the
increased opportunity had not impacted the female reputation. This allowed
employers to take advantage, requiring women to work long hours in potentially
dangerous environments without the same protest men may have made.


Despite the increase in opportunities the
factories presented many women moved to or remained within domestic service;
the largest sector of female employment. This was predominantly unpaid work
within a family environment. Women took on typical household chores such as
cooking, cleaning, caring for children, fetching water and mending clothing
which took up the majority of their time. Middle-class families were able to hire
in this labour as their disposable income increased, opening up new employment
opportunities. It is clear to see why this attracted so many women from rural
to urban environments as the potential wages were triple those in agriculture.
However, they were expected to work long hours, often up to 20 hours a day,
over double that of a working day in agriculture. In this industry females
outnumbered men 9:1. Pinchbeck (1930) held an
optimistic yet potentially outdated and sexist view that industrialisation allowed
the traditional male and female roles to prevail which she believed each gender
to be “best fitted for”.
She argues that males typically became the breadwinner as specialisation and
wages increased, allowing women to withdraw from the burden of paid labour and
sinking into the archetypal housewife role. Debatably, this brought about
greater comfort and increasing leisure time, allowing them to follow the
childbearing and household task they strived for. Taylor and Francis (2013)
disagreed however, following Marx and Engle’s view, believing that “large-scale
industry has transferred the woman from the house to the labour market”
allowing her to adopt the position of “the bread-winner of the family”. This
modern approach suggests that emancipation prevailed and allowed women to take
on a new role within the family, increasing opportunities and responsibility. Hartwell
(1961) was similarly optimistic;


“It was during the industrial revolution, moreover, and largely because
of the economic opportunities it afforded to working class women, that there
was the beginning of that most important and most beneficial of all the social
revolutions of the last two centuries, the emancipation of women.”. (Hartwell, 1971 p. 343)


This supports the idea that women were freed from their previous binds
society had created which allowed an independence and a freedom women had never
previously enjoyed.

            It is important to
remain aware of the lack of evidence that can be used to sculpt the female work
force during the industrial revolution. It is widely acknowledged that the
early censuses were extremely unreliable and known to vastly underestimate
female participation rates, thus misrepresenting the occupational dispersal of
female workers. The original census was designed to produce a medical record of
the work force, rather than monitor women’s work. Due to this, available
estimates are prone to large errors. The 1851 census failed to differentiate
personal services from work in agriculture or even from retailing and household
manufacture (Berg) which demonstrates its
unreliability. Family budgets can also be considered as these assemble evidence
from multiple sources such as social commentaries, Parliamentary Papers, local
archives and documents from record offices. This allows us to identify the
proportion of married women that contributed to their family’s income and the
comparative significance of this. Much of our knowledge is therefore based on
what we know about the trends of male occupation and their wage rates at the


Segregation also remained an issue; jobs
that were considered to require greater strength were only available for males.
Generally, these jobs also offered higher wages with women typically earning
only one half to one third of their male colleagues. Male labour still remained
preferable over female labour for employers. As technology and innovations improved
and opportunities reduced following privatisation, the costs often tended to
fall on women (Humphries). Women’s work was
often low waged and exploitive, yet was necessary as it was the difference
between poverty and freedom from hardship.


            Ultimately, it seems
that the industrial revolution provided a pathway of occupational opportunities
for women, moulding the shape of female employment today. It opened up new and
previously unforeseeable prospects that enabled women to earn a greater wage
than before. This in turn increased their disposable income and hence leisure
time, a luxury most working class women had not previously experienced.
However, this was only the reality for a select, fortunate few. Whilst some factory
workers enjoyed higher wages and skilled work others experienced unemployment,
especially in the agricultural and manufacturing industries. Many were replaced
by technological innovations which offered greater productivity for a lower
price, a constraint both genders were unable to compete against. Optimists
argue this allowed women to remove themselves from the strain of earning a
wage. This is especially relevant where male wages increased, allowing women to
enjoy increased leisure time and continue the tradition of the housewife role.
However, this was not always the case. Many women were living on the edge of
poverty, only able to find employment in undesirable and unskilled jobs within
agriculture which was also being effected by technological advances.