Background information

The prevailing image of Welsh women, which has dominated the historical imagination of the past two centuries, is that of the Welsh Mam. Work in Wales had a clear gender divide. In 1901 domestic service alone accounted for over half the total number of females officially employed in Wales, whilst by 1911 one in every three of male workers was either a miner or a quarryman. In a labour tradition dominated by heavy industries, and in a society underpinned by strong the Nonconformist beliefs, women were very much the invisible workforce. Their place was predominantly in the home.

Women have always worked, but their labour has always been surreptitious. It was only in 1831 that an occupation specifically related to women appeared on the census return, when, alongside nine occupation groups for men, ‘female servants' were listed for the first time. The 1911 census started the trend of categorizing women, separating them into single, married or widowed. Variations in categories and definitions, along with the distortion of figures, all make comparing census accounts a hazardous task. What is, however, clear is the absence from records of women's paid work, since work to the census collectors was always defined as paid and full time. The nature of their working practices was far more complex than that of most male contemporaries. Women were often engaged in seasonal, casual, temporary, informal or part-time work. Childbearing and rearing, along with marital and social status often defined the nature of the work undertaken. Thus the private and public spheres of existence were seldom divided. Traditional occupational labels were thus redundant when describing women's roles within the workforce. As Mari A. Williams has emphasized:

Any examination of women's work must also be placed firmly within its economic, social and cultural context.

Traditional definitions of labour have not only affected our own history making but also the way in which women themselves define their relationship to work. Margaret Cox, discussing her mother's world stated, ‘She couldn't really go to work, because I mean there were six of us, see. And women didn't go to work in those days', but then goes on to explain that her mother did do ‘Menial jobs for about 1/6', which involved ‘a bit of washing, or scrub for somebody who was moving house.' Was this not work? The low status and pay along with the failure to acknowledge seasonal, casual, temporary, informal or part-time work and especially unpaid domestic labour affected the way in which women perceived their place within the workforce. They considered themselves as outsiders.

In both rural and urban areas of Wales domestic service and dressmaking were the dominant official occupations of the female workforce throughout the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. The official census figures within Wales were constantly 10% higher than the comparative figures for England. The work itself varied according to the nature and location of the household, the number of servants kept and the character of the employer. In general a common conclusion is the fact that domestic service, whatever its nature, was of low pay and low status. As Deirdre Beddoe explained, domestic service:

demanded of these girls and women an attitude of deference, an acceptance of a fixed and lowly place in the social order, externalized by a servant's uniform and by the practice of disregarding the servant's first name and bestowing a more suitable one on them.

Although they formed over half the official workforce of Wales, they were on the whole isolated workers with no co-operative support or trade union protection.

Working class women did their own housework. The photograph of Mrs George, a native of Pontypool, illustrates how heavy and labour intensive such work was before the advent of electricity, a ready supply of hot water and household appliances. In mining towns water was often carried from taps in the streets and heated over the fire before being poured into large ‘dolly' tubs where the dirty clothes were pounded with poss sticks. Keeping lodgers brought in extra income but also additional labour. With many homes in the Rhondda in 1891 housing six working miners, according to census figures, it is no small wonder that Mrs Gwen Davies felt that ‘the wives should have two pounds for washing their clothes…'. Kate Roberts, in recalling her mother's experiences in the slate quarrying area of north Wales, underlines this: ‘The hardest work for the wife of the smallholder or quarryman was washing their clothes.' Washing techniques may have varied from area to area but the physical exertion of such work was the same for women in all parts of Wales.

Washing was one aspect of a series of domestic chores often performed in routine fashion. Women needed to be ‘very good managers' but their working conditions were often poor with inadequate space, water supply and waste disposal. Such exhausting work had adverse effects on the health of women. This combined with the lack of welfare support, frequent childbearing and the lack of medical treatment meant that mortality rates for women in the mining valleys were, as Dot Jones has famously emphasized, higher than that for the menfolk employed in the pits.

By the turn of the twentieth century a clear majority of Welsh people were urban dwellers. Urbanisation and industrialisation provided some ‘new' working opportunities for women though they were just as narrow and limited in their scope. The old woollen mills provided employment for by far the largest group of factory workers in Wales. In Swansea women found work in the newly established tinplate work; metals and machines accounted for 7.8% of females in occupation classes in 1891 as opposed to 0.15% in 1851. Cecil Lewis' account of his mother's toil is a reminder that the nature of such labour often left women ‘too tired to sleep, too hungry to eat.' In his mind such work, ‘was degrading, wasn't it? To see women working to that extent.' Mrs H. M. Walters recalls some of the women working in the brickyard drinking and smoking clay pipes. Both their memories reflect how women performing such physical work outside the domain of the home challenged the dominant ideals of femininity.

