Hard at Work in Factories and Mines: The Economics of Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution

By Carolyn Tuttle | Go to book overview

6
The Role of Women Workers

Women and children....were they easily interchangeable as workers in the eyes of the factory owner, the manager, the overseer, the adventurer and the tributer? Did women and children fill the same occupations and perform the same tasks in the textile factories and mines, or did they have quite different duties? Contemporaries commented on the new faces of the industrial labor force, but only a few historians tried to understand and explain the changes that were taking place ( Engels 1926; Gaskell 1833 and 1836; Marx 1909 and Ure 1835 and 1836). P. Gaskell connected the new faces with the technological innovation in the textile industry and remarked despairingly in 1836:

Yet a change is rapidly taking place in the condition of the operatives, and a disposition is developing itself to have recourse to the labour of women and children in preference to adults. The causes which have led to this are the great improvements which are taking place in machinery, and its application to an infinite variety of minute operations, requiring the nicest management, the requisite power being given by steam (143).

Charles Bray in writing The Industrial Employment of Women in 1857 also observed the changes and had this to say: "But our industrial system has now absorbed both wife and children, and to retrace our steps will be very difficult, if not impossible (14).

Recently, several economic historians have begun to reexamine the work of women and children during the Industrial Revolution, but still very little light has been shed on the relationship of child labor to women's labor ( Berg and Hudson 1992; Horrell and Humphries 1992 and 1994). Current researchers have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors in their basic approach to these constituents of the labor force. In the literature, women and children have been treated as either two totally separate groups of laborers or as one homogenous group of workers. Pinchbeck insightful research in 1936 on the role of women workers in industry during the eighteenth and nineteenth century rescued the history of women's labor from oblivion. Subsequently, the complexities of women's employment outside the home have been developed by

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