Changes in Women‟s Roles during the Industrial Revolution
Russellville High School
NEH Seminar 2006
The industrial revolution of 1750-1850 C.E. is well known for its transformation
of England‟s economic sector from agrarian to urban manufacturing. The transition from
the family economy of agricultural England to a family wage economy of a more
urbanized England facilitated shifts in work patterns in the types of employment;
however, continuity is reflected in the woman‟s ultimate goal of the family‟s survival.
Changes in gender roles were directly correlated to the life cycles of women.
Eighteenth century life in England and France was mostly rural with agriculture
as the main mode of production but family‟s also participated in domestic production
such as spinning and weaving. By 1750, seventy-five percent of France‟s economy was
based on agriculture and seventy-five percent of England‟s (12). In the attempt to
increase profits, many landowners began fencing in or e nclosing large areas in which to
raise sheep for their valuable wool. As a result, English peasants were pushed off the
land they previously farmed in order to support their families. “Thus an amazing number
of people have been reduced from a comfortable state of partial independence to the
precarious condition of hirelings.” (15) This is the first evidence of the loss of individual
and familial autonomy. Men and women became subject to the propertied class. They
had no choice but to become a new breed of hired agricultural laborers who were paid
wages by the large landowners.
Cottage industries coexisted with agricultural labor as many worked within the
home to produce cloth for merchant entrepreneurs in order to supplement the family
income. Like agricultural laborers, they were also paid wages in cash. In spite of these
changes, the hearth remained the center of family activity. Families were still a
productive unit that could exercise control over the pace and organization of production
(14). However with the transition to wage labor, work increasingly defined each family
member separately. Whereas rural economies were based on family members working to
support one another with cash and/or in exchange for food, wages meant specialized and
clear divisions of labor for survival. Instead of what could be produced, a family‟s
survival became dependent upon the need for wages. This “family wage economy” was
characterized not by shared production but by shared consumption (15).
Whether it was childbearing or childrearing, the stage of a woman‟s life cycle
defined her role within the family wage economy. Age, marital status, and occupation
were completely inseparable (31). The family of procreation naturally became the family
of orientation as children were born and directed toward their prescribed futures.
Consequently, two-thirds of a wife‟s married years involved reproduction (57). Women
were never given the opportunity nor allowed the freedom to choose their own future
because parents provided life‟s blueprint. A daughter‟s dowry was the necessary
component of entering into a marriage contract during the early industrial revolution.
Later when the family wage economy was in full force, dowries and heirlooms lost their
clout with potential suitors because women instead needed to bring to the marriage a
wage earning occupation.
Single women, whether very young or elderly, were always viewed as
economically dependent. Wages paid to females were one-half to one-third of the wages
paid to men, which made the notion of being single and economically independent
practically impossible. Marriage became their escape from this categorization and
provided them with greater security. A woman‟s income was not seen as “her” income
but as a supplement to the family economy. In the best circumstances, a woman was able
to work alongside her husband in an economic partnership or as a team such as spinner
and weaver respectively. In cities, many women acted as assistants to their husband‟s
trade. Ultimately if a woman failed to earn wages, she was seen as the cause of a
family‟s destitution (46).
The economic alliance of two wage earners was the most important goal for
young men and women. Marriage was the expected societal norm and the union between
a man and woman meant shared resources. The average age of marriage for females
was approximately twenty- four years and twenty-seven years for males. Marrying at a
later age meant fewer mouths to feed and most families averaged four or five children
(25). The potential number of wage earners within a family meant financial security.
However during the industrial revolution, children were only assets if their labor earned
wages. Within families the birth of a child was a temporary economic setback because
women could not combine domestic market activities with industrial work. An account
of the poor in London in 1908 illustrates the dilemma (105-106):
the household was full of young children who needed supervision, cost
money, and brought none in. Pregnancy and lactation diminished the
resources the wife could contribute. The man carried the common burden
practically alone. As the children grew, this situation improved; between
8 and 15 years of age, they stopped being a burden and became a
resource; now all hands were occupied, and as small as their wages might
be, they added a supplement to the budget that could not be disdained.
From the moment of birth, women took on the important responsibility of
managing the household and feeding their children. Peasant families knew that although
the father may be the main breadwinner, the woman was responsible for managing all the
resources to ensure the health and nutrition of her offspring. Providing food could mean
growing vegetables, tending chickens and goats or trying to bargain for the best food
prices at the market. In a peasant family, “the duties of the mother of the family were
overwhelming; they were summed up in one word: food.” (53) Working class women had
no choice but to work while trying to balance the family‟s production with consumption.
As children grew, they, too, were expected to contribute to the family wage economy.
Once children were able to do this, some mothers were able to manage the domestic
sphere full time.
