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The Victorian Woman and Employment

There were two major roadblocks to the employment of women during the Victorian period and these were the continued attempt to stereotype them in the domestic role and the insecurities of the Victorian economy which were also faced by men.

For the middle class woman, employment served as a means of independence, entrance into the political domain and self respect. On the other hand, for the poor working woman, it meant subsistence. Early campaigns fought for suitable work for women, while later on focused on broader issues such as pay and working conditions. The movement in this area was hindered by two separate sets of thinking and that was class, middle class vs. poor working class.

During the 1850s/1860s, the campaign for employment for women was aimed at the single woman, those unsuitable for marriage and for those daughters who were not fortunate in their pursuit of a husband who were considered a burden on the family.

With the increasing number of women seeking to enter the workforce, there was stiff competition due to the number of jobs that were available. The aim of the feminist groups was to increase the number of jobs women could hold with job training and education. While the jobs actually created were minimal, it was the attitudes that were beginning to change relative to the dignity and satisfaction that paid employment offered.

The earliest efforts in the area of employment for women stem from the activities at Langham Place Circle in London in the late 1850s. Their journal, the English Woman's Journal edited by Bessie Raynes Parker, was the first of many such feminist periodicals which were to raise consciousness on these issues."1

In 1859, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was formed to promote the training of women for employment and finding jobs for them in industrial pursuits."2 This society included some of the most famous feminist activists, Millicent Fawcett, Frances Buss, Jessie Bouderett and Helen Blackburn, and was headed by the Queen herself. This society also trained women in the field of bookkeeping which was becoming a growing need in the Victorian economy. It was also an area in which a woman could work without losing respectability.

As one would expect, the women continued being met with strong opposition from the male workforce. With men holding the purse strings, women were being placed in jobs regarded as inferior to these held by men and where their acceptance of such work downgraded the work.

More journals were established which were devoted to employment for women in the trades. The Year-Book of WOmen's Work edited by Louisa M. Hubbard, was published in 1875 aimed at the single woman in search of a job and included a directory of suitable work for women as well as some job ads. Hubbard also published a monthly, titled the Woman's Gazette - or news aobut work renamed in 1880 to Work and Leisure. Another journal published monthly by Emily Faithfull, Women and Work in 1874 contained a variety of articles on topics of interest to women, guides and advice on searching for employment, information on specific trades and also job advertisements."3

In order to further promote their cause, many prominent feminists took jobs in government as factory and sanitary inspectors, nurses and teachers. Agnes and Rhoda Garrett started their own business as interior designers and offering their services within their feminist circles and beyond. Many positions in the "professions" (medicine and law) continued to remain closed to women until the end of the century, while jobs in nursing and teaching were became defined as women's professions.

Competition in the workforce between women as well as the continued. As a working woman, one was required to "prove her worth" while a man did not.

The fight for employment was one of the most difficult issues women faced in Victorian England. Not only were the feminists fighting for respectability, gentility and independence, the women were fighting against the pwoer of the employers in a male dominated labour market. The successes in the fight for employment for women at the end of the century in government, medicine and printing were the result of 40 years of tireless campaigning.

  1. Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Philippa Levine, Univ. Press of Florida (1994), p. 87, p. 91
  2. Bye-Laws and Rules, Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.
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