History Paper



        Working- class women in the Industrial Revolution had much weight on their shoulders, especially concerning their family’s survival. A woman’s responsibilities centered on feeding her family, taking care of her husband, and ensuring that the family had the means for basic survival. These responsibilities fell to the mother of a household; the father’s sole responsibility was to provide a steady wage. It was the mother’s decision how to spend the allowance her husband gave her from his wages. He decided the amount she received; he could easily spend the bulk of his wages on alcohol. The Industrial Revolution brought new challenges for women including how to survive on meager wages, how to avoid violence from husbands but most importantly how to take care of children, especially when the number of children per family skyrocketed.

              The process of courtship began a woman’s road to domesticity in the industrial era. Courtship was

...a negotiation between fantasy and reality, a period of testing and fact-finding to which not only he young couple but also their peers and parents were parties. For most of the teenage years, courting was an affair conducted by parallel groups of girls and boys who gave each other courage and whose seen and unseen presence policed the presence of sexual propriety. (Ross p. 65)

Courtship was a time when the couple not only got to know each other, but the families of the couple united together. Courtship was essentially a community affair. The couple that was courting was not the only party involved. Parents also tended to have a large amount of control over the actions of the couple:

Parents in general managed to maintain a control over their daughters’ sexual lives nearly as complete as that of the middle class, regulating not only the time they spent together but also the length of their courtship. A combination of an adult child’s sense of filial duty and the parents’ need for the child’s continued wage contribution could keep couples waiting for years to marry. (Ross p. 67)

Parental control over their child’s courtship was not always exerted only out of love for the child but for financial reasons. The child, as long as he or she was a working member of the household, brought the family a supplement to the father’s income, and once he or she was married that supplement would disappear. A man and woman’s roles were often vastly different during courtship. During courtship, the relationship was based mainly on romance but as soon as the couple was wed the relationship adapted to the typical domestic situation that was prevalent during the Industrial Revolution :

The role of a suitor was very different from that of a husband. ‘Never again would a man be so careful with his language and appearance, or be so chivalrous or romantic,’ as John Gillis puts it. For these months or years, these men were as close to their mates as they ever would be after their wedding they would very likely be back in the pub. Their sweetheart was, for the moment, someone to be wooed and pampered, not the woman of all work she would become after her marriage. (Ross p. 66)

After the marriage, he would no longer be a doting suitor and she would no longer be a docile lover. He would now become the typical pub-crawling husband, and she the  a hard-working wife, responsible for the well-being of a family.

        After courtship, the next step was obviously marriage. Marriage usually occurred between neighbors:

Among both skilled and unskilled laborers, Londoners tended to court and marry among their own neighbors. Neighborhood endogamy was replacing marriage within the same trades, a process occurring throughout industrial Europe during these years. Marriage within a considerably smaller radius predominated among the Londoners... (Ross p. 67)

Neighborhoods  became the dominant place couples met and courted. Marriage occurred most often between neighbors. When a woman was married, she could either fall into the role of “the good wife” or of “the bad wife.” A good wife was often superhuman and above reproach:

A good wife knew how to orchestrate a response to her husband’s demands that was compatible with family survival in general and being conciliatory was often part of it. ‘If you can’t make peace don’t make trouble,’ was one wife’s motto. ‘It is better to give points away for peace,’ announced Leah Chegwidden, who believed that it was bad for children to see their parents arguing. It was the mother who was generally lost the points; the apportionment of food, her superhuman efforts to discipline the children during their father’s dinner hour and Sunday nap, and her silence when he wasted money all were more or less conscious elements of the peacemaking process.(Ross p. 70)

A good wife was supposed to be completely tolerant of her husband’s bad or neglectful behavior. She was also expected to keep the children from agitating their father. A bad wife was the complete opposite. She did none of those things. She drank, fought back, and did not care if the children disturbed their father. She was essentially a woman who did not cater to all her husband’s needs and expectations. Another type of bad wife was one who let her perpetual state of poverty overtake her:

A much larger group of ‘bad’ wives, far larger than that of drinkers, were women who had ‘lost all hope’...women who were ‘very dirty and untidy’ or ‘untidy, incapable and careworn,’ dragging themselves as best they could through their days and carrying out minimal domestic functions in a weary, depressed state. (Ross p. 72)

The bad wives were women who let their poverty rule them and their actions. They took care of neither their husbands nor their children. They became jaded by their oppressive lives. There were also expectations for a good husband:

‘Good’ husbands surrendered most of their pay each week despite these temptations. They were seldom violent, offered extra help like boot repair or potato peeling on Sundays and made only limited sexual demands. (Ross p. 73)

The good husband offered to help his wife, on occasion, with household work; he did not withhold any wages and did not demand too much from her sexually. He also did not drink his wages away. He  realized the pressures on his wife. He did not expect much from her because he realized the difficulties she endured on a daily basis.

        Men and women, due to this highly compartmentalized society, lived in two completely separate worlds: the home and the workplace. The home, the private, belonged to women and the workplace, the public, belonged to men. Women dominated the household so extensively that much of the household space and items became identified with them:

Household jurisdiction and even physical spaces apparently were sharply divided by gender. Children’s language, for instance, showed a vivid awareness of masculine and feminine household divisions...school boys used wording that suggested their own place in female territory. One referred to his ‘mother’s fire’ for which he got some wood and another labeled errands he had done as ‘my mother’s work.’(Ross p. 78)

The household was strictly divided between male and female territories. “Father’s chair” often was placed by “mother’s fire,” so while there was a separation, there was a unity that existed among male and female territories in a household. These two separate spheres led to an internal wage system. The husband was required to give a portion of his wages to his wife for maintenance of the household:

The internal ‘wage’ system was in many ways the key to sexual separation within families. The custom of paying wives ‘wages’ for housekeeping expenses from which the male wage earner’s ‘pocket money’ was reserved...In this system, husbands generally kept wives in the dark about their total actual earnings but assigned them total responsibility for household substinence. (Ross p. 76)

Women were given the responsibility of ensuring the survival of the household based on whatever funds their husbands decided to give them. The problem arose when husbands decided to spend the bulk of their wages drinking at the pub. Women had to resort to such methods as stealing the money from their husbands and selling their valuables at pawnshops. Women pawned their husbands’ goods, their own valuables and anything they thought they could get a fair price for in order to provide the family with food.

