A brief history of women and work

In the middle of the 1800s, 42% of American women and 25% of British women were in paid employment. By the end of the 19th century, 50% of Dutch women were in the work force.

We have an imagine of women in the past at home caring for their families living in a tranquil environment. Life was anything but for the majority of the population, they were working out of necessity, men and women. It was the differences between food on the table and starvation . . . or the Workhouse. 

We can thank the myth to the literature of the day and the artists who have painted beautifully dressed women gliding about at home. These of course were the middle to upper class women and even at home, they had maids to do most of the work and nannies to care for the children. Life was leisure, something unknown to 100's of 1,000s of women. 

Throughout history women have moved in and out of paid labour, however, I am probably the first generation (Generation X) to make this decision according to my wishes and not the men in power. I use the word men as they have decided if women were allow to work or not, not women themselves. Sadly in past centuries, cutting women off from paid work has had detrimental consequences, especially for widows and spinsters. 

Most households during the Victorian era drew income from a number of sources, with many women and juveniles adding to wage earning even if their employment was usually more intermittent and low-paid than that of adult males. Even though the male breadwinner's wage was increasingly regarded as the ideal and even the norm, in practice many households were dependent upon female earnings, especially those households run by widows.

Family budgets from the Victorian era suggest that around 30-40 per cent of women from working class families contributed significantly to household incomes. Probably something similar to today.

Whilst literature (or perhaps more accurately propaganda) wanted to show women as "Angels of the Home", sadly for many women, especially widows and spinsters, it was anything but. These women,  including widowed middle class women were rarely women of leisure. Many carried on their husband businesses after their deaths, many were governesses, nannies or worked in trade such as dressmaking, book-keeping or office work.  Domestic service of all kinds was the single largest employer of women . . . 40% of female occupations stated in the census of 1851. As factories grew, more women became labourers and worked in the factories, women in places like Wales could be found in the mines. In rural areas, they worked along side their husbands on the farm. 


We often think of women in past eras as delicate and weak, in fact, they were strong women, probably much stronger than women today. We often think of women in the past having afternoon naps and feeling unwell (just think of Jane Austen books). For these working women, that wasn't an option . . . taking rest was for women of leisure, those in upper-class families. 

Like today, these women also had to care for their homes and their families. Older children helped their mother to care for the younger children, younger children went off to school during the day (only the wealthy could afford home-tutors) and when they reached 12ish, they too started to work and earn an income which was much needed by the family. Many of these women worked very long hours and came home exhausted (work life was far harder in 1850 compared to 2014) and many women (and children) worked in dangerous conditions as work health and safety was unheard of. Illness, disability and even death was an every-day possibility. 


Another change to working life was the move from almost all men working at home in home-based businesses to working away from home in larger businesses owned by someone else (i.e. a factory). In 1800 in New York, less than 5% of men had a workplace outside the house; by 1820, it was 25%, and by 1840, it was 70%. For centuries men worked at home and beside them was their wife working in equal partnership. These new practices also saw women leave the home to work in factories, workshops, shops or in domestic service. Homes that had once been the centre of activity as a place of work, became a private sphere as a place of family and child-rearing, but that is another story for another time.

The Victorian's were very good at creating myths that we still look back on today. They wanted to create the imagine of peace and contentment, good health and harmony. The new industrialists even commissioned paintings of happy mothers and children wearing crisp white outfits looking beautiful and feminine because it was in such stark contrast to reality - the life of the factory. Just watch the BBC mini-series "North and South" from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell to see what life must have been like for the poor in Industrial Britain. Life was tough and hard and the smell and hunger must have been unimaginable at times. 


Many women today work in paid labour, just as they have in the past. However, mum is now working in much improved and safer conditions, her hours are shorter, she is earning more, someone is concerned about her rights in the workplace, her children are far better cared for and she has far more time at home. At least if women need to work today, they are in a much better environment.

Whilst it isn't perfect for mum to work with younger children, we can be thankful that women now have a choice - she can work or stay at home and if she does need to work, she can choose between full-time and part-time employment.  Many workplaces now have flexible hours that are perfect for mothers with school aged children. If she is a single mother as a result of widowhood or divorce, the government will support her until she can gets back on her feet. It is important to look at the reality of the past and not the glossy myth that has been created.  Life was not rosy for many women and women have worked for centuries and many have managed home and work just as many women do today. Women are able to do this, it can be difficult, but, as in the past, it isn't impossible. 

