Women industrial workers explain their economic situation




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Enlightenment and Revolution

WOMEN INDUSTRIAL WORKERS EXPLAIN THEIR ECONOMIC SITUATION

In 1832, there was much discussion in the British press about factory legislation. Most of that discussion was concerned with the employment of children, but the Examiner newspaper made the suggestion that any factory laws should not only ad­dress the problem of child labor, but also, in time, eliminate women from employ­ment in factories. That article provoked the following remarkable letter to the editor, composed by or on behalf of women factory workers, which eloquently stated the real necessity of such employment for women and the unattractive alternatives.

What are the reasons these women enumerate to prove the necessity of their hold­ing manufacturing jobs! What changes in production methods have led women from the home to the factory! How does the situation of these women relate to the possibility of their marrying! Compare the plight of these English working-class women with that of the French middle-class woman in the next document.

Sir,

Living as we do, in the densely populated manu­facturing districts of Lancashire, and most of us be­longing to that class of females who earn their bread either directly or indirectly by manufactories, we have looked with no little anxiety for your opinion on the Factory Bill.... You are for doing away with our services in manufactories altogether. So much the better, if you had pointed out any other more el­igible and practical employment for the surplus fe­male labour, that will want other channels for a subsistence. If our competition were withdrawn, and short hours substituted, we have no doubt but the effects would be as you have stated, "not to lower wages, as the male branch of the family would be enabled to earn as much as the whole had done," but for the thousands of females who are em­ployed in manufactories, who have no legitimate claim on any male relative for employment or sup­port, and who have, through a variety of circum­stance, been early thrown on their own resources for a livelihood, what is to become of them?

In this neighbourhood, hand-loom has been al­most totally superseded by power-loom weaving, and no inconsiderable number of females, who must depend on their own exertions, or their parishes for support, have been forced, of necessity into the manufactories, from their total inability to earn a livelihood at home.

It is a lamentable fact, that, in these parts of the country, there is scarcely any other mode of em­ployment for female industry, if we except servi­tude and dressmaking. Of the former of theseA there is no chance of employment for or^twentiethrof the candidates that would rush into the field, to slay nothing of lowering the wages of our sisters of the same craft; and of the latter, galling as sortie of the hardships of manufactories are (of which the hidel* icacy of mixing with the men is not the least}, yet there are few women who have been so employed, that would change conditions with the ill-used genteel little slaves, who have to lose sleep ahd health, in catering to the whims and frivolities of the butter-flies of fashion.

We see no way of escape from starvation, but to accept the very tempting offers of the newspapers, held out as baits to us, fairly to ship ourselves off to Van Dieman's Land [Tasmania] on the very deli­cate errand of husband hunting, and having safely arrived at the "Land of Goshen," fump ashore, with a "Who wants me?" ...

The Female Operatives ofTodihorden

From The Examiner, February 26,1832, as quoted in Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the IndustrialMevohttim, 175O-4850 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1969), pp. 199-200.

who were sent to work. This may help explain the increase in the number of births within marriages, as children in the wage economy usually were an economic asset. Married women worked outside the home only when family needs, illness, or the death of a spouse forced them to do so.

In the home, working-class women were by no means idle. Their domestic duties were an essential factor in the family wage economy. If work took place elsewhere, someone had to be directly in charge of maintaining the home front. Homemak-ing came to the fore when a life at home had to be

Chapter 22 / Economic Advance and Social Unrest (1830-1850)

A YOUNG MIDDLE-CLASS FRENCHWOMAN WRITES TO HER FATHER ABOUT MARRIAGE

Stephanie fullien was a young middle-class woman whose father wished her to marry a man who was courting her. She had already rejected one suitor, and her fa­ther was greatly concerned about her future. In this letter, she explains to her father the matters that disturb her and make her wish to delay her decision. Ultimately, she did marry the man in question, and the marriage appears to have been happy.

How does Stephanie fullien distinguish between the vocational and social oppor­tunities available to a woman and those to a man! What are her expectations of a relationship with a husband! What does the letter also tell you about her sense of her relationship to her father! Compare this letter with the preceding letter by Eng­lish working-class women. What problems do the women share! How are their lives different! What does a comparison of the two letters tell you about the difference in class experience in the early nineteenth century!

"VTou men have a thousand occupations to dis-X tract you: society, business, politics, and work absorb you, exhaust you, upset you. ... As for us women who, as you have said to me from time to time, have only the roses in life, we feel more pro­foundly in our solitude and in our idleness the suf­ferings that you can slough off. I don't want to make a comparison here between the destiny of man and the destiny of woman: each sex has its own lot, its own troubles, its own pleasures. I only want to explain to you that excess of moroseness of which you complain and of which I am the first to suffer. ... I am not able to do anything for my­self and for those around me. I am depriving my brothers in order to have a dowry. I am not even able to live alone, being obliged to take from oth­ers, not only in order to live but also in order to be protected, since social convention does not allow me to have independence. And yet the world finds me guilty of being the only person that I am at lib­erty to be; not having useful or productive work to do, hot having any calling except marriage, and not being able to look by myself for someone who will suit.me, I am full of cares and anxieties. ...

I am asking for more time [before responding to a marriage proposal]. It is not too much to want to see and know a man for ten months, even a year when it is a matter of passing one's life with him. There is no objection to make, you say. But the most serious and the most important presents itself: I do not loye him. Don't think I am talking about a romantic and im­possible passion or an ideal love, neither of which I ever hope to know. I am talking of a feeling that makes one want to see someone, that makes his ab­sence painful and his return desirable, that makes one interested in what another is doing, that makes one want another's happiness almost in spite of one­self, that makes, finally, the duties of a woman to­ward her husband pleasures and not efforts. It is a feeling without which marriage would be hell, a feel­ing that cannot be born out of esteem, and which to me, however, seems to be the very basis of conjugal happiness. I can't feel these emotions immedi­ately. ... Let me have some time. I want to love, not out of any sense of duty, but for myself and for the happiness of the one to whom I attach my life, who will suffer if he only encounters coldness in me, when he brings me love and devotion.
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