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Patriarchy and the Industrial Revolution – Part III

16 January, 2011

Before the Industrial Revolution hit England, the medieval model of “family” and “land” still held, albeit in slightly altered format.  The use of commons, for instance, was limited to certain families who held some right by inheritance to graze their animals there..   Women were still responsible for making the clothing for the family members.  Some women would find time to use their skills to create more than their family needed and would sell them for a slight profit.  Women could work together to lace, tatter, knit, crochet and sew among other things and enjoy each others company at the same time.  The advantages of the extended families were more help and more company for both men and women.  The argument of short lifespans due to disease, illness, and accident just underlines the human condition throughout most of its history.

The closure of the commons was for the benefit of larger landowners.  When the corn laws were passed later, they were supported by, and for the benefit of, the grain merchants who could control the price of their product by excluding cheaper imports from Europe.  Prices became higher for the “lesser folk” and food more scare. Both of these events happened slightly before and during the Industrial Revolution.

We are proud of our technological advances, but we rarely look closely at what was lost.  I do not pretend to want to return to pre-Industrial conditions; but I do suggest we have forgotten the importance of the extended family and the harm caused by the gathering together of production in the hands of the few.

At some point, machines became available to do the work of people.  A single loom in a home is a machine, but it is used for the benefit of the family.  When mechanized looms became available and grouped together in factories, only the wealthy could own them, but they certainly would not work them.  The great migration to the cities followed.

Let’s address this first.  The cities became filled with workers needing places to stay and work. Sometimes whole families came; sometimes just a son or daughter, widow or widower.  There was no place for an extended factory in the city unless everyone crammed into mostly unsanitary living conditions (as happens along the borders of the US and Mexico).  Labour was cheap for the factory owner and he could demand long hours of hard work for little pay; more family members had to work in order to pay for the more expensive food a place to live.  Children worked along with the adults.  Factory conditions were not safe, however, so many children and adults were injured and some became unemployable or died.  Eventually workhouses (poorhouses) grew up around the cities to gather together those no longer able to find work. There was no “familia” to fall back on.

The rich, however, did get richer. There is also a lot of talk about how families become better off, but I suspect that is a story.  I’ll come back to that in a bit.

The result of the Industrial Revolution was the destruction of the familia, a total support group for men and women and children.  The “nuclear family” was born out this destruction, but it didn’t work out so well.  Children were thrown in workhouses or orphanages.  Women found themselves responsible for children with no support system.  English history books and fiction chronicle the appalling results.  What I am concerned with here, however, follows a different line of thought.

The breakup of the family did create one opportunity for women.  They could get a job, earn enough money to be self-supporting, and remain single.  It was an empowering idea and has, since the Industrial Revolution, slowly been trying to work its way forward to equality.  Why hasn’t it worked.  Well, for one thing, the only value women had gained at this point was to serve as another, cheaper, fodder for the industrial machine.  Women didn’t own factories.  They worked 12 hours a day and lived sparsely.  When women could find work outside the factories, it was as cooks, housekeepers, maids, laundresses, nannies, or the inevitable prostitution. There was still a need for a seamstress, dressmaker, and other work particular to women.  If they were “lucky,” they could find a husband and raise a family, but rarely did they also work.

Prince Albert pushed the idea of modernization in England and care for the general populace though the new advances in science and mechanics.  Britain moved forward through the Industrial Revolution and then bumped right into World War I – the beginning of the modern era of war and its machines.   I leave it to someone else to talk about the nuclear family in Britain.  I want to talk about the New World.

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