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From family to factory: women's lives during the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution saw thousands of women enter the workplace alongside men – but it was far from emancipatory, writes Elinor Evans

A group of working women huddled together in front of a mill.
Published: March 14, 2022 at 5:32 pm
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The Industrial Revolution caused a dramatic shift in women’s roles in society. Before industrialisation, the household would have been the centre of production, and women’s work largely confined to the domestic sphere, but no less physical for it. Tasks such as fetching water, and tending livestock would have kept women as busy as clothing and feeding a family, while many also took other work into their home such as hand-spinning or weaving. Cottage industry, as it was called, didn’t entirely end with the arrival of large- scale manufacturing, but the advent of machinery had an irreversible impact on women’s lives.

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As machines replaced individual labour and burgeoning industries needed coal, women became part of the growing working classes that laboured in mines and mills. In the late 18th century, many families would seek employment together, with husband, wife and children all working at the same factory or pit, while for many single women, taking a job outside the home offered the chance of greater independence.

But women were seen as less physically strong and skilled than men and were paid less. Many employers were quick to exploit this cheaper option, and soon, tasks such as printing and working at spinning machines that didn’t require as much strength and were easy to learn, became seen as ‘women’s labour’.

Work-life-imbalance

Despite the disparity in pay, the conditions in many factories were no less dangerous for women. They could work as many as 80 hours in a week, were offered few breaks, and often served inedible food. In 1832, 23-year- old Elizabeth Bentley was interviewed by a parliamentary investigation into conditions for textile workers. She described working in the card room of a flax mill near Leeds. “It was so dusty, the dust got up my lungs, and the work was so hard... I got so bad in health, that when I pulled the baskets down, I pulled my bones out of their places."

As well as the long hours and physical demands of factory labour, the domestic roles traditionally viewed as women’s work continued – unpaid. Tasks such as cooking, cleaning and childcare still needed to be carried out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few employers were understanding. Bentley described a practice known as ‘quartering’: “If we were a quarter of an hour too late, they would take off half an hour; we only got a penny an hour, and they would take a halfpenny more.”

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Another common role was in the mines of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where women laboured underground alongside men in physically demanding roles until the mid-19th century.

A painting of a woman and her child, who is sat in her lap
Even when women downed tools, they were still expected to look after their children and act as homemakers – with no additional financial support from the state. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

Isabel Wilson, a 38-year-old coal putter (someone who pushed tubs of coal from the coal face to the pit eye) was interviewed as part of Lord Ashley’s Mines Commission of 1842. She told how the dual roles of having children and producing for a family came with immense hardship. “When women have children thick [fast] they are compelled to take them down early. I have been married 19 years and have had 10 bairns; seven are in life,” she said.

One job carrying coals “caused me to miscarry five times from the strains, and was gai ill after each. Putting is no so oppressive; last child was born on Saturday morning, and I was at work on the Friday night.”

One small detail in the report noted that some women were working topless alongside men.

But jarringly, it was not such testimony in Lord Ashley’s report that caused the most public outcry. Pushing carts underground was hot work, and both young men and women would strip to the trousers in efforts to keep cool. One small detail in the report noted
that some women were working topless alongside men. Outrage in the press fuelled a belief that mining girls were being corrupted by their surroundings, and making bad wives and mothers. It was of no matter that the investigators found just one pit where females worked without tops (the Hopwood pit at Barnsley, which was labelled “a nursery for juvenile vice”). It wasn’t long before the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 had banned women from underground work to protect their health and morals.

But ultimately, as legislation forced more women away from the workplace for better or worse, ideas of gender evolved to match this new dynamic; men who went out to work were seen as breadwinners and providers, and by the mid-19th century the female ideal had become that of mother, moral guardian and homemaker.

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This article was first published in BBC History Revealed

Authors

Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast

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