The Work of Women – A Threat to Patriarchal Society

Guest post written by Beatrice Moring, author of Women in the Factory, 1880-1930.

All workers agree that the introduction of women into industry has been bad for the working class in the moral as well as the physical and economic sense. While it is not within our power, today, to change the situation, our goal is at least to ameliorate the bad effects of female industrial work.

(Statements made at the Conference of the amalgamated unions of France (CGT) 10-14 September 1900)

In studies of 19th century economic history there has been a tendency to view factory regulations as a uniformly positive development heralding the arrival of the welfare state. While this was indeed the case in the instituting of accident compensation and safety regulations in the workplace, a closer look reveals another side to the rules – defining women as a category of workers equal with that of children.

By the late 19th century the industrial sector had expanded considerably in Europe, the US and elsewhere and around thirty percent of the industrial workers were women. Certain sectors like textiles and food product manufacture employed even larger numbers. The situation in early 19th century factories had caught the attention of social reformers and by the second half of the century numerous countries had started to introduce protective legislation, restricting the working hours of children. Factory inspectors were also employed to oversee the regulations and look into conditions. Despite the fact that the group most prone to fatal accidents was that of men, the early regulations tended to restrict the work of women as well as children.

The reasons for such an approach were linked to a general patriarchal attitude both within conservative political circles, male unions and the social democratic movement, the desire to monitor women as actual and potential mothers and the fear of female competition in the job market.

Simultaneously, or soon after, the factory regulations, came a ban on the work of married women in the clerical sector in Britain and some other countries, again hailed by for example the male teaching unions. These areas can hardly be seen as plagued by a dangerous working environment.

BEATRICE MORING is an Associate Professor in Social and Economic History at the University of Helsinki and author of Widows in European Economy and Society, 1600-1920 (Boydell, 2017).

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