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The Middle & Working Class Women of the Nineteenth Century

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The Middle and Working Class Women of the Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century many changes began to occur within society, as the Industrial Revolution gave rise to factory jobs, and the increased need for energy production. Competition for jobs soared as there was not enough work for the amount of people seeking employment, that means that people would work for less and less money to obtain employment. Women and children were commonly hired because factories would not have to pay them as much as men. The working class continued to get lower incomes leading to the family needing as many people to work as possible, including women and young children, so with the increase in the number of women entering the workforce, or the public sphere, it gave rise to a shift in gender ideology. Changing gender ideology was being pushed further by the Industrial Revolution to change society’s unrealistic expectations, while women were continuously seen as nothing by society and as a consequence faced many injustices.

Throughout, most of western history, the private sphere was the woman’s domain, and in many cases her sole domain. The Industrial Revolution barely had an impact in the lives of housewives, more specifically those of the middle class. They still dwelt mainly in the private sphere and kept the house in order. They had more money to spend on luxuries such as servants to help aide them with household duties. The women were instructed to interview servants and their former mistresses to see how if they would be a fit in her household. They were instructed to wake up early and to be frugal1. Isabella Beeton writes “a [h]ousekeeping [a]ccount-book should invariably be kept, and kept punctually and precisely.”

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This allowed the women of the household to effectively keep an orderly home by being logging in the chores that were already completed and the tasks that still needed to be done. Not only were there instructions on how to effectively run households but there were guidelines on how they should behave both in social environments and within their homes. They were told to be delicate, sympathetic, and graceful as that would help them to achieve the respect of those around them. Housewives greatest influence is that of “domestic comfort…, and the greatest debt society owes her; for happiness is almost an element of virtue, and nothing conduces more to improve the character of men than domestic peace.”

Women’s main duties were not just simply taking care of the house and their children, but their tasks included taking care of the husband to aid in developing his character through peace within the home. While, middle and working class women had similar tasks when it came to their household duties the one thing that separates them is that many working class women made their way into the public sphere to bring in income for their household. Living within their means became essential for many housewives as many people were struggling financially and some people became increasingly worried that machines could replace them at work.

Due to the fierce competition for jobs and decreasing wages, the men were not making enough to support the household which compelled women had to begin looking and becoming employed in labor intensive jobs. Even when women work around twelve hours a day in mines, they are still expected to keep up with household duties, raising the children, and have sex with their husbands at his bidding or face physical punishment. They never had time for themselves nor were they treated like people even within their own households. Flora Tristan describes how these conditions that the working class women face made them bitter, irritated, and hard hearted and combining that with a lack of education made them mean and brutal to their own children and to their husbands

The working class women faced many injustices such as physical and sexual abuse, as Betty Harris describes how her husband “has [beats] [her] many… times for not being ready.”This not only happens between the husband and the wife but it occurs between some women and men in the work place with or without that woman’s consent. Another difference between the middle and the working class women was how they were viewed by society. The middle class women were viewed as moral, clean, and more educated and therefore, other women should look up to them, while the working class were considered to be sinful, and dirty as “some of the women had bastards,”3 which helped solidify this stereotype, most likely without considering that these women were raped.

Overall, society attempted to restrain women to solely the private sector but with factories becoming more popular, the declining economic situation for the working class, women were increasingly needed to work in the public sector by their household. This caused gender ideology for women to begin shifting from only the private sector into the public sector, women like Flora Tristan, demanded that basic education should be available to every woman no matter their class. As a result of a growing movement, society was being forced to change their gender norms and previously held mindsets regarding women. Women began striving to achieve rights so they would be protected and that they could receive the justice that they so deserved from years of physical, sexual, and sometimes emotional abuse as their current society did not acknowledge the injustices they faced daily at home and in the work place.


  1. Beeton, Isabella. “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.” In Perspectives From the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, eds., James Brophy et al., 367-369. Vol. 2. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
  2. Sanford, Elizabeth Poole. “Woman in Her Social and Domestic Character.” In Perspectives From the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations, eds., James Brophy et al., 370-71. Vol. 2. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
  3. “Two Women Miners.” “Internet History Sourcebooks.” Fordham University. January 1998.
  4. Tristan, Flora. “Why I Mention Women.” In Modern Europe: Sources and Perspectives From History, eds., John C. Swanson and Michael S. Melancon, 171-77. (New York: Longman Publishers, 2003).
  5. Ellis, Sarah Stickney. “Characteristics of the Women of England (1839).” In Sources of The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, ed., Katherine J. Lualdi, 146-49, Vol. 2 since 1500. (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2009).


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