Women & Labor

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in Great Britain, the labor force that came from it, which Horsfall found himself drawn to helping, included both men and women. As a result of the new presence of women laborers, the Industrial Revolution also brought with it a societal change and challenge to womanhood as they left behind their “natural” place within their homes and were able to publicly show they had the same capabilities as their male labor counterparts. Being a “lady” was clearly reserved for the upper classes, however being a “lady” and “woman” had become intertwined resulting in the bewilderment of critics of women laborers. Additionally, because “women were [perceive to be] more docile and less pugnacious than men…” (Tuttle, 184) factory owners saw them as less likely to unionize as well, their delicate hands and fingers attuned to talented detail work, particularly in the textile industries. The irony in this, though, is the Industrial Revolution’s elimination of the skilled worker for the unskilled factory worker while women were still singled out for their “feminine” ability to achieve intricate details in their work, exploited and paid less then men. By proving the skill and abilities of women as laborers, soon came movements focused on labor rights and suffrage. The Industrial Revolution’s opportunity structures which first allowed women to simply work in greater numbers in the public sphere led to a change in conception of womanhood, and highlighted the differences too between the “angel in the home” and the woman in the factory. 


The Manchester Art Museum set aside attention to mothers with rooms decorated with artwork, a piano room, and a general space for women to meet monthly and feel a sense of community between them. By using his museum in this way, Horsfall created a space in which women could bring their sewing and knitting tasks as well as their children, bringing together women of different classes. This class division, between the “clean” and “tidy” middle or elite classed women and their apparently dirty and untidy lower class counterparts infers that class differences were not confined to men as either businessmen or laborers, but women too; though mothers attended these meetings, their class and appearance set them apart as the divide between them became more stark, limiting the ladies of the upper classes from the women in the working class. 


William Quiller Orchardson R.A., Her Idol, 1869.

Women as the guardians of morality

Middle class Victorian women were raised to embody “ideal” femininity, where marriage was a career, one which did not include working outside of the private, family sphere.Having set aside a space for women to gather in his museum, Horsfall aimed to create a kind of model domestic space, with the goal of modeling proper gendered behavior for the working women of Ancoats. This painting from the Manchester City Gallery, though unlikely to have been hung by Horsfall himself, portrays that idealized notion of womanhood, which one could say was synonymous with motherhood. For Victorians, “lady” and “work” were polar opposites; contradictions that if involved with each other cancelled the other out. If a woman should work, said one social critic, “she loses that particular position which the word lady conventionally designates,” (Callen, 22) thus leaving no room for a working woman to be considered a lady, denouncing her womanhood. A woman’s access to leisure time with her children too depicted the wealth of the family and reflected that status of a husband, and whose gender placed her “intrinsically suited to [the] role in the home…[a] guardian of morality,” (Laqueur, 121) and most importantly child-bearer and care taker, depicted in this painting. What should be understood about this painting too is that this scene, and what it shows represents a scene worthy of the time and effort of the artist, reflects a societal view of normalcy for women and as a work of art, beauty.


Henry Edward Tidmarsh, Velveteen Cutting at Platts Works, 1903.

A new presence in city labor

By 1851 nearly a quarter of Great Britain’s female population worked outside their homes and constituted around thirty percent of Britain’s labor force. Women agricultural and domestic work was not new, but was new were women entering the textile industries and working within cities, in contrast to still dubbed “women’s” work in the private sphere as a domestic servant or in the fields. The sexual division of labor created the guidelines for gender as a result, placing upon women work standards that included domestic work due to “intrinsic” skills relating to service and clothes making, like the women employed in the factory setting of this painting. A shift then, brought on by the increased need for a labor force of the Industrial Revolution, brought women, usually young women, into cities where they sought both jobs in domestic service as well as in textile mills. So numerous were new female and children laborers too that social critic and philanthropist Charles Bray, who himself thought women should be in their homes, admitted that by 1857 Britain’s “industrial system [had] absorbed both wife and children and to retrace [Britain’s would] be very difficult, if not impossible" (Tuttle, 181).


It seems that once women were placed more directly into Britain’s capitalist society and labor pool that their employment was most noticeable, and less favorably received by the general public. Women who worked as domestic servants, governesses, and teachers still operated in a feminine gendered space, but stepping into roles in public labor was "men's space." Mass production during the Industrial Revolution was labor intensive and factory owners were quick to capitalize on the cheapened labor they could get out of women; with so many more machines and moving parts women were often utilized for their cheaper wages and their “dainty” hands for intricate works like spinning and knitting. Horsfall did not see these women as fallen by any means, rather now included in the labor force of the Industrial Revolution who he sought to educate and enlighten through art and interactions with middle and upper class women. He did however hope that the museum would serve as a model that poorer women could use to "emulate the "Museum fashion,'" like that of the fashion of women who worked in the museum (Bailkin, 130).


Eyre Crowe, The Dinning Hour, 1874.

"Unattractive materials"? 

Women laborers who entered the public sphere were often met with intense scrutiny from social critics for leaving their children, a thought that seemed to horrify men of the day. Disapproval and contempt of women textile workers even came to be so distressing that doctors in a region in Britain compiled lists of married women to distribute to factory owners in an effort to end the “terrible practice,” (Tuttle, 192) in regard to working mothers. As new members of the labor force though, these women were now exactly who Horsfall was reaching out to with his museum. This was not the only opposition women laborers faced though. Gender biases against their work labeled them as “unskilled” workers against their male counterparts who performed the same tasks as “skilled” or “semiskilled.” This painting in particular, which may not have been hung in the museum by Horsfall himself but is there now and is of another industrial region in England, Wigan, portraying women factory workers in 1874 was met with criticism such as, “…it was a pity Mr. Crowe wasted his time on such unattractive materials.” 


Was it within its background containing factory chimneys pushing out smoke that’s so unattractive, or the image of women laborers? Or even was it that industrialization was now affecting the beauty of “the woman” by placing them into the public work sphere and the idea that they then could not perform their duties as mothers fully? This painting, done during the Industrial Revolution was the new environment that women occupied; they shifted from an invisible member of the private sphere even for the poor, to now a visible presense as the working class or poor working class woman. This rare glimpse of factory women in a factory setting shows them in an area that Horsfall detested so much: smoke, brick, lacking trees and grass, and an overcast polluted sky. Art in Victorian society reflected reality and what was considered beautiful, which is useful tool for understanding its conception of not only nature as beautiful, but standards of womanly beauty as well. This painting, and its reception, is powerul in that just as women's representations in art, like that of Her Idol, stood to present an image of normalcy, this painting's creation acknowledges a new space for women and where they were. These were the women of the Ancoats; these were the women Horsfall was aimed towards helping through his museum. 


Written by Britani Letcher