The working class Victorian woman faced many of the same issues as her middle class counterpart, however, the efforts made by the feminist groups for them was quite different.
There was no distinction made to marital status as there was with the middle class woman which was that she was single with no other means of support. The working class woman worked for wages at some point in her life. If widowed or married, she was often criticized for doing so for the negative effect it might have on the family unit.
The working woman also worked at poorly paid, low status jobs which provided little towards her respectability and financial independence.
Feminist group efforts for the working women went towards the development of trade unions, fighting for better wages and working conditions and for the creation of jobs. Some of the more prominent organizations were the Women's Protective and Provident League (WPPL) established in 1874, the Women's Industrial Council and the Society for Promoting Employment of Women. Prior to its organization, no other had campaigned on the part of the working class woman.
Wages for men, also called the family wage was that a man's salary permitted him to support his family, while for the working class woman, it was however, it was believed to be far less important and constituted a lower wage.
Besides the dissention on the part of male workers regarding females in the workplace, there were other factors which limited the successes of the women's trade organizations. These were the interruptions resulting from pregnancy and domestic duties. This constant interruption also led to the lower wages and monotonous tasks assigned. And women who worked in domestic service were not only not counted in the number of women working, but were not represented by the trade organizations.
The WPPL was not a trade union, but served to help women start their own trade organizations, pool funds, expertise and experience. They also offered the working woman sickness benefits, something which had long been provided to men, as well as other services. Its successes were not many, yet they did serve to organize a number of trades including boot and umbrella workers, tailoresses, laundresses to box makers.1
The unions were successful with the strike against the Bryant and May Match Stick factory which spurred trade union activities elsewhere in the nation. It was estimated that in 1870, 57,800 women were members of trade unions, a total which had risen to 117,888 in 1896.2
The textile industry employed more women than men. In 1883, the Women's Co-operative Guild (WCG) was formed with great success in improving working conditions for women. Its membership totaled 6,500 and consisted of both working and middle class women. This organization also campaigned against laws aimed at regulating labor which had in effect prohibited women from working in certain industries for "their health and safety" and cut the number of hours women could work. This legislation was seen as an attempt to lessen the competition between the men and women and served to lower the pay the women received.
Working class women were at the bottom of the economic pile, forced into distasteful jobs out of financial necessity and forced out by the ethics and decision of another class and men. And the differences between the two classes, working class women and the middle class women, saw different efforts being expended not always to the benefit of the working class woman. Despite the mistakes and failures of the feminist organizations in their support of the working class woman, their actions served as an attempt to close the gap between these two groups.
- Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Philippa Levine, Univ. Press of Florida (1994), p. 114, 117, 122, 126.
- Solden, Women in British Trade Unions pp. 28, 46.
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