Censuses and the work women really did: case studies 1720-1920

March 6, 2019 | Blog
Home > Censuses and the work women really did: case studies 1720-1920

by Amy Erickson (University of Cambridge)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Women workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Museums and popular histories typically repeat the idea that women only entered the labour market in large numbers in the twentieth century. In fact, in the first British census that can be analysed for paid employment in 1851, more than 40% of all women reported regular paid employment. They contributed nearly one third of all hours in the paid economy. Participation rates were probably even higher before mechanisation.

The occupational structure of men in the past has recently been explored as a key to understanding economic development. But national data on women’s work are not available until the advent of censuses in the nineteenth century.

A set of studies to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference makes uses of censuses and alternative sources – focusing on eighteenth century Europe, nineteenth century textiles, the 1881 British census and twentieth century Canada – to demonstrate the formative role of women’s labour contribution to economic development.

Professor Carmen Sarasua (Autonomous University of Barcelona) points out that the most important feature of the European economy in this period was the rapid spread of manufacturing, organised on a domestic basis in the eighteenth century and in mechanised factories in the nineteenth century. Domestic industry did not always evolve into industrialisation in the same places, but long before the advent of factories, manufacturing relied on the labour of women and children.

Most analyses of occupational change as an indicator of economic development consider only male occupations, which show heavily agricultural societies, but when women’s occupations from tax registers are included, manufacturing is roughly equivalent to agriculture by the later eighteenth century. This means that manufacturing was important long before we currently think it was, and long before the application of new technology.

For centuries, textiles were the largest manufacturing industry in most European countries, and women dominated that labour force. Professor Manuela Martini (University of Lyon) focuses on Lyon, which was the most important silk-producing city in Europe in the nineteenth century.

She compares population censuses, which often omitted details of women’s occupations, with trade union and administrative sources on silk workers’ wages, to understand the occupational distinctions at the level of tasks performed by men and women, establishing a vocabulary with which to compare textile trades internationally.

Dr Xuesheng You (Cambridge University) presents the first detailed evidence from British censuses showing there were wide geographical variations in female labour force participation rates and in the sectoral distribution of female employment between agriculture, manufacturing and services. Factors such as age, marital status and number of children were relatively insignificant compared with the demands of the local economy. In other words, if work was available, women took it, regardless of their household situation.

Dr Keith Sugden (Cambridge University) and Professor Roger Sugden (University of British Columbia) find that in a fast-growing agricultural area of Western Canada, early twentieth century censuses recorded almost no married women’s employment, while for men and single women, they provided the occupation, wage, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.

But in an area dominated by small family farms many if not all married women would have been employed in market-oriented production on the farm even if they did not receive a wage. Sugden and Sugden propose ways to quantify the value of married women’s ‘hidden’ economic contribution.

So censuses may or may not record women’s work consistently. But other sources show high levels of labour force participation and demand-led employment, placing women’s labour at the centre of the growth of manufacturing and services that characterises economic development.