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Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain

Author(s):Burnette, Joyce
Reviewer(s):Hatton, Timothy J.

Published by EH.NET (December 2008)

Joyce Burnette, Gender, Work and Wages in Industrial Revolution Britain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 377 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-88063-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Timothy J. Hatton, Department of Economics, Australian National University.

Joyce Burnette?s book provides a highly revisionist view of the position of women in the labor market during the century from 1750 to 1850. To say that this is contested terrain would be a gross understatement and Burnette?s reinterpretation directly confronts, and seeks to overturn, much of what historians have argued. In particular she challenges those who believe that occupational segregation and gender wage gaps must be interpreted as social phenomena that are rooted in custom and gender ideology. She argues instead that much of what is observed can be interpreted as the work of markets. An overarching theme of the book is that the custom, culture and ideology of gender divisions were largely shaped by labor market imperatives, and not the other way around.

Burnette?s analysis is rooted firmly in the neoclassical theory of competitive labor markets. She asserts that gender differences in labor market outcomes can be explained by two key biological differences between men and women: men?s superior physical strength and women?s unique ability to bear children. ?Can be explained? is the operative phrase as the alternative interpretations are often observationally equivalent. Nevertheless Burnette strives to discriminate between neoclassical interpretations of the labor market and less sharply specified alternatives. While the objective is to push this argument as far as possible, the author recognizes that there are limits. In significant sectors of the labor market, institutional forces were important; but according to Burnette, labor market segmentation and its concomitant wage effects were driven by the self interest of those with market power and not specifically by gender ideology.

Chapters 1 and 2 lay out the evidence on women?s occupational distribution and the gender wage gap. Data from the census, employment records and business directories are used to highlight three key features. The first is the well known fact that women?s employment was highly concentrated, generally in low wage occupations. The second is that, despite this concentration, women were represented in small numbers in almost all occupations. And the third is that patterns of employment were not immutable; they changed considerably in the course of the industrial revolution. On wages, Burnette argues that the literature has often underestimated women?s wages relative to men?s on a like-for-like basis. This is because women often worked shorter hours, possessed lower skill levels and ? especially for jobs that required physical strength ? women?s productivity was lower than men?s. Focusing on piece rates she shows that the ?true? ratio of women?s wages to men?s is in the range three fifths to three quarters rather than between a third and a half. Along the way she inveighs against those who focus on fairness or on relative effort, insisting that wages depend on what workers produce and not on what they deserve.

Surely the occupational segregation that is so commonly observed is prima facie evidence that women were kept out of the more remunerative occupations by custom, convention and discrimination, especially given the evidence that women could do many of the jobs that were largely the preserve of men. Not so, argues Burnette. In unskilled occupations the sorting of employment by gender can be largely explained by comparative advantage ? that is by the underlying differences in the endowments of women and men. In the occupations that required strength men had a comparative advantage; by contrast women had comparative advantage in sectors such as cottage industry where they could combine work with child care. Perhaps the most compelling illustration, which recurs throughout the book, is in cotton textiles. Before the industrial revolution women spun and men weaved; the spinning mule required strength and so spinning became a male domain. Yet while many of Burnette?s illustrations are convincing, some occupations simply don?t fit. For example laundry work was notoriously heavy work and yet it was almost exclusively done by women, while other occupations like tailoring and hairdressing, which were less physically demanding, remained the province of men.

Drawing on her earlier research, Burnette provides econometric evidence to show that men and women were substitutes across a range of occupations. Using Arthur Young?s data for individual farms she finds that where men?s wages were higher (reflecting their scarcity) women?s employment was higher too. The implication is that women were not just potential substitutes ? they were actually substituted for men. An alternative test of substitution versus segmentation is that, looking across localities, men?s and women?s wages were positively correlated. The interpretation here is that male labor scarcity drove up women?s wages if the two were substitutes. But this test is not clear cut ? a positive correlation between wages by gender (even across seasons in the same location) could simply reflect the impact of common demand shocks on otherwise segmented labor markets.

Many readers would doubt that gender pay gaps and occupational segregation could be explained by biological endowments beyond obvious examples where physical strength was at a premium. Chapter 5 argues that while such effects were pervasive in the unskilled occupations where there was little to impede competition, the same cannot be said of skilled occupations. Burnette claims that access to skilled occupations was restricted by formal or informal trade unionism (rather than by employers), even though such associations were illegal under the Combination Acts until 1824. Where unionism was strong (more so among English compositors, mule spinners and miners than among their Scottish counterparts) and male workers had some source of economic leverage, women were successfully excluded.

Chapter 6 goes on to explore a mixed bag of non-manual occupations. As is well known, in fields such as law, medicine and in the church, growing professionalization increased the power to exclude. By contrast, in areas such as teaching where there was essentially free entry, women were well represented. But they were underrepresented in business and in self-employment generally. Restricted access to capital could be the culprit but this gets limited support. Women?s lack of legal independence from their husbands seems more likely, but in Burnette?s view, women?s enterprise was constrained because competitive pressures did not permeate the family. Here we come close to reasserting the importance of gender ideology and abandoning neoclassical arguments (such as those of Gary Becker).

A final chapter examines the trend in women?s participation, which appears to have been declining in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The essential argument is that growing occupational segregation tended to reduce overall demand for women?s labor while growing male incomes raised women?s reservation wages through household income effects. These forces combined to reduce women?s supply of market work. But it is unclear whether these forces alone are sufficient, and Burnette concedes that trends in gender ideology might have been important even though it is not possible to distinguish between cause and effect. Although the great diversity of participation rates across regions and localities offers potential tests of such hypotheses (especially as labor market conditions are more localized than ideology) this dimension is rather neglected. In general, a fuller account of the evolution of women?s work from a regional perspective would have strengthened some of the analysis in the later chapters.

Joyce Burnette?s book provides an account of women?s work during the industrial revolution that is thoroughly researched and cogently argued. What makes it so powerful is the uncompromising application of neoclassical economics, which provides the book with the coherence and internal consistency that other approaches often lack. That flavor will not please everyone. The book lays down a clear challenge to much of the existing literature and it provides an important focal point for further debate. I am sure that it will become the totemic reference for this kind of thinking about the evolution of women?s work. For those with even a passing interest in gender history or in the industrial revolution, I thoroughly recommend it.

Timothy J. Hatton is Professor of Economics at the Australian National University and the University of Essex and is a Research Fellow of the CEPR (London) and the IZA (Bonn). His main interests are labor market history and international migration and his recent work includes Global Migration and the World Economy (with Jeffrey G. Williamson), MIT Press, 2005.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century