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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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‘Not only is women’s work never done, the definition keeps changing’

The term ‘Women’s work’ can be defined both as work done by women and work that is traditionally domestic in nature. Women have always worked; whether in agriculture, as seamstresses, as domestic servants; they have been celebrated as Queens, authors, activists and politicians. This dissertation will explore the evolution of women’s position in society as defined by their career choices and their professions, and to analyze the historiography of this transformation over time. The scope of this dissertation is from roughly 1850 until around 1950: for the United Kingdom, this hundred-year period has been exemplified by three major cultural, societal and industrial upheavals – the industrial revolution and two World Wars. For women, these three events brought about major changes to their place in society and the workforce.

Chapter One will discuss the Factory Acts, or Protective Labor Legislation (PLL), the arguments for and against the legislation in terms of both contemporary views and the opinions of historians who have examined the experiences of the men and women who campaigned for it and against it, and those men and women that it affected. There are allusions to the argument on whether the legislation had patriarchal origins or began from a desire to strengthen social hierarchical boundaries, but as this debate is not the main focus of the chapter, the discussion will not go into too much detail. PLL has been argued as both a positive and a negative outcome of the nineteenth century for women, with historians such as Miriam Glucksmann argue that, despite the negative connotations or experiences, increasing wages and a safer workplace meant that the Factory Acts were favorable towards women. Others, such as Norbert Soldon, argue that contemporary women such as Emma Paterson opposed the legislation, for ‘the result was oppression rather than protection’ – a view echoed by historians such as Jane Lewis and Frieda Fuchs. The chapter will argue that despite the positive outcomes that may have occurred such as higher wages, the morality of the arguments for legislation is questionable.

The focus of Chapter two is occupational segregation. It will aim to investigate the progress women have made over a hundred years in terms of professions – from textile workers to doctors and prime ministers, women’s career opportunities have advanced both as individuals and as a gender. By exploring and analyzing works by Ellen Jordan, Timothy Hatton, Judy Lown and Julia Wedgewood, this chapter will discuss how ‘women’s work’ has changed over several decades, examining ‘reclassification’ as viewed by different individuals, and how the separate spheres ideology has dictated the position of women in the workplace and thus the different jobs they have undertaken across a century.

Chapter three will focus on what could be considered one of the largest forms of gender inequality that exists in the United Kingdom, the gender pay gap. In essence, this phenomenon concerns inequality of pay for equal work, considering the effect of part-time work, classification of jobs, and the sectors in which women find themselves working- the ‘women’s work’ such as the care sector or administration. This segment will use raw data and historiographical analysis to identify the reasons for, and effect of, this gender gap in pay. Through analysis by works by Joyce Burnett, Ian Gazeley, Heidi Hartmann and Eric Taylor, the chapter will conclude that there was tremendous change throughout the hundred year period studied, but that unfortunately, progression in the reduction of the gender pay gap did not necessarily mean that women were close to equality. Arthur Marwick argues that the world wars served to help women’s equality – he believed that there was ‘the total destruction of all the old arguments about women's proper place in the community, which both men and women had previously raised against any moves towards political and social equality for women’. However, considering that the Equal Pay Act was not active until 1975 – 30 years after the end of the war, this dissertation will consider whether Ian Gazeley’s opinion that the wars were vital in assisting perception of women in the workplace, yet ‘male craft unions pushed for women to be paid the ‘rate for the job’, but simultaneously endorsed women’s employment in the male sphere on a temporary, ‘wartime only’ basis’, could be considered more apt.

Although the key events of the period affected women in a positive way, the trajectory has not been consistently upward. They put them in situations they had never experienced before, allowed them to confront occupations they had never had the chance to before, and society moved with them – for a time. Despite the upward shifts in women’s pay, women’s job opportunities, and women’s position in society, often these peaks reverted into pre-event levels. After the upheaval of PLL and the industrial revolution, women were left fighting for the right to vote. After WWI, women were made redundant and driven back towards the home. After WWII, similar things happen, and it is not until the 1960s and 1970s that perhaps more long lasting changes start to come into effect.

