Women and the Industrial Revolution in Britain



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Women and the Industrial Revolution in Britain
Janet Glass

Eldorado High School

Albuquerque, NM
2008 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Interpretations of the Industrial revolution in Britain

In studying the historical literature of the industrial revolution, it becomes obvious that women are a group that receives varied attention, if mentioned as separate group at all, by historians. Contemporary observers noticed women working in the factories and mines but usually grouped them with children and the problems of child labor. However, as other historians such as Louise Tilly, Joan Scott, and Maxine Berg have observed, the industrial revolution affected women differently because their social, economic, and cultural roles were different. In addition, the lives of working class women differed from women of the middle and upper classes but less is known of their lives as women or as workers. In the 1970s feminist historians focused attention on how the industrial revolution affected women. By the 1990s historical scholarship reversed the question: how did women affect the industrial revolution? Historians had long studied the development of the industrial revolution on middle class women in terms of their changing domestic and economic position in the family, but Tilly, Scott, and Berg focused more particularly on the group of women who had always been involved in productive labor, working class women.

Visualize many young women standing for long hours in dusty, dirty, and loud machines in perpetual motion. Contemporary writers of the 1700s and the 1800s were so overwhelmed by mechanization and the environmental, social, economic, and political changes that they chose to highlight aspects the industrial revolution that shocked them the most, large numbers of women and children working in factories under dangerous conditions. The extreme poverty of the working classes horrified the middle and upper class writers of the 1800s who in turn wrote various social novels based on their observations and research. Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli invoked shock and horror among their privileged audience with their images of pregnant women standing for hours in factories or women working half naked in coal mines. According to the Victorian cult of domesticity, women should be separate from the dirt, noise, and corruption of the workday world and devote their time and energies to creating the home as the domestic refuge from the problems of the world. Unfortunately, this domestic ideal was beyond the reach of a working class family, which needed as many working members as possible.

In 1838 a member of British Parliament visited a textile mill and wrote his observations:

Amongst other things I saw a cotton mill—a sight that froze my blood. The place was full of women, young, all of them, some large with child, and obliged to stand twelve hours each day. Their hours are from five in the morning to seven in the evening, two hours of that being for rest, so that they stand twelve clear hours. The heat was excessive in some of the rooms, the stink pestiferous, and in all an atmosphere of cotton flue. I nearly fainted. The young women were all pale, sallow, thin, yet generally fairly grown, with bare feet-a strange sight to English eyes. (Tilly and Scott, 64)


Frances Trollope who visited cotton mills for her novel, Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, depicted the factory as so oppressive that her middle class heroine almost fainted. The children in the factory were

Taken and lodged amidst stench and stunning, terrifying tumult, driven to and fro, till their little limbs bend under them- hour after hour, day after day- the repose of a moment to be purchased only by yielding when tender bodies to the fist, the heel, or the strap of the overlooker. (Hard Times, Appendix 406)


Trollope was describing the conditions for children but these conditions applied to the women working in the mills also. Other social novels of the period depicted the girls as young, poor, yet virtuous. These Victorian writers were more concerned with the possible sexual exploitation of these women than with their economic exploitation by employers or by unsafe working conditions. A young, virtuous girl pitted against an inhumane, factory system was a common image.

Politicians and journalists observed and criticized working conditions that they thought promoted immoral behaviour. Coal mining was particularly dangerous and definitely not feminine according to Victorian gender roles. It was common for entire families to work in the coalmines. Women and men worked together in conditions that middle class writers believed violated women’s delicate nature. Because of the heat, men and women often worked without shirts and women wore pants. Miners of both sexes worked in small spaces with basic tools and often chained their carts to themselves as they pulled them out of the mine.

Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftsbury, investigated the conditions of mines for women and children in 1842. The Report of the Commissioners objected to women working in the mines:

…in the districts in which females are taken down into the coal mines, both sexes are employed together imprecisely the same kind of labour, and work for the same number of hours; that the girls and boys, and the young men and women, and even married women and women with child, commonly work almost naked, and the men, in many mines, quite naked; and that all classed of witnesses bear testimony to the demoralizing influence of the employment of females underground. (Selected Primary sources 39)


The display at the National Coal Mining museum showed a half naked woman working the mine with her family and it does not take a Victorian mindset to be shocked by it. Newspapers published stories about women miners with naked women prominently featured in illustrations which were probably very effective in persuading the public to support protective legislation banning women and children under 12 from working in the mines. Lord Ashley persuaded Parliament to pass the legislation in 1842. Victorian writers also emphasized the immorality of women working with men in very physical situations. Peter Gaskell, a liberal physician who wrote about industrialization in the 1830s, also portrayed the presence of girls in the factories as immoral.

The bringing together numbers of the young of both sexes in factories has been a prolific source of moral delinquency. The stimulus of a heated atmosphere, the contact of opposite sexes, the example of license upon the animal passions- all have conspired to produce a very early development of sexual appetencies. Indeed, in this respect, the female population engaged in mill labour, approximates very closely to that found in tropical climates; puberty, or at least sexual propensities, being attained almost coeval with womanhood. (Selected Primary sources 45)


These writers are just a sampling of the attitudes that middle class writers held towards women in factory work. These dramatic contemporary accounts influenced historians at a later date who like the 19th century writers, did not write about the women who were working in other occupations such as trade, domestic service, and other productive activities. Newspapers sensationalized the new factory jobs, not the more mundane jobs that women chose as either single or married working class women. The heavily mechanized textile industry employed many women because women traditionally had been involved in textile production and because women were a cheaper labor source. The working conditions were new because of powerful, new technology but the presence of women in textiles was not. While it is understandable that new jobs get all the attention, it is up to the historian to investigate more fully the choices that working class women made regarding their occupations. It is also necessary to distinguish between the interests of the middle class women and those of the working class women. The 19th century ideals of womanhood known as the cult of domesticity and separate spheres were related partly to the industrial revolution, but did not immediately affect women of the lower classes. Middle class women, the wives of men who no longer lived near their businesses, were separated from the work world, but working class women were not.

In Women, Work, and Family, Louise Tilly and Joan Scott analyze the situation of the working class woman during the industrial revolution, which was very different from the world of the middle class woman. Their research illustrates the changing circumstances of working class women and provides a new perspective of how the industrial revolution affected this group of women underrepresented in most historical research.

Tilly and Scott divide workingwomen into two historical periods: pre-industrial family called family economy and an industrial period where it became a family wage economy. The family was one in which everyone contributed to the economic survival of the group. Tilly and Scott carefully define working class women. They are looking at women who lived in families of ‘’peasants, artisans, small shopkeepers, skilled and unskilled urban and rural workers.’’ (Tilly and Scott 4) The main goal was survival: make food, clothing, and to produce whatever they could to earn money for the family. Family members often worked together in the same domestic industry. In the domestic textile industry, young women and children were the spinners while older women and men were the weavers. Young women in particular could work at home or were often sent to work in domestic service. Their duties were varied: ‘’dairymaid, harvester, laundress, charwoman, serving maid, nursemaid’’ (Tilly and Scott 35) Other jobs included lace making, straw plaiting, glove making, knitting, needlework, sewing, dressmaking, wig making. Urban women often worked with their husbands in their trade. Widows would often get permission to continue their husband’s trade after their husband’s death. Rural women could work in the fields, sell eggs and butter from their few animals, or even make money from spinning wool or cotton. The key aspect of the pre-industrial family economy was that married women could supervise their children and even train them to work while also doing whatever domestic tasks that needed to be done. Single girls would work at home or in other homes according what helped their families the most. Families could control their daughters more closely, which helped them from being exploited by outsiders or by employers. Girls in domestic service with family near were less likely to become pregnant and abandoned by men. There is evidence that orphan girls were more vulnerable and more likely to end up as: ’criminals, prostitutes, and mothers of illegitimate children.’’ (Tilly and Scott 37)

Tilly and Scott propose that industrialization affected women’s labor in a less dramatic fashion than contemporary critics and even historians have described. First, women continued to work in a variety of occupations as single and as married women.

