Reporter 457, 23 October 2000

A woman’s place is in the history book

The rise of the factory system in Britain’s industrial revolution played an essential part in shaping family life as we know it in the 21st century, new studies are revealing.

To this day, says economic and social historian Katrina Honeyman, workplaces and homes both bear the profound marks of the industrial revolution as ‘a gendered process with gendered outcomes’.

Dr Honeyman, a senior lecturer in the School of History, has traced the interactions of Women, gender and industrialisation in England, 1700-1870 in a new book for Macmillan’s British Studies series.

It argues that the process of industrial change was accompanied, if not defined, by the growing association of women with domestic life in a supporting role to the male wage-earner.

Hidden from history: women were part of the mining workforce in Victorian Yorkshire

Although women were vital to the workforce, their skills and labours were systematically undervalued – not only by employers, but by male co-workers, who often campaigned militantly to maintain skilled trades as a male preserve, safe from cheaper female competition.

The growth of the factory system, the displacement of agriculture by manufacturing as the dominant economic sector, the move towards more specialised occupations and advances in technology bringing new skill hierarchies to the workplace – each of these developments, says Dr Honeyman, brought changes in gender identities and relations.

Significantly, the 12-page bibliography is dominated by publications of the last 10 or 15 years. The arrival of gender history into the scholarly mainstream in that period casts new light on evidence that might have been overlooked by earlier researchers.

For instance, a silk mill rule book from 1860 which forbade women workers from wearing ‘shockingly indecent’ crinolines (but had no comparable injunction for the men), can now been seen as showing a patriarchal relationship between employer and staff in which the male workers are complicit. And the campaign for a ‘living wage’ had less to do with ensuring the welfare of women and children than with excluding them from the labour market to reinforce their dependence on a male breadwinner, says Dr Honeyman.

The book is one of two she has published this year. Well Suited: A history of the Leeds clothing industry 1850-1990 is just out from Oxford University Press.

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