Working Women in the Victorian Middle-Class
Charles Dickens’ character Miss Abbey Potterson is “some sixty and odd” years old, obviously unmarried (Miss), and a business owner (she owns a bar). Despite the fact that Victorian middle-class women were supposed to aspire to idleness, a growing number of women were becoming employed in the 19 th century for a number of reasons. The growing number of “redundant” (unmarried, like Miss Potterson) and widowed women were rarely in a position to be ladies of leisure (Hudson). Although these women were almost always lower middle-class, they still strived for employment above that of the laboring classes.
Evidence of Working Women
The census, which began to include occupations in 1841, is the most obvious source (Hudson). However this information is often inaccurate, since the classification of women’s employment was often contradictory and inconsistent. Female work in a family business was sometimes deliberately excluded from the record (Hudson).
Trade directories supplement the census information. They suggest that a surprisingly high number of women ran businesses, particularly in millinery and dressmaking, in inn-keeping, provisioning, grocery trades and teaching. Trade directories from the period also reveal examples of women running businesses traditionally associated only with men (like Miss Potterson). This minority indicates the boundaries that were being pushed regarding what was proper and improper for women to do (Hudson).
Work Available to Women
Female employment in the 1850s, 60s and 70s was the most recorded until after World War II (Hudson). Domestic service of all kinds was the single largest employer of women, textile and clothing occupations were a close second. Women were also employed in a variety of petty trades—metalwares, pottery, confectionery, brewing and other provisioning, seamstressing, laundry work, cleaning and retailing (Hudson).
The large number of spinsters in Victorian society (like Miss Potterson) found work as governesses, or in trades “suitable for women” such as millinery and inn-keeping, grocery, and other victualling (Hudson). Both widows and spinsters were prominent...