In 1851 English women worked in more than the textile industry. 45% of women worked in manufacturing (22% in textiles factories and 17% in non-mechanized garment trades), 40% of women were involved in domestic service, 8% in agriculture and 7% in other. (Tilly and Scott 69) Other jobs included petty trading, hawkers, street merchants, laundresses, and boarding-house keepers. (Tilly and Scott 76) Only the women in textile manufacturing were generally working under the supervision of managers in large-scale operations. Tilly and Scott argue that it was mostly single girls, not married women who were in the factories. In 1850, 70% of French and English women working in paid employment were single women while only 12% of the women working were married with children under 5. (Tilly and Scott 127) Domestic servants usually lived in their employer’s home and the other occupations required the women to work outside the home but without supervision. Some of the working class occupations of women did move outside the home but not necessarily into a factory. In what Tillie and Scott have called a family wage economy, family members worked outside the home in jobs similar to ones they held before but for a wage that they brought home and pooled for their mutual benefit. Furthermore, the anecdotal evidence of Tilly indicates that young women took jobs according to the needs of their families. (Tilly and Scott 107-116).

Three new aspects characterized the family wage economy. One was women working for a wage and not just to produce items within their family which Tillie call the “proletarianization” of women’s labor. (Tilly and Scott 77) Secondly, Single women were still working for the benefit of the family but they might spend more time as fulltime workers outside the home than they did before. Thirdly, married women faced the difficult situation of trying to make money outside the home and still bear and rear their children. Feeding and clothing a growing family was difficult if the mother was at work all day. Tillie and Scott found that married women participated less in factory work after they had children, but that they pursued other options like laundry work, peddling food, keeping cafes, inns, boarding houses. (Tilly and Scott 125) Industrialization influenced single and married women differently according to the demands the jobs made upon a working class woman’s life. Single women could work full time in factories for wages which were steady while married women preferred jobs where they could control their hours and place, even if wages were lower, as in piece work for the garment industry. Tilly and Scott make the important point that women were involved in the urban market economy at a different level as a “secondary labor force” in the service sector of an urban economy. (Tilly and Scott 76)

Tilly and Scott emphasize that working class women had contributed to the family economy before the industrial revolution and were expected to continue despite the changes in working lives of men and women. Furthermore, women worked in jobs other than textile factories. Domestic service still employed a large percentage of women. Tillie, Scott, and Berg make a second important point: that while industrialization brought more women into mechanized fields, the work world continued to be divided along gender lines. Women tended to do the least skilled jobs in a field while men dominated the more skilled levels. There were many other trades that women were excluded from by tradition such as stonemasonry, carpentry, bricklaying, and from new ones in heavy industry. Although exclusion from male occupations influenced working class women, Tilly and Scot argued that working class women chose their occupations to align their personal and family needs and adjusted to a changing economy as needed. Working class women were a large group in the textile industry, but it was not the only field that they were in.

Interpretations of women’s role in the industrial revolution have been influenced by historian’s own views. Tilly and Scott noted that historians who favoured capitalism and those who were very critical of industrial capitalism formed very different interpretations of women’s role in industrialization. (Tilly and Scott 5-6) Historians who favoured capitalism tended to view wage earning and the entry of women into industry as progress for women who could enter the public realm. Historians like T.S. Ashton thought that women became more independent with factory work. Wage earning helped women who ‘’gained self-respect and public esteem.’’ (Ashton 95) Ashton did not note that women made barely half as much as men for similar jobs in the textile industry and in general worked in occupations of lower pay and status than men. His assumption that women did not have self-respect of the public reveals his own belief that wage work as the only worthwhile work in a capitalistic system. It is probable that Ashton was thinking of women becoming professionals and not working class factory workers. Writers who were critical of industrial capitalism thought women were better off economically and socially in pre-industrial domestic industry, trade, or agriculture because they were more central to the family’s economic power, and perhaps enjoyed a more egalitarian role in the family. (Tilly and Scott 5) Historians of the 1970s often promoted this view.

The assumption that the family was a refuge from the harsh cold world, part of the cult of domesticity ideology of the 19th century, influenced the many critics of industrialization like J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Child labor was the Hammonds main concern but their comments on working women’s problems reflect the Hammond’s middle class upbringing. The problem with factory work was that working class families did not have a home according to middle class ideals:

‘’Too often the dwelling of the factory family is no home; it sometimes is a cellar, which includes no cookery, no washing, no making, no mending, no decencies of life, no invitations to the fireside.’’ (Hammond 24)


The Hammonds, as empathetic as they were to the problems of the working class, did not totally understand the concerns of working class families. They considered it a problem that the women did not have the habits of “Domestic economy” and the working class men did not “have wives that can dress a joint of meat.” (Hammond 24) Working class women and families were more concerned with survival than with the niceties of preparing a roast.

Examining the life story of Esther Price, a factory operative at the Quarry Bank Mill, shows how Esther’s life both follows these historical interpretations and yet challenges the pattern described by Tillie and Scott. Esther Price was a young girl who was apprenticed to the Quarry Bank Mill when she was around 12 years old in 1833. She lived in the Apprentice House on the site and worked in the Mill. She was not an orphan but had two parents and at least four siblings in Liverpool. Esther shows up in the records for misbehaviour in 1835. Apparently she and another girl assaulted another apprentice and ended up before the magistrates. In 1836 Esther and another apprentice ran away. Apparently she left to see her father in Liverpool and ran away when her request to leave was denied. (Robinson 6) Esther returned after ten days and was sent into solitary confinement. Because of the death of the woman who ran the Apprentice house with her husband, Esther was let out two days early. It is interesting to note that Esther was a very independent young girl. She went so far as to use her baptismal certificate to prove her age so that she could leave the Apprentice house at age 18. Esther claimed to be a year older than the factory had thought when her apprentice papers had been drawn in 1833.

Although Esther wanted to leave the Apprentice house, she did not leave the employ of the Quarry Bank Mill. Furthermore, she went to have an illegitimate child in 1839 and continued to live in the cottages. Esther’s decision to live nearby in Styal implies that she was still connected to the Mill in some way. The pay ledgers are not complete so it is hard to say with certainty if Esther was working in the Mill or perhaps working for a Mill family. The father of her child was known and she eventually married him twelve years after the birth of her first child. Esther appears sporadically in the pay ledgers which could be the result of incomplete records or also her decision to work and leave according to her needs. She was listed as a worker from 1840, the year after her son died, and appears in the records as an employee on and off until 1856. Her name’s absence from the wage’s books often coincided with the birth of her children; after a second son was born in 1842 and for two years after the birth of her third son in 1852. After the birth of her fourth son, Esther’s name appears in the wages book but not continuously. There is a twenty-month gap that was perhaps due to missing records. It is also possible that Esther was doing what Tillie and Scott suggested: that married women had a hard time working full time in a factory after they had children. It could be that married women would go in and out of the cotton textile factories as they needed because the jobs were unskilled enough so that job turnover over was not a problem. Despite Esther’s disagreements with the Mill’s management, she stayed in the area and worked in the Mill until she died. Esther worked in a variety of jobs from the reeling room, to the spinning room, and finally to the weaving room. Even her second son worked at the mill beginning when he was ten years old. Esther, as a married woman, moved in and out of wage employment in a factory according to the needs of her family. Interestingly, the Quarry Bank Mill rehired her despite her youthful rebellion and breaks in employment.

Esther Price exemplifies the historical research of Tilly, Scott, and Maxine Berg. Tilly and Scott write mostly about young women with parents and families who influenced their decisions, but Esther is an example of a young woman who made decisions for herself outside of her family. Esther’s life suggests that she had found a place for herself in the community of workers that lived near Quarry Bank Mill, which was not in Liverpool where her parents lived. From age 18 to 41, Esther worked as a textile worker as a single mother and later as a married woman. Having children influenced her factory work but did not end it. Maxine Berg, author of The Age of Manufactures, has argued that young women may have made their decisions differently than married women. She proposes that workingwomen created networks that should be examined in addition to family influences. (Berg 165) Esther Price was in touch with her family but she lived near the Quarry Mill from age 12 to her death at age 41. The records are not complete but they suggest that she chose to continue in textile industry and to live near friends who very likely helped her when she was a single mother.

From the 1700s to the 1800s, industrialization was moving working class women’s work outside of the home and separating women’s domestic and reproductive responsibilities from their income producing responsibilities. (Tilly and Scott 145) Tilly and Scott conclude that the industrial revolution separated work from the home but not women from work. It is important in discussing how the Industrial Revolution affected women and their families, to recognize Tilly and Scott’s contribution on its affect on working class women. Industrialization changed where and how workingwomen worked but continuities remained. Women continued to work in a variety of occupations and at the same time, men and women worked in different occupations. Women were dominant in traditionally feminine jobs considered like garment work and textile industry. Tillie and Scott make a persuasive case that while all working class women worked for wages, family obligations influenced their choice of occupation. Married women preferred jobs like charwomen or small trade, or sweated labor (piece work) that were flexible and could be done from the home or in their own time.

Maxine Berg presents convincing research that show that working class women were directed to the least skilled part of any occupation. In agriculture, they were the weeders, stone gatherers, and spreaders of manure. (Berg 137) while men operated the machines and new equipment. (Berg 155) In factory work, women made up a larger portion of the lower skilled jobs in factories and were excluded from skilled trades like metallurgy and the building trades. Maxine Berg argues that women were a cheap source of labor that business could not ignore. In some cases, women resisted mechanization less while others, who had fewer options, resented the machines that took away their jobs. Over all, Berg and other historians have noted, women were restricted to certain areas by tradition. It is possible that married women chose less skilled jobs because they were more flexible and easier to resume after taking breaks for childbirth and childrearing. Berg argues that men kept the skilled occupations to themselves and reserved less skilled jobs for women. This assumes that men wanted the jobs that paid more. Berg then argues that women’s jobs were considered less important because women themselves had lower status. (Berg 156) This would make sense in a time when occupations were gender specific by tradition but would change as the 19th century progressed. Under the name of separate spheres, women were told to work in areas that used their special talents as mothers and moral beings, like teaching and nursing. Unfortunately the jobs themselves would acquire lower status because women dominated the field. Jobs for working class women’s jobs were defined by tradition and to a certain extent by their preference. The working class women would move into newly created jobs only as better education prepared them, but more importantly, as men left jobs like office work for new ones in a growing urban economy.

The different economic and social circumstances of middle class and working class women would be important issues in the suffrage movement in England and the United States and in the labor movement. Women shared many of the same concerns as a group but it is a mistake to ignore socio-economic differences, which have influenced women’s occupational and political choices. Temperance groups, suffrage groups, and women labor organizers shared a desire to change society, but their members often had very different concerns, which were in part due to their very different economic roles in their families. Working class women were obliged to contribute to their family economically and the industrial revolution did not reduce this need. Working class women might choose to focus more on labor organizing and favour protective legislation while suffragettes favoured complete equality in professional and political realms, including the right to vote. A middle class woman thought in terms of the right to vote, the right to education, and a profession whereas a working class woman very often did not want to compete directly with unionized men for jobs. Many working class women were often torn between the union movement, which had promoted the well being of their families through better wages for men and feminists who promoted the rights of women in particular.

However, working and living independently of the family did affect workingwomen’s expectations for their lives and as Maxine Berg suggests, it would be a mistake to underestimate how wage work in any field could change women’s relationship with their families and society. (Berg 165) The life of Esther Price suggests that women, single and married, developed relationships outside their original family. These new relationships helped them to get jobs and support themselves throughout their lives. Maxine Berg suggests that workingwomen were forming networks that were as important as their families. After 1850, women’s lives in all classes, especially middle and working class would change as new opportunities in education and work became available and they would form new networks of support as well.



Work Cited

Ashton, T.S. The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1997.
Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures 1700-1820. New York: Routledge, 1994.

2nd edition.


Dickens, Charles. Hard Times for These Times. ed. Graham Law. Toronto:

Broadview Press, 2003.


Hammond, J.L. and Barbara. The Town Labourer: The New Civilization 1760-1832, New York: Harper & Row, 1970. First published by Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1917.
Koot, Gerard. Selected Primary Sources: Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution

In Britain. Class Photocopy. March 2008.
Robinson, Keith. Esther Price: The life story of an apprentice at Quarry Bank Mill.

Publication of Quarry Bank Mill Museum.


Tilly, Louise and Joan Scott. Women, Work, and Family. New York: Routledge, 1989.




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