The Government is so concerned about the shrinking labour force that it is urging stay-at-home mothers to go back to work. Whoa, think the could-be working Mums, a few other things have to be put right first, before we jump back into the workplace. In order to examine exactly what these are, it might be fruitful to examine the last 150 years of working motherhood in the British Isles.
Women belong in the home
It has been a zig-zag path to progress. Less than a hundred years ago, it was still felt, by some, to be morally abhorrent that mothers should work outside the home. Opinion leaders, backed up by horror stories of neglected children, declared that the future health of the race depended on mothers doing their duty at home. They were fervently supported by men and the trade unions, afraid that a surge of women into their workplaces would undercut their wages.
Even in office work and schools, the system was that unmarried women occupied the lower ranks and, because they were cleared off at marriage, the higher ranks were for the men. My own godmother, a Welsh woman recruited to teach in London, was banned from teaching when she married in the 1920s. She only got back to teaching as a single woman during the war, her own husband and son having both been killed.
Employment in the mills
The most visible history of working mothers lies in the industrial revolution and the jobs for women that it created. Of course, women have always worked but, before the growth of factories, most women could combine working with child-minding. Children came with them in the harvest fields, as was still evident in Kent among the hop-pickers. Children could be around at market-stalls and boarding houses but in those big steam-driven cotton mills of the north of England, where women (and children too, initially) were recruited for their dexterity, the gradual awareness of safety and health concerns caused the government to legislate against the employment of children, and pregnant or lactating mothers.
However, many women would still return to their factory jobs as soon as they could, leaving their toddlers with minders, some trusted family members, but others, as revealed in media horror stories, were farming toddlers in unhealthy circumstances, some drugged with opiates, or tied to bedposts in filthy slums. In the first decade of the twentieth century there were serious political proposals to ban all mothers of young children from working.
The rise of ‘sweated labour’
The reactions of feminist leaders of the time were divided. Some leaders of influential organisations, such the Women’s Cooperative League, believed that what must be done is to raise the status of motherhood. If poorer women just have to work for the money, then the remedy was to support the mothers better at home. Others, such as Fawcett, believed that women have a right to work if they wish and legislation would not work.
In any case, manufacturers who needed female labour were increasingly bringing the work into the home. In Birmingham, many homes were busy with small metalwork, like chains, and in London, home of the fashion houses, many women toiled at home at the newly available sewing machine. Pay and conditions, in cramped rooms, were poor. Such work was called ‘sweated labour’ and there was even a public exhibition about it in 1906.
War changes everything
What changed the views about women in factory work was the war. Once the men were enlisted for the war, the women were needed in the munitions factories. By 1915, the government had revised regulations so that women could be recruited to these factories, at the same pay rates that the men had enjoyed. Agreement with the trade unions meant that everyone regarded this as temporary: the men would return to their skilled work once the war was over.
For working class women, who had got by before in casual work of cleaning or sweated labour at home, this was an improvement, with regular wages and increasingly a better regulated work environment. The factories got better toilets, on-site canteens, and in some places such as Whitechapel, nurseries for the children of their workers. In France, so many factories had set up a “crèche” for their working mothers that this even became an imported word into English for workplace nurseries.
Can peace turn it back?
Such was the need for female workers, that proper attention was even paid to pregnant woman with some factories offering lighter tasks or hours in order to retain pregnant workers as long as possible. Other jobs vacated by men, such as those in the many offices of government and the banks and in schools, were now opened up temporarily to women.
As the war neared its end, there was still much public debate about working mothers. Clementina Black, for instance, firmly argued that working mothers benefited from the regular wages, and often kept better home conditions than the unwaged. Others, such as trade unionist Mary MacArthur, did not support retaining the day nurseries because they wanted to see mothers better supported in their home-making at home.
But mothers who had just given birth were often very keen to return to their factory jobs. So, there was a campaign for maternity benefit for pregnant and lactating mothers. The French had already started family allowances, and some Fabian leaders like Beatrice Webb thought this should be implemented in the UK too, for all families, not only to ensure that all children have adequate provision, but also so that women workers could gain “the rate for the job.”
At the end of the war, most of these progressive moves did not come about, even with the first Socialist government. Men returned to their jobs. Unions were against granting family allowance as that would undermine wage-bargaining. The marriage bar was reinstated. My godmother lost her job. The popular image was the “professional” housewife in her apron keeping a beautiful home for her well-paid husband. The male argument was “I would be ashamed if my wife goes to work: it means I am not providing for her properly.”
War once more
Then war broke out again and, with it, the urgent need for women’s labour. This time, the government were more strategic and actually took the initiative to open public nurseries where the need for female labour was most acute. The need for shopping time, amid the queues for rationed supplies, also meant that some work-places instituted regular part-time work rosters for housewives.
Once the war was over, the economy surged in the 1950s with a consumer boom in household goods, inaugurated by the Festival of Britain of 1951. By this time, the working mother was no longer a parasite taking the jobs of men, but a woman wanting to better her family and household, with extra income for a TV or a washing machine. The standard expectation was that women would have jobs before marriage, but would then take some years at home to rear their children but, once these were old enough, go back to the workplace. Families were now much smaller (aided by more widespread birth control techniques) so the years rearing children were shorter.
The ‘glass ceiling’
But there was still discrimination against working mothers, with women not being appointed, or promoted because they may get pregnant, and older women returning demoted to lesser jobs. The struggle for equal pay in the workplace has only improved in the UK because of EU-derived regulation by the Equal Pay act of 1970. But the principle of equal pay for equal work is still not the only question on the road to equality.
Funny how work which women do often ends up being paid less than male-dominated trades. Typing used to be an under-paid female occupation, until men found their fingers could after all manage keyboards once computers (and smart phones) became important for careers. Work in social care and nursery schools is still paid less comparably than “male” occupations like building and HGV driving.
Reading the runes
So, what clues to getting women back into jobs can we perceive in this history of working women’s progress? First is the need for more and subsidised nursery provision. We have gone backwards since Blair’s government set up the Sure Start schemes. The cost of childcare is often cited as the reason why a mother finds it uneconomical to go out to work.
Second, I think the success of those brief war-time experiments in part-time and flexible work is instructive.
Third, for women returning to work after a break, retraining needs to be available locally at convenient times that do not conflict with child-care duties, but there have been too many cuts to adult education. One aspect of modern work that is as yet under-researched is the extent to which women are able to return to work or retain work as mothers is now rendered easier by the pandemic practice of working from home. But actually, one suspects the current government recruitment, targeted at families on universal credit, is probably not for higher clerical work but to fill vacancies in such jobs as care work or hospitality, recently vacated by departing EU workers.
From personal experience
Just to end on an autobiographical note: when I was a breast-feeding mother in Botswana, I was able to retain my place in the college teaching roster because there was a statutory provision for lactating mothers to take time off to feed their babies. I do not know anywhere else in the world which has such enlightened provision. I suppose many working mums just do as my daughter did and rely on breast pumps.
Then when I was teaching in Leicester with the Industrial Language unit, where our teaching was carried on beside the classroom where the same students learned how to use the industrial machines, we knew we could have recruited more students if we could have run a crèche alongside the facilities too (probably prohibited by factory legislation). The point is that progress in the position of working mothers in the workplace has always depended on much closer attention to their actual needs, from female toilets in the Houses of Parliament to the workplace crèche.
Editor’s Note: Some of the factual material in this article comes from “Double Lives. A history of working motherhood” by Helen McCarthy, pub 2020.