This passage has been excerpted from the introductions and other editorial matter in John Burnett's superb collection of working-class life-histories, The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974. GPL.

There is a modern myth to the effect that until quite recent years the vast majority of women devoted themselves exclusively to home-making and the bearing and rearing of large families, and that only a few engaged in gainful employment. What has, in fact, changed is that more married women and more middle-class women now work than formerly. Given the huge size of the Victorian working class (at least 80 per cent of the population if we take the 'manual' definition of class), the demographic consideration that because of the unequal sex ratio one in three women were 'doomed' to spinsterhood anyway, and the fact that the wages of many semi-skilled and unskilled male workers were so low or so uncertain that they would not support a family unless supplemented by the earnings of wives and children, it cannot be doubted that a high proportion of Victorian women, both single and married, regularly engaged in paid work.

Victorian women provided a vast reservoir of labour, necessary for an expanding though immature economy whose fluctuations demanded additional workers at one time, fewer at another. The precise size of the female working population is impossible to know since the Census returns almost certainly underestimated it; the numbers of women factory workers may well have been more or less accurate, domestic servants probably rather less so, but thousands of milliners and seamstresses, washerwomen, framework knitters, nailers, straw-plaiters and women workers in the score or more of 'sweated' trades where they worked in their own homes, sometimes whole-time, sometimes part-time, must have escaped the Census investigators, especially when it was feared that penalties might follow from a full declaration of income. The Census of 1851, the first to attempt to count occupations in any detail, gave a total of 2.8 million women and girls over the age of ten in employment out of a female population of 10.1 millions, forming a proportion of 30.2 per cent of the whole labour force. (In 1901 they composed 29.1 per cent and in 1931 29-8 per cent of the labour force, though compulsory schooling to fourteen by the latter year has to be taken into account.) Domestic service took by far the greatest number in 1851 — 905,000, not including 145,000 washerwomen and 55,000 charwomen. [48-49]


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Last modified 22 July 2002