*****

Comments

  1. I've been a SAHM for 15 years and am looking for employment now. I'm glad that I am not forced to lay bricks like the ladies in your picture!

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    1. Or go down the mines :((

      I pray that one finds you that suits your family and meets your families needs.

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  2. If you look even further back in history, the lady of leisure is almost unheard of except in royal and rare high society situations. Most women had to work throughout history, even if it was 'only' working to provide food and clothing for her family/household. Think of Bible times - women cooked some of the food (Sarah baked bread), could be a shepherdess (Rachel), made cloth/cloth dyes and clothing (Prov 31 woman, Dorcas, Lydia), and may have done things like tent-making (Priscilla) and so on. Women have always worked (except in special situations), it's just a matter of WHERE they worked - at home or elsewhere. The Proverbs 31 woman did both - she planted a vineyard, bought and sold land, made cloth and sold it to merchants, plus she provided everything and worked for her own household. I think a main difference was that she didn't work for corporations, but rather in her own business (eg. making cloth and selling it) or for/with her own family. This was God's plan - God didn't plan for women to be lazy ladies of leisure - that produces women who tend to gossip and cause trouble.

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    1. The whole history of how workplaces have changed is fascinating. As soon as people set up business (such as the cotton or match factories) and ran them to make profits (especially during the Industrial Revolution), people became secondary to money and wealth. This is why so many people (sadly women and children) were injured and died or became disabled, because no one really cared about them and their welfare. It took many decades before we saw improves to health and safety and even longer to put a stop to discrimination in the workplace (still a work in progress).

      Interestedly, often it’s the corporations who have better practices in place for workers compared to small business, who sometimes gets away with things they never should. Many corporations also have much more flexible hours and their maternity programmes are often far friendly to women.

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  3. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. :)

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  4. Great post! Sadly today there is an either--or attitude. Either you pursue a career, and are expected to fit into the "man's world" and lose all traces of domesticity out of striving for something ostensibly better and more fufilling or out of financial necessity, or be the domestic ideal as homemaker of 1950's lore. There is not a whole lot of room in our quasi-socialist society for the family as a unit, working together for the prosperity of society. I think the victorian ideal that was so popular was a desperate attempt to reclaim or salvage what was becoming lost of the home and family, though what in reality happened was that the family ideal became distorted and younger generations-- including my own, have much confusion regarding what it means to be a family, to be a man or a woman. Reading this article has helped clarify some things for me. Thanks!

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    1. There is no “one-fit” for all families. Each family needs to work out what is best for them and not be concerned about what others are doing. Those hardworking women of the past were just doing what was best for their families, not any differences to what we do today as that is all we all should be doing.

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  5. Interesting post about women in the workplace. It gives a whole new perspective of working women today. Thanks for sharing on Small Victories Sunday link up.

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    1. Thank for visiting:)) I think I prefer being a working woman of today than 150 years ago in those horrible factories. In fishing villages it was the women who did all the scaling of the fish, now that would be a terrible job :((

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  6. Hi Jo, thank you for sharing this post with us at Good Morning Mondays. It was interesting to read and I agree that it would have been awful to have to work down mines and scale fish. I also agree that it is good that we women have a choice now but I would just say that I hope that the choices made are made with our husbands or fathers (if unmarried) approval. I have been in the work force and had young children and it was something I instigated and I still regret that decision. I regret that I didn't trust God enough and thought that I could get us out of financial difficulties by going back to work. I also feel that it is not my place to judge others for what they do and I believe that each family should go to God for their guidance. I agree that we have a "glorious" opinion about women back in the 1800's swanning around but yes it must have been hard work for the women that had to do the work so that they could swan around. What a wonderful informative post. Blessings

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    1. Thanks Terri - it is interesting to look back through history and learn about these things. Have you every watched the Victorian Farm, Tudor Farm, Wartime Farm from the BBC? These are very educational not just for teens but I love them as an adult as you learn so much about life at these times. They show what life was like at the time and cover a 12 month calendar on the farm both from the male perspective and the female as well. I love them!!

      Trusting the Lord is the key to everything and the job I currently have to perfect for us, not because I found it, but because the Lord found it for me - it arrived at the right time and fits our family so well.

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  7. Thanks Jo, no I haven't seen these shows but will definitely have a look at them. Blessings to you.

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    1. Well worth watching, I had to buy mine from Amazon - pity we don't Iive closer. Perhaps your library have them?

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