Women and the Industrial Revolution



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Women and the Industrial Revolution
Elva Card

Social Studies department

WT Woodson High School

Fairfax, VA

NEH Seminar 2004
“Women hold up half the sky,” according to a famous saying by Chairman Mao, but in the history of the Industrial Revolution it is hard to find much mention of women or their part of the sky. The list of inventors and entrepreneurs rolls on with the names of significant men who wrought the incredible phenomenon that changed the way the whole world lives and works, men like John Kay, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton, Edmund Cartwright. The female name “Jenny” does appear, but only because James Hargreaves named his new invention, the spinning jenny, in honor of his wife. While women may have had little to do with creating the Industrial Revolution, they were indeed greatly affected by it and some women even played a role in effecting its subsequent course of development. This paper will look at women affected by changes and effecting change themselves.

Women Affected by Change


The term “Industrial Revolution” brings to mind pictures of women and children working in unwholesome and dangerous conditions, but it should be remembered that women and children worked in agricultural economies too. They were always expected to work. What changed with the Industrial Revolution was the type of work they did and the conditions under which they worked.

Women had long been involved in textile work, but they worked in their home, at times that fit with other responsibilities. A primitive type of spinning, distaff spinning, could be done anywhere. Maxine Berg quotes an observer in Scotland as saying “one rarely met with an old women in the north of Scotland, that is not otherwise employed, but who has got a distaff stuck in her girdle and a spindle at her hand.” (Berg, 142)

Another observer in the Scottish Highlands commented:
Here as in all semi-barbarous countries, is the woman seen to be regarded rather

the drudge than the companion to the man. The husband turns up the land and sows it – the wife conveys the manure to it in a creel, tends the corn, reaps it, hoes the potatoes, digs them up, carries the whole home on her back, when bearing the creel she is also engaged with spinning with the distaff … (Berg 143)


In towns women might work along side their husbands in their crafts. They might manage the shop and the handle the accounts, in addition to giving birth, raising children and running the home. The Industrial Revolution was not the beginning of work for women. Women had long been doing hard work for long hours. The Industrial Revolution did bring new hardships.

John and Barbara Hammond point out:

What the new order did … was to turn the discomforts of the life of the poor into a rigid system. Hours were not shortened, the atmosphere in which they worked was not made fresher or cleaner, ….In none of these respects was the early factory better than the home, in some it was worse. But to all the evils from which the domestic worker had suffered, the Industrial Revolution added discipline, and the discipline of a power driven by a competition that seemed as inhuman as the machines that thundered in factory and shed. (19)
No longer able to pace their day to their own stamina, workers now had to answer

the summons of the factory bell, keep the schedule of the machines, obey the rules of the owner. Conditions were dangerous, noisy and unhealthy. Women were routinely paid less than men for the same work.

Factory owners preferred women to men workers for several reasons. As Deborah Valenze points out:

Factory owners’ preference for female labor was based not only on its cheapness: many women assumed the yoke of hard labor in the factories without complaint, and this fostered the widespread opinion that female workers were more docile, and therefore less likely to cause trouble than men. (91)


Since their days were spent in long hours at the factory, women had to find other ways to care for their children. Not available to nurse their babies themselves, women frequently had to send them off to wet nurses. One source estimated that “close to one third of all babies born in Lyons (some 2,000 of 5,000-6000) were carted off to the countryside” to be nursed. (Tilly and Scott, 46)

In its early days, the Industrial Revolution did indeed change the lives of women, and not for the better. In the “developing” world today this pattern is frequently repeated, but today in the industrialized world those early conditions have changed for the better. Most of the effectors of these changes have been male, but some women also made their contributions.



Women as Effectors of Change


The Industrial Revolution is famous, or perhaps more accurately infamous, for the terrible working conditions that marked the early factories, the “dark Satanic mills” of Blake’s description. One of the influences that brought about changes in those conditions was the description of them in popular fiction writing. This made the general public not only aware of the conditions, but also created a climate of public opinion receptive, if not demanding, of improvements. The best know fiction author of this genre is Charles Dickens, but there were also female writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte and Frances Trollope (mother of the famous Anthony Trollope) writing in this vein.

As the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell worked among the poor, and so had first hand knowledge of their lives. Born in 1810, she published her first book, Mary Barton, in 1848. It made her instantly famous, and showed her firmly on the side of the workers in the worker/owner categories into which industrial novels were divided. Many felt that she had done “very great injustice to the employers,” that she had “misunderstood and over-sympathized with the plight of the workers. She had evidently failed to see that they suffered evisceration in the necessary cause of their masters’ profit.” (Ingham, xiii)

Her next novel, North and South, is perhaps more nuanced. It is the story of Margaret Hale, who found herself suddenly removed from a bucolic “South” to the industrial wasteland of the “North,” following her father’s resignation from his post as a vicar in the Church of England and his acceptance of a tutoring job in “Milton-Northern,” a stand-in for Gaskell’s own town of Manchester. Like Dickens in his novel Hard Times, there are descriptions of the unpleasant conditions of the smoke filled air in industrial cities and the poverty of the workers, but neither novel contains description of the actual horror of the factory conditions themselves.