The ideology of ‘separate spheres’ – the ideas that women belong in the ‘private sphere’, or the home, and men in the ‘public sphere’, or out at work – is a large focus of this dissertation, as it is something that plays a large part in the societal beliefs upheld in the late Nineteenth century, be it in name or in actions. The concept will be discussed further in the dissertation.

The motivation behind this dissertation is the need to understand the major and minor events that have affected women’s position in the workplace, and their standing in society over a century. When considering women and work, legislation such as the Equal Pay Act, and the Sexual Discrimination Act are often at the forefront of esoteric thinking – yet forces have been in play for a much longer period of time. In order to truly understand where women stand today, it is vital to understand the ideological beliefs and experiences that brought us here. Inspired by economic indicators such as PWC’s ‘Women in Work Index’, which in 2014 placed the UK 16th out of 33 OECD countries and the WEF Global Gender Gap Index 2014, in which the UK ranked 26 out of 142 countries, this dissertation intends to study three large ‘case studies’, as described above. However, it is the cultural and societal foundations that motivated this dissertation, not research into theoretical economics. Numerous historians, economic historians and economists have researched the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, politics and women – and it is through works by Penny Summerfield, Judy Lown, Heidi Hartmann, Ian Gazeley and Arthur Marwick that this dissertation found its scope and specific subject matter. Lown’s extensive research into the Courtauld factory helped to motivate research into the separate spheres ideology, and how industrialization could be seen not only as a hugely developmental time for industry and technology, but also for women. Summerfield’s numerous works on women in both world wars have provided engaging interpretations of historical records and data, that this dissertation has used to explore different intriguing aspects of women’s history, in conjunction with Gazeley’s meticulous analysis of wage data.

Primary sources are an incredibly valuable source of data, especially when it comes to analyzing the societal and cultural impacts on the work place that PLL, WWI and WWII had for women. In 1791, Mary Wollstonecraft published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, arguing that women deserve the same fundamental rights as men, in 1857, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon published ‘Women and Work’, maintain that ‘women must have work if they are to form equal unions. Work will enable women to free themselves from petty characteristics’, in 1861 John Stuart Mill published ‘The Subjection of Women’, declaring that female oppression harmed society, and that ‘the legal subordination of one sex to the other — [which] is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality’. These were taken as a basis for the extension of research into contemporary opinions on women and workplace in the nineteenth century, using newspapers, journals, and works by renowned social reformist Beatrice Webb, poet Coventry Patmore, and Sylvia Plath to discover a wider range of views. In the twentieth century, statistical databases are key to information on the gender pay gap, official histories and governmental social surveys such as those by Audrey Hunt and Peggy Inman and social explorations on personal experiences from Sylvia Pankhurst have been utilized by this dissertation to examine and analyze societal effects of a changing culture.

There is not one singular question that this dissertation intends to answer. Instead, it is an exploration into cause and effect, society, culture, statistics and interpretation, balancing the positives and negatives of legislative, political and even military decisions, as to how the position of working women has developed over the course of a century.

Chapter One

Protective Labor Legislation in the Nineteenth Century: more harm than good?

The rapid automation of production in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution brought with it challenges in terms of worker safety and employment. Women and children were the most exposed to harmful and dangerous conditions, with a concomitant effect on their ‘life chances’. There was a groundswell of opinion that workers needed to be protected from the new dangers, and politicians responded with a series of new laws that sought to address the reality of the emerging workplace environment.

Initially, the Factory Acts focused on children. The 1833 Factory Act restricted their working hours to nine hours a day for those between nine and thirteen, and twelve hours for under eighteens. Graham’s Act of 1844 was the first to address conditions for women, limiting their hours to twelve hours on weekdays and nine on Sundays, as well as prohibiting them from cleaning moving machinery. In 1847 Lord Russell’s Whig administration introduced the Ten Hour Act’, further reducing women’s working day. Legislation continued, with the 1850 ‘Compromise Act’ confining working hours for women and children to between 6am and 6pm, and total hours for women were limited to 56 in the 1878 Factory and Workshop Act.   The 1891 Act stopped the employment of women within four weeks of childbirth.

