TheChanging Role of Women and its Contribution towards IndustrialRevolution in Europe


ECON30423 U.S. Economic History


ClassDays &amp Time

SemesterPaper # 1


Thechanging role of the European women provided with an opportunity tocontribute towards the process of industrializing the Europeaneconomy. Women had acquired a unique status that prepared them foractive participation in labor market prior to the onset of the periodof industrialization. European women had managed to overcome thetraditional notion that held them at the kitchen, which allowed themto take vacancies in large farms and paid-domestic jobs. The onset ofindustrialization period found the European women ready and with thebasic skills that could allow them to take jobs in the manufacturingsystem. The change the role of the European women allowed them totake part in different sectors, including the agriculture, cottage,and factories. Over 66 % of women in the labor market were married,which confirms that the society (including husbands) had acceptedthat change in gender role and allow their wives to take paid jobs.

Keywords: Gender role, industrial revolution, paid labor, economicdevelopment.

Thesisstatement: It is evident that a high volume of participation of theEuropean women in the labor market, which can be attributed to asignificant change in gender role, allowed them to make a significantcontribution towards economic growth and industrialization of theEuropean economy.

TheChanging Role of Women and its Contribution towards IndustrialRevolution in Europe

Therole played by women in European during the process ofindustrializing the European economy has been questioned for manyyears. Those who support the argument that the European women playeda critical role suggest that gender role had already prepared womento assume paid duties outside their kitchen by mid-eighteenth centurywhen industrialization gained momentum (Humphries, 2012). Theopponents of this argument hold that most of the women wereilliterate, which means that they could not supply technical skillsthat were required to drive an industry-based economy (Burnette,2008). Since the two opposite arguments seem to be backed by someevidence, the present study will investigate the issue of change ingender role in Europe and answer the question of whether the changingrole of the European women allowed them to take an active role inindustrializing their continent and boost economic growth. It isevident that a high volume of participation of the European women inthe labor market, which can be attributed to a significant change ingender role, allowed them to make a significant contribution towardseconomic growth and industrialization of the European economy.

Statusof women before industrialization

Thestatus of women in the pre-industrialization period differed in asignificant way from other industrialized economies. In most of thecultures, women were assigned domestic roles and their respectivecommunities had a general perception that women were not expected toengage in paid labor outside the house (Butschek, 2006). AlthoughEuropean women also played a key role in the management of theirfamilies by taking care of their husbands and children, theirposition in the society started changing shortly beforeindustrialization. Unlike women in other economies, a European womanwas recognized as a person or a human being in her own right(Butschek, 2006). Although European women acquired a legal identitybefore industrialization, it took time for them to overcome thetraditional perception that their place was in the kitchen.

Europeanwomen started overcoming traditions that held them at the kitchen byforming religious organizations that had similar functions to thoseformed by men. Poplar women (such as Hildergard Bingen) attainedprominent positions in religious groups, in addition to theircontribution in medical and scientific writings in the fourteenthcentury (Butschek, 2006). Other women (such as Eleanor of Aquitany)had to find their way out of kitchen by engaging in commercialactivities and interfering with the political affairs with theobjective of taking advantage of the legal identity that theirrespective states awarded them. Although only a few women who managedto play significant roles and occupy positions outside their housesin the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and the sixteenthcenturies, their success contributed towards the gradual change intraditional perception by convincing the European society that womencould be entrusted with functions outside their families.

Agriculturewas the main economic activity in Europe prior to industrialization.Agricultural development opened a platform on which women could takepart in the commercial sector, but they did this in collaborationwith their husbands. They were assigned roles that suited theirrespective capabilities in the farmlands. Some of the roles that wereassigned to women include milking, stall-rearing, and gardening amongother simple jobs (Butschek, 2006). Although the European women couldassume different roles outside the kitchen, they remained under theleadership of their husbands as heads of their respective families.Many women started engaging in a master-servant relationship betweenearly and mid-eighteenth century when farmers started producingdifferent crops (such as maize and potato) in large scale (Chappine,2014). Most families became busy and the population of the middleclass increased. Busy families needed house girls, which open anavenue for young girls to work outside their homes and free from thedirect control of their husbands. In urban areas, women claimed astronger position in the society, including an equal right toproperty rights. This prepared women for paid labor and activeparticipation in investment during the period of industrialrevolution.

