The Working Wife Is Nothing New (30 May 1975)
For a few years after the second world war there were periodical auction sales of old furniture and other household articles at the Bletchley market place. One day I was nosing around there when I came upon a lace-making pillow. It was complete with pretty little bone bobbins inscribed with mottoes and messages of a valentine nature.
This was a reminder of the centuries during which the making of pillow lace – first known as bone lace – was the great home manufacture hereabouts. Bone lace is mentioned by Shakespeare and testimony to its special application to this district is given by the noted woman traveller, Celia Fiennes. Her diary for the year 1695 says;
“At Stony Stratford which is a little place built of stone they make a great deal of bone lace and so they do all here about, it’s the manufactory of this part of ye country, they sit and worke all along ye streets as thicke as can be.”
But my purpose in this article is not to dwell on the story of lace-making as such. It is to scotch the general impression that the large-scale employment of women is purely a mid-20th century phenomenon.
Lace-making was not just a pleasant pin-money pastime for women and girls. It arose out of dire necessity and some of it was sweated labour of the worst kind. For the bulk of the households concerned it meant the difference between primary poverty and comparative comfort, since a wife and daughter between them could earn as much as the family’s nominal breadwinner. One old song of the lacemakers even went:
Golden girls, golden girls, will you be mine?
You shall neither wash dishes nor wait on the swine,
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam,
Eat white bread and butter and strawberries and cream.
(Note what a rare treat white bread must have been at that time.)
This dependence on the home manufacture of lace continued well up to the latter half of last century, when pillow lace was finally ousted by the much cheaper machine-made lace.
Fortunately, by that time local women had another string to their bow. This was straw-plaiting for the rising hat-making industry centred locally on Luton (though this employment also faded before the turn of the century).
Eighty-five-year-old Mr Frank Howard tells how his grandmother used to walk all the way from Fenny to Toddington with her completed plaits and then walk all the way back with a fresh supply of cut lengths of straw. As he so rightly explains: “The extra shilling or two a week was not to be sneezed at in those days.”
The census of 1851 gave a clear picture of the large-scale employment of women at that time. It disclosed that in Great Britain there were 37 occupations, each of which involved 10,000 or more males or females of the then working age of ten years and over.
Ten of these occupations each involved 100,000 or more males and no fewer than six each involved 100,000 or more females. The six largest female groups were 905,000 domestic servants, 227,000 farm servants, 272,000 cotton workers, 340,000 sempstresses, 113,000 wool workers and 145,000 washer-women.
Lower in the list, but of more significance for this area, were the 54,000 female lace-workers and the 28,000 female straw-plaiters.
In the whole range of these 37 main occupations there were 4,667,500 male workers and 2,433,000 female workers. Thus more than one third of that working population was female.
And now, coming right up to modern times, we find that in Great Britain in 1959 there were 16,063,000 male workers and 7,905,000 females (Whitaker, 1960 edition); and that in 1971 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland there were 25,600,000 male workers and only 9,200,000 females (Pears, 1974-75 edition).
So what now becomes of the notion that this is the heyday of women at work? Certainly there are more women working than ever before but there are also more women not working than ever before.
If, at any time over the intervening years, you had suggested that women were not the dominant workforce in the northern counties, you would have been laughed out of court by the hundreds of thousands of textile mill lasses.
The greatest change has been in the nature of women’s employment. Thus, in 1851, when most office workers came under the heading of “commercial clerks,” 44,000 of these were men and a mere 19 were women. On the other hand domestic service has also almost vanished from the list of significant occupations.
There has also been a great change in objectives. Thus, formerly only a small proportion of the population could dream of ever owning their own house. Today that is a major objective of women at work – a striking comment on the phenomenal rise in the general standard of living since Victorian and Edwardian times.