The Industrial Revolution in Britain is best understood as two overlapping phases of industrialization. A 'revolution' occured in that the structure of the economy in all aspects was radically different at the end of industrialization than the start, but the term is being increasingly abandoned due to the suggestion inherent in it that the process happened over a short time period. Rather, the two phases played out over roughly one hundred and fifty years. The first is sometimes called 'proto-industrialization', which was a surge in outwork and handicrafts in the home. The second is the industrialization of capital and railways from the 1830s onwards that is more familiar. Both phases altered the role of women in the workplace and at home, sometimes providing empowerment and sometimes restricting opportunity.

It's important first to realize the huge diversity of the country's occupational structure during the entire period of industrialization (which is broadly 1750 to 1900). The towns were growing at an unprecedented rate, but many people still lived in the countryside. Here they might be involved in agriculture or proto-industry, and it varied from region to region. Broad generalizations are unavoidable but should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The first phase of industrialization was outwork. This activity involved the production of goods in the home which were then sold to a merchant who used them to feed a market either at home or abroad. This was a hugely flexible system because families would not hesitate to squeeze themselves harder if they had to, although their tendency to sometimes value leisure time over wages often frustrated the putting-out merchants. The fact everyone in the household who could operate a spinning machine could contribute meant that dependents were able to contribute to the household economy early on, and that women could play a very positive economic role. The phase of proto-industrialization hence broadly empowered women by making them agents of production and not just consumption.

This development was all the more important, and partly due to, trends in agriculture that had been extant since 1700. With the enclosure of common ground moving apace, landlords were able to operate economies of scale in labour - larger farms meant they could get by with fewer employees. This released a lot of labour from the land and served to drive women out of the labour market. The reason for this was that men were still by far the dominant social and economic actors in this period, and when their own wages were going down they sought to exclude women from the labour market to prevent further immiseration. Hence in some agricultural regions women increasingly had to find their employment in the home.

One noticable and somewhat comical side effect were sometimes violent clashes between farmers and well-organized bands of female 'gleaners'. Gleaning was an old traditional practice whereby the poor could collect crop that was left unharvested due to technical inefficiency, but farmers in the later eighteenth century were trying to limit it as stricter notions of property rights developed. They won a civil case in 1788 (Steel vs. Houghton) but local customary law usually over-ruled it as the judiciary and jury as a whole were unsympathetic towards the ruling, meaning women continued to glean. Often farmers assaulted them or laid cunning traps such as tripwires, and several farmers were assaulted by groups of stout female gleaners. With declining opportunities for rural employment, they had to find something useful to do with their time to help their families.

It has often been argued that the increased participation of women in the outwork sector (which delivered money rather than goods as agriculture often did) drove the consumer revolution. Women had more purchasing power and this led to the proliferation of new goods and services which are thought to be demanded specifically by females, such as crockery, decorations and tea. In the period 1785 - 1800, Britain's tea imports climbed by 97.9% - despite a population increase of 14% across this period, clearly something was going on. However, consumption patterns during this period are not well understood. Furthermore, it seems that overall women were getting a worse deal over this period. A middle-aged woman in 1820 was more likely to be illiterate and underfed than her sister in 1780. As women became less likely to get a return for their labour (proto-industry was never widespread), families had to make tough decisions about who got money for the most food and education. Those likely to need the strength for a full day's work had a better claim.

During the second phase of industrialization the focus was shifted to capital and the factory became the focal point of production. Women could find work in the factories and did so in large numbers in some places, but mostly this phase saw the shift to the 'male-breadwinner' model. Men were to be paid a 'family wage' which would suffice for them and their dependents, and women increasingly came to be preoccupied with and dominant in the domestic sphere. The working-class mum became the focus of the household, often having complete control over purchasing decisions and financial strategy. In other families, abusive husbands insisted on holding onto their wage and ill-treating their dependents.

Whether a woman had picked her husband wisely or not, the male and female were increasingly active in barely-overlapping spheres of activity. Women were marginalized in the work force, and the embourgeoisment of the workforce meant that it was increasingly seen as indecent for a man's wife to need to take a job. This contributed to the decline in birth rates towards the end of the nineteenth century, as families could not afford to have too more dependents than a 'family wage' could feed.

The constant demand to produce children, with all the attendant emotional and physical risks, burdened women in all pre-industrial societies. British women became the first group in history to be liberated of this burden due to the demographic transition and medical improvements.

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