Women and Children in the Industrial Workforce

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Women and Children in the Industrial Workforce

Beginning at the end of the seventeenth century, women and children played a central role in the burgeoning Irish textile industry. Explanation of their extensive presence requires attention to the intersection of class and gender stratification and the accumulation of profit. Since women and children were culturally defined as dependent on adult males, their labor was paid less than men's, and the cheap labor pool they supplied both increased employers' profits and frequently retarded technological innovations.

The Proto-Industrial Period, 1690–1825

Between 1690 and 1825 the Irish textile industry gained prominence. Although debate exists about the consequences of the British Woolen Act of 1698 that prohibited the export of Irish woolen goods to foreign ports, the production of frieze and old drapery expanded in many southeastern Irish towns. The division of labor in domestic wool production was typical of the Irish textile industry: Men wove cloth, women carded and washed raw wool and spun yarn, and children picked the wool, wound bobbins, and filled shuttles. A few women, mostly widows, were clothiers responsible for the organization of production and the marketing of cloth. L. A. Clarkson's evidence from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, shows that in 1799, 65 percent of employed females produced textiles, compared with 24 percent of employed males.

Narrow or bandle linen had been produced by women for centuries. However, linen's rapid commercial expansion after 1696 was dependent on duty-free access to English markets. In the proto-industrial period linen yarn and cloth were produced by a stratified class of tenant farmers who combined the production of yarn and cloth with small-scale farming. The male household head worked the land while his sons wove cloth and helped during harvest season. If a household lacked sons, journeymen, apprentice weavers, or extended kin were employed. Women and children helped to harvest and prepare the flax, spun it into yarn to be woven or sold, and wound yarn onto bobbins. Women were responsible for domestic tasks such as childcare, cooking and cleaning, and spun when they had spare time. Spinning was so important that often kin or itinerant spinners were hired to spin for a weaver in return for board, lodging, or a small wage.

Technological innovations in this period affected the sexual division of labor. Early in the eighteenth century women bleached linen cloth, but in the 1730s bleaching and finishing were the first processes to be centralized by capitalists who invested in time-saving technology that came to be used by men. Although male children were employed at open-air bleachgreens, relatively few women were. Similarly, seasonal water-powered flax-scutching mills multiplied in the late eighteenth century; women and children often performed ancillary tasks such as bruising, rolling, and stricking of flax for male scutchers. Such tasks posed persistent dangers owing to dust and unfenced machinery. Finally, after the introduction of the flying shuttle in 1808, women (typically, young daughters) increasingly turned to linen weaving.

Yarn spinning always had a commercial side linked to demands for yarn by weavers in the northeast of Ireland and for warp by cotton weavers in Lancashire, England. Although women's earnings helped to pay the family's rent or to lease larger plots of land, spinning was poorly remunerated and of lower status than weaving. Spinners earned from three to six pence per day, and weavers earned from one to five shillings, depending on demand and the type of cloth. Labor in Ireland was cheap because agrarian households absorbed part of the cost of reproducing their labor by leasing land to grow food and flax. Jane Gray (1993) argues that the cheap labor of spinners was integral to uneven capitalist development because merchants profited from buying cheap yarn in the western counties and selling it to manufacturers in northeast Ulster.

In the 1770s and 1780s the semiautonomous Irish Parliament acted to encourage and protect the cotton manufacture that had expanded in the Belfast vicinity. From its inception, cotton-yarn spinning was located in factories, with machinery powered by water or steam, and relied on cheap female and child labor. The Irish cotton industry was more heavily dependent on female labor than was the English industry: the male-to-female ratio in Belfast was 1:2, and in Lancashire, 1:1. The wages of women and children were also lower—in 1833 wages were 72 percent of those in Lancashire (O'Hearn 1994).

The lower cost of labor in the agrarian protoindustrial system deterred technological innovations in cotton, and cloth was produced by rural handloom weavers until the mid-nineteenth century. Although cotton handloom weavers were typically male, cotton was easier to weave than linen, and as mechanized cotton spinning declined in the 1820s and 1830s, handloom weavers' wages fell. These circumstances attracted women to cotton weaving; they comprised 31 percent of cotton weavers by 1851 in counties Antrim, Armagh, and Down.

Factory Production of Textiles, 1825 to the Present

The prevalence of children's working long hours in unhealthy conditions in British textile factories led to state efforts, beginning in 1819, to limit their working hours and ages. In 1844 factory children were required to attend school for a partial day (as "halftimers"). The minimum age of employment was raised from nine in 1819 to ten in 1879; in 1891 the minimum age was again raised to eleven. However, the conflicting interests of working-class parents who needed their children's wages, and the accumulation of profits by factory owners, negatively affected working-class children's schooling.

