Making a Living Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901

Women's Work

The notion of 'respectability' reigned supreme in the late Victorian age and women especially were expected to uphold and live by it. Their place was supposed to be in the home - the 'domestic angel' - and yet the 1901 census reported that 31.6% of females over the age of 10 were in paid employment. Who were these women and what work did they do?

A woman's place? - link to an enlarged version
A woman's place is in the home?
The 1901 census found that less than one-third of women were in paid employment. However, this statistic is almost certainly underestimated because work done in the home often went unrecorded.

Most women who undertook paid employment in 1901 did so because they had to. Widowhood, for members of the working classes, almost always meant penury; some women felt the need to boost the family income because their husbands were unemployed or poorly paid; others worked because they had no other family members to support them. There were, of course, some women who worked to maintain their independence, but they were in a minority.

The paid work undertaken by women was varied. The 1901 census recorded women employed as lawyers' clerks, physicians, dentists or dental assistants, teachers, authors, journalists and shorthand writers. However, the vast majority - nearly 80% - were in domestic and other services or in manufacture (usually connected to textiles).

Follow this link to women telephonists.

Follow this link to women typists.
Mill girls - link to an enlarged version

Most women who worked were employed as domestic servants: they numbered 1,690,686 women, or 40.5% of the adult female working population. Their working conditions varied enormously. Although some were employed in large households, it seems likely that more worked in homes with only a few servants. Wages varied, too. A Board of Trade report of 1899 found that the average annual wage for a female domestic servant aged 21 to 25 was 16 5s. However, whilst a housemaid in this age bracket earned close to this average with wages of 16 2s, a general maid earned only 14 6s.

Should women work?
Despite Victorian ideology about a woman's place, in 1901 there was debate about whether women should work, and, if so, what kind of work should they do. A letter to The Times called the employment of young women in the City of London 'a gigantic mistake' and argued that employment as servants was a much better training for their future role as wives. When a female doctor was appointed at Macclesfield Infirmary in 1901, her male colleagues walked out and she was forced to resign. Yet a 1901 editorial in The Times argued that women's wages were essential, rather than additional, to the family's income and that they were 'far lower than they ought to be'.

Women's Work Children's Work Men's Work