Women’s Roles in the Industrial Revolution

Experience of Women at the Outset of Industrialization

The Industrial Revolution impacted different social classes of women in numerous ways.  Throughout this time period, the working class citizens were most significantly impacted.  Many women who did not belong to wealthy families would often be forced to enter the workforce just to provide enough for their families to live off of.  A woman named Mrs. Britton explains her journey through a testimony she gave looking back on her experience working during the Industrial Revolution in 1842.  From ages 10 to 26 Mrs. Britton worked in a factory in Calne.  Following her work in the factory, she would marry a working man of several occupations and have seven children with him.  Her husband would earn around 10s per week while working his jobs.  To provide for such a large family, Mrs. Britton was also forced to enter the workforce.  She and a few of her older children begin working in the fields and would harvest hay.  Her sons would make around 9s per day and she would make around 10s per day.  These were very small wages, even though 10s per day is above the average for a woman at this time.  Mrs. Britton would struggle between caring for the children while also holding down a full time job.  Although this lifestyle was very difficult for Mrs. Britton, she admits that she would much more prefer working in the field than working in the factory again. 1

Why Women Were Employed:

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, gender was a major influence on worker salary.  Women tended to receive between one third to on half of a man’s average salary.  As the manufacturing industries began to grow, they would take advantage of these low average salaries amongst women and children.  The ability to employ these women and children for little pay proved to be very beneficiary to these companies.  Many industries exploited these people’s need for money, as they would turn a major profit in exchange for very cheap labor.  Tasks such as printing, spinning, and other duties commonly learned at home were easy jobs to learn and were some of the most profitable.  The formation of larger scale production systems thrived with these conditions and were revolutionized throughout this time period.2

Women in the Working Class:

1835 Power Loom Weaving was a common occupation amongst women during the Industrial Revolution. This image is an example of an average cotton factory at this time.
1835 Power Loom Weaving was a common occupation amongst women during the Industrial Revolution. This image is an example of an average cotton factory at this time; example via wikimedia, 1835

Women in the working class, worked during the Industrial Revolution  with lower wages than men and often times started working as children. Women during this time also had to be the caretaker of the house, so they might have worked all day and night to keep up their daily routine. According to an interview given to twenty-three year old Elizabeth Bentley, a normal workday would be from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a forty-minute lunch break.  The working conditions were also horrible as Elizabeth points out, when asked if she ate enough at work she replied that she had a poor appetite and that most of the time the food was covered in dust when it was given to them and during working hours they had to work constantly without breaks. If the workers were late or broke rules they could be strapped, Elizabeth stated that she had been severely strapped for being late. Elizabeth also states that she was 6 years old when she started working and that children would be strapped along with the adults if they were late, misbehaved, or slacked off from their jobs. She also states that the boys and men were beaten for being late multiple times but that she never observed any women getting beaten and she says she never was either. The middle working class did not have the same standard of working conditions we have today. They had 11-hour days, worked in a dangerous environment with dust covering them from head to toe without masks or safety equipment; the quality of food offered to them was poor and almost inedible, children under the age of 16 were working in these environments; some starting as young as 6 years old, and breaking rules or being late was met with harsh punishment. This is only one example of how the women in the working class lived and worked in the factories.3

This image shows a woman working as a hurrier in a coal mine. Example via Wikimedia
This image shows a woman working as a hurrier in a coal mine. Example via Wikimedia, Example via Wikimedia 1853

Another job that women in the working class could have was in was the coal mines. Women who worked in the coal mines were often placed in positions called trapping, hurrying, filling, riddling, tipping, and getting coal; these positions were some of the same that men would hold. Many of the women would look similar to men in the clothes that they wore. In some cases women would work in the pits with men who were often naked or close to being naked, which often gave way for sex within the workplace. One example of what the conditions of working in the coal mines were like can be explained by Betty Harris who was 37 when she worked in the coal mines. Betty was a hurrier and worked from six in the morning until six at night for about 7s per week. She describes her experience in the mines by what she had to wear; a belt around her waist and a chain between her legs that hooked up to the carts that carried the coal into the pits. She also described what she had to use as a road to bring the coal cart into the pit; she described that she had to use a rope to climb up and down the road and if there wasn’t a rope available then she would have to use anything on the road to pull herself and the cart up or down the road. Women that had to work in the coal mines worked in harsh conditions and did a lot of hard labor for little pay but were considered equal to the men in the coal mines because they were working the same tasks as them.4 The working class in the Industrial Revolution had many hardships they had to go through including poor workplace, hours, and punishments. These conditions are the reason that we have the labor laws that are currently active today.

 


1. Wiesner, Mary E., Andrew D. Evans, William Bruce Wheeler, and Julius R. Ruff.
Discovering the Western Past. Vol. II. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning,
2015.

2. Berg, Maxine Dr. “Women’s Work and the Industrial Revolution.” ReFresh, no.12 (1991): 1-4

3. Hellerstien, Hume and Offen, “Victorian Women: A Documentary Accounts of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and United States.” Internet Women in World History, Accessed 29 March 2016, http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/seamstress.html

4. “Women Miners in English Coal Pitts,” 1842. Internet Modern History Sourcebook, Paul Halsall, ed., 29 March 2016, http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1842womenminers.asp.

 

 

 

 

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