Industrialization or an industrial revolution is a process in which social and economic change occurs. This change is often related with technological advances. Cities start to change as more factories are built, creating new jobs and opportunities while helping society progress both economically and socially. Factories created a new production system that was not home-based, but rather large-scale. For this you needed mass amounts of employees at low-cost. The only way that this could be accomplished was hiring women to work in factories. Not only did hiring women affect their position in society and inside the family structure, but also the way women viewed themselves within society and their families. Also, women’s work in factories and other places of business opened up a plethora of new problems and issues concerning equality among the sexes, wages and workers rights. During industrialization women transcended as home-based workers to demonstrating their skill and ability in jobs outside the home.
The topics of politics, socialism, feminism and industrialization are intertwined. One cannot begin to speak of women’s role in the work force without explaining the political context of the time. During the first half of the nineteenth century, socialism combined the problems or women and workers, especially because of women’s involvement in factory jobs. Although many people focused on worker’s rights, few people were concerned with the needs of the new breed of working-class women. In Flora Tritans book, The Worker’s Union, she calls for “one big union of all the workers” (Sowerwine). Although this idea seems brilliant, the problem with this is that women had no political rights, nor rights within a marriage, so how could they be expected to have rights in the work force? This problem can be seen in Mary Barton, seeing as one of the main topics is the lack of communication between the middle and working classes. If there was no concern from the burgeoise toward the proletariats, then there was no way that workers would earn rights in factories. Women were “subjected to the same exploitation as men but at the same time to a double oppression: employers would pay women half the wages of men and depend on the family to keep them alive.”(Sowerwine)
Although there were many good outcomes that came from industrialization, such as women were gaining importance within society, the age for marriage began to rise, and more money was being brought into the family, there were also many negative aspects to rebut these effects. Women were caught in a vicious cycle within society. Separate spheres ideology was seen as an excuse to pay women less, seeing as this ideology stated that women and men both have their places in society, and that a woman’s place was in the home. “Their wages were kept low because their husbands provided help for them, and in turn their low wages kept them dependent on their husbands.”(Sowerwine) Men also became very displeased with women as wage-earners. As industrialization took off in Europe after the revolutions in 1848, industrial labor replaced work done in the household. As skilled-laborers saw themselves at risk of becoming factory laborers, they also saw themselves competing against women for the same positions in factories. Men were now at a disadvantage, seeing as women received half of men’s wages, or sometimes even less. Because of this, a new form of socialism emerged called Mutualism. “Mutualism fought to exclude women from the factory and to return to the household economy, in which women were dependent upon men.” (Sowerwine)
Not only were women’s roles in the work force being redefined, but so were their roles within education, property ownership and divorce. In 1879, a man named August Ebel, one of the principal leaders of the German Socialism published a book called Woman and Socialism. This book supported all the feminist ideas of the day including women’s rights to study and practice professions, own their own property and initiate divorce proceedings. It also dismissed the idea that women had a “natural calling” to raise families. (Sowerwine) This book not only demonstrated concern for women’s problems, but also women as part of the working-class.
Women were not only called to work in factories because of the demand or cheap labor, bare necessity was a main contributor and driving force in women’s decisions to enter the work-force. As seen in Mary Barton, when Mary’s mother dies, she is forced to care for her family and decides to take a job in a shop as a dress maker. Mary does not take this job as part of industrialization, but because of her sense of duty towards her family. Women found themselves, once again, sacrificing themselves for their families in order to keep them afloat. Women sustained beatings in factories, many were injured, some, died in factory accidents. Working conditions were sub-par and dismal. Women often found themselves ill because of silk dust which caused tuberculosis and other lung diseases. Many factors in society caused economic strain that forced women to enter the work force. Many of these examples can be found in Mary Barton. Such things as addictions to drugs or alcohol (for example John and Esther), or getting sick because of lack of food or poor living conditions. Sometimes the family could not afford fuel, and in winter would have no heat. Poverty and sickness became an unhealthy cycle. Infant and maternal mortality was common. Women felt morally bound to join the work force because of family obligations. This is why they subjected themselves to poor treatment, and it was not until they would gain more political and economic rights that they would begin to gain independence from the working-class strain.
Women’s roles within the work force did not change drastically because of industrialization. Industrialization created new opportunities that would help women realize that they were capable of more than just housework or care-giving. Industrialization created social awareness that enabled women not only to fight for better working rights or wages, but also equality. Women were once only seen as wives and mothers. Now they were seen as providers. Men and women now could occupy the same roles within family structures, and now gain credentials that would enable them to fight for their demands, such as divorce and child custody and other rights that should have been theirs from the start.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Sowerwine, Charles. “Socialism, Feminism, and the Socialist Women’s Movement from the French Revolution to World War II.” Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Third Ed. 357-387.