Within cities, fathers with a specialization often taught their sons a specific trade.
Many became apprentices at a very young age and could earn a living in the family
business. If a daughter could not contribute to the family wage economy, they were often
sent elsewhere until they could. Oftentimes, young, unmarried females between fifteen
and upwards to the age of sixty- five became domestic servants (20). As soon as a family
member was old enough to sell his/her labor to support the family, they did so. Like rural
households, the family unit was preserved whenever it was economically feasible. Only
under duress, when the balance between wages and consumption was upset, were females
sent away to workhouses or other forms of servitude. Decisions were always made in
terms of the needs of the group versus the individual‟s. “They must work „to the best of
their ability‟ for „the prosperity of the family‟ and „for the designated heir‟” (21).
Sometimes this meant migrating into the city to seek employment. Families had to seek
relief in hard times and during food shortages. Desperate to restore the balance of
consumption, children were sometimes sent to workhouses such as the ones in Styal and
From a very young age, girls began helping their mothers within the home. As
soon as she was old enough, she was expected to earn wages. It was a common practice
for parents to send their daughters away from home to work for middle class families
who resided in cities where many young girls found work as domestic servants. In fact,
two-thirds of all domestic servants in England in 1851 were daughters of rural laborers
(108). Sending daughters to work in nearby cities meant fewer mouths to feed at home,
but it also meant additional income to the family wage economy. One daughter
explained her contribution in the following way (115):
What happiness, when I will have earned my first money to place it in my
mother‟s hands and say to her, “Yours Maman. It isn‟t much, but it will
It did not matter her age; females were always expected to contribute to ensure the
family‟s survival. In Caen, France, girls as young as five years worked in the lace
industry (35). One early eighteenth-century man who observed several families of wool
weavers in England noted:
The women and children carding or spinning, all employed from the
youngest to the oldest, scarce anything above four years old, but its Hands
were sufficient for its own support (32).
Increasing industrialization did not radically alter women‟s roles; it only changed
the location where she worked. The hearth began to fade with increased
mechanization and the emergence of factories. Factories required a large pool of
cheap labor to maximize profits and the capitalists tapped into the female labor
force. Women and children were the preferred employees because owners could
pay them the lowest wages and they were easily monitored. Several factory
owners built dorms to house young, single girls who moved into the cities
seeking work. Most employers preferred to hire single women because they were
more likely to “work steadily, for longer periods of time, and without
interruptions (126),” whereas married women may have to tend family
responsibilities or they may get pregnant need time off. “Young mill girls” or
“married operatives” became commonplace as factories became the new means in
which females could supplement the family wage economy (63). In 1838 a
British Parliament member reported the deplorable working conditions of a
textile factory (64):
Amongst other things I saw a cotton mill—a sight that froze my
blood. The place was full of women, young, all of them, some
large with child, and obliged to stand twelve hours each day. Their
hours are from five in the morning to seven in the evening, two
hours of that being for rest, so that they stand twelve clear hours.
The heat was excessive in some of the rooms, the stink pestiferous,
and in all an atmosphere of cotton flue. I nearly fainted. The
young women were all pale, sallow, thin, yet generally fairly
grown, all with bare feet—a strange sight to English eyes.
Textiles remained one of the largest employers of women in1851. In
England forty- five percent of all women worked in manufacturing and half
of the total numbers of females employed were textile operatives. Cotton
mills drew women into the factory system; however, it is important to note
that the putting-out system was not completely eradicated. Linen and wool
textiles remained a domestic industry and some women were able to earn
wages working in their homes. Domestic service also continued to employ
approximately forty percent of the female work force (68). Urban factories
were the largest employers of young and single women in many cities.
Textile factories were a catalyst for the growth of some cities and the table
below illustrates the importance of the female labor force in each (87):
TABLE 4-5. Female Labor Force in York, Roubaix and Anzin
Percentage of the Female Labor Force in
Women Workers as a % of Domestic Craft and Manufacturing
Females over 10 Service Shop
York 33.4 58.9 29.9 1.1
Roubaix 34.5 14.8 15.1 54.5 (textile)
Anzin 7.8 26.2 27.8 35.8 (of which
(1866) 23 % in mining)
SOURCES: Armstrong, Stability and Change, p. 45; 1872 sample of nominative list for
Roubaix; 1866 occupation summary of Anzin.
The industrial revolution changed the traditional family economy into the family
wage economy in which money was needed to pay for food and other expenses. The
need for wages changed the work patterns of women and their children. Although the
location of where women worked changed, her ultimate goal did not. Depending upon the
stage of her life, whether it be single, married, childbearing, or childrearing, her goal of
everyone else‟s survival was still the overriding force of each decision she made.
Source: Tilley, Louise and Joan Scott. Women, Work & Family (1978)