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Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

Author(s):Pinchbeck, Ivy
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850.London: George Routledge, 1930. x + 342 pp.

Review Essay by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

A Pioneer in Women’s History:

Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

During the past twenty years economic historians have begun to pay more attention to the role of women in the economy of Industrial Revolution Britain, and how our conclusions might change if we no longer neglect them. We can thank Ivy Pinchbeck for blazing the trail seventy years ago. Her Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 is one of the most significant works in twentieth-century economic history both because of its merits and because of the impact it had on later scholarship. Pinchbeck consulted a huge number of primary sources, and was able to synthesize this material into broader conclusions that have shaped our understanding of women’s history. The book was a pioneering effort in the field of women’s economic history, and has served as a valuable resource for later researchers.

Ivy Pinchbeck is not one of economic history’s superstars, and relatively little is known about her. She was born in 1898. In 1930 she received her Ph.D. in Economic History from the London School of Economics, where she worked under Eileen Power. She spent her entire career (1928 through her retirement) at Bedford College, London. In 1969 she published (with Margaret Hewitt) Children in English Society, which examined English children from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century. She also published a couple of articles in the British Journal of Sociology, but her list of publications is not particularly long. Pinchbeck wrote about women’s history before it was considered an important topic, and she lived, and presumably died, in relative obscurity.

Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution is clearly the product of countless hours of research. The number of texts that Pinchbeck consults is amazing, and this wide-ranging research makes her bibliography of primary sources a valuable resource for the student of women’s history. It contains seven manuscript sources, 120 volumes of parliamentary reports, 21 newspapers and periodicals, and 208 contemporary books and pamphlets. This breadth of sources allows her to quote not only from the most famous authors such as Arthur Young and F.M. Eden, but also from more obscure sources such as the pamphlets “A Present for a Servant Maid” and “An Enquiry into the Advantages and Disadvantages Resulting from Bills of Enclosure.” Pinchbeck quotes liberally from these sources, and each chapter is filled with footnotes, providing a gold mine for the researcher. If there is an important quote in the report of a parliamentary committee, chances are high that you will find that quote in Pinchbeck’s book.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on agriculture and the second on “industry and trade.” The first section examines both female laborers, whose participation in agriculture remained high, and farmers’ wives, who withdrew from farm work during this period. The second section examines women in textiles, domestic industries, mining, metals, and various crafts. One admirable feature of the book is that it examines not only the work of poor women, but also the work of women higher up the occupational ladder. Pinchbeck examines the work of women who ran dairies, kept shops, provided medical services, and participated in a wide variety of trades. Pinchbeck finds evidence of women auctioneers and notes that facts such as this “cause some astonishment at the present day when it is so often wrongly assumed that women have only just begun to enter the business world” (Pinchbeck, p. 286).

While Pinchbeck spends most of her time describing the conditions of employment, she does on occasion pause to draw more general conclusions. Her central claim is that, on the whole, the Industrial Revolution made women better off. Initially women suffered from declining employment opportunities, but after the turn of the nineteenth century their prospects improved. Pinchbeck claims that women were better off in 1850 than in 1750 for two reasons. First, many women withdrew from the labor force and were able to enjoy more leisure and higher social standing. Pinchbeck sees the opportunity to specialize in housework as a privilege, and thus she sees withdrawal of some married women from the labor force as an improvement. While Pinchbeck notes that many women lost economic independence, she considers the gains to be large enough to make up for this loss. Noting the withdrawal of farmers’ wives from productive employment, she claims, “In the change she sacrificed her former economic independence according to the extent to which she ceased to manage her household and contributed to the wealth of her family, but for her, the new conditions meant an advance in the social scale and did not entail any material hardship” (Pinchbeck, p. 42). For Pinchbeck, the move toward a “family wage,” which allowed a man to support a family and allowed wives to withdraw from the labor force, was a clear advance.

