Women home-workers: past and present

Dr Helen McCarthy is co-curator of an exhibition on the history of women home-workers which shows parallels with the present. She is also author of a forthcoming book on the history of working motherhood.


Dr Helen McCarthy is a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge. She is co-curator with photographer Leonora Saunders of the exhibition These Four Walls: A Secret History of Women Home-Workers, which puts the spotlight on the lives of women home workers in the past and present. The exhibition can be viewed on 25th and 26th October at the University Library in Cambridge and the curators will be in conversation on 25th October from 5-6.45pm. Dr McCarthy’s forthcoming book Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood in Modern Britain will published by Bloomsbury Books in April 2020.

Question: What prompted you to write a study of the history of working motherhood in modern Britain?

Dr McCarthy: Ever since I can remember I’ve had a love of women’s history, but it was undoubtedly the experience of becoming a mother – and feeling the pressures that parenting brings to your working life – which pushed me towards this topic. There is a vast and wonderfully rich historical scholarship on women’s paid and unpaid work, stretching from medieval and early modern times and covering different parts of the world, but very few books place the lives of mothers centre-stage. I wanted to ask how women’s working worlds were shaped by the demands of childcare and home-making over the life course, how others saw them and how they saw themselves, and how the conditions of their lives changed over time and why. As a historian of modern Britain, it made sense to focus my story here and to use the perspective of working motherhood to rethink familiar narratives of social and economic change: the rise of the welfare state, the impact of two world wars, Thatcherism and so on.

I also knew that I didn’t just want to write a history of women like me, that is, the white professional working mother. I wanted to explore how these changes affected mothers across social classes and ethnicities, and mothers who were unmarried, widowed or divorced. I also wanted to look at the dynamics of particular occupations, industries and regions, and to weigh the significance of customs, traditions and local norms in shaping mothers’ decision-making about work.

Finally, I was keen to write a cultural as well as a social and economic history. In the book, I analyse women’s everyday experiences in the light of prevailing ideas about gender, family and work, and alongside popular imagery of working mothers in the press, women’s magazines, novels and wider visual culture. I see these cultural resources as playing an important role in shaping how women made sense of their working lives, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century.

Question: Why is your book called Double Lives?

Dr McCarthy: This phrase popped up in different sources and contexts as I was doing my research, reflecting how contemporaries viewed working mothers as eternally conflicted between the demands of home and the demands of employers. The phrase captures the sense that to be successful or even simply accepted in the workplace requires a mother to efface her caring responsibilities and domestic commitments, but equally when at home, she must shake off her identity as a worker. Except at times of war, employers and the state showed little interest in helping mothers resolve this tension, whilst husbands similarly assumed that their wives, if they wanted or needed to work, had to find their own ways of managing this ‘double life’.

I show in the book how this duality never disappeared, although how it was framed and understood shifted over time. I argue that women did become increasingly resistant to the cultural expectation that they would sink their identities into home-making and motherhood after marriage. Instead, women felt able to claim entitlement to some degree of independence and autonomy, which for many took the form of paid work. The drivers of this were complex and included shrinking family size, improvements in health and welfare, shifts in the structure of the economy and the influence of feminist ideology. But I argue that a transformation in what we might call women’s selfhood – how women think about themselves and envisage the future – is key to understanding the dramatic growth in maternal employment rates which took place after 1945 and which, in my view, amount to nothing short of a social revolution.

Question: Your Cambridge Festival of Ideas event is on women working from home. How much research has there been in this area and what are the challenges to researching women’s work in the home historically?

Dr McCarthy: One tends to assume that the history of women’s paid work in the modern era is a story of women leaving the home to enter the factory or office, but I quickly discovered through my research just how important home-based work continued to be, especially for mothers. The Industrial Revolution drew large numbers of women into waged employment outside the home, but it also created ample opportunities for earning inside it. Some of this built on earlier forms of ‘outwork’, where a craftsman produced goods for the market in a domestic workshop aided by family members. But other types of home-work became integral to the growth of consumer industries in the mid-to-late  nineteenth century, allowing employers to manage fluctuations in demand by drawing upon this cheap pool of labour. We find evidence, for example, in the 1890s of women making matchboxes, mending sacks, stitching tennis-ball covers, pulling fur out of rabbit skins, sewing shirt-collars, finishing lace, attaching hook-and-eyes onto cards for retail in shops, attaching bristles to broom handles – the variety is astonishing.

Research by historians has mostly focused on this earlier period, when home-working was the central target for reformers concerned about the ‘sweated’ industries, the label given to any trade in which the hours were long, the conditions insanitary and the pay set too low to support even basic human subsistence. Their efforts resulted in the 1909 Trade Boards Act, which introduced minimum rates in some of the lowest-paid trades and is often seen as marking the end of the classic era of sweated home-work. But significant numbers of women continued to look for work which they could do at home throughout the twentieth century, and there was a striking resurgence of home-working in the 1970s and 1980s.

