Role of Women in the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution swept through Europe and North America during the 19th century, affecting the class structure, economy, government, and even the religious practices of everyone who lived in or did commerce with these new “industrialized nations.” It made the modern age possible, but it was not without its “growing pains.” The position of women before the industrial revolution was often equivalent to chattel, and then as now, they were expected to take naturally to housework and child rearing.

The history of working women in the Industrial Revolution is rife with accounts of abuse and tragedy, but overall it improved their position in capitalist societies. Below, I will explain the different positions women held in society, the home, and the workplace during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, and compare them to history and to contemporary women.

Women in Victorian SocietyIt is important to remember that the Industrial Revolution came to a close with the end of the Victorian era. The technology of the industrial revolution (and the economy of colonialism) made a large amount of surplus consumer materials available. Cheap food and clothing improved the average quality of life of the working poor, allowing them to have more children who lived longer, creating a larger labor pool.

Larger families required mothers to work more hours in the home and out of it. This was reinforced in England and the US by the development of Victorian morality, which placed the ideal woman at the head of an ideal household, leading the moral life of the nation.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, women suffered from decreasing job opportunities, as “cottage industries” like textiles, cooking, and small goods manufacture became the province of big industries run and staffed by men. But towards the end of the 1850s, the growing industrial world had developed a hierarchy of jobs that were “gender-appropriate” based on a combination of stereotypes, market demands, and real differences in physical strength.

Although by the 1840s women represented 50 percent of factory workers in the shoe and textile industries, they rarely worked alongside men. Instead, they held jobs reserved exclusively for women, jobs whose low wages affirmed the belief that women’s work was less skilled than men’s and less important to family survival.

The trend towards delicate or weak women as ideals of beauty in the Victorian era (e.g., the corseted waist) was in part a contrast to the great strength and physical fortitude that average, working women had to display in order to survive and be employed in the Industrial Revolution.

Women in IndustryIn pre-Industrial Revolution America and Britain, women and girls performed much of the labor necessary for the survival for the small household, including the manufacture of yarn, cloth, candles, and food. By 1790, the availability of water-powered machinery such as spinning frames and carding machines enabled industrial magnates to substitute power tools for women’s hand labor in the manufacture of cloth. Similar inventions made homemade candles, jellies, and similar labor-intensive products obsolete.

Early women’s positions in industry included coal-pickers, spinning-machine operators, and outworkers for textile manufacturers. The exploitation of women, especially in their relationship with their children, was a common feature of all of these early positions. Women coal-pickers often worked side by side with their children in the mines, sorting coal into different grades and separating out any debris. This was the only way for them to watch over their children and make enough money to feed them, since public education was not universal.

Outwork, a staple of the early textile industry, allowed women with families to work from home, but the aggressive abuses of factory owners, cutting wages and raising piecework quotas, basically trapped women in a job with no limit on their working hours, forcing some to turn their homes into miniature factories and commandeer their children’s labor in spinning and sewing the piecework that supported the family.

Factory jobs, and later secretarial and seamstress jobs, were generally reserved for white, non-immigrant women in America, though there were few such restrictions in England, where slavery had been outlawed just prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

These jobs demanded constant attentiveness to repetitive and straining work that degraded women’s health both physically and psychologically. Factory work prevented these women from being eligible for marriage, and they often boarded at factory-owned houses that would report to management if they were seeing a man . Injuries from repetitive work were frequently untreated in that age when cholera and tuberculosis were still common.

Industrialized FamiliesTowards the end of the Industrial Revolution, there was a movement (supported mainly by Victorian idealists) towards establishing a “family wage” for “men’s work,” so that women could afford to leave the workforce and raise children, establishing the nuclear family as the essential unit of personal life in capitalist societies. This returned women to the status of child-bearers and indentured household help, in many cases, but after having tasted the world of wage-earning, many young women were able to support themselves for a few years between coming of age and acquiring a husband.

The ‘decay’ of society’s morals during the period when women first joined the workforce in droves (the early 1800s) was a time of female liberation, but it was also a time when the abuses of factory owners on women’s obligations to family and to survival threatened to create a new slave class both at home and in the workplace.

The return to “family values” at the end of the 1800s also coincided with the rise of the labor movement and of the public services movement, which created better disease control in cities and inspired public-schooling bills in many European nations and in the US. The Industrial Revolution took advantage of child labor at the beginning, but ended with the passage of child labor laws in almost all countries whose economy was factory-driven.

As mentioned above, children in the families of factory or mine workers were often found working in the same factory or mine as their parents, or they were sent out to earn extra wages for the family. For families living in mine or factory “towns,” such as were found frequently in the Northern US during the early 1800s, husbands and wives and children were housed in poor conditions and isolated from any source of supplies other than the “company store,” where many families ran up considerable debts that often exceeded their wage-earning capacity.

This created a new variety of indentured servitude that was one of the main motivations behind the labor movement.

ConclusionWomen’s lives changed drastically in the Industrial Revolution, whether they stayed home and benefited from new advances in consumer-goods technology, or if they worked factory jobs. The opportunities that industrialization offered women carried the same risks to health and happiness as those offered to working men, but they also brought about a sea change in social acceptance of women’s self-sufficiency and weakened the concept of woman as home- and baby-maker.

Although tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the exploitative practices of the Industrial Revolution affected women in negative ways that even now, the current economy has not fully eradicated, it was the first in a series of huge steps that gave gender equality considerable momentum.