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Abstract This article uses a new source of data, namely the full sample of the 1881 census enumerators’ books, to study female labour force participation. It examines the interaction between labour demand and supply to gauge their relative importance in determining female labour force participation rates (LFPRs). Three main findings emerge from the current article. First, there is an unmistakable link between labour demand and female LFPRs. High levels of female labour force participation are found in areas where there were industries with ample demand for female labour. Second, supply-side factors also had clear effects on female LFPRs. However, they can only operate within the limit imposed by the demand-side conditions. Third, female migration did not fundamentally change the spatial patterns of female LFPRs. Overall, this article argues that the demand side of the female labour market was the most important factor in determining female LFPRs in nineteenth-century England and Wales.