In general urbanisation and industrialisation offered more employment opportunities. In Wales industrialisation took the form of heavy industries with very little factory work. It could therefore be argued that although there may have been more opportunities for men, for their sisters and daughters, and especially for their mothers and wives, there were less paid working opportunities. In 1911 in the Rhondda one woman in seven was gainfully employed while the figure for England was one woman in three. The statistics for married women in paid employment show an even greater divide with less than one in twenty in Wales compared with one in ten in England. In the Rhondda these figures fell to one in twenty five, and as an area it had the lowest rate of paid work for married women throughout the whole of Britain.

By 1911 less than 12% of occupied Wales worked on the land. Unpaid female relatives, who were at home assisting heads of household in their occupations as farmers, were formally excluded from the figure of occupied women accounted for in census returns. These women supplemented the household income by a range of seasonal and part time jobs such as collecting stones from hayfields. The common presumption, as the Report of the Royal Commission on Land in Wales and Monmouthshire, 1896 notes, is that because the most able, intelligent and ambitious women left, the ‘Tendency, therefore, is to narrow the sphere of women's work on farms so as to include only such operations as cannot very well be done by men.'

Attendance at elementary schools was made compulsory in Wales in 1880. In many ways the nature of the subjects taught reinforced the gender divide already amplified in work and domestic life. Girls were taught domestic science, boys were taught science. The situation in secondary education was, however, a very different story.The Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1899 provided a network of publicly funded schools for boys and girls. Through scholarships the working class could receive a free education, although not everyone could afford to take up their place. Many women sacrificed their education because of the domestic demands at home, as Mary Kingston recalls:

I left school at eleven, because I had a sister. I think she had meningitis and she was dying, downstairs, no hospitals to take her then and there was one younger, so I had to look after the baby. So I didn't get any more school…

Girls were taking opportunities as new doors opened to them. University education was crucial in bridging the gender divide so obvious in the workforce. It gave girls a pathway into the professional world and allowed them to become economically independent. In 1893 the University of Wales Charter recognised the equality of the sexes and by 1911 35% of the places in the University of Wales were held by female students. Teaching formed the core of professional work done by women, albeit of lower pay than men. The photograph of Catherine Ellis expresses the new-found confidence as women embrace these changes. It is interesting to note how many of the suffragist leaders were teachers, as it is to note the psychological effect of education on such women. One can only wonder at how many felt alienated from their class, nation and gender. As a schoolteacher and then owner of a publishing company, Kate Roberts could afford to keep her own housemaid, but it is interesting that she is reluctant to talk of her own experiences. It is the world of her mother that fills the creative canvas of her novels, in literature dominated by the physical domestic work done by such women. In listening to her oral accounts it is important to note how divorced her world was from the memories she savours.

Formal shop-work in rural areas, and especially urban areas, was one avenue of paid labour open to women, although far more women were involved with the informal selling of faggots or cakes, lemonade or beer. Parlours were often turned into small shops by widows left with no compensation or pensions to support them. Selling and shopping were important not only as a means to an income but because they took women out of their immediate domestic situation. They had an important role as places to socialize.

Leisure was class and gender related, as the photographs express. For working class women activities such as sewing and darning were part of their work. The public house, working man's club and institute were formally and informally male domains. Half of the female population that attended church or chapel did so as an audience; formal participation in religion was a male activity. Religious institutions and especially activities connected with them gave women a chance to do more than just socialize, with the odd Sunday school trip or outing which might take them out of their immediate area. As Ceridwen Lloyd Morgan has shown, the Temperance Movement gave middle class women opportunities to develop organisational skills and experience public speaking, though their aim was very much to reinforce the image of a respectable Welsh woman. One wonders quite how they would have responded to women such as those pictured on Mary Ann Street in Cardiff.

All three main groups of suffrage campaigners were active in Wales. The women's concert shown in the photograph were probably members of the largest of these groups - the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who had at least twenty eight societies in Wales by 1913. The first of these was established in Llandudno in 1907. In the land of song what better way to convey a political message than a concert! The militant wing, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), was less successful in gaining a foothold, managing only five branches in Wales. Lloyd George's presence, however, attracted a lot of militant campaigners to Wales. Margaret Haig Mackworth, Viscountess Rhondda, was an advocate of militant action. In This Was My World she affirms how campaigning ‘made us feel that we had a real purpose and use apart from having children.' After blowing up a pillar-box in Newport in 1913 she was imprisoned and went on hunger strike.

The First World War supposedly changed all this. By 1915 women had begun to move in large numbers into munitions work. Transport, heavy industry, and engineering, traditionally considered men's jobs, were now filled by women. There was also a rise in female trade union membership. But the war also helped reaffirm the traditional role of women as wives and mothers within the home.