Many working class women were main breadwinners in Victorian times, says new research

A significant number of working class Victorian women were working after they married and many were their families' breadwinner, according to a new study.

A significant number of working class Victorian women were working after they married and many were their families' breadwinner, according to a new study.

The research by Dr Amanda Wilkinson, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2014 annual conference this week, shows many working-class women were working after they married and continued to do so throughout their lives.

The study draws on census information which is key to recreating Victorian communities and the lives and work of those living in a time of huge social and economic change. Some historians have suggested the census does not accurately represent the work of women, but the new study, which explores the census entries for a total of 37,657 women of working age, living and working between 1851 and 1901 in a total of 31 different enumeration districts, shows that women’s work is recorded far more accurately than previously thought.

Among the findings:

– The general belief that the woman was the 'angel of the home', who gave up work at marriage and devoted her life to raising her family and keeping house, is simply not accurate for Victorian working-class women. This was a middle-class ideal, not a working-class reality.

– In Norwich St Swithins, the censuses of 1851 and 1871 show nearly 50% of married and widowed women in employment, with as many as 40% of women in parishes in Ipswich and Colchester also recording themselves as in work. When only working-class families are studied, that figure rises further still. This shows that a significant proportion of women were working after they married, and continued to work throughout their lives, and that the census shows this clearly – a fact that has been disputed in many previous studies.

– The census enumerators books studied for this research show little evidence of working-class men feeling any shame that their wives and daughters were working. This disproves the argument that Victorian Domestic Ideology – the belief that a woman's place was in the home – created bias in the recording of women's occupations by enumerators and husbands, whose shame led them to cover up their wives' employment.

– Men were not always the breadwinner in Victorian families. Contemporary studies show how in the case of rural in-migrants to Norwich, it was far more the norm for the wife, and in some cases the daughters of the family, to be the breadwinner. This was due to a lack of full-time, regular work for men in the city, but the presence of a large number of factories providing employment opportunities for women.

– Between 1851 and 1901, a total of 157 different occupations for women are recorded in the census, with smaller parishes in Ipswich and Colchester returning 115, and 93 female occupations respectively, showing the sheer volume of occupations open to women in East Anglian provincial towns at this time.

– The Victorian censuses, when studied at Census Enumerator Book level, mirror closely women's employment details found in both local and regional histories far more closely than previously thought. As opportunities for employment appear in a parish in other sources such as directories, local histories, employment registers, workhouse and asylum registers, court records, newspapers, etc. they appear in the subsequent census.

Amanda Wilkinson says: "These findings create an entirely new and exciting field of research.The study is currently being extended to cover the whole of the south of England through the use of the I-CeM database, newly released at the University of Essex. At a time when family, local, and gender history is enjoying a rapid rise in importance and interest, this study will change our understanding of the nature of women's work, and the reliability of the census."

Picture credit: The Victorian Web

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