My Library: Victorian Ladies at Work by Lee Holcombe

I can never pass a second-hand bookshop without at least browsing to see what they might have on 19th century social history, and on a recent rural sojourn, I spotted Victorian Ladies at Work by Lee Holcombe.

From a quick glance, I’d expected (and admittedly wanted) a rich history of the working lives of women from the poorest to the highest, with illustrative examples from the papers of the time or Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

That is not this book. Instead, Victorian Ladies at Work is a detailed look at 19th century feminism and the movement for middle class women to find their place in the workforce. Their working class sisters had been toiling away for a long time, but if a woman had the misfortune to be middle class but suddenly poor, she had few skills to fall back on to earn money and survive.

Despite women’s often limited education – their future security was meant to rely on marriage alone – many had to find work as governesses, a vaguely respectable way to keep from the last resort of prostitution. The work was inconsistently and poorly paid – no wonder Violet Hunter was so excited at the prospect at going from £4 a month to £100 a year for the trifling inconvenience of wearing an electric blue dress and cutting her hair off in the Holmes tale, “The Copper Beeches”.

Victorian Ladies at Work goes on to explore the drivers of change in elementary and secondary education for girls and women in the late Victorian era (making them fitter to teach), the institutions established to argue for women’s right to work and all the difficulties on the way – some of which clung to women in the workforce well into the 20th century and even persist in some forms today, most particularly unequal pay.

Holcombe looks at the specific histories of roles for middle class women in employment and their development as professions: governessing and teaching; nursing; shopgirls; clerical roles and the civil service.

See all my sticky notes!

Florence Nightingale gets her usual spotlight for helping to turn nursing into a respectable profession for women (rather than a refuge for drink-riven ‘gamps’, named for an incompetent Dickensian nurse). The plight of shopgirls’ dreadful accommodation and pay is examined alongside the growing trade union movement for fair pay and better conditions.

The Victorian era introduced the notion that single women might hold positions – and were often preferred because they’d often do the same work as a man (and were often thought to be more stable and therefore better than young men at some work) but for less pay. At the same time, the moment that single woman married she lost her job, because her security was now supposed to derive from her husband.

I know this thinking was around into the 20th century because my own mother, who was the in RAAF, had to resign from the service as soon as she married my dad. I don’t think she personally minded, but there must have been many women who did, and kept their marriages secret for as long as possible.

The absolute favourite thing I learned, however, was the 1859 founding of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.

That’s right – S.P.E.W.

I have to assume JK Rowling knew about them when she had Hermione establish the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The real S.P.E.W. was led by Barbara Leigh Smith, who also encouraged the English parliament to reform women’s property law and presented petitions for women’s suffrage.

This wasn’t a cover-to-cover book for me, but I’ll be dipping in and out of it when writing period stories to reflect working conditions and pay rates. Anyone interested in 19th century feminism and the development of the rights of working women might find it useful