Again some would say that the increase in the number of ribbon weavers who sent their children to whet nurses in the Marles region between 1841 and 1865 (the figure peaking at 43. 5%)3 was another sign of increased work opportunities for women. It seems, according to those that support this interpretation of the figures that women no longer had time to breast feed their own offspring as they were so busy fulfilling their new found economic potential. I will repeat my reasons for dismissing this line argument as they are the same as those concerning the drop in the average number of births per family.
Women were having to leave the home to find work which meant that they had to hire whet nurses to rear their children. This is still a common phenomenon today and it is illustrative not of growing opportunity but of financial necessity. Again it necessary to emphasise the fact that it was continuity rather than change which defines the history of women’s work opportunities during this period. Traditional skills were still retained by the majority of women whether they became integrated into new economic structures or not.
For instance as seen in Accampo’s study of family life in Saint Chammond , over 50%of women in the survey stated their occupation as being a silk worker “of some kind”. Yet closer examination of this case study shows us that in reality this did not present these women with any more opportunities than they had previously. Much of this silk weaving was carried out in domestic workshops , there is no way of knowing that the profession was ever organised into a centralised workshop. New technology also worsened prospects for women. With the introduction of the High loom, the traditional skills of women were challenged.
It was predominantly men who gained the new skills needed to operate these machines which also meant that it was men who progressed in to the centralised work place. Women were now restricted to the tambour or low warp looms and thus they remained in domestic workshops. Labour was thus , at least in this area was organised on a gender basis and it seems that women were the ones lost out. It is also a general observation that although women had a place in the textile industries they were slowly displaced by the increasingly important ‘heavy ‘ industries such as iron and steel.
Textiles remained crucial obviously, but what does it say for women’s work opportunities if they were excluded from such an important sector of industry. The textile industry was itself not always the most stable of areas to work in , as we have begun to see. We can take the “war of ribbons” in the Saint Chammond area studied by Accampo, as illustrative of this and shows us the restriction rather than the advancement of women’s opportunities that occurred.
“Ribbon production had fallen to one tenth of the size of the trade of Saint Etienne “4 Here the competition between the two towns significantly reduced women’s work opportunities as this traditional trade suffered due to the increasing competition , an inevitable characteristic of capitalism. If we look at some of the trade s which grew up to replace the ones that had started to decline we can again see that the role for women was not always a positive one.
Let us take nail making as our example, women rarely were given training in the new skills necessary so, in a repeat of the situation we have seen already with the introduction of the high loom, it was lack of skills which restricted them. Generally women were confined to much more peripheral roles , usually as result of being the wives of professional nail makers. Often this included running errands , making deliveries and negotiating as proxy for their husbands with other merchants .