Gaskell’s novel catches the reader’s sympathy for the working class with the portrayal of Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy. He is a lowly mill worker, but is also a man of character, pride and high morals. Bessy is a model of Christian acceptance as she faces her fate of an early death from an unspecified disease connected to her work in the mill. Like Dickens, Gaskell’s attitude toward unions is not wholly supportive. The noble Nicholas supports the union as the only way workingmen will be able to get a decent life. When confronted with the harshness and violence of some union policies, he, and Gaskell, make the case for unions.

And it’s th’ masters as has made us sin, if th’ Union is a sin. Not this generation

maybe, but their fathers. Their fathers ground our fathers to the very dust;

ground us to powder! …. In those days of sore oppression th’ Unions began; it

were a necessity. It’s a necessity now, according to me. It’s a withstanding of

injustice, past, present or to come. It may be like war; along wi’ it come crimes;

but I think it were a greater crime to let it alone. Our only chance is binding men

together in one common interest; and if some are cowards and some are fools,

they mun [sic] come along and join the great march, whose only strength is in

numbers. (North and South, 229)

The response to Higgins comes from Margaret’s father, Mr. Hale. “Oh, your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious – it would be Christianity itself – if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another.” (North and South, 229) Events seem to cast doubts on the ability of the union to take care of the working men. The strike brings hunger to their families and division within their ranks, resulting eventually in a tragic suicide. Meanwhile the loss of revenue caused by the strike comes close to bringing bankruptcy to one mill and the end of employment to all its workers.

Unlike Mr. Bounderby of Hard Times, the owner of the mill in North and South is a man of high ethical standards. John Thornton has worked his way up from poverty, paying off his father’s bad debts. Though coming from poverty himself, he is strangely indifferent to the plight of his workers, or “hands” as he calls them. However Margaret’s softening influence brings him to seeking a greater harmony with his workers, and in the end her inheritance saves his mill, even as he wins her hand for the typical marriage and happily ever after ending. So, like Dickens, Gaskell portrays the life of the working class, sketches some of the conflict inherent in industry, but offers no real solutions for their problems beyond the idea that everyone should be kinder to each other. Making the workers’ plight known to the general public, however, was an important first step in bringing about the needed changes, so it was a significant contribution.

Another female writer who brought social issues to the attention of the public in her novels was Frances Trollope. Born in 1780, the daughter of a clergyman, she began writing books at the age of fifty-two, when her husband’s business failed and they had enormous debts to pay off. By the time she died in 1863, she had written forty books and had easily paid off the family’s debts. (National Archives Learning Curve website)

Trollope tackled important social issues, such as slavery, church corruption and children working in factories in her various novels. She became active in the campaign against child labor and visited factories in Manchester and Bradford. From this research came Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, a vivid portrayal of factory conditions. One excerpt dealt with a young girl:

A little girl about seven years old, whose job as scavenger was to collect

incessantly from the factory floor the flying fragments of cotton that might

impede the work … while the hissing machinery passed over her, and when this

is skillfully done, and the head, body, and the outstretched limbs carefully glued

to the floor, the steady moving, but threatening mass, may pass and repass over

the dizzy head and trembling body without touching it. But accidents frequently

occur; and many are the flaxen locks, rudely torn from infant heads, in the

process (Ibid.).
Trollope was accused of encouraging people to hate factory owners, and one critic even suggested that she “should be sent to prison for writing such a dangerous book.” (Ibid.) The book may not have contained solutions for the problems of factory conditions, but in making the general public aware of the conditions, Trollope and other writers like her helped move the climate of public opinion toward finding solutions.

Another woman who tried to improve conditions for the working class was Hannah More, whom Anna Clark calls “the archetypal Evangelical moralist.” (120) Born in 1745, and given a good education by her schoolmaster father, More was “one of the most well-known and influential English women of her day,” though today few people would recognize her name. (hannahmore website) Her first published work, a pastoral drama, The Search After Happiness, was written at the age of sixteen and was followed by more dramas and poems. Around 1779, however, her writing and her life took a religious turn and she decided to devote herself to Christian work. She and her sister established Sunday Schools to help children from poor areas learn to read, to develop Christian morals and to “acquire life-skills that they would keep with them forever. Within ten years, she was responsible for the running of sixteen schools. (Ibid.)


