Did she donkeystone her doorstep?: the Victorian ideal of domesticity and the reality of working class women's lives
Date of Award
Senior Scholars Paper (Open Access)
Colby College. Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program
Rose, Sonya O.
My Senior Scholars is an investigation of the ideology of domesticity and behavior of married working class women in specific textile districts in England between 1851 and 1881. In particular, I examined which working class women the ideology encompassed, and to what extent these women followed the ideology. In order to understand the ideology of domesticity, certain aspects of working class life have to be taken into consideration. The changing economic and social spheres of married women, divisions within the working class, which separate the average worker from the elite segments of the working class (hereafter referred to as the labour aristocracy), and the ideals embodied in the concept of respectability, are basic to the emergence of the ideology of domesticity. The sources that were examined included both government and autobiographical documents, as well as secondary source materials which combine contemporary historical opinion with support from primary materials. When references are made to statistics, they are referring to data from particular enumeration districts in Lancashire cotton textile areas and shipbuilding regions of England, including Preston, Oldham, Blackburn, Salford, Wardleworth, Bury, and Toxeth Park, Liverpool, in the 1851 census. A total of 455 households are included in the sample which was chosen through the use of random numbers. The census indicates the occupation of the head of the household, sex, marital status and age of the head, as well as the occupations, ages, and origin of every subsequent member of the household, including wives, children, relatives and lodgers. The data were used to assess how wives' participation or lack thereof in the labour force was related to their husbands' occupational status. Therefore, single and widowed women were excluded from consideration. Male workers were then further classified into occupations comparing the labour aristocracy, lower status occupations, and labourers. Occupations classified as labour aristocracy included spinners, engineers, shipwrights, and artisans. Those who were classified as non labour aristocracy included handloom weavers, powerloom weavers, and other unclassified weavers, semi-skilled workers, and mechanics. This paper concentrates on the spinners when referring to manufacturing to the labour aristocracy, since not only were manufacturing there were more spinners in the sample, but more is known about spinners than about other members of the labour aristocracy. Thus, although the specific census figures are about particular members of the labour aristocracy, the relationship of status within the working class and the practice of the ideology of domesticity, is considered to be similar in similar types of occupations. Parliamentary Papers of 1888 reveal the rates of wages of cotton manufacturing districts, as of October 1,1886, according to occupation and number employed in each gender. It must be noted that this information was generated thirty five years after the 1851 census and was not a census, but rather a survey, completed by employers themselves. Although wages were recorded in monetary amounts by the Return of Rates of Wages in 1889, a Select Committee on Payment of Wages, led by Lord Ashley and the House of Commons in 1842, found a large percentage of the working class population, especially those engaged in factory work, were paid by the "truck system", [Parliamentary Papers Select Committee on Payment of Wages 1842 IX.] This practice continued until it was eventually outlawed later in the century. The system was one in which wages were partially paid in goods, for example, people were 'paid' with the factory goods including such edibles as flour, meat, malt, cheese, bacon or wearables already produced in the factory, which according to the employer were of equal or greater value to the wages that would have been earned. However, commissioners questioning workers and employers, found that the staples were not worth the real value of the work, and the employer was making extra money by increasing the value of goods by as much as 55. This practice, although not revealed by employers in their survey retums, must be taken into consideration to understand the economic structure and actual amount of wages paid to members of the working class to determine how they will fit with the ideology of domesticity, respectability, and the labour aristocracy. Wages in 1851 would have generally been lower and the standard of living was higher in the 1880's than in the 1840's and 50's. Thus the 1884 data on wages would be an overestimation of the wages of all occupations in the 1850's. Autobiographies of both working class men and women in which they related their first hand work and home experiences were investigated. Chronicles of their lives help us to understand if the working class thought they were following the ideology of domesticity and to what extent they believed they were respectable. However, most contemporary works were not written by members of the working class since they were often uneducated or did not have time to write due to work. Instead, the middle class judged the ideologies of the working class according to their own standards and ideologies in newspapers and journals including Household Words, British Medical Journal, Manchester Statistical Society Transactions, the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and in the Morning Chronicle. It must be noted that many of the sources covered the period 1840 to 1890, revealing characteristics of working class life in England in general, while the census data and the Parliamentary Papers reveal families economies of working class people in specific years and districts in England. Through examination of these sources and secondary works, I assessed which working class women were able to follow the ideology of domesticity. By taking into consideration their different lifestyles depending on their husbands occupation, and the community in which they lived, I found that only a select group of women whose husbands were members of the labour aristocracy could possibly follow the ideology of domesticity, although other working class women may have adhered to the ideology to the best of their abilities.
Working class women, Sexism, History
Recommended CitationBinder, Rebecca, "Did she donkeystone her doorstep?: the Victorian ideal of domesticity and the reality of working class women's lives" (1987). Senior Scholar Papers. Paper 27.
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