This Chapter considers the political and societal philosophies behind the legislation, and contemporaneous and historiographical opinions of the legislation, seen by many as discriminatory, misogynistic, and limiting of economic opportunity. The actual outcomes; the protection from danger, opportunities for education, and eventual increase in wages others would position as worthwhile outcomes irrespective of motivation for protective labor legislation. Miriam Glucksmann argues that it is these outcomes of the Factory Acts that ‘take precedence over the laws’ defects and discriminatory aspects’. Others consider the legislation discriminatory, misogynistic, and limiting of economic opportunity.

The roots of the PLL of the late Nineteenth Century lie in the ‘paternalist’ philosophy of the (invariably men) in power at the time. ‘Paternalists’ sought to place themselves in loco parentis for women in the workplace, not to give them rights and responsibilities, but to limit their authority for  ‘their own good’. They saw protective labor legislation as a bulwark against the ‘loose sexual morality’ of female factory workers, and any corresponding decline in family values’. Men such as Lord Shaftesbury and Benjamin Disraeli believed that if women worked shorter hours, they would have time to attend to domestic duties, and so hoped to endorse traditional family values, challenging the new gender roles and values that were introduced through industrialization. Expansion of the workplace through industrialization allowed women to move from traditional roles as housewives and mothers to become valuable independent wage earners, a by-product of industrialization that paternalists like Lord Shaftesbury wanted to control. Shaftesbury’s reasoning for this was that:

 In the male the moral effects of the system are very mad, but in the female they are infinitely worse, not alone upon themselves, but upon their families, upon society, and I may add, upon the country itself. It is bad enough if you corrupt the man, but if you corrupt the woman, you poison the waters of life at the very fountain

Men such as Shaftesbury and Benjamin Disraeli believed that restricted working hours for women were essential to avoid dilution of traditional family values, ensure time for domestic duties, and confront the challenge to traditional gender roles and values brought about by industrialization.

Whilst Shaftesbury’s argument is clearly of its time, it is easy to see how feminists could view this moral argument as misogynistic and offensive, questioning women’s suitability to work with men, their right to choose where to work, and their ability to survive in the ‘evil’ factory system. This dissertation argues that this loss of authority over their own lives was a key cause in the opposition to the Factory Acts, augmented by the constant insinuations that women were weak, and in need of protection from men.

These conservative politicians disliked the new possibilities for women in the lower strata of society to become independent wage earners, and leave their traditional roles as mothers and wives. This analysis has led to the conclusion that politicians wanted to eradicate the ‘evils of the factory system’, viewing women (and children) as ‘too weak’ to negotiate with their employers for better wages and working conditions on their own behalf.

This facet of the argument for limiting the working hours and broader participation of women in industry; the paternalist view, is reflected in contemporary periodicals: ‘it is therefore, quite evident, that the only way to restore the profits and thereby the comforts and morals, of the working classes, is by enabling them to gain more wages by less labor’, a view that at least suggested pay rates should be improved by limiting working hours and workplaces. But resistance came also from male workers, according to Humphries, although she suggests that such reported resistance could be ‘designed to exploit middle class opinion in either the workers’ fight to wrench protective labor legislation from a recalcitrant capitalist state, or the male working class’ struggle to prevent competition from women workers’. What was seen as a moral issue by some was an economic one for others.

There are many contributing factors to the argument against women’ employment, some of which Humphries dissects, including paternalists’ use of moral arguments to limit the hours and participation of women. Considering the primary evidence examined above, it is clear that it was believed that in order to repair the moral conditions of the working classes, working hours had to be limited.

These views fed into, and were represented by, the societal philosophy of ‘separate spheres’, a widely held belief that quite simply, men and women occupied complementary but incontrovertible roles in society. An article in 1891 describes women’s purpose in life as:

To educate not only children but men; to train to a high civilization, not the rising generation merely, but the actual society, and to do this by utilizing the spirit of education, of self restraint, of self sacrifice, of fidelity and purity

The article continues:

There was in woman a like intelligence, activity and passion like and measure, and this worked best in the home – that was to say, the sphere in which women acted at their highest was the family, and the side on which they were strongest was affection. On the other hand, the sphere where man acted at their highest was in public, in industry

This characterization exemplifies patriarchy at its finest, and correlates with the evidence discussed in this dissertation. This delineation of the separate spheres – women in the home, men as the breadwinners – is a prime example of the contemporary male supremacy views, and. legislation was in effect both patriarchal and hierarchical; as middle and upper-class men sought to regulate the lives of working class women.

