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Women at work

Reproduced by permission of Historic EnglandMany women stand out in history, although the fact that these figures are rare makes them noticeable. Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria were important female figures in the political history of England, but they were hardly typical. Pioneers of women's rights like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) have influenced the way women have considered their role in society, but prior to the last few decades there have been few female industrialists or prominent businesswomen.

Women have always formed an important part of the labour force, though few histories have acknowledged this. In part this is because women were frequently excluded from high profile areas such as government, business and finance. Traditionally work was allocated along gender lines. In general terms, men were thought to be naturally suited to plysical labour, skilled, clerical and managerial tasks, while menial, repetitive tasks requiring nimble fingers were felt to be more appropriate for women. Women's occupations were seldom recorded in official sources such as the census, especially if their job was based at home. Middle class women were generally not expected to work.

As the 20th century progressed, so these attitudes changed - but very slowly. It took two World Wars to shake the complacency of the Establishment. The following pictures examine where women worked in the past, and how this fitted into the historical context that led to women achieving legal equality in the workplace with men.

Story author: English Heritage

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