The second way in which women were better off in 1850 was in improved working conditions for those women who remained in the labor force. Pinchbeck notes that, while contemporaries thought factory conditions were bad, these conditions were actually better than the conditions in alternative employments in domestic industry. Women entering the factories did not leave behind ideal circumstances, but domestic industries with low pay and poor working conditions. Pinchbeck concludes that “the Industrial Revolution has on the whole proved beneficial to women. It has resulted in greater leisure for women in the home and has relieved them from the drudgery and monotony that characterized much of the hand labour previously performed in connection with industrial work under the domestic system. For the woman workers outside the home it has resulted in better conditions, a greater variety of openings and an improved status” (Pinchbeck, p. 4).

When the book appeared, the topic of women’s work was marginal. A decade earlier Alice Clark had written The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, but women’s work was hardly a popular topic. When Pinchbeck’s book came out it was favorably reviewed. General economics journals such as the Economics Journal and the American Economic Review carried reviews. Scholars were familiar with the book and considered it important; Kenneth Walker, in a review of a 1948 book on factory legislation, chides the author for failing to keep up with “recent literature pertinent to this subject” such as Pinchbeck’s book. For the most part, however, the book was politely ignored. Both the topic and the book remained on the margins of economic history for five decades. The first Journal of Economic History article that cites Pinchbeck is a 1959 article on the Industrial Revolution by R.M. Hartwell. Even here, the focus is not on women’s history, but on the standard of living debate; Hartwell quotes Pinchbeck as saying that factories improved the standard of living. Pinchbeck is not cited again in a Journal of Economic History article until the 1980s.

Since 1980 Pinchbeck has received more attention because we have come to realize that an economic history that ignores women is a poor economic history (see Humphries, 1991). Pinchbeck has become required reading for students of women in the Industrial Revolution and is universally cited in current works on that topic. Humphries (1991, p. 32) calls the book a “classic text.” Jane Rendall (1990, p. 7) claims that “Pinchbeck’s work is still of great importance, and for the moment remains the major survey of the impact of industrialization on women workers in Britain.” Many works on women’s history begin with a reference to Pinchbeck. Duncan Bythell begins “Women in the Work Force” by contrasting Pinchbeck’s optimistic view of women’s opportunities to Eric Richards’ more pessimistic view. While Pinchbeck’s book was relatively neglected when it first appeared, it has stood the test of time.

For a historian relying on non-quantitative sources, Pinchbeck did an admirable job of describing the patterns and trends in women’s work. Later historians using more quantitative methods generally agree with her descriptions. A good example is Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries’ 1995 Economic History Review article, which begins with the sentence, “Ivy Pinchbeck argued 65 years ago that the changes in the British economy during the industrial revolution promoted increased dependence on male wages and male wage-earners” (Horrell and Humphries, 1995, p. 89). Using a probit equation to predict female labor force participation, they find a downward trend in female labor force participation throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, which leads them to the conclusion that “Sixty-five years on we find that our evidence largely supports Pinchbeck’s views” (Horrell and Humphries, 1995, p. 113). Other historians have also supported Pinchbeck’s claims. K.D.M. Snell’s Annals of the Labouring Poor finds that, in the early nineteenth century, farmers hired fewer workers as annual servants, supporting Pinchbeck’s conclusion that “the custom of employing annual servants who lived in the farm declined in favour of day laborers who were responsible for their own board and lodging” (Pinchbeck, p. 37). Snell’s examination of the records of parish apprentices confirms Pinchbeck’s observation that women were apprenticed to a wide variety of trades. Investigating the employment of day-laborers at a farm near Sheffield, I have found that the pattern of female employment in agriculture fits well with the pattern that Pinchbeck describes: declining female employment between 1815 and 1834, followed by increasing female employment (Burnette, 1999).

Pinchbeck’s most controversial conclusion is her claim that the Industrial Revolution made women better off. Jane Rendall (1990, p. 7) claims that “Most modern historians would see her interpretation . . . as unduly optimistic.” Many historians see the period as one during which women lost rather than gained. The disagreement seems to be mainly one of interpretation. Pinchbeck notes that many women withdrew from the labor force, and she interprets this as a gain. Women had more leisure, and more time to devote to their housework. Other historians, observing the same change, have interpreted it as a decline in women’s position as they were forced out of the labor market. Women may have gained leisure, but they lost independence and bargaining power. Davidoff and Hall (1987, p. 273), for example, note that “the loss of opportunities to earn increased the dominance of marriage as the only survival route for middle-class women.”