It is reasonable to suggest that during this period society at large still considered women second class citizens, and whilst traditional work within the home was acceptable, factory work was not, which chimes with the Paternalist view. Friedrich Engels stated that women were purposely excluded from production processes and thus forced into the ‘private sphere’ of domestic life. These ideas pertained throughout the twentieth century, with women being denied access to ‘non feminine’ careers and professions, such as science and engineering.

if it can be argued that much of what motivated the progenitors of PLL was preservation of the status quo in the guise of ‘protection’ of working women, much of the opposition to the legislation is based on the same argument. Conditions in factories were rarely entirely safe or healthy, but women did not necessarily seek special treatment as  ‘vulnerable members’ of society’ Shorter hours for female mill and textile workers were a real step forward, but regarded by feminists and laissez-faire economists as discriminatory and paternalistic . Feminist critics argued that this lowered women’s income and restricted access to overtime or additional work. This, they believed, combined with mandated maternity benefits to enable employers to lower wages or even substitute labor:  it was suggested by Ronnie Steinberg Ratner that PLL would not only cause economic losses to women, but also potentially give employers an incentive to hire men.

Suggesting that women were ‘special legal subjects’ who could not enter into labor contracts of their own free will, exacerbated the discriminatory effect of limiting their work hours. A logical conclusion is that view of female labor as inferior, with limited availability, protected from hazards and with maternity demands led to their channeling into lower paying jobs and even exclusion from some industries.

According to Elizabeth Hutchins and Amy Harrison, the nineteenth century feminist opposition to the PLL stemmed from middle class women who

 “made the mistake of transferring their own grievance to a class whose troubles are little known and less understood by them; in supposing that why they pined to spend themselves in some ‘intolerable toil of thought’, Mary Brown or Jane Smith should also pine to spend herself in fourteen hours a day washing or tailoring”.

Beatrice Webb predates Harrison and Hutchins, but echoes the same sentiment – that any resistance to the legislation did not come from working women, who had declared themselves in favor of factory legislation without the power to obtain it, but middle class women, who did not need it, but were in a position to prevent it. However, this judgment that the bulk of opposition to PLL came from the middle class is contradicted by Hutchins and Harrison themselves, as they discuss how the British Working Women’s Protective and Providence League lobbied the government not to expand the scope of legislation to laundresses. The title of the union itself suggests that they were fighting for the working class, not the middle class.

These women were viewed as ‘progressives’, promoting protective legislation through union participation and working as factory inspectors. This extends into a class debate – Angela John suggests that the working class women often had little voice, whilst the middle class pressured them into advocating regulation. Heidi Hartmann believes that labor law shows the pre-eminence of patriarchy over class divisions., arguing that men persisted in their promotion of protective legislation so as to retain both their domestic and economic dominance over women. Both views have validity, with a regime founded in paternalism beginning to cross different levels of social hierarchy, as middle class activists joined the battle.

Even though the organization of labor followed organically from the increase in mechanization, evidence is rare of consistent organization of female workers outside textile unions – although a reporter described women’s organization in trade unions as ‘more menacing to established institutions than the education of the lower orders’. The Women’s Protective and Provident League, founded in 1875 by Emma Paterson, represented dressmakers, bookbinders and typists amongst others, and forcefully criticized restrictive factory legislation. Their opposition was based on the fact that, first and foremost, women should have the same rights as men to do any job and work whichever hours they pleased.

Sarah Boston asserts that this argument comes principally from their experience as middle class women. Having been denied the right to work, further constraints on working conditions were an insult. She quotes a woman as saying ‘all that I wish to maintain is that these points are best left to the discretion of the women themselves, to be decided by their convenience, and that of the trades in which they are engaged, and by the action of the Unions by which their interests should be protected’. Another argued that it was a ‘monstrous thing, that a woman not being an idiot or a lunatic should be interfered with where an adult man’s labor was not ‘. Objections to PLL were not all rooted, unlike these, in the struggle for women’s rights, or indeed the rights of all women. This middle class antipathy serves to demonstrate the intricacy of social and gender divisions.