        Along with the issue of marriage also comes the issue of marital violence. Marital violence was seen as an accepted and normal part of married life:

Domesticated as it might have been in countless neighborhood and music hall songs and jokes, the threat of male violence was one of the daily fixtures of married life for women. Husbands were, practically by definition, violent. (Ross p. 84)

Marital violence was accepted by the dominant culture. It was seen as a normal part of a marriage; it was not seen as taboo or antisocial and appalling. It was simply accepted as another trial a wife had to endure from her husband. Violence was seen as inevitable so  it was accepted by communities and neighborhoods:

Community behavior in wife-beating incidents acknowledged the inevitability of violence between spouses and the ‘right’ of husbands to beat up their wives. Neighbors in the same house or street were acutely aware of nearby conflict, often because they could easily hear or see it; the sound of shouting and blows would cause them to collect on stairs and landings and at windows but they would normally allow the fight to continue. (Ross p. 85)

Neighbors would refrain from intervening in a domestic dispute because they believed it was a husband’s God- given right to discipline his wife. This  allowing of violence by the neighborhood perpetuated the system of domestic violence.

        Marriage led to the inevitable childbearing. Childbearing was a continuous state for nineteenth century. According to Ellen Ross, “To be an adult woman was practically tantamount to being a ‘mum’ (Ross p. 92). This female experience of constant and incessant pregnancy and motherhood came from a lack of the rudimentary knowledge of contraception:

Women took many steps-many of these unsuccessful- to control their bodies and to avoid motherhood at the several points where this was possible: keeping away from sex or making sex ‘safe’; aborting pregnancies and even killing newborns or letting them die. (Ross p. 98)

Abstinence and withdrawal were the most widely-used forms of contraception. Women sometimes took drastic measures to avoid having more children. Women who did not want to abort pregnancies or kill their newborns ran out of options.  Due to lack of options, both women and men resorted to a philosophy of fatalism:

The language of fatalism endured as well. Even in the 1920s when birthrates were plummeting, doctors and nurses were struck by some women’s seeming resignation to continuous pregnancies...But this fatalism ha long been the safest posture for the woman to adopt with middle-class professionals...A sudden miscarriage or an unexpected infant death would lead to a coroner’s inquest if a woman had complained too much, too publicly. (Ross p. 98)

It was often necessary for these women to adopt the theory of “whatever will be, will be” because it could mean survival. It was possible for a woman to be tried and convicted if it was believed that she killed her child, even if the only evidence was her complaining to a doctor or a midwife. These complaints were seen as evidence that a woman would go to extreme lengths to avoid having children, whether through abortions or forced miscarriages or stillbirths.

Part of the fear about childbearing came from the lack of prenatal care: Women were especially attentive to the moment of quickening, the only diagnosis of the pregnancy that most of them would get; few would see a midwife or doctor until their labor had actually started. Prenatal care was rare even for an upper-class women before the twentieth century. (Ross p.106)

Prenatal care did not exist and this made childbearing extremely dangerous and frightening. Women had no idea what to expect when they first gave birth, mainly due to their lack of knowledge about sex and their own bodies. Husbands played an important role during childbirth. Some husbands bought items their wives would need during their confinement. They often fetched the childbirth attendant, and they argued with midwives who refused to do their jobs. Women of the working class rarely employed physicians during childbirth because they could not afford them. Instead, they depended largely on midwives or post- partum nurses. Midwives “carried out deliveries that would today be classified as too ‘complicated’ for them” (Ross p.118). Midwives played a highly essential role in the childbirth process. The care they provided was often safer than the care a woman would receive from a hospital or a private physician even if a doctor had been within the means of a working class family.

         One of the most important jobs a mother had in the nineteenth century and even today was to feed her children. Prior to the nineteenth century, mothers had depended solely on breast feeding or wet-nurses but with new processes of sterilization bottle feeding became safer and less likely to cause illness. But in working- class households, mothers were not educated about the sterilization process. This lack of sterilization often led to an illness called summer diarrhea, which was caused by babies drinking from bottles that were not sterilized. Summer diarrhea could prove fatal to a child.

         Children also had the job of helping in the household. They were expected to work hard for their mothers. Some children were expected to find work outside of the home. These jobs did not pay much but they were a welcome supplement to the family’s income. Children were also expected to help take care of the babies in the household. Wage-earning children were often provided with similar privileges to the father of the household. They were given special foods at mealtimes and given other special privileges. 

        Motherhood was especially difficult for working class women during the Industrial Revolution. Low wages, sickness and fears of marital violence complicated women’s lives. Women were expected to keep a good home with even the most meager of allowances while men were expected to provide a steady wage for the family. But the pressure mainly fell on women. Women had the survival of the family as her main responsibility; she was responsible for food, clothing and health. Women were expected to abide by an abusive and alcoholic husband and to take care of their children with little or no help from husbands. Women’s roles were made more complex by industrialization.