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The Victorian Occupation Index

There is a well known saying: “A woman’s place is in the home”, an ideal so entrenched in our thinking that the majority of us, when asked, would agree that our understanding of a woman’s life in the Victorian era, is that it was a life filled with domestic chores, lived out in the home.

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The Victorian middle-classes certainly played a big part in promoting that understanding – a wife was to be the “Angel of the House”. This was a time when a woman’s worth could be measured by her home and the state of her doorstep, when your earned your rest. A time when the ideal woman brought up her children and cared for her husband to the exclusion of the grim realities of the wider world, while her husband went out and brought home the bacon. What most of us don’t realise is that this was far from the reality for a significant minority of married, working-class, women and that, rather than this being the norm for working-class women, it is actually a middle-class ideology.

Women worked, both within the home and outside it. Many women were the breadwinner in a family, their work being better paid or more reliable that that of their husbands, and for a large number of working-class women the joys of being ‘just a housewife’ were denied to them.

I have spent several years now researching the reality of working-class women’s work in Victorian Britain, considering women’s work in different regions, different settings: was the experience of a country girl different to that of a woman living in the city? What I have found is that far from working women being a tiny minority, in some instances as many as 35% of married women were in paid employment, if you consider single women then that figure rises to closer to 70-80%. Middle-class women worked also, certainly when young and unmarried, and a few of these went on to carry out paid work following their marriage. However, the Victorian Domestic Ideology – this idea that a woman’s place was in the home, that the husband was the breadwinner, and that carrying out paid work was, somehow, almost dirty and degrading making the wife less of a woman and virtually emasculating her husband, was rampant in the middle-classes.

So women’s work and the occupations they were working in is a very important part of our history, and a fascinating subject to research. Using many contemporary sources, pamphlets, surveys, newspapers and letters it is possible to look closely at these occupations, most of which no longer exist, to see how many hours a woman worked, the conditions that they worked in, how much they were paid, how they did the job they did – what is actually involved in fancy box making?

It is possible to see these jobs listed in the census – to see where the women lived who carried out this work and to analyse whether where you lived had a direct effect on your possibilities for employment, and so to make ends meet.