Women's Work

Women’s Work

Women’s work has tended to be defined by the expectations of society. It conformed to the norms whether it was appearance and manners or employment opportunities. Restrictions existed and were maintained, particularly among the middle and working classes. Exceptions were made based upon economic needs. During World Wars I and II, the economy demanded women take over men’s work. However, like all women’s work performed outside of the home, this change was perceived by males as being temporary in nature. Women were expected to relinquish their work at the end of the war and life was to return to the status quo.

Economics and technology also united to alter the description of women’s work. Office work had always been the province of men. The invention of such things as typewriters, switchboards, adding machines and similar technological devices, made the subdivision of work possible. Women soon dominated this field. Education also paved the way for this new type of female white-collar work. However, the driving factor behind accepting women has always been economic. Women were cheap labour. This is evident in the clothing industry, including Guelph’s woollen mills

Woolen Mills and Women’s Work

Under the factory system, women’s talents were exploited. They were, however, allowed to expand their adeptness beyond the basic sewing skills. The average workplace for a Canadian woman in the mid to late 19th century was a cotton mill or textile factory much like the Guelph Woollen Mills. From 1860 onwards, these Mills offered opportunities for Guelph women. As always, the employers enforced the societal status quo. Men worked in the higher paid weaver positions, women in the finishing, spinning and reeling rooms. Here they were hired as:







Elizabeth Blakley, Hannah Clay, Elizabeth Coute, Sarah Crawford, and Martha England worked at McCrae’s in 1883. In 1891, the woolen mills provided employment for Adelaide Green, 16, Ada Allan, 14, Lily Montern, 19, and Susie Moore, 16. The older women were frequently knitters, but Ada Allan age 14 in 1891, was given the job of wool-winder in the woollen factory.

In 1890, the Shirt Factory Company began hiring women. Their product was in such demand that, in August of that year, women were required to work overtime. Nelle Letter, age 16, was a worker at the Shirt Factory in 1891, as was Eliza Jane Smith.

Cheap Labour at a Cost

The de-skilling of work and the increase in mechanization was a boon for many industries. The advances in technology allowed numerous manufacturers to turn away from skilled and guild labour towards an unskilled, cheap and unorganized workforce. The change was welcomed by many manufacturers. It was, as one manufacturer stated, “more profitable to us or we would not want to employ them.”

Textile mills, clothing factories, boot and shoe manufacturers, food processors, canneries and the tobacco industries hired female labour. Although the factories and mills provided opportunities for women to work, the jobs were at lower wages than men and exposed them to unhealthy and unsafe conditions. Immediate physical harm was a possibility, as well as future health problems. Woolen mills were notorious for locking the windows and doors during working hours. This made escape, in the case of fire, almost impossible. And accidents, such as the following, occurred involving pickers, needles, looms, and various cogs of the machinery.

    • Mrs. Symmonds lost her arm in 1874,
    • Allie Pembleton lost a few fingers
    • Lottie Woods had a few fingers removed
    • Lizzie Coutts suffered “painful injuries” to her head and one leg when machinery caught her
    • A “Female” had her finger nipped by a spinning frame. It was later amputated

Dust was found, as one Factory Inspector remarked in 1890 “diffused throughout the atmosphere of all the weaving sheds we visited.” The dust clogged up the lungs with every breath. Women did so on a daily basis for as little as $5 a week for a 53.75-hour week. They were not compensated for accidents or injuries received on the job.

The Factory Act

Their plight was improved by the Factory Act of 1884 (and its amendments) which attempted to legislate the hours of work for women. They were not to work longer than 60 hours a week with an hour off for supper. Nor were they to start earlier than seven in the morning, nor stay later than seven at night.

There were, as was always the case with any factory legislation, exemptions. The Act did not establish the wages, hours or conditions for homework (sweating) or domestic labour. Furthermore,  shops and clerical work were not covered by legislation until later in the century.