Thecraft trade, which provided a lot of employment opportunities forwomen, lost its significance in the modern period, shortly before theonset of the period of industrialization. The labor market becamemore competitive because the shift in the European economy fromagriculture and craft sector to an industry-based economy demandedskilled labor. Unfortunately, few women, if any, had acquired formaleducation (Butschek, 2006). The lack of education and skillsdiminished the position that women had acquired in the labor marketand in the society at large. However, most of the factories that werestarted in mid-eighteenth century require more unskilled andsemi-skilled employees than the elite class, which opened a newopportunity for women. It was reported that women occupied abouttwo-thirds of all employment opportunities in factories establishedby the late eighteenth century (Butschek, 2006). The ability to workwithout a direct control of husbands and away from home during thepre-industrial period prepared European women for job opportunitiesduring the industrial period.

Relationshipbetween the status of European women and industrialization

Asocial position that the European women had gained prior to the onsetof the period of industrialization gave them a comparatively higherrate of participation in the formal labor force. These women hadgotten the courage to work outside their homes since most of them hadacquired paid domestic jobs and others were employed in large farms(Stoneburner &amp Angelos, 2005). Therefore, the advent of thecapitalist industry and the manufacturing system found women who werewilling to leave their kitchen and homes to take up jobs in themanufacturing factories based in the urban areas. Another uniqueobservation reported by Butschek (2006) is that European observedmonogamy, which reduced the level of private consumption and boostedinvestment. Many women started a handcraft business where they wereassisted by their wives to run them. These wives inherited thebusiness in case their husbands died before them, which gave them anopportunity to gain investment skills. With these entrepreneurshipskills, European women were readily to take part in the trade duringthe industrial period, which gave Europe a comparatively higher rateof economic growth.

Participationof women in different economic sectors during industrial revolution

Women’scontribution to the agricultural sector

Largescale agriculture began in mid eighteenth century and many largescale farmers needed a lot of employees. Many women got jobs on thefarms since most of the farms did not require a lot of technicalskills. Some of them were hired on an annual based while the restworked as day-laborers (Burnette, 2015). Mechanization of agriculturehad not gained momentum, which implies that human labor was a keydeterminant of the success of the agricultural sector. More than halfthe European GDP came from agriculture with more than half of thepopulation getting a living from the same sector. The proportion ofwomen who comprised the agricultural labor force in different regionswas as shown in Table 1.

Table1: Percentage of women in the agricultural labor force



Percentage of women


Oakes, Derbyshire

17 %


Dunster Castle farm in Somerset

27 %


Dunster Castle farm in Somerset

40 %


Dunster Castle farm in Somerset

42 %

FromTable 1, it is evident that women played a key role in facilitatingthe development of the agricultural sector, which provided a lot ofraw materials for other industries.

Contributionof women towards the development of cottage industry

Therapid development of the cottage industry is among the key factorsthat contributed towards the evolution of light and heavy industry inEurope. Before the appearance of sophisticated factories, large scalefarmers of cotton and silk sold a reasonable quantity of their stockto women who could spin and weave at home in what was called“putting-out system” (Burnette, 2015). Although the constructionof textile factories that used steam powered machines reducedopportunities for women who worked from home, the factory owners gotmore than 50 % of their labor force from these women since they hadsome experience in weaving and had other skills needed in the textileindustry (Burnette, 2015). Therefore, the growth of the cottageindustry, especially the textile sector can be attributed to thededication of the European women. The cottage industry provided asustainable market for large scale farmers expanded Europe’sforeign trade by increasing the number of finished products exportedto other continents and provided European investors with capital forinvestment in other light as well as heavy industries.

Women’scontribution towards the development of factories in Europe

Therise of factories in Europe was the most significant defining factorsof the era of the industrial revolution. Initial factories wereinstalled to add value to agricultural products and they were run bysteam powered engines in order to enhance efficiency (Burnette,2015). The development of sophisticated processing machines did notreplace all women from factories. Instead, the technology expandedemployment opportunities and encouraged more women to migrate fromrural to urban areas where most of the factories were based. Factoryowners allocated women to sections that required less energy,including water frames and spinning jenny in factories that producedclothes. After a successful integration of women into the textileworkforce, other types of factory (such as glass, paper, andpotteries) recruited more women, especially in sections that theyperceived that women could do better than men. A study conducted in82 cotton ginneries, 73 flax factories, 65 wool factories, 11 lacefactories, 29 silk factories, and 2 paper factories indicated about57 % of all employees were female while their male counterpartconstituted about 43 % of the factory workforce only (Burnette,2015). Although men assumed more difficult roles and those thatrequired technical skills, the contribution of women towards the riseof factories in Europe cannot be ignored.

Participationof married women in the revolution of industry in Europe

Governmentsin Europe did not keep comprehensive records of married women in theformal labor force. However, the analysis conducted by contemporaryauthors shows trends of how married women continued joining the laborforce from the late eighteenth century. An analysis conducted byHorrell &amp Humphries (2000) indicated that about 66 % of workingclass women had a positive earning or a recorded occupation. In mostindustries, married women were more than single women as shown inTable 2.

