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Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England

Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England: Gender, Work and Wages

Nicola Verdon
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England
    Book Description:

    Despite the growth of women's history and rural social history in the past thirty years, the work performed by women who lived in the nineteenth-century English countryside is still an under-researched issue. Verdon directly addresses this gap in the historiography, placing the rural female labourer centre stage for the first time. The involvement of women in the rural labour market as farm servants, as day labourers in agriculture, and as domestic workers, are all examined using a wide range of printed and unpublished sources from across England. The roles village women performed in the informal rural economy (household labour, gathering resources and exploiting systems of barter and exchange) are also assessed. Changes in women's economic opportunities are explored, alongside the implications of region, age, marital status, number of children in the family and local custom; women's economic contribution to the rural labouring household is established as a critical part of family subsistence, despite criticism of such work and the rise in male wages after 1850. NICOLA VERDON is a Research Fellow in the Rural History Centre, University of Reading.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-150-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Introduction Rural women workers: the forgotten labour force
    (pp. 1-6)

    These two contemporary autobiographical accounts from the Fens offer us a rare glimpse into the reality of life for many women living in the English countryside in the second half of the nineteenth century. Those women who were married with a family were confronted with the familiar – and recognisably modern – dilemma of balancing domestic and childcare responsibilities with contributing financially towards the meagre household income. For many other groups of women – for example, those not yet married or those already widowed – the economic choices they encountered on a day-to-day basis could be even more stark. The ways women could earn...

  6. 1 Women, work and wages in historical perspective
    (pp. 7-39)

    The aim of this chapter is to present a historiographical account of research on women’s employment in the nineteenth century. This will provide a framework for the following chapters. My approach is certainly not novel: many historians have furnished their accounts of gender, work and industrialisation with a similar grounding. However, it is worth reiterating the main stands of this historical debate in order to locate the subject of rural women’s employment within the broader context of research on women and work in the nineteenth century. This chapter does not discuss the protracted and complex path taken by economic history...

  7. 2 Differing views of rural women’s work in documentary material: An overview of printed sources
    (pp. 40-76)

    The significance of printed primary sources such as Royal Commissions to the study of rural women’s work and wages has long been recognised. The scarcity of archival and personal records directly relating to poor labouring women bestows further value to documentary evidence. Early historians of rural England such as William Hasbach relied heavily on published sources, and we saw in Chapter 1 the results of Ivy Pinchbeck’s comprehensive scrutiny of material pertaining to women’s employment printed between 1750 and 1850.¹ Historians continue to make use of such documents today. One prominent example is Karen Sayer’s cultural critique of the representations...

  8. 3 Women in the agricultural labour market: Female farm servants
    (pp. 77-97)

    So wrote Ann Kussmaul in her classic account of farm service Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England, which was published in 1981. The arguments she proffered have proved to be highly influential, although in recent years a number of scholars have begun to question her methodology, data and conclusions. While this has certainly widened our appreciation of the complexities of the regional incidence and structure of service, few studies have sought to explore in any detail the gendered experience of farm service. No single survey has explored to what extent women’s economic role was undermined after the decline of...

  9. 4 Women in the agricultural labour market: Female day labourers
    (pp. 98-131)

    The position occupied by women workers in the nineteenth-century agricultural day labour force in England is the focus of this chapter. This is a remarkably complex issue. An appreciation of local and regional distinctions in farming systems and hiring patterns, and how these changed over the century, are essential to understanding the level of women’s involvement in agriculture. But we also have to be mindful of a variety of more intangible ideological and lifecycle factors, and assess how these also affected women’s access to work. Judging the relationship between all these components – and measuring their relative importance – is no easy...

  10. 5 Alternative employment opportunities: Domestic industries
    (pp. 132-163)

    The availability of an alternative form of female employment could have far-reaching repercussions not only on women’s work patterns, but also on the agricultural labour market and the general milieu of nineteenth-century village life. In this chapter the significance of cottage industries will be addressed. Although the fortunes of domestic industries were susceptible to seasonal and trade fluctuations in the nineteenth century, the important contributions these industries made to the subsistence of rural labouring families was widely recognised by contemporary social observers. Frederick Morton Eden attributed the low poor rates at Dunstable in the last decade of the eighteenth century...

  11. 6 Survival strategies: Women, work and the informal economy
    (pp. 164-195)

    The preceding chapters have shown that women’s work in the formal labour market was diminishing in many regions over the course of the nineteenth century. This decrease in female productivity was certainly not uniform, and different patterns of participation have been uncovered depending on region, local occupational structure and custom. Female labour was coming under pressure from a number of sectors. The wider use of agricultural technology in the nineteenth century – first the scythe, then the reaper and reaper-binder – undermined women’s role in the harvest. Economic forces – agricultural boom followed by depression – opened up and then closed off avenues of...

  12. Conclusion Assessing women’s work
    (pp. 196-200)

    It is difficult to pinpoint the experience of the ‘typical’ or ‘average’ woman worker. The economies of different rural regions both constricted and unlocked opportunities for women to work at different times in the nineteenth century. Patterns of female labour participation do not correspond easily to general categorisation. Continuity and change, formal and informal, public and private, all had some resonance, but depended on a number of factors: where a woman lived, how old she was, her marital status, whether or not she had children, the age of any children she did have, the occupation of her husband and the...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-228)
  14. Index
    (pp. 229-232)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-233)