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Desperate Measures - 19th Century Working Women

Women were not permitted union membership
And so they banded together to promote their cause


 "The popular impression seems to be that women today are taking a 

 larger share of the world’s work than they have ever done before – that

 this is a new departure, the outcome of the factory system.  As a matter

 of fact the share taken by women in the work of the world has not

 altered in amount, nor even in intensity, only in character."


 Ada Heather-Bigg, 1894.


During the 19th Century change was in the air.  Industrialization, involving the movement of labour and resources away from primary production (agriculture, fishing, forestry) toward manufacturing and commercial industries  was in full swing and as a result, women were moving from the domestic to the public sphere in never before seen numbers.    


Prior to these changes, women were contributors to the family income regardless of the family’s social status.  At this time there were three broad social groups; the gentry, the middle class and the lower class.  The upper class woman contributed to the family income through the dowry she brought into the marriage.  Her wealth, aside from her “pin” money or funds set aside for her children at their coming-of-age, was entirely under her husband’s control.   The middle class was generally made up of large tenant farmers, merchants or gilded craftsmen.  These people apprenticed their children in their trades or went off to live as domestics in other people’s homes.  All work done by family members, often in attached workshops or on the family farm, contributed to the communal family coffers.  Often, people of this class had servants of their own.  The lower class mainly worked to survive.  They were employed as laborers on larger farms, or engaged in cottage industries such as weaving, spinning and strawplaiting.  Their children were sent off at about the age of 13 to work on larger, nearby farms where they worked for food and lodgings, not wages.  These children did not earn money, but were no longer a drain on the family’s limited means.


As 19th Century Britain was evolving, the family economy was replaced by a new patriarchy which saw women moving from the small, safe world of family workshops or home-based businesses to larger-scale sweatshops and factories.  


Long term demographic changes accompanied the structural shifts in the British economy to shape the context within which women’s work and family activities were viewed and executed.  These demographic changes included a decline in population growth as mortality rates improve to 50%, and stagnation in the percentage of women remaining unmarried, which never again reached the all-time low figures of the 17th century. 


It was argued that there was a surplus of women which led to a glut in the market, driving down wages and demand for decent working conditions.  There were those who argued that the cause of the overstocking was not strictly resulting from demographic or changing economic structures, but from the small range of occupations open to working women in the 19th century.  Paid work for women varied from region to region across Britain, but regardless of locale, only a few sectors of the workforce were open to women.  Despite the emerging occupations created by expanding industrialism, women were remaining in traditional fields, in jobs requiring few job skills.


Regardless of the cause, in 1860 a girl’s chances of marrying were 1 in 3 at the age of twenty-one, at by the age of thirty, only 1 in 16.  Women were required to make a living, either for themselves or for their family members.  Such desperate times seemed to call for desperate measures.   


Career options were limited, and women not involved in the agriculture sector worked either as domestic workers, governesses, seamstresses or millworkers.    From this homepage, you will find links to pages related to these careers.  From these pages you can link to a variety of sites helpful for expanding your understanding of 19th Century working women.   


See below for some links that provide general  information on the era.


Voice of the shuttle - A trustworthy source

Jack Lynch - Another trusted source

The Victorian Web - Some quick info on a variety of topics.

Victoria's Past - A visually appealing site.

Victorian Web Sites - Provides links to a variety of Victorian sites

Online Books - This is, afterall, a literary web page!

Women Writers Project

Victorian Women Writers Project

"I am the daughter of a Commander in the navy, and have now lost both my parents. I am totally unprovided for, and have been trying in vain for a situation as companion.

My father was a clergyman in a small parish in . . . , and I am now penniless and homeless, with my mother a confirmed invalid; and if you will only give me work to do by which I can support her, you will confer a blessing on me.

I am the youngest of three sisters, and we have lost everything we possessed by the failure of . . . Bank; I am thirty years of age, and will gladly take any work you can suggest."



"Permanently established civil servants invariably expect their remuneration to increase with their years of service, and they look for this increased remuneration even in the cases ... in which... they can be of no more use or value in the twentieth than in the fifth year of their service. . . .

Women, however, will solve these difficulties for the Department by retiring for the purpose of getting married as soon as they get the chance."


Scudamore 1871

Site Manager:  Michelle Petley

This weg page was created as a class assignment for English 3622 - "Women's Writing" at The University of New Brunswick in Saint John.  Below is a link to the course blog.  Check it out to see what we've been up to.

Course Blog for English 3622 - Winter 2005