The First Industrial Woman

The First Industrial Woman

The First Industrial Woman

The First Industrial Woman

Synopsis

This is the first full examination of women and industrialization since Ivy Pinchbeck's Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution. Valenze's book is a wide-ranging analytical synthesis, which is based on original research as well.

Excerpt

"The first industrial revolution" calls up a mixture of textbook images and ideas: dark satanic mills, the steam engine, the railway, new class relations, changing standards of living. Within these associations, women workers occupy an essential place. It is impossible to mention the advent of the factory without considering the factory girl, a virtual archetype of the era, who was condemned for her immoral behavior and pitied for her arduous workday. It is equally impossible to consider the accumulation of industrial wealth without considering the part that women played in supplying labor within the many enterprises that underlay England's takeoff as an international economic power.

A cursory look at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals startling contrasts: why were female workers praised for their industriousness in the eighteenth century, but a century later, damned or pitied? The earlier years represented a high-water mark of female industriousness: the female reaper with her shock of corn, the woman at her spinning wheel, the farmer's wife in her dairy--all acted as symbols of productivity and plenty. This is not to say that it was a "golden age" of women's work. A sexual division of labor characterized most forms of production, the male household head usually monopolized authority and status, and work was more often onerous and unpleasant than not. But quite apart from these constraints, the productive work of women was recognized and thereby acknowledged as a valuable contribution to the wealth of the nation.

The nineteenth century, by comparison, lacked a vocabulary with which to praise its female workers. Victorians were ashamed of the factory girl and expended much energy cataloging her failings: she used coarse language, spent money on triflings, and was morally lax. She stood not as a bearer of the achievements of the industrial age, but as a casualty of the new system. Seldom a word was said about the actual work she successfully performed or the wealth she helped to create. Although many other women worked in less visible employments, they remained undiscussed, except in parliamentary inquiries seeking to limit their activity.

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