Spinning a golden yarn

The First Industrial Woman
February 16, 1996

For most of this century, historians have been questioning each others' assessments of the effects of the industrial revolution on the working people of Britain. There now seems to be a stand-off position between optimists and pessimists, in which each side recognises some of the opponent's arguments and eschews too many ex post facto judgements. Deborah Valenze comes down firmly and unequivocably on the side of the pessimists. "After 1750," she writes, "the situation of the vast majority of the labouring classes worsened." For women, the subject of her study, this was even more the case than for men.

At the first women's history conference I attended, in 1970, I was attacked on all sides for suggesting that women working within the domestic system of industry had more authority and more control over their lives than factory workers. Today, the pendulum seems to have swung so far in the other direction that it seems necessary to point out a few of the many shortcomings of life in a home workshop, and also to recall the very short-term nature of some of the boom periods of the early industrial period. Senta dreaming among her maidens in the spinning chamber is a golden picture, the weaver's wife submerging bobbins in urine and drawing off the surplus liquid through a straw before putting the bobbin in the shuttle was more typical and considerably less lyrical.

This is a very short book, while the subject is enormous. The result is an essay in interpretation rather than a new account, and like all such essays it raises questions rather than answers them. Valenze looks most closely at three of the main occupations in which 18th century women engaged - dairying, textile manufacture and field agriculture. These studies are accompanied by a consideration of the nonindustrial occupation in which most full-time women workers were employed as the 19th century progressed, domestic service.

Historians and anthropologists have noted that, from corn milling onwards, manufacturing processes usually transferred from female to male labour when they moved away from the home. Valenze demonstrates the process of industrialisation and its accompanying masculinisation in a study of cheesemaking and in the transfer of spinning from a hand-operated cottage occupation for women to a male-dominated factory trade, which in both cases involved changes of technique and vocabulary as well as gender. Women were left with more time and space for the unpaid domestic tasks of the household and for such part-time paid work as could be combined with household duties.

The kind of home work available to women seems certainly to have become less skilled and less rewarding financially as the 19th century progressed. Washing, sewing, knitting, mending, looking after lodgers and babies of working mothers, taking part in the manufacture and recycling of cheap clothing and cheap shoes - these and other piece-work tasks were done at home by urban women, many working in sweatshop conditions. The sort of work available did represent a loss of authority and of the shared family work experience which must have been an important element in the domestic life of cottage workers and small farmers.

The continued apparent need for all but the wives of the better-off and regularly employed workmen to perform this low-paid work demonstrates the fact that the ideal of a working man's wage which could support a wife and family was rarely achieved.

But was the ideal, as Valenze and some other feminist writers suggest, itself some kind of male plot to drive women back into the kitchen and establish male hegemony for ever? Did women want full-time work for themselves outside the home, or did they themselves consider that a man's wage should support his family?

Although the concept of gender is a valuable one, by displacing the word "sex" it sometimes appears to banish the fact of sex and reproduction, and to bring all women into a single category. Marriage and cohabitation are, after all, not only about wages and domestic economy but are about sex and the birth and raising of children. Most women of childbearing age during the industrial revolution could expect to spend many months and years either pregnant, recovering from birth, miscarriage or abortion, breast-feeding babies or caring for and training little children.

The underlying feminist agenda too often here seems to be the ideal of a two-waged partnership working outside the home, equally rewarded and equally respected as units of production. Questions of sexual and familial relationships, from the dangers of what is now called sexual harassment to the particular needs of women of childbearing age, get no mention at all in this study. If the ideal of a working man's wage which could provide a simple but healthy life was rarely achieved, the ideal of a family in which both parents work full-time outside the home is equally rare, even two centuries after the years covered by this book.

A subject of such breadth, treated in such a small space is bound to contain generalisations. One irritating habit is the use of the term "Victorian" to denote, usually pejoratively, the views of a section of the 18th and 19th-century middle classes. It is not the case that "The Victorians" were ashamed of factory girls and lacked a vocabulary to praise them. The hortatory voices of Hannah More and Parson Malthus are given far too much weight, with too little attention given to the many voices raised in opposition.

This book is to be welcomed as a brave contribution to the study of a complex subject, one on which however a lot more remains to be said.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

The First Industrial Woman

Author - Deborah Valenze
ISBN - 0 19 508981 2 and 508982 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 251

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