Friday, 11 December 2015

A Woman's Work

In the Victorian period, the theory of 'separate spheres' for men and women developed. The man's sphere was the world outside the home, where he was to go and earn a living to keep his family. The woman's sphere was the domestic. She was to be the 'Angel in the House', managing the household and providing the moral influence for the family.

In practice, this applied only to women who could afford not to work, and not all of those. Many well to do women were engaged outside the home in what would today be called social work or voluntary work, relating to health, sanitation, education and many other aspects of life.

For women who worked, the home was also considered to be their proper sphere; domestic service was the most highly approved of occupation for women who needed to earn money. It was also the area in which most women were employed.

Many women worked as teachers and governesses.  There were large numbers of dressmakers, seamstresses and needlewomen.

Records such as the census returns, however, show individual women employed in a wide range of occupations. Large numbers of girls and women were employed in the textile industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The 1851 census records cotton reefers, cotton knitters, cotton spinners and power loom weavers.

There were still remnants of older industries. Mary Murray and Charlotte Atkinson were handloom weavers in Cumberland.

The straw plait industry employed many women and girls in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Susan Bunker, aged 66, was a straw plaiter. Kate Hill, aged eighteen, was a straw bonnet sewer. In another regional industry, Elizabeth Pope, aged fifteen, was an apprentice painter of earthenware in Staffordshire. Jane Baddley, 71, was a 'potter paintress'.

Women were not permitted to work underground in the mining industry, but they worked on the surface. Ann Donald, 78, was a copper miner and Mary Wearn, sixteen, a miner girl, both in Cornwall. Jane Wotton, 82, was a coal miner in Staffordshire.

There were women farmers, with land varying from fewer than ten acres to over a hundred, employing men and boys. Women were also agricultural workers labouring in the fields.

Other women were employers in industry. Susan Garside, 49, chain maker, employed twelve girls in Warwickshire.

Susan Dorrington, 29, was a theatrical performer in Warwickshire. Mary Hutton, 25, was a student at the Birmingham School of Design. Susan Harley, 37, was a bookseller's assistant in Warwickshire.

Women were hawkers, pawnbrokers, 'dealers in small wares'. Elizabeth Fenwick, 21, ran a stall in a bazaar in London.

More unusual occupations were 'wood screw nicker' (Pamela Haycock, nineteen, Worcestershire), 'horn button cutter', Susan Dandy, 26, Warwickshire, and 'watchmaker dial painter', Pamela Simpson, 30, London.

Perhaps the most unusual of all was Jane Gardner, aged 78, of London. Born in Carolina in 1773, she gave her occupation as 'American Loyalist'. She herself was only a small child at the time of the American Revolution; one can only imagine what the circumstances of her upbringing were, for her still to be unreconciled to it in her old age.

Historians have, to some extent, to look at the bigger picture, to deal with statistics and percentages. Novelists can, and should, remember that behind every statistic is a person with a rich and unique history. It should be possible to tell a story about any one of the women mentioned here, or about any of the millions of other women whose names are recorded in censuses, parish records and trade directories.

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