In her article, "'What Must Not be Said:' North and South and the Problem of Women's Work," Catherine Barnes Stevenson points out:
North and South is frequently praised for its 'realism in depicting the strike in Milton North which was based on the actual labor conflict in Preston in 1853-54... Yet that 'realism' breaks down in one significant particular: in Preston 55.8% of the factory labor force consisted of females over the age of 13.
She cites a contemporary study that estimates the "number of women involved in the Preston lockout [was placed at] 11,800, while the number of men was approximately half that — 6200" (Stevenson). In an article from the Illustrated London News, November 12, 1853, the numbers are similar — "of 21,000 hands, nearly half are women and children." Yet while such statistics are mentioned here and there throughout the articles on the Preston strike, the workers are still referred to as "working men." In an editorial from November 12, the newspaper states "It is probable that if masters and men could but meet together and talk the matter over in an amicable spirit the difference would, ere many days, be arranged to their mutual satisfaction." The writer continues, observing that the strike is "inflicting much hardship on the innocent women and children." This portrayal of the generalized male factory worker is not surprising, but rather, representative of the masculinization of those who were supposed to financially support the family. Yet the appeal to pathos — if men could only work this out so that the "innocent women and children" could avoid suffering — is ironic when juxtaposed with another article from the same day entitled "Sketches of Strikes and Riots in the Cotton Districts."
The author of "Sketches" refers back to a time in 1763 when labor strikes were just beginning. He tells the story of
a street and lane near the present center of Manchester [that] retains the name of 'Spinning Field.' In that field...hundreds of women, sometimes thousands at once, sat on low stools, each with her single wheel and spindle...[these] females earned more money than men did on the looms. ("Sketches of Strikes and Riots in the Cotton Districts," Illustrated London News. November 12, 1853. p. 403)
The gist of this paragraph is an explanation of how male workers were dependent on female workers for their work. Until the females had spun the yarn, the male workers could not go to the loom and make cloth or ribbons. Thus the invention of the spinning-frame, an invention which allowed the male workers to gain some control over their work. This invention came about as a result of "an impudent Manchester chapman [who] attempted familiarity with the daughter of the landlady." This "chapman" knocks over the young woman's wheel, leading to Hargreaves' vision of a spinning-frame. Hargreaves suffers for his invention, however. Mobs of women "drew forth...tramping in their wooden-soled clogs on the stone causeways- and shouting with voices which made strong-hearted men tremble." The female workers rise up in protest, injuring his sons and driving Hargreaves back to his home to protect his wife and children. The author places this story in the present, claiming "You may, in fancy, see him as he was then..." This article, positioned right before the article on "The Preston Wages Dispute," portrays women workers as indignant and controlling, quite a contrast to the "innocent women and children" mentioned only pages later.
The story of women laborers protesting seems to remind the reader that while "innocent women and children" are being harmed, other women (who cannot be included in the masculinization of the worker) are also out there creating the conflict. The author thereby posits these women as the source of the current conflict. He tells the story of the spinning-frame in the present, drawing attention to how similar the past labor conflicts correspond to the present. This idea is further supported by a short article written on October 8, 1853, entitled "The Value of Female Industry." The article quotes a Mr. Dargan of Limerick, Ireland as saying
I believe it [female industry] is a source of more value than any other branch of industry practiced in Ireland... I was astonished to hear that two millions of money come to this country from the labour of these girls. There is not education of greater importance to females than the cultivation of habits of industry... we would find [value] in the reply of Madame de Stail, when Napoleon Bonaparte asked her how he could make France a great nation. The reply was, 'Educate the mothers.' ("The Value of Female Industry," The Illustrated London News, October 8, 1853)
The equation of strong and useful women workers with Ireland, which was often racialized by the English into an "other," is very telling. Only in Ireland, the author seems to suggest, are strong women workers valorized. In England, strong women are a source of conflict.
Why, then, would Elizabeth Gaskell, in writing a story which also creates a strong female character, "shrink that female majority into a solitary disabled worker?" (Stevenson). Stevenson proposes that "from the 1830s on, the working woman was the center of an ideological battle in Victorian culture," using the notion put forth by Dorothy Thompson that "in the 1850s, working-class women began to re-define their 'place in society' by 'accept[ing] an image of themselves which involved both home-centeredness and inferiority." This battle is clearly being waged in the articles above. By creating the image of an angry female factory worker, the authors suggest that a woman's place is not in the factory, but at home. These authors place women in the role of the "innocent" wives who are being harmed by the strike. Apparently Gaskell buys into this idea. Although Margaret, the protagonist of North and South, does not simply accept an image of herself as inferior (she, in fact, is the one with financial control at the end of the book), she is, in many ways, confined to the home. Although she does have complete independence and financial control, she has inherited the money. She still enjoys a life of leisure. So while Gaskell does not concede to the idea of women's inferiority, she may concede to the notion that a woman's place is in the home. This idea is supported through the characterizations of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Thornton and would add support to her portrayal of Bessie as a "disabled worker," for any woman who decides to work must be disabled in order for "the triumph of domestic ideology." Thus Gaskell's portrayal of Bessie works to counter the stereotype of the angry female factory worker and instead works to confirm the image of the "innocent" woman who is harmed by, and therefore opposed to, the labor strike.
Last modified 8 June 2007