Working for a Living
Women have always worked, but the way historians look at this issueis starkly divided into two camps. The first emphasises the strong and enduring continuity in women’s work histories. It focuses on how they have always participated in the labour of the household. Female labour has traditionally been clustered in certain occupations closely related to women’s familial and reproductive responsibilities. And the work carried out by women has, on the whole, been less well rewarded than that done by men. These trends continued through the nineteenth century, despite the upheavals of industrialisation. At the end as at the beginning of the century, women’s work was a synonym for unskilled, low-paid and under valued labour. According to Judith Bennett, ‘women were as clustered in low skilled, low status, low paying occupations in 1200 as in 1900.’1 This long-term view stresses continuity rather than change, and plays down the role of industrialisation in influencing both the sexual division of labour and the construction of women’s work as low paid and low status. From this perspective, the nineteenth century does not represent a turning point in the history of women’s work so much as a continuation of a very long story of female subordination in the workplace.