Occasionally Pinchbeck includes statements that resemble theories later formalized by economics. For example, in her introduction Pinchbeck states that “such occupations as were open to women were overstocked” (Pinchbeck, p. 2). This sounds like the crowding model of discrimination developed by Barbara Bergmann in 1971. At other times Pinchbeck’s theory is not so strong. A weak point in her economics is her theory of wage determination. She assumes wages were based on what one needed to survive, not on productivity. Discussing wages earned by spinners, she claims, “Manufacturers were inclined to base wages on the assumption that the spinners were already maintained by their husbands” (Pinchbeck, p. 144). She claims that the withdrawal of women from the labor force was not really an economic loss to the family because “in many instances women’s earnings only served to keep their husbands’ wages at the level of individual subsistence. In this sense the industrial revolution marked a real advance, since it led to the assumption that men’s wages should be paid on a family basis” (Pinchbeck, p. 313). This theory of wage determination probably comes from the classical wage fund doctrine, but this does not excuse her because other economists at that time recognized the weakness of this theory. Frances Gillespie, in her review of the book, notes that “Whether men’s wages were kept down to the level of their own subsistence because women and children earned their own keep, is arguable” (Gillespie, p. 419-420). Gillespie uses better economic theory when she argues that if women’s employment had any effect on male wages it was through competition in the labor market.

Pinchbeck’s book received little attention for fifty years because it took the rest of the profession that long to realize the importance of her topic. We now recognize the importance of investigating the work of women as well as the work of men, and we must thank Ivy Pinchbeck for leading the way.


Bergmann, Barbara. 1971. “The Effect on White Incomes of Discrimination in Employment.” Journal of Political Economy, 79 (March/April): 294-313.

Burnette, Joyce. 1999. “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield during the Agricultural Revolution.” Journal of Economic History, 59 (March): 41-67.

Bythell, Duncan. 1993. “Women in the Work Force.” In Patrick O’Brien and Roland Quinault, editors, The Industrial Revolution and British Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Alice. 1919. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. London: Routledge.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Hall, Catherine. 1987. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hartwell, R.M. 1959. “Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in England: A Methodological Inquiry.” Journal of Economic History, 19 (June): 229-249.

Horrell, Sara, and Humphries, Jane. 1995. “Women’s Labor Force Participation and the Transition to the Male-breadwinner Family, 1790-1865.” Economic History Review. 48 (Feb.): 89-117.

Humphries, Jane. 1991. “‘Lurking in the Wings. . .': Women in the Historiography of the Industrial Revolution.” Business and Economic History, 20: 32-44.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1930. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: George Routledge.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1956 and 1957. “State and the Child in Sixteenth-Century England.” British Journal of Sociology, 7 (Dec.): 273-285 and 8 (Mar.): 59-74.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1969. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Augustus M. Kelley.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1977. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Frank Cass.

Pinchbeck, Ivy. 1981. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. London: Virago.

Pinchbeck, Ivy, and Hewitt, Margaret. 1969. Children in English Society. 2 volumes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rendall, Jane. 1990. Women in an Industrializing Society: England 1750-1880. Oxford: Blackwell.

Snell, K.D.M. 1985. Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, Kenneth. 1949. Review of The Early Factory Legislation: A Study in Legislative and Administrative Evolution, by Maurice Walton Thomas. Journal of Economic History, 9(Nov.): 247-248.

–Reviews of Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850:

1. Edith Abbott, American Historical Review, 37 (Jan. 1932): 325-326.

2. George Engberg, Journal of Economic History, 31(June 1971): 519-520.

3. Frances E. Gillespie, Journal of Political Economy, 39 (June 1931): 418-420.

4. J. de L. Mann, Economic History Review, 3 (Oct. 1931): 303-305.

5. Helen Sumner Woodbury, American Economic Review, 29 (Dec. 1930): 713-722.

6. Barbara Wootton, Economic Journal, 41(Mar. 1931): 128-129.

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