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History of Women and Work

There has been a much greater interest in the working lives of our female ancestors than ever before. Despite the census returns consistently showing a blank under the occupation column where there is a woman’s name alongside, we know women worked.

If we look at female occupation over the period of the census from 1841 to 1911, we see that the combined number of trades that women were engaged with amount to just over 300.

How many women were engaged in each of these activities is hard to say because of the ‘blank’.

    • As the Industrial Revolution progressed, it was the labour of working class women and children that carried the revolution forward.
    • They provided the cheap labour that the factory owners needed and they were good at working in teams and were able to harness the power of the children.
    • The textile industries valued their neat nimble work and they were more productive on factory lines than their male counterpart.
    • Throughout most of this period though women were paid less than theiri male counterpart working alongside them. The Equal Pay Act was only passed in 1970.

Where were women working?

    • They were obviously occupied inside the home, still involved in cottage industries, dressmaking, straw work and hat making are some examples.
    • In rural areas they were employed as additional agricultural labourers, doing whatever was needed, helping with the harvests of many crops, stone picking or animal husbandry.
    • Where the husband might run a butchers or bakers, his wife would be employed alongside him, usually working shoulder to shoulder.
    • In urban areas, women were found in all manner of factories and in collieries and mines.
    • For most girls and women emerging into the ‘jobs’ market in the latter part of the C19th, their opportunities were limited to domestic service, shop assistant, factory work.

As in all societies though there were those who broke the mould, those who seized opportunities, such as education or an enlightened family to support them and set out on a different road.

    •  What the census does not show but  the trade directories do, was the extent to which women were running their own businesses.
    • They owned and managed shops, pubs, schools, factories. They were part of the emerging middle classes, when women were demanding a role outside of the home.
    • For women attempting to work in the professions, the barriers they faced were often too difficult to cross and it was a slow and persistent struggle. The determination they showed to break through and become lawyers, doctors , accountants was immense, even so it took legislation after 50 years of demands before women could assume an equal position to men in the professions.

It is so easy to fall prey to the myth, that Victorian women were occupied by house and home, it simply is not true. The voice of the working women was a hidden voice, history writing both contemporary and since and education in schools has largely reflected the male position in society.

Here are some examples of women who achieved against all odds to pursue the occupation of their choice:

Dorothy Beatrice Spiers 1897 – 1977 Actuary

Ethel Mary Charles first female member of Royal Institution British Architects