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The Impact of Industrialization on Gender Roles in the United States in the Early 1800s

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uname: aaclh

In Gender and Technology, Professor Anne Dalke asked the class why we thought that some professions (in the United States) were segregated on gender. Several people speculated that this is because of the gender segregation already in place in the United States, so that when the profession came into being as a _profession_ it merely reacted to this segregation. This explanation did not help me make sense of what I read about the female Lowell mill operatives from 1820 through 1840. Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson’s account of working at the mill in the 1820s was full of praise for the independence this fostered in the women who earned money there. She claims that this was not just by opening an opportunity for women to earn money, but also by being surround by their peers and having access to further education and libraries stimulated these women’s ideas. She also talks about how this experience was generally accepted by the rest of society as appropriate labor for these women to do (provided they ceased on marriage). (Loom and Spindle in Stein and Baxter) However, starting in the 1840s, even in the late 1830s, women were being considerable discouraged from working in the mills, indeed, even doing wage work outside of the mills. I did not understand this switch from acceptance to lack of it, in part due to my (false) notion that as time progresses, women’s acceptable roles in the United States have been widening, not shrinking. It seemed to me that if the profession of mill operative had indeed simply been reacting to gender roles in the United States, then it would have continued to be acceptable for women to work in the factories. This made me think that perhaps the industry contributed to creating a more restrictive gender role for women that would force them out of the factory. This paper explores the question of how the textile mills might have or not created gender roles that differed from ones previously.

According to Ava Baron, “gender is created not simply outside of production but also within it. It is not a set of ideas developed separately from the economic structure but a part of it, built into the organization and social relations of work. In learning to work and in working, in struggles between workers and employers over the nature and meaning of work, both sides construct and contest definitions of masculinity and femininity.” (37) This makes sense in the context of this class because we have found (or I have at least) that gender influences technology and vice versa. So, at least intuitively, I would agree with Baron that gender influences the work and work influences gender.

In terms of the textile mills, Baron’s statement seems to hold true. In the 1820s female mill operatives maintained the (societal) correctness of their wage labor in several ways. One way was by arguing that they needed to support their families. Another way was that this work was expected to only last until marriage and also that this work could be seen as “preparation for future homemaking.” (Kessler-Harris) Indeed Robinson writes “They [the early female mill operatives] expected men to treat them with courtesy; they looked forward to becoming the wives of good men. Their attitude was that of the German Fraulein, who said ‘Treat every maiden with respect, for you do not know whose wife she will be“. (Stein and Baxter) One can see in these statements that women were expected to get married and also to support their families through homemaking, but also that earning wages was considered helpful to their families as well.

However, as time went by, women were actively discouraged from working for wages. At the time, several reasons were cited for this discouragement. Most were tied to changed gender roles. Some believed that a woman’s primary role was to raise her children properly and that she could not do this if earning wages. Some thought that a woman had to be a lady and she could not be this if earning wages. Some thought that, since women worked for – usually – less than half the wages of men, women doing wage work would detract from wages from men who would then be expected to work for the amount that women worked – which was not enough to raise a family on. Another reason was tied to class and gender. It was seen as a mark of low economic class to have the woman of the family doing wage work and as people became more interested in being seen as a higher class this became more important. (Kessler-Harris)

This still does not show the relation between gender roles and the rise of industry in the United States, however. This merely demonstrates the change in gender roles for women. The gender roles for men also changed. Men were expected to be the sole wage earners for a family and accordingly had to work longer hours. More and more men were pulled into factory jobs and worked outside of their homes and immediate communities. (Kessler-Harris)

The role that I see the factories playing in these changing gender roles is the separating of public and private lives of individuals. By creating so many jobs in central locations, industry associated work with outside of the home. Prior to this people (men and women both) would manufacture products from their homes. With the growth of use of technology that sped up production of items, like cloth, the price of buying things that were mass produced became much cheaper than buying them from people who manufactured them at home. Eventually it became nearly impossible to make money by manufacturing products at home. Thus wage work became pulled out of the home and more into the public sphere. Also, the surge of immigration in the 1840s brought many people to the United States who were willing to work for less money and with worse working conditions than the previous female mill operatives were willing to work for. This led to the obvious in the mills – less pay for more work. As this happened, fewer women wanted to work at the factories.

I am still not clear on why women were solely expected to enter the private side of life and men solely the public side of life. I do not think it was solely industry that caused this, but a mixture of practices and beliefs in the United States. However, I do think that the separation of private and public life caused this distinction in the first place. As Baron points out, to understand the history of labor in the United States, we need to understand “the significance of sexual differences and the way they operate as a social force.” (Baron, 21) As she points out, this is difficult.

Works Cited

Baron, Ava, ed. “Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor.” Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London: 1991.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. “Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States.” Oxford University Press. New York:1982.

Stein, Leon and Annette K. Baxter, eds. “Women of Lowell.” Arno Press. New York: 1974.

One Response
  1. March 10, 2009

    I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with the answer. 🙂 I think you’ve explored a lot of ground here, and I think you’re right that the reasons for gender segregation in professions are quite complex. Industrialization definitely seems to have contributed to it somewhat through its insistence on separating public and private spheres of life. It might be interesting to know more about what the prevailing gender stereotypes were during this particular time period. And where did those stereotypes come from? Religion? Elsewhere? It seems that there was a brief moment where those stereotypes could have potentially been broken down, but that the rise of industrialization caused a setback. I’d be interested to see more about this issue should you choose to continue exploring it.

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