Working Women and the Little House
For working-class women the home has always been a place of work. Unlike their fathers or brothers, who may well have helped in the home and contributed to its maintenance, working-class women and girls have traditionally borne the main responsibility for the home, its cleanliness and domestic management. In her study of working-class cultures in the first half of the twentieth century, the historian Joanna Bourke found ‘of all the dreams dreamt by working-class women, marriage followed by full-time housewifery was the most widely shared and showed little sign of fading prior to the Second World War’.2 Yet in addition to unpaid housewifery, working-class women have historically been compelled to make ends meet by taking on additional paid work, whether that be through sweated ‘out work’ in their own houses, through domestic labour in other people’s homes or in another workplace setting. The history of working-class women’s paid work is complex and geographically diverse. The 1901 census recorded over four million women workers in England and Wales and, as Selina Todd has pointed out, at least a decade of work and the labour market ‘shaped the transition from girlhood to adulthood for the majority of women between the end of the First World War and the early 1950s’.3 Excluding the First World War, between a quarter and one-third of married women were employed in the early decades of the twentieth century.4 Charring and domestic service remained the most common form of employment for working-class women, with servants constituting roughly one-third and one-quarter of the female workforce between 1891 and 1930.5
The early twentieth century saw a spate of consciousness-raising texts revealing the hardship of working-class women’s domestic lives. Some of this literature,
1880-1939 (Manchester, 1988), p. 85. Selina Todd, Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950 (Oxford, 2005), pp. 20-21.