Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Women & Children

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  • 0:02 Industrial Revolution
  • 1:11 Women's Work
  • 2:00 Downside for Women
  • 2:31 Benefits for Women
  • 3:44 Child Labor
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the impact the Industrial Revolution had on women and children. We'll highlight key themes and developments surrounding this topic and place it in historical context.

The Industrial Revolution

Have you ever had a job that felt difficult? Maybe you moved lawns in the summer, babysat children that were a handful, or worked in retail. But chances are you worked under relatively safe and sanitary conditions. But imagine working some 80 hours a week without breaks or proper ventilation. Imagine working on heavy machinery that resulted in your peers losing an arm or a leg.

Working conditions during the Industrial Revolution were beyond harsh. This was especially true for women and children. The Industrial Revolution is a term that refers to the profound advances in production, manufacturing, and other fields of engineering that took place between the late 18th century and mid-19th century.

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and then spread to the United States and other parts of the world. Central to the Industrial Revolution were advances in iron and textile development, modern machinery, steam technology, and railroading. However, the Industrial Revolution was more than a revolution in industry and manufacturing; it had profound effects on society as a whole. Let's dig deeper and see how this trend impacted the lives of women and children.

Women's Work

The Industrial Revolution afforded women new opportunities and at the same time exposed them to new dangers. Generally, women who worked during the Industrial Revolution did so out of necessity. During this time, many countries did not have welfare programs to aid the poor. Working was a matter of surviving. This was especially true for single women.

While some women found jobs in domestic service such as being a maid or cook, many women worked in factories, mines, and other arms of industry. Textile mills, where fabric was produced, were popular places of employment for women on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1771 in Derbyshire, England, the Cromford Mill became the first water-powered cotton spinning mill. Women workers were critical to the success of this mill and others like it.

Downside for Women

Women worked long hours - sometimes 80 hours a week - often under horrible conditions. Remember, this was before the days of labor laws. The factories could basically set whatever policies they wanted, and workers were more or less powerless to do much about them. Conditions were often unsanitary and dangerous. Men typically held supervisory roles, and with that sometimes came sexual harassment and forms of discrimination and abuse. Women were usually paid less than men, and they were not treated equally.

Benefits for Women

And yet, there were benefits for women who worked during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, there is considerable debate among historians as to whether some women may have experienced an improved quality of life due to their work experience.

For many women, earning livable wages brought with it a newfound sense of independence and pride. They were able to learn real-world skills. Furthermore, Some women experienced higher standards of living in factory boarding houses than at home.

For example, American businessman Francis Cabot Lowell fortified a textile empire in Massachusetts and developed a system known as the Lowell Factory System. A central component of this system was that it provided above average educational and cultural opportunities to the young women employed in Lowell's factories.

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