Cheap labor also retarded technological innovations in the linen industry, which resumed its dominance after cotton's collapse. In 1825 the wet-spinning process enabled fine linen yarn to be produced more quickly and cheaply by workers, thus eliminating handspinning. Thereafter, displaced handspinners were workers in spinning mills, wound yarn for handloom weavers, wove linen cloth on handlooms, or were absorbed into the sewing industry. Although periodic investigations of working conditions in spinning mills were conducted, dust and moist heat persistently compromised workers' health.

Until the 1860s linen weaving remained unmechanized and largely decentralized. Handloom weavers working in factories were typically men, but in weaving households low wages intensified the reliance on child labor for long hours. During the 1860s and 1870s the number of powerlooms expanded. In powerloom factories winders and weavers were women because factory discipline and deskilling were distasteful to skilled male handloom weavers. Poor working conditions in weaving factories resulted in these occupations, as well as those in spinning mills, being classified as dangerous trades.

The flexibility of production in the sewing industry generated an intricate division of labor between relatively high-status female factory operatives and sweated homeworkers or outworkers. The major difference between indoor factory work and outdoor or home work was the failure to regulate the ages and working conditions of home workers under the Factory Acts. Despite long hours of labor by women and children, the work was considered intermittent and supplemental. Problems involved in regulation proved insurmountable since inspectors could not visit all homes and lists of outworkers were often incomplete. In the 1820s and 1830s Irish firms dealing in sewn muslin established warehouses where young girls from age ten were employed as apprentices. Larger numbers of children and women were employed as sewers at home; Brenda Collins estimates the number at 125,000 in 1851 (1988). Embroidery and laces were produced in factories, convents, and homes, taking advantage of surplus female labor in the northern counties. In the making-up branch of the linen industry, handkerchiefs were produced in hemstitching factories and homes around Lurgan, Co. Armagh, and the production of underclothing and shirts employed large numbers of women from the 1840s in Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone. By 1875 there were 4,000 to 5,000 indoor workers and 12,000 to 15,000 outdoor workers in these counties (Collins 1988). Donegal was also the center for the machine and hand-knitting industries. This and the Irish homespuntweed industry, concentrated in counties Mayo, Kerry, and Donegal, were poorly paid occupations for women.

Although northeast Ireland was the world's leading producer of linen until World War I, thereafter the industry declined, creating massive female unemployment. Between 1942 and 1983 rayon production assumed importance, and the cheap, skilled, and unorganized pool of female labor was a strong attraction for capitalists.

Thus the Irish textile industry consistently depended on the cheap labor of women and children. The prevalence of young women and children generated camaraderie and vibrant shop-floor cultures that are well documented in studies of the linen industry. However, the rate of trade-union organization for women was low relative to men because women were not identified as autonomous agents, and wage and occupational discrimination was prevalent, limiting women's livelihoods. Today, in the small number of surviving textile firms, wages for women remain low, despite fair employment laws that eliminate gender-based discrimination.

SEE ALSO Factory-Based Textile Manufacture; Industrialization; Rural Industry; Women and Work since the Mid-Nineteenth Century


Clarkson, L. A. "Love, Labour, and Life: Women in Carrickon-Suir in the Late Eighteenth Century." Irish Economic and Social History 20 (1993): 18–34.

Cohen, Marilyn. Linen, Family, and Community in Tullylish, County Down, 1690–1914. 1997.

Cohen, Marilyn, ed. The Warp of Ulster's Past: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Irish Linen Industry, 1700–1920. 1997.

Collins, Brenda. "Sewing and Social Structure: The Flowerers of Scotland and Ireland." In Economy and Society in Scotland and Ireland, 1500–1939, edited by Rosalind Mitchison and Peter Roebuck. 1988.

Crawford, W. H. "Women in the Domestic Linen Industry." In Women in Early Modern Ireland, edited by Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O'Dowd. 1991.

Daly, Mary E. Women and Work in Ireland. 1997.

Gray, Jane. "Rural Industry and Uneven Development: The Significance of Gender in the Irish Linen Industry." Journal of Peasant Studies 20 (1993): 590–611.

Messenger, Betty. Picking Up the Linen Threads. 1980.

Neill, Margaret. "Homeworkers in Ulster, 1850–1911." In Coming into the Light: The Work, Politics, and Religion of Women in Ulster, 1840–1995, edited by Janice Holmes and Diane Urquhart. 1994.

O'Hearn, Denis. "Innovation and the World-System Hierarchy: British Subjugation of the Irish Cotton Industry, 1780–1830." American Journal of Sociology 100 (November 1994): 587–621.

Marilyn Cohen

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Women and Children in the Industrial Workforce