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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Women's Work in the Victorian Era


William Powell Frith, Many Happy Returns, 1856
The topic of women’s work in the Victorian era is more complex than you might imagine. During the 19th century a popular notion of woman as a kind of domestic goddess or “Angel in the House,” based on a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, became prevalent, but the realities of the era were a bit different.

Though many women were responsible for the running of increasingly large families (due in part to an improved infant mortality rate) and tackled the role of household management with skill and finesse, many households were also dependent on women’s work outside the home. In some cases, this meant mothers and married women, particularly widows who had become de facto head of household, were required to supplement or supply the family’s income, but young women, even juvenile girls, also sought various forms of employment during the period.

Women and girls working in a match factory.
With the industrial boom of the mid-Victorian era, technology created a host of new jobs, many of which skilled men eschewed. But even when men were willing to take manufacturing jobs, employers often undercut them by securing the less costly labor of immigrants, women, and children.

Domestic service, in all its various forms, was the most common type of work women pursued outside the home. Work in the textile and clothing sectors was also common, including employment as seamstresses, laundresses, and work in mills that manufactured fabric. Family businesses, such as inn-keeping, might offer women opportunities for more administrative work, such as bookkeeping, managing stock, assisting clients, etc.

Female telegraph operators.
Compulsory elementary education became law in Britain beginning in 1871, but even before the law, women with access to education worked in fields such as teaching, nursing, journalism, and later in the century as telegraph operators, typewriter girls, secretaries, or in retail establishments.

Women of means and leisure often worked too. Though their efforts may have been unpaid, charities have been reliant for centuries on the work of women to care for the poor, sick, injured, and mentally or physically disabled. As the tail end of Victoria’s reign coincided with the start of the Progressive Era, women organized in increasing numbers to do the work of social activism and political reform, taking up the banner of women’s rights, suffrage, safer conditions in the workplace, child labor laws, and addressing many of the other social ills of the period.

Unfortunately, women’s activism and role as breadwinner did not mean she was freed from domestic duties at home. Still the main caretaker at home, Victorian women were often faced with the duel burden of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for children inside the house while earning a supplemental wage outside the home too. While women juggle the same challenges today, Victorian women did not enjoy the luxuries of automatic dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and tumble dryers.

Female nurses on a children's ward.
Also, the choice to pursue employment might curtail a young woman’s options to “have it all” as many of us strive for today. In researching the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel for my most recent book, Wanton Wager, I learned that young women who had committed themselves to employment as nurses in the hospital were forbidden from marrying. This meant women had to remain single, with no family to care for them, into their old age. The result is that women worked far past what we might consider retirement age. One story I read mentioned a woman who continued working as a nurse into her eighties because she had no other means of supporting herself.

Women have faced challenges in every century, but the Victorian era offered a unique set regarding the balance of work and home life, while also offering women increased options for employment. By century’s end, women were attending medical school and the U.S. had its first female attorney (that first would not occur in Britain until after the turn of the century). It is difficult to deny that opportunities abounded along with the challenges.
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Christy Carlyle writes sensual and sometimes downright steamy historical romance, usually set in the Victorian era or Regency period. She loves heroes who struggle against all odds and heroines that are ahead of their time. A former teacher with a degree in history, she finds there is nothing better than being able to combine her love of the past with her die-hard belief in happy endings.

Her newest release, Wanton Wager, is set in Victorian London's dangerous East End and matches scarred Afghan War veteran, William Selsby, with spirited Whitechapel nurse, Ada Hamilton. When the two join forces to find Ada's missing sister, they discover passion despite their differences.

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7 comments:

Diana McCollum said...

What a great lesson on Victorian women. I had no idea so many worked out side the home. Thanks! Interesting blog.

Christy Carlyle said...

Thanks for you commenting, Diana! I was surprised too as I started researching. Actual figures are hard to come by, but one book I read said the likelihood was that at least half of women worked outside the home, sometimes just to supplement income or sometimes to fully support themselves, as with Victorian era nurses.

Naomi Baltuck said...

A very interesting post! I love history, and well researched historical novels are such a fun way of learning about the past while being entertained.

Naomi Baltuck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Judith Ashley said...

Wow, Christie. I can see the wealthy of opportunities for stories in this era.
And you mention the hero of Wanton Wager is an Afghan vet - was England involved in a war in Afghanistan in the late 1800's?

Christy Carlyle said...

Hi Naomi,

Thanks so much for your post! I agree and love doing the research for my historical romance stories almost as much as the writing itself. :)

Christy Carlyle said...

Judith, yes, indeed the British used their forces in British India to fight two wars in Afghanistan during the Victorian era. The first was earlier, from 1839-1842. My hero is a veteran of the second which was fought from 1878-1880. British imperialism was at its height in the Victorian era and Britain was keen to extend its influence and control in various parts of the world.

If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, you might recall references to Dr. Watson's military service. Conan Doyle identified him as a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (as it was called). My hero in Wanton Wager is an aspiring doctor and a veteran of the same conflict. :)