Past Blast Tuesday: Women During The 19th Century Industrial Revolution


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IR Railroads Pic

The railroads, the symbol of the Industrial Revolution.

Photo Credit: Celebration of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Utah, 1869: H-stt/ Wikimedia Commons/CC PD Mark/PD Old

My curiosity about the role that women played in the Industrial Revolution was peaked a few months ago when I was able to see the wonderful BBC mini-series The Way We Live Now. I love classic literature and this series was based on a book by Anthony Trollope. The book and mini-series take place in Britain in the 1870’s during the rise of the railroads as transportation and corporations. The railroads have long been a symbol of the Industrial Revolution and of innovation, monopoly, and the corporate system that dominates American business today.

But the Industrial Revolution has usually been discussed in terms of men as instigators, inventors, and workers. It led me to wonder, what about women? What exactly where women’s roles during the Industrial Revolution and how did it affect them?

I mentioned the Industrial Revolution a little bit in my post about the separate spheres. Interestingly, there was actually, In America, a second Industrial Revolution which is really when the railroads took shape as well as the issues of worker’s rights and anti-trust laws. The earlier revolution was more about the birth of the factory system, the replacement of skilled workers for unskilled labor, and the great migration for many from the country to the city. The latter revolution focused on building the foundations of American corporate systems and realizing the place that the government held in both economic and social decisions.

For women, the Industrial Revolution had both good and bad consequences. I mentioned in my separate spheres post that during this time, a migration from the country to the city took place for many young men who looked for the opportunities in the factories, offices, and shipyards that they could not find on the farms their parents and grandparents had worked. But young single women were also finding opportunities. They too wanted to experience life on their own in the big city rather than be tied to the expectation that they would marry the boy next door and work his farm just as they had worked their parents’ farms. These women made up part of the workforce in the factories, to be sure, but they also found jobs as teachers, nurses, and domestic servants. They also did what was known as outwork, which was the equivalent of what we know today as work from home jobs. They found camaraderie among their fellow workers as well as in the all-women boarding houses in which they lived. On their own for the first time, without their family scrutinizing their behavior, they were free to explore their environment and all it had to offer. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the sanitation of leisure activities and entertainment grew as the 19th century progressed because women were now pursuing the kind of fun at night and on weekends in the city that had previously been only open to men.

With the advent of suffragism, women were also getting more involved in the political rights of not just themselves but of others. Many women became involved in the growing concerns over workers’ rights in the labor movement of the 19th century, organizing their own unions and fighting alongside men for higher wages, better conditions, and shorter working hours. In addition, many women got involved in the fight against slavery, a relationship that always existed with the suffragist movement.

Women Tailors Striking Pic

Photo Credit:Women tailors on strike, New York 1910: Cropbot/Wikimedia Commons/ PD Bain

Folks at home, though, didn’t quite see this as a good thing, as many thought that it “spoiled” these young unmarried women by feeding them newfangled “radical” ideas. Remember, this was the age of the Angel in the House. Women weren’t supposed to have ideas or thoughts or ambitions. They were supposed to stay home quietly with their embroidery, nodding complacently to their husband’s conversation and laughing at their children’s antics.

But involvement in the various progressive movements wasn’t the only thing that spoiled women. They were also corrupted by the sheer independence of being alone in a big city. City life was seen as a corruptive influence on young men especially during the early part of the 19th century and it was doubly true for women. In the city, a woman might get more than just progressive ideas. She might see herself as an independent being, and, God forbid, as a sexual being who had the right to explore relationships with men on her own terms. One of my favorite novels, Sister Carrie (1900) shows this beautifully. It takes place in the last quarter of the 19th century during the second Industrial Revolution and tells of the corruption and downfall of Carrie, a young woman from the sticks who heads for Chicago to experience life. Carrie finds both ruin and success in her adventures as an independent woman in the big city.

Jones Olivier Carrie Film Pic

Carrie (played by Jennifer Jones in the film Carrie (1952) runs away with an older married man George Hurstwood (Lawrence Olivier) who promises all the material delights that her upbringing in a small town could not afford her.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Jones and Lawrence Olivier in Carrie, 1951: We Hope/ Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

The title of Trollope’s novel is tongue-in-cheek, as it shows that “the way we live now” (or, for us, the way they lived then) was really not all it was cracked up to be. There were the great innovations of the Industrial Revolution that planted the seeds of the kind of changes were are seeing today, but at the same time, this new way of life came with a price, not only for men, but also for women.

Further Reading: (article on the role of women in the Industrial Revolution in America, especially in the factories) (article on women’s work in the Industrial Revolution, including African American and immigrant women) (some letters home from a woman factory worker in the 19th century) (a collection of documents related to women’s work during the Industrial Revolution, including factory workers, non-factory workers, and outwork) (IMDB entry for the film Carrie (1952), based on the novel Sister Carrie)