Women in the Industrial Revolution

Industrialization was necessary for the progression of the global economy, but to claim it’s immediate impact was positive on those involved is simply not true. The Industrial Revolution is a poorly planned facade, a Crystal Palace that cracks under the slightest scrutiny. If one takes the time to look past the gilded promise of mechanization, the refuse of society lay in plain sight. While the Industrial Revolution helped economic progress, it did so at the expense of the laborer. More than anything, the Industrial Revolution widened the gap between the people who have and the people who don’t. While upper-class men indulged in the exploits of the Industrial Revolution, the working class, specifically women, bore the weight in areas of productivity, nature of work, and life experience. It may have gotten countries to a place of relative economic prosperity, but when progress is put in front of people, the process is never a clean one.

Organizational and technological changes that occurred during the Industrial Revolution increased productivity, but at what cost? As machines began to replace domestic labor, many people found themselves out of work. Statistics in some industries reflected that one in three people would lose their profession to mechanized labor. The cloth merchants of Leeds sent a letter (1791) in response to the Leeds Woolen Worker’s Petition (1786), which was an attack on the use of machines in the workplace. They defended the use of machines by stating their necessity in order to compete in the global market and reassured the working class that over time, machines would contribute to an increase in wages and trade.

A promise was made. Those members of the parish of the industry would have job security if machines continued to decrease the need for human labor. Yet as one can see, around three years later a reformer comments on The Loss of Woolen Spinning (1794). The female-centric domestic profession of woolen spinning was effectively eradicated, despite the promise to maintain job security for parish members. While the loss of this profession had a drastic impact on family dynamics, it’s indicative of a larger problem. Heads of business used their position to spread misinformation or projected promises of the future that they have no right to claim as fact.

This trend is not exclusive to the Leeds Cloth merchants, it’s seen through Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufacturing (1835). Ure makes his money through owning factories which thus calls his credibility into question as he speaks on the benefits of mechanization in the workplace. He lobbies this philosophy to his colleagues, persuading them to advocate for mechanical advancement. But, the supports he uses for his argument are either completely erroneous or largely speculative. He makes claims regarding the “dangerous” working conditions of the household yet neglects to mention the rates of factory accidents or spread of disease in factories. Ure wants to paint himself as a philanthropist, but a man who advocates for the continuation of child labor and encourages peers to ignore the concerns of the poor is not promoting the welfare of others.

Rapid urbanization helped to fuel changes in societal structure that pushed laborers to the bottom of the hierarchy. In a capitalistic system, those with capital are king. This attitude manifested itself in many ways, but one of the most drastic was living conditions. Living conditions of the working class were ignored by those of a higher social standing. As Engles articulates in his Condition of the Working-Class in England (1844), working-class areas were distinctly separated from the rest of the city and were characterized by filth and poor urban planning. He speaks of streets ravaged by disease and pollution. Of houses crawling over one another for a breath of air and a chance at sunlight.

And while this may seem like an exaggeration, Engles is a credible source. His father was a leader in the manufacturing industry, so Engles has nothing to gain from shining a light onto the issues of the poor and everything to lose. He also has first-hand experience of the classist attitudes present in economically prosperous households. In Bentley’s Traditions and Encounters, we see proof of Engles’ observations. He confirms that urbanization brought about many changes that left the poor at a disservice, such as environmental pollution and lack of sanitation that led to the spread of diseases like cholera and typhus. And while wealthy people had the option to conduct their work in the city yet live in the suburbs away from urban discomforts, the poor were forced to live in poorly constructed tenement housing near their places of work.

Another social structure that was reformed was the family structure. As described in the Observations on The Loss of Woolen Spinning (1794), women were no longer able to contribute to the household economy from the household. This put increased pressure onto the patriarch as he now had to bear a greater percentage of the economic burden. Women now had even less agency. If their husband died, there was no longer a market for domestic products that women would formerly use to sustain themselves. Now, the solution to these economic problems seems simple. Women should work in the factories where their jobs are being moved to. And many women did this. But, there are certain expectations of a woman during the time period of the industrial revolution.

From Observations on The Loss of Woolen Spinning (1794), there is a clearly presented expectation of women which is that they both possess and pass on knowledge of domestic tasks. These expectations are further confirmed by Mrs. John Sandford’s Women and Their Social and Domestic Character (1833) where the argument is made that having a job (or any freedom at all) is unfeminine. A woman’s place is at this time still very much cemented in performing domestic roles. In this lies the contradiction of the Industrial Revolution for women: they are given an expectation of womanhood yet stripped of their ability to perform that expectation and berated when they try to make a living. Femininity and class are intertwined at this time. A working-class woman is defeminized since she can not afford the expectations projected onto her.

The nature of work during the Industrial Revolution also created an experience for working-class women that dehumanized and defeminized them. Although, as Chadwick stated in his Sanitation Reports (1842), some factories improved in areas of safety and sanitation, this was not an overarching trend. There were many factories and mines that continued to have egregious working conditions, the likes of which are described in Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845). Women, men, and children emerge from the mouths of mines, blackened from coal dust and weary from work. Disraeli comments that one could not tell the difference between a man and a woman since the women were using such a degree of profane language. Now while the purpose of Disraeli’s comments was to attack his political opponents’ hypocrisy and gain political support from the working class, he still caught women in the crossfire. He is outraged by the language used by the mothers of England, yet does nothing to combat their dehumanization. Men in his position use the working class to advance themselves and their countries, but turn a blind eye to their suffering.

The Industrial Revolution shaped the society we live in today, in more ways than one. While it advanced production and productivity, it did so at the expense of the laborers and fueled many classist and misogynistic attitudes still held today. If human impact is an afterthought in progress, then society does not really progress. In order to keep moving forward in a productive manner, all people need to be accounted for and heard. 

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