This was driven by the emergence of new supply chain models in industries like clothing, but also by the development of communication technologies which made it possible for white-collar ‘teleworkers’ to work remotely. These employment opportunities were notably segmented by race as well as by class. Recent immigrants to Britain, especially South-Asian women, were drawn into home-working in part because it was a way to earn money whilst avoiding the racism of the workplace, but the jobs they did were in the lowest-paid parts of the economy. By contrast, the women taking advantage of remote working were almost entirely white, professional women.

Researching home-work means mostly relying on the accounts of the middle-class people who went out to investigate it. Victorian social reformers and government inspectors documented the sweated industries extensively, but one must remember that they viewed home-work as a social evil and were preoccupied with finding remedies for it. If we read their accounts against the grain, it is possible occasionally to hear the actual voices of home-working women and to glean some sense of what their work meant to them. It is easier to do this for the 1970s and 1980s, when feminist researchers explicitly set out to enable home-workers to speak for themselves. But even here, we have to read the sources carefully, because women were often inhibited from speaking out if they feared losing work or worried about the legal status of their employment.

Question: What parallels do you see between today’s and yesterday’s homeworking women? What differences are there?

Dr McCarthy: The chief reason why women work at home hasn’t really changed at all: lack of childcare and inflexibility on the part of employers. That was true in 1900 and it’s true today. The vulnerability which flows from that lack of choice is also enduring. ‘Sweated’ home-workers often felt they had little option but to accept the low wages on offer because their bargaining position was weak and organising collectively was difficult. Even the more privileged teleworkers of the 1980s suffered a version of this. Some professional women negotiated flexible home-working arrangements, but felt under pressure to make a success of them and knew that this benefit could be withdrawn at any time.

Working at home has become a common feature of contemporary workplace cultures, but it is certainly not stress-free and can be isolating and detrimental to career mobility. In the exhibition, we tried to convey that in our image of the 1980s teleworker who, despite working with cutting-edge technology, is not a glamorous figure in any respect. We put an ironing board in the corner of the frame to register how domestic chores impinge on the home-worker’s time, however self-disciplined she might be.

Question: How ‘free’ are working mothers to choose how and where they work compared to in the 19th century?

Dr McCarthy: Although under law those with caring responsibilities can request flexible working, employees do not have a statutory right to work at home, and most employers still exert a great deal of control over where and when work takes place. The notion that home-workers had greater freedom to organise their working time was a fiction in the late-nineteenth century for most women, who had to squeeze in as many hours as they could around housework and childcare, sometimes staying up late at night in order to earn a few more shillings. The low piece-rates offered by employers meant that home-workers always felt a pressure to work faster and do more. Some of these dynamics persist today, even for those in more secure, white-collar work. One of the women we interviewed for the exhibition who works as a virtual project manager described how she would find herself at 5pm still in her pyjamas and faint from forgetting to eat lunch.

The other point to remember about home-working is that is has often been a strategy deployed by mothers for earning much-needed cash or hanging on to a career in the absence of affordable childcare and flexible work cultures. Some women positively enjoy working at home, but for others it is simply an accommodation to the absence of these supportive structures in the wider society and economy.

Question: Can women remote workers organise better to protect their rights these days?

Dr McCarthy: Before the 1970s, British trade unions were very ambivalent about home-workers, seeing them as a threat to the wages and conditions of ‘proper’ workers, who were defined in male terms as those in full-time continuous employment. Some female trade unionists, figures like Mary Macarthur, did try to organise home-workers in the early twentieth century, but with little success. From the 1970s, however, attitudes began to shift and the Trade Unions Congress began actively calling for measures to regularise the employment status of home-workers, improve their working conditions and encourage them to join unions in order to push for higher pay. With help from feminists in the Women’s Liberation Movement and sympathetic local authorities in places like Hackney or Leicester, home-workers did manage to win some small victories, although they still remain amongst the poorest paid in the British workforce. Homeworkers Worldwide UK is the key NGO campaigning today for home-workers’ rights both in Britain and around the world.

Question: What can photography tell us about the lives of homeworking women?

Dr McCarthy: A rich visual record of women’s home-work exists right from the early nineteenth century when the impoverished needlewoman became a subject for portraiture and popular graphic art. Later on, those agitating against sweating produced imagery of women home-workers in a stark, social-realist mode with the intent of conveying their plight to a wider bourgeois public. This approach was pushed further with the rise of photography, which played a major role in framing and interpreting the meaning of women’s home-work in the twentieth century. Historians who work with photography warn against treating the photographic image as an accurate record of ‘reality’, asking instead about the conditions of its production and consumption and the power relations involved. In our exhibition, we wanted to engage critically and creatively with the visual tropes that have shaped the meaning of women’s home-work in the past, placing them in historical context, but also using them as a resource to think about women’s working lives in the present.

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