The evidence above discusses, in essence, PLL and its impact on working women. The study of craft guilds, trade unions and protective leagues could be considered analogues with these analyses; organizations often focused on either the side of the traditionalist evangelicals, or in opposition to the PLL. Throughout history, feminist critics of PLL saw limiting women’s work hours as promoting male workers, and during both world wars governments promoted substituting women for men to suit the needs of the country – rather than for the sake of women’s equality.

Many men of the time viewed PLL as a positive outcome of activism over the previous century. Some suggest that this was self-interest: Barbara Hutchins and Amy Harrison claim that male textile workers were “hiding behind women’s petticoats”, supporting the reduction in hours from ten in the 1840s and nine in the 1870s so as to secure benefits for themselves. However, it could also be suggested that they supported this legislature because it allowed them to protect the vulnerable. An article in 1844 discussing the ten hours bill stated that:

it was said that the legislature had no right to interfere in the bargains between employers and the employed; and that this would be true if the employed could protect themselves – but were factory women and children capable of protecting themselves?

This view of the PLL, designed and implemented by men, and opposed, in the main by women (although without any real evidence of the views the women actually affected) nonetheless needs to take into account its actual outcomes.

Beatrice Webb argued that “any extension of Factory legislation to trades at present unregulated must diminish the demand for women’s labor” – since it was the “factory system which provides the great market for women’s labor”. The increased opportunities of industrialization were counterbalanced by legislated restrictions.

Critics such as Reinhard Bendix and Mary Lynn Stewart argue with justification that protective policies obstructed women’s abilities to compete with men for higher paying occupations, aggravating women’s concentration in lower paying jobs.  Labor legislation protected women and promoted workplace equality, with consequences impacting directly on women’s labor opportunities, pushing women into the informal sector, and pressuring firms to participate in discriminatory hiring practices. Bendix and Stewart could be considered correct, but evidence suggests that women and men rarely competed for the same jobs. Further, Clementina Black suggested that PLL made little impact even after its ratification, as women were already a cheap source of labor – in 1892 she laments this fact, stating that ‘the pay of women factory workers is distressingly low. Roughly – very roughly – it may be said to range in East London from 5s to 15s a week’. Black does not discuss the difference before and after the legislation was enforced, but her outrage is clear.

This dissertation uses an economic argument that the Factory Acts and other legislation obstructed women’s potential to compete with men for the higher paying jobs, and so increased female concentration in lower paid work (‘crowding out’). By substituting from female workers towards male workers, women’s hours and thus wages were reduced.. Feminist scholars argue that this harms women’s status as ‘free agents’, and serves to push women into male dependency on, encouraging women to marry due to low income. In this scenario, men benefit from both higher paying jobs and the domestic division of labor – as married women have historically also performed familial domestic duties. The crux of this argument is substantiated by Heidi Hartmann’s view that this job segregation by sex was a key mechanism in the capitalists’ society’s preservation of male superiority over women, because of the low wages for women in the labor market.

This facet of the argument for limiting the working hours and broader participation of women in industry; the paternalist view, is reflected in contemporary periodicals: ‘it is therefore, quite evident, that the only way to restore the profits and thereby the comforts and morals, of the working classes, is by enabling them to gain more wages by less labor’, a view that at least suggested pay rates should be improved by limiting working hours and workplaces. But resistance came also from male workers, according to Humphries, although she suggests that such reported resistance could be ‘designed to exploit middle class opinion in either the workers’ fight to wrench protective labor legislation from a recalcitrant capitalist state, or the male working class’ struggle to prevent competition from women workers’. What was seen as a moral issue by some was an economic one for others.

The arguments both for and against PLL each bear their own validity. The central argument against protective legislation is that classing women as special wards of the state not only was chauvinistic and unjust, but it also limited women’s earnings capabilities and job potential. There is some evidence that PLL brought some financial gains and increased opportunities for women,  but the opposition to the moral argument holds true. It is possible to recognize the progress the Factory Acts represented whilst disavowing the paternalistic thinking behind them. Activism against protective legislation was perhaps a representation of what women were capable when it came to fighting for equality socially, legally, and economically.

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