Although she was deeply involved in this work, writing many of the texts herself, she also found time to maintain her contacts with polite society and to write a number of books and pamphlets, including a series of conduct books. From her earnings, she gave generously to charities. One source calls her “one of the most successful writers, and perhaps the most influential woman, of her day.” (Ibid.}

The Hammonds, while acknowledging that people receiving food and sustenance from Hannah More were indeed helped, see her as part of the establishment supporting church that helped perpetuate the status quo by making the owners comfortable with the situation and urging the workers to accept and make the best of it. The Hammonds write:

It never seems to have crossed the minds of these philanthropists that it was desirable that men and women should have decent wages, or decent homes, or that there was something wrong with the arrangements of a society that left the mass of people in this plight. (227)
If More was unable to envision a better world, she certainly was not alone. The changes that seem so inevitable, the reforms that seem so unquestionably just to today’s world, seemed neither inevitable nor unquestionable in More’s day. In fact, her conduct book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, is distinctly protofeminist, calling as it does for better education and career opportunities for women. (hannahmore web site)

Another woman who tried to better the plight of the poor, especially of prisoners, through Christian outreach was Elizabeth Fry. Born into a Quaker family, Fry felt a calling to use her life to help others. She was fortunate in having a husband like Joseph Fry who was willing to let his wife take an active role outside of the home. She was also fortunate that she could afford plenty of help with the twelve children she bore him. (quaker.org.uk web site)

She began visiting women prisoners at Newgate prison. She was shocked at the wretched conditions she found. Prisoners were lying on the bare stone floors. Newborn babies lacked clothes. Fry marshaled the resources of her Quaker friends to find clothes for the children and straw to give some comfort to the beds. Eventually she organized a school for the children and arranged for the women to get materials so that they could sew, knit and make goods for sale. Then the prisoners could use the money from the sales to buy food, clothing and fresh straw for their bedding. She became well known, and was asked to testify before a committee of the House of Commons. Her programs at Newgate were copies in other prisons. (Ibid.)

In addition to her prison work, Fry set up District Visiting Societies to work with the poor. She set up libraries for coastguards, a training school for nurses, and a Ladies Committee to offer hot soup and beds to the homeless. In honor of all her charitable work, her picture is on the backside of the British five-pound note.

An amazing lady who broadened opportunities for women was Florence Nightingale, the famed “lady with the lamp.” Turning down several marriage proposals, she felt called to something special with her life. She went to Germany for nursing training, then returned to England to work in a hospital. When the Crimean War broke out, she managed, against great opposition, to lead a group of nurses to the battlefront. Resented at first by the army surgeons and limited in her scope of action, she used connections at home to get papers to publish the appalling conditions in the field hospitals. Men were left in their dirty uniforms and given neither blankets nor decent food. Typhus, cholera and dysentery were killing more men than battle wounds. In fact, only one in six died from war injuries. Most were dying from disease. (Florence Nightingale site)

Given authority to clean up the hospitals and to institute needed reforms, Nightingale was able to reduce the death rate dramatically, as well as increase the comfort level of the wounded. She became a national heroine. She used her fame and her influence to raise the standards of hygiene in hospitals and to improve the training of nurses. She believed in women’s rights, and wrote a book on the subject, Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truths. She argued that women should have the same opportunities as men to have careers. Her book greatly influenced John Stuart Mill and his book on women’s rights, The Subjection of Women. (Ibid.)

In spite of her advanced ideas about women’s rights, she did not support a movement to expand the medical profession to permit women doctors. She thought it more important for women to become better-trained nurses than to try to break into the ranks of doctors. Ironically, the famous nurse herself needed nursing during the final fifteen years of her life, when she became a total invalid. She died in 1910, at the age of ninety. Though she accepted limitations on women’s careers in medicine, she greatly expanded their role as nurses and was a pioneer in raising the standards of hygiene and patient care in hospitals. (Ibid.)

In conclusion, though women do indeed hold up half the sky, they were much more affected by the Industrial Revolution than effecting of events. Some women were, however, able to contribute to improving conditions for the working class.




Works Cited


Berg, Maxine. The Age of Manufactures. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1985.

Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. With introduction by Patricia Ingham. Penguin Books, 1995.

Hammond, J.L. and Barbara Hammond. The Town Labourer. 1917.

Tilly, Louise A. and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work and Family. New York: Routledge,1987.



Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. New York: Oxford University Press,1995.
www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Irtrollope.htm
www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Renightingale.htm
www.Tl.essortment.com/hannahmore_rene.htm
www.quaker.org.uk/more/qviews4.html





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