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Female Labour Power: Women Workers’ Influence on Business Practices in the British and American Cotton Industries, 1780-1860

Author(s):Greenlees, Janet
Reviewer(s):Nickless, Pamela J.

Published by EH.NET (June 2008)

Janet Greenlees, Female Labour Power: Women Workers’ Influence on Business Practices in the British and American Cotton Industries, 1780-1860. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007. xx + 244 pp. ?55/$100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-7546-4050-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela J. Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Janet Greenlees’ goal in this very fine study is to provide a more complicated and nuanced view of the role of women workers in industry. In particular she seeks to highlight “women’s agency as operatives and workers in the process of industrialization and developing perceptions of women’s work.” Her comparative approach emphasizes the unifying theme of that gender mattered but so did firm location and size. In particular, technological choice was influenced by local variations in transport, natural resources, and cultural as well as economic considerations. The influence of women workers on conditions of work and their experiences as workers varied by locality as well as by country. Although Greenlees does not put it quite this way, it seems to this reader that the variation within country was greater than the variation among “best practice” firms in Britain and the United States.

Chapters 2 through 5 are an analysis of the development of the cotton industry and how women’s roles developed over time. Chapters 6 and 7 look at women’s responses to industrialization and their role in the negotiation of the gendered nature of work. Greenlees uses a variety of sources and types of analysis ? indeed one of the strengths of this book is the variety of secondary sources used in her summary of the work on women and industrialization. So often the work economic historians or social historians is missing or inaccurately represented in the work of the other, but Greenlees has done a wonderful job integrating the analysis of economists and historians in her historiography and throughout the study.

The best and most valuable chapters are those on the choice of business organization and technology by firms. Most readers of this review will be familiar with the development of Lowell’s integrated mills and the interactive role of the availability of female labor and choice of technology. Greenlees uses firm-level data from a variety of firms located throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic area to argue persuasively that this is far too simple a story. Location, firm size and culture and tradition mattered as well. The “gender” of a job varied based on location and firm size as well as over time in both Britain and the United States. Greenlees emphasizes the role of labor market constraints and culture in the assignment of jobs by gender and in the proportions of men and women working in the mills. As might be expected, where men had more lucrative opportunities, women had more job choices available. Yet, local restrictions on women’s work, by trade union rules and/or by manufacturers’ adoption of gendered notions of work and skill, could reduce the numbers of women and the jobs they performed. Local economic and social conditions were key in the choice of organization and technology. Greenlees also emphasizes that firms had different goals ? while all might fit the “profit-maximizing” model from Econ 100 not all firms had the same time-horizon in mind and all were embedded in communities. Over time, as the notion of factory labor was developed and as transportation networks changed, firms’ choices of organization and technique changed. Students of technological change in textiles will find much to chew over in Greenlees’ analysis.

Of interest to students of wage change over time is Chapter 4, “Millwork: Pay, Work and Equity.” Greenlees finds the wage patterns and comparative performance defy easy generalization. Local circumstances loom large in determining men’s and women’s wages and productivity quite overshadowing the international differences. Greenlees finds that firm-level data on wages often contradicts or complicates national wage date from the U.S. Censuses, British Parliamentary Reports or other contemporary observers. Greenlees is careful to point out that, even at the firm level, you cannot always distinguish between women and children, introducing all sorts of problems with data comparisons. This chapter adds detail and nuance to Greenlees previously published work in this field.

The closing chapters on women’s response to industrial work are less satisfying, in part because direct testimony of women workers is scarce. Nevertheless, the same broad theme is well-supported ? local conditions and traditions mattered. Greenlees calls for a broader framework for analyzing the actions of women workers rather than trying to place them only in the context of a women’s labor movement. I found the analysis of the United States less unconvincing, resting as it does on an interpretation of differences between British and American work culture that are overstated.

This is a valuable addition to the literature on the cotton industry, but I fear it will not attract the wider audience it deserves. Too much knowledge of the industry is assumed to make the work appeal to a non-specialist. Some of this could be solved with more detailed explanatory notes for some of the tables. The text also suffers from some bibliographical glitches and typos in footnotes. Since one of the book’s real pluses is Greenlees’ excellent and intriguing historiography, this may make the bibliography less useful. I should add that I might have missed these errors but for the luxury of footnotes at the bottom of the page. In conclusion, I think this is must read for cotton textile scholars and scholars of women’s role in early industry. They will find much to admire and, probably, much with which to argue.

Pamela J. Nickless recently published “Scarlett’s Sisters: Spinsters, Widows, Wives, and Free-Traders in Nineteenth Century North Carolina,” in Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Beth Harris (Ashgate, 2005) and has recently started a study on nineteenth-century female proprietors in Charleston, SC.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century