Table2: Percentage of married women in different economic sectors


High wage agriculture



























Table1 show that most of the women who were employed in the formal sectorduring the period of the industrial revolution were married. The highproportion of women working in the formal sector indicates that thechanging role of women in Europe gave them an opportunity to takepart in the development of industries, which set a platform along-term economic growth the continent of Europe enjoys to-date.

Evidenceof women’s contribution towards industrialization and economicdevelopment in Europe

Ironand cotton industries were the leading sectors that boostedindustrialization of Europe and women comprised of the largestproportion of the labor force in the two sectors. In the case oftextile industry, cotton had hardly made any significant contributiontowards the gross domestic product in the European countries prior tothe 1770s (Butschek, 2006). However, by the end of the 1700s, thecontribution of textile sector towards the GDP and the gross domesticproduct of the European nations had increased tenfold and byhundredfold by mid nineteenth century (Butschek, 2006). This madetextile the leading sector and the most significant pillar of theEuropean economies. Most importantly, the workforce driving thissector was predominantly female since men were considered to lack“swift fingers” and they were quite expensive to hire compared tofemale employees (Butschek, 2006). Therefore, the European womendominated the key sectors that got the European industrial sector offthe ground.

Thereadiness of the European women to do jobs outside their houses gaveEurope an opportunity to take advantage of “economic developmentwith unlimited supply of labor” (Coury &amp Lahouel, 2011). TheEuropean women were ready to move from the agricultural sector thatwas characterized by a marginal product of zero to an industrialsector thereby supplying the much needed labor. Apart from supplyingadequate labor force, the contribution of women was exceptionalbecause they had some experience in the tasks related to textile andthey were considered to have a “swift hand” (Butschek, 2006). Mencould not supply an equal quantity and efficient labor force as womendid. Moreover, women were ready to take a job at a lower level ofwage compared to men doing the same job. According to Burnette (2015)women earned less than what men working doing the same job earned forall sectors and geographical areas as shown in Table 3.

Table3: Income disparities between male and female employees in Britain



Male (£)

Female (£)

















Table1 shows that employers were able to reduce the cost of operatingtheir factories, since women, who comprised the largest proportion oftheir workforce received less wages. Under the “economicdevelopment with unlimited supply of labor” model, low wages allowinvestors to make more profits and expand their investment (Coury &ampLahouel, 2011). This confirms that the gradual change in the genderrole allowed women to create an economic environment that fosteredinvestment in Europe.


Thehigh volume of the participation of the European women in the formallabor force contributed towards a rapid industrialization of Europeand gave the continent a comparatively higher rate of economicgrowth. The high volume of women’s participation can be attributedto gradual changes in gender roles in Europe prior to the period ofindustrialization where women had started getting jobs outside theirhomes. Although most of the women were employed as domestic workersand in the agricultural sector, the courage to leave the homes andparticipate in the paid labor prepared them for jobs in themanufacturing systems that were located in the urban areas. The factthat more than 50 % of the workforce in the textile industry, whichcontributed more than half of the GDP in the European nations bymid-eighteenth century, was comprised of women is sufficient evidencethat European women played a key role in developing the continent’seconomy.


Thecontribution made by change in gender role in Europe towards theprocess of industrializing European economy is still debatable. Onecamp argues that European women were not educated, and could notsupply the skills needed in factories, while the second camp appliedthe concept of massive participation to show that women took morejobs in new factories, especially in the textile industry, than men.European women had started working outside their homes before theprocess of industrializing the European economy. The increase inprofitability of the agricultural sector and the number of largescale farmers increased the population of the middle class, which inturn increased the demand for domestic workers. Many young ladiesstarted working as domestic workers outside their homes while othersworking in the large scale farms.

Theincrease in the population of women working outside their homes gaveEurope a comparatively high population of women who were willing tomigrate to urban areas for employment in the formal sector. Apartfrom a high volume of women’s participation in the formal laborforce, investors whom set up factories in Europe had a perceptionthat women had “swift hand” than men, which resulted in a higherproportion of women being employed in factories than men. Moreover,women were willing to take factory jobs at a lower wage than theircounterpart male employees, which allowed European investors to makemore profit and expand their investment by employing more women.Additionally, a reasonable proportion of women had assisted theirhusbands in family handcraft business, which equipped them withentrepreneurship skills. This gave some women an opportunity toinvest and compete with male investors, which boosted the process ofeconomic growth and gave Europe an opportunity to industrializefaster than other continents. Therefore, it is evident that thechange in the role of European women helped them take an active roleduring the period of industrialization.


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