Women of the industrial revolution in the literature of ferns and davis
Working for wealthy families was considered fortunate for women during the Industrial revolution because most of the women who belonged to the working class of this period had to work in either the mines or the mills. (SchoolHistory) It was during this particular period in history when women were perceived to be lesser in stature compared to men and so were expected to submit to the wishes of their husbands or any other man in society in particular.
Women did not have the dignity of standing up for themselves and were considered to be baby machines, some of them even having ten to fifteen children all spaced very closely in age. This deplorable situation of women forced them to earn for their huge families and so, because of the inevitable need to support their families, women were often exploited and put in situations where they were unable to develop or improve themselves as individuals.
In Fanny Fern’s “The Working Girls of New York” and Rebecca Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” many women workers of the Industrial Revolution discreetly perceived work as a necessary sacrifice, as a force of division between sexes, and as a means of exploitation for the ruling class because of the deplorable situations they were often subjected to.
Women workers during the Industrial revolution, because of their commitment to family and domestic situations, perceived work as a necessary sacrifice. As a central theme in both of these works of literature, women of the industrial revolution are put in the limelight not to spite this sector but to make generations aware of what women had to go through during this difficult period in history. What is more disturbing about this era was also the fact that the situation that women were in was not verbally expressed by them because this would merit dire consequences on their part. Men were the heads of society and women did not have any right, whatsoever to express how they felt or complain about the situations that they were in. “In the most people’s opinion women should be passive “ladies“; obedient to their husbands and their place was at home. Married women’s property was owned by their husbands.” (Magistrix) So, women were quite likely made to submit to many things, some of which were against their wishes. Earlier, it was mentioned that the situation of women during this period was also due largely to the reality that there was a demand on them to pro-create, hence the large number of children that they normally had. “The industrial age led to a rapid increase in birth rates which clearly has an impact upon the physical strength of the mothers.” (SchoolHistory) As a result, other than just having to work because they were expected to, women had to do this to support their families and do it they did without complaining. This situation can be gleaned from evidence in both of the texts as a validation of its focus on the central theme of the situation of women during the period in question, hence, one finds the lines, “Why, these young creatures bear it, from seven in the morning till six in the evening; week after…with only half an hour at midday to eat their dinner of a slice of bread and butter or an apple, which they usually eat in the building…” (Fern) from Fern’s piece. Here one sees the dire situation of women at the time, and it does not help that the narrator of this piece refers to the women as young creatures. In effect, while it is not directly stated that the women did not have the chance to defend themselves, the mere fact that they are degraded in the way they are referred to as creatures (like animals) takes away their liberty of expression; and judging by the difficult situation that they were in, these women were unfairly subjected to harsh treatments like they were not human beings. In Davis novella, the same is true, as is evident in the lines, “Deborah was stupid with sleep; her back pained her sharply; and her teeth chattered with cold, with the rain that soaked her clothes and dripped from her at every step. She stood, however, patiently holding the pail, and waiting.” (Davis) Obviously, in this particular quote from the novella it becomes very clear that the character Deborah was suffering from the complications of overworking herself, however, even with her condition, she remains patient and enduring, mostly because she is not able to express what she feels and the condition that she is in to any other person, more so, the men in society. There are two key words in this quote and these are ‘waiting’ and ‘patiently’; and while these two quotes seem to just be adjectives describing the state the character was in, these are also very strong words that express the inability to openly or freely express oneself. This is not the only issue tackled in both of these literary pieces as the matter of sexist separation also emerges as a subject of concern in both of these works.
Women workers, in the same period, while silently performing their work responsibilities felt that their situations was a means of widening the gap between the sexes, hence, further relegating them to a submissive and passive role. To add insult to injury, the men of the period, albeit being in the same social strata as women, always got the upper hand in things and the final say; thus, stripping women of their liberty. In the quote, “…Which lives the more miserable life—she whom the world styles “fortunate,” whose husband … is as much a stranger to his own children as to the reader; whose young son of seventeen …spends his nights and his father’s money; … Or she…who also faces …the same appalling question: Is this all life has for me?” (Fern) from “The Women in New York” the author compares two kinds of women, one being affluent and the other being in the working class. However, the comparison of these two women does not focus on their individual qualities but on the qualities of the men that they are with. In effect, the author implies that the women are identified or characterized by their men; hence, validating the statement that in fact, the men in this period enjoyed existing in separate strata that was not as forgiving to women as it was supposed to be. In the novella by Davis, the same situation is evident in the lines, “Hout, woman! ye look like a drowned cat…She shook her head… hearing the man, and came closer. “I did no’ think; gi’ me my supper, woman.” (Davis) Here in these lines one immediately notices how the men of the time treated women as servants or creatures of the lowest class. Referring to the women by their sexuality as shown in the last line simply confirms the sexist views of the men of the industrial revolution. Here it becomes quite apparent that a sexist view exists and women were unfortunate to be at the lower end of this sexist spectrum. This adds to the final assertion that women were exploited during this period.
The situation of women during this period placed them in a situation where the ruling class was able to exploit them in all aspects. Poverty and the almost desperate situations of women pushed them to become passive to the demands of the ruling class. It was the difficult situations of women in the period that actually gave them no choice but become slaves to the ruling class. So, in Fern’s piece, one finds the lines, “Let me tell you what ails the working-girls. While yet your breakfast is pro-gressing… a long procession of them by twos and threes to their daily labor… two of them share… the same miserable bed…each of these girls pays but three dollars a week for board…” (Ferns) Here, it is clear that the women are in an almost desperate situation and their situation forces them to make do with whatever the ruling class gives them, which in most cases are wages that are way below what they are supposed to get. This is blatant exploitation, the same kind that is found in Davis’ novella, hence, “Miserable enough she looked, lying there on the ashes like a limp, dirty rag,— yet not an unfitting figure to crown the scene of hopeless discomfort and veiled crime:…her thwarted woman’s form, her colorless life, her waking stupor that smothered pain and hunger,—…not the half-clothed furnace-tender, Wolfe, certainly.” (Davis) In these lines, the exploitation even becomes much worse so that it already damages the psyche of women and their individuality more than just their integrity and their capacity to provide for their families. This exploitation was so rampant in the industrial revolution that women were often left with broken spirits and crumbled lives. Both of these pieces from the two authors portray the central theme quite accurately effectively conveying the horrors of the women in this particular period of history.
The two pieces, one from Ferns and another from Davis effectively portray women as beings who have to suffer from work because this is necessary, as individuals who have to deal with sexist divisions because of their situation, and who have to risk being gravely exploited by the ruling class because of poverty. Both of these pieces are quite successful in their attempts to characterize the woman of the industrial revolution and paint a picture that is quite vivid thereby effectively conveying the desired emotions to the readers. The pieces are very similar in the aspect of characterizing women during the industrial revolution and the fact that each of these pieces are able to effectively convey this subject demonstrates their success in consistently employing the central theme throughout the piece.
Davis, Rebecca Harding. “Life in the Iron Mills.” Vol. 1. The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1823-49. Print.
Fern, Fanny. “Life in the Iron Mills.” Vol. 1. Working Girls of New York. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1408-09. Print.
Magistrix, . “The role of women during the industrial revolution.” Magistrix. N.p., 2009. Web. 19 Aug. 2010. <http://www.magistrix.de/texte/Schule/Referate/Geschichte/The-role-of-women-during-the-industrial-revolution.257.html>.
SchoolHistory, . “Women and Children in the Industrial Revolution.” School History. N.p., 2009. Web. 19 Aug. 2010. <http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/IndustrialRevolution